Too Old to Fight It
If you’re a “songwriter” or “producer” and don’t live in LA, chances are you’re also a barista or a waiter or, if you have business sense, a drug dealer. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Portraits By Chris Shonting
If you’re a “songwriter” or “producer” and don’t live in Los Angeles, chances are you’re also a barista or a waiter or, if you have business sense, a drug dealer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Many of my favorite musicians are amateurs. But outside the occasional hit from a band, 90 percent of the tracks that make it onto the Billboard Top 100 are written by a handful of very talented and mostly faceless guns for hire. It’s one of the few sides of the industry where people still make serious money, and the most successful of the bunch work within a small circle of the most lucrative acts in the world, providing their services and writing music that the masses want to hear. Just three months after moving to LA, Dan Keyes is becoming one of them.
I first met Dan on the patio of a Mexican restaurant through mutual friends. It was a few weeks after his 30th birthday, which, I soon learned, fell on the exact same day and year as mine. Tall, well-groomed, baby-faced, and one of the genuinely nicest people I’ve ever encountered, he is basically the inverse of me. Within two hours we went from complete strangers to him agreeing to let me pose as his manager at his meeting with a publishing A&R rep at Warner/Chappell Music the following week. He had left New York City in a hurry less than a month before, mostly because of a broken heart, but also because he realized that the West Coast was where he needed to be. “LA is where records are made,” he told me soon after we met. “That was something that I hadn’t really fully wrapped my head around until I got here.”
Dan first entered the music industry proper at 20 years old on the back of the success of the Austin, Texas-based post-hardcore band Recover. “I’d been playing with those guys since I was 11,” he said. “And once we got out of high school we hit the road and toured all around the world playing music. At 18, I signed my first record deal with John Janick, who started Fueled by Ramen. He’s co-president of Elektra now.”
Recover was soon scooped up by Strummer, a subsidiary label of Universal headed up by Gary Gersh, the guy who signed Nirvana and Sonic Youth to Geffen and who helped run the Beastie Boys’ defunct Grand Royal label. Dan’s labelmates included the Rapture, the Mars Volta, and Le Tigre, all of which released albums on the label that did not meet the commercial expectations of their parent company. Recover’s unfortunately titled This May Be the Year I Disappear was Strummer’s final release, and by that point Universal had decided to cut the label loose. The album was basically shelved without any promotional backing.
Despite the setback, Recover weren’t ready to call it quits, so they hit the road again. But without proper backing from their label, they quickly burned out, and Dan was ready for a change: “I wanted to get away from everything. And I did. I moved to New York by myself with a suitcase full of clothes and started a new chapter.”
Jobless and broke, Dan quickly found work as a food-runner at a restaurant in the West Village and, a while later, a second gig folding clothes in the basement of an American Apparel on Broadway. Like most young people in the city, he was working 18-hour days and partying at night. It was exciting but also discouraging, considering he had scored a major-label deal just a year before. “One day on a break from work I walked across the street to Tower Records, when it was still there, and bought the Recover record,” he said. “I brought it back to American Apparel to show all the Mexicans in the basement that I had an album out. I could tell none of them really believed me and thought I was a crazy person.”
But Dan still had songs coming out of every orifice, and it wasn’t long before his luck changed yet again. “I moved to New York with songs I had written that weren’t right for Recover,” Dan said. “It was more poppy and dancey, and DJs started playing them in downtown Manhattan. And then labels came at me.”
As interest grew in Dan’s new music—which he was now writing under the name Young Love—he teamed up with Recover fan, friend, and band manager Trevor Silmser. “I was at some party with this A&R guy from Atlantic,” Dan said. “I met Trevor and he was like, ‘What are you doing in New York?’ I told him the story, how I moved here and now labels were courting me. He asked me if I needed some help, and the next thing I knew I was playing my songs to Rob Stevenson, the head of A&R over at Island Def Jam.”
This was 2005, when the music industry had yet to completely implode and artists were still getting decent advances. Things quickly spiraled out of control for Dan, but in a good way. Rob played Dan’s tracks for L.A. Reid, who then played them for Jay-Z. The rap mogul was struck by one song, “Discotech,” which was released as a single about a year before Too Young to Fight It, Young Love’s 2007 debut album. “The stars aligned on that one,” Trevor said. “I gave music to Rob Stevenson at IDJ and the next thing I know Dan and I get flown to Miami for the MTV Awards. We had a meeting with Jay-Z on the roof of a hotel, and Beyoncé was laying poolside in a silver bikini. It all happened within five days. When we left, Dan looked me and said, ‘Man… is this how you roll?’ I laughed and said, ‘I wish.’”
Dan was back on top, touring the world again, this time with the full backing of his label and more money than he had ever known. Joining Island also meant that Dan had to once again choose a music publisher, and he went with EMI, which encouraged him to write with different acts. Over the next year or so he wrote songs with and for Ricky Martin, Katy Perry, and Björn Yttling from Peter Bjorn and John. The song he wrote for Ricky Martin, “Shine,” experienced moderate success overseas. The collaboration with Björn, “Last Ones Standing,” was written in 2007 and wound up being a hit single on the UK rapper/singer Example’s 2010 album Won’t Go Quietly. His collaboration with Katy Perry remains unreleased.
A year later, the Young Love tour ended. Dan returned to New York with a bunch of songs that would form the basis of Young Love’s sophomore album. The music industry, however, was in the throes of dealing with plummeting sales and a business model that no longer worked, and things over at Island Def Jam had changed. “I came back, and Rob Stevenson had left; my whole team over there was pretty much gone,” Dan said. “So I was kind of dead in the water over there. The first record got a great push, and it did well and got me a lot of exposure and brought me to the first step of where I needed to be, but by the time I was ready to record the second, everybody at the label had gone.”
Still, the album had been green-lit, and Dan pressed on. He went to LA for a few months to record what would become One of Us with John King of the Dust Brothers, the production duo responsible for sample-heavy and extremely successful records like Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, Beck’s Odelay, and the Fight Club soundtrack.
“Dan has lots of great ideas in the studio,” John told me when I asked about their sessions in 2008. “He can play any instrument and is a great singer. He’s like Prince.” I asked John about how the role of the producer has changed over the course of his career, and how the troubles of the music industry have affected him. “‘Producer,’ in the old school, kind of meant ‘label A&R executive.’ In the 80s, producer-driven music started to happen. That’s what my early music was like—I would create the music, a rapper would come in for 15 minutes, and then I would finish the song. I have always been very hands-on. I’d love to move away from being so hands-on and let talented engineers and mixers help me out, but the decimation of the music industry has resulted in limited recording budgets, and I am able to help artists out by doing the jobs of the producer, engineer, mixer, and studio owner. I do whatever the artist needs, from the roles I just mentioned to songwriting or career advice.”
After One of Us was released in 2007, Young Love embarked on a worldwide headlining tour. “The last day of that tour I was supposed to play Bowery Ballroom, which is where I would usually play in New York, and it would usually sell out,” Dan said. “But I had toured myself into the ground, again, for the second time in my life. And I was in the hospital because I was really sick. Just from exhaustion, I guess. The label dropped me that same day. It was pretty wild.”
The music industry had now rejected Dan twice, both a result of his respective labels not having their shit together. On top of that, he had managed to spend most of the money he’d made from his original signing because he was a 20-something touring the world and that’s exactly what any reasonable person in that situation would do.
Somehow Dan managed to play it cool and eventually found a job through Lon Ballinger, owner of Webster Hall, who was looking to construct a recording studio in the basement of the venue. This arrangement allowed him to stay on the periphery of music without becoming crushed in the grind of the industry. Trevor helped him build out the space, and eventually they were recording bands like Spoon, Edward Sharp, and Mumford & Sons on a regular basis. It was the first time in a while that Dan had a steady paycheck. But he wasn’t writing as much, and that frustrated him.
In late 2010, Dan began working with Fenway Recordings, an artist-management company based in Boston and New York that represents bands like MGMT, Mission of Burma, the Cribs, Saves the Day, and about a dozen other acts that they very much believe in. Dan works closely with Fenway’s New York team—Ben Matusow and Nick Palmacci—who have been helping him with writing sessions with other artists, producers, and songwriters since his sudden move to LA.
Dan may have only given Ben a day’s notice that he was packing up and heading to the West Coast, but Ben told me he thought it was the right move: “Making music in LA, especially as a writer or producer, is a bit more logistically feasible, simply due to space and places to work. In New York, the energy is obviously here and the creativity is always happening, but it’s sometimes tough to foster a really vibrant, creative music community here.” I asked Ben about his feelings on the current state of the publishing side of the industry—how he thinks the role of the songwriter has evolved since the days of Tin Pan Alley, or even Bob Dylan, and how that has affected the publishing side of the business. “Right now, the publishing side of the music industry is exciting to me,” Ben said. “Primarily because it’s so full of energy. Talented people waking up and writing songs every single day… It’s certainly one of the primary sources of revenue for songwriters, and it’s become a popular subject lately as most other revenue sources have suffered over the past ten years. Even the publishing industry, though, has to evolve like everything else in music. It’s certainly not exempt from the need to keep up with the times.”
The guys at Fenway are the ones who set up Dan’s aforementioned meeting with Marc Wilson, the A&R manager at Warner/Chappell Music—the meeting I was supposed to crash by going undercover and posing as Dan’s manager so I could get a better understanding of how one of the world’s largest music publishers worked from the inside. Like most ideas you come up with drunkenly at 2 AM, we thought better of it the next day. Ben told us that getting me into Dan’s meeting without lying about my profession shouldn’t be a problem. He was right, and two days later I drove Dan to Warner/Chappell HQ.
Marc began his career in publishing at BMG, which was soon bought out by Universal. It was then he moved to Warner/Chappell, first working as an assistant to senior vice president and head of A&R Greg Sowders and eventually moving on to manage his own roster of bands (which include the Plain White T’s, Chickenfoot, Bad Religion, Theory of a Deadman, and Steve Aoki, among others).
I asked Marc how he knows his team of writers will jibe with a particular artist, and how he pairs them accordingly. “I think it’s case by case,” he said. “Some people are more precious with their music. Some don’t need cowriters and just write great songs on their own. Some are signed because of a vision that the label A&R guy might have. He might say, ‘I really like this band, they need a little bit of help in the songwriting, but the look and everything else are spot-on. I love this band, or I love this one song, but they’ve been in the studio for a month now and they haven’t really hit their stride yet. They haven’t really written that killer song.’ So the label might say, ‘I wanna put you in with some cowriters.’ It can get a little tricky. Some bands are like, ‘What the fuck? You signed us, why would we want someone else to write our songs?’ However, at the end of the day, I think we all have the same goal and that’s to help a particular artist get to the next level.”
Dan’s meeting with Marc was one of several music publisher meet-and-greets that had been secured by his guys at Fenway, who were also landing him studio sessions with an assortment of acts. But since moving to LA, Dan’s heart has been set on Pulse Music Publishing, home to hit makers like Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” “Last Friday Night [T.G.I.F.],” and “Teenage Dream”), Oligee (Flo Rida, Kelly Clarkson, Travie McCoy), and Luke Walker (Black Veil Brides, Rob Roy, Christian TV). The publishing side of Pulse is run by Peter Lloyd, who said that the company “is unique in that we have set up a community environment where creativity can thrive. Our office is at our studio so the business mixes with the creative.” It appears that Dan’s luck has turned once again and he is well on his way to finding his rightful place in LA.
After Dan told me the good news, I asked him where he ideally sees himself in six months. “I want to have a record of my own songs almost completely written,” he said. “I want to have some cuts on some big pop records. I want to have a car that doesn’t break down once a week. I want to have a place to live, so I’m not sleeping on floors and couches all across the greater Los Angeles area. I want to begin the next chapter of my life and to be successful doing what I love, which is making music. I want to pay back all my friends for taking care of me right now. And I want to get my girl back. I have a machete in my hand, I’m chopping my way through the fucking jungle, but I see it out there and I’m heading toward it. It’s the first time in a long time that I know I’m on the right track.”