Ryan Tedder, writer of hits for Beyoncé, Adele and Taylor Swift: ‘There’s too much music, and artists don’t take advice’

The composer, who has written hits for Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift or his own group, the massive OneRepublic, admits that he doesn’t like the gears of the business, but he must adapt

Ryan Tedder
Singer, songwriter and producer Ryan Tedder at the rooftop of the UMusic Hotel, in Madrid.Paula Valley

During the first years of his career, Ryan Tedder became popular on MySpace, won an MTV talent show and broke radio airplay records. Today, MySpace, MTV and radio still exist, but their cultural relevance has dwindled. Tedder and his band, OneRepublic, have been through three or four revolutions in the recording industry, which makes him one of the pop stars who best represents the changing landscape of the music business: he understood from an early time which songs work best in Spotify’s playlist system, sold his music catalog to a private equity firm for around $200 million and is currently set on deciphering the mystery of how to go viral on TikTok.

Given this flair for anticipating business transformations, it makes sense that Ryan Tedder was the guest of honor at the Madrid opening of the UMusic Hotel, Universal’s first hotel in the world. Record labels are now entering the tourism market. The UMusic is a theater-hotel that houses the old Albéniz Theater and the old Hotel Madrid, after a titanic interior remodeling that at the same time respected the historical heritage of the building. The goal, according to its managers, is to promote Madrid’s local culture and tourism. The first show to be presented there will be The Phantom of the Opera, starting on September 20.

Ryan Tedder
Singer, songwriter and producer Ryan Tedder performing at the opening of the UMusic Hotel, in Madrid.Paula Valley

A few minutes before his performance, Ryan Tedder walks around the rooftop of the UMusic to take in the views: the roofs of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol clock a few feet away and the hotel’s interior facades, decorated with murals of flamenco singer Camarón and Amy Winehouse. That is all he will be able to see of the city: “I came from Marrakech, we were supposed to play there last night but one hour before the show the government shut down all concerts,” he explains, alluding to the earthquake that shook the Moroccan city last Friday. “My whole band is stuck there, so I’ll go back tonight.”

Leading OneRepublic is Tedder’s best-known facet, but not the most profitable one. In 2006, the ballad Apologize was number 1 on MySpace. A year later it was the most downloaded song in the history of iTunes, as well as the most played track in the history of American radio, a record that would be broken a few months later by Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love – also penned by Tedder. Hits like Beyoncé's Halo, Adele’s Rumor Has It, Ellie Goulding’s Burn, Taylor Swift’s Welcome To New York and the Jonas Brothers’ Sucker have earned Tedder titles like “the undercover king of pop” (Billboard) and “music’s most under-the-radar mogul” (Rolling Stone). It is not easy to spend an entire week on Earth without listening to at least one Ryan Tedder composition. They are everywhere, because they fit anywhere: Spotify playlists, the music channels of shopping centers or the most exciting moments of reality television shows.

“I come from CDs, then iTunes and now Spotify. The algorithm is tricky,” he explains. “I’m lucky that a lot of the songs I write, whether they become big hits, medium hits, small hits, they work well with play-listing. [...] My style of writing works for being played in places, whether you’re by a swimming pool, in a shopping mall, on an airplane, working out in a gym. A lot of my music is in fitness.” His songs never bother, they are never out of place and they always lift your spirits with a mix of pop, country, Oasis and gospel in which the chorus always bursts with energy as a great emotional reward. His music was algorithm-ready before the algorithm was even invented.

Ryan Tedder
Ed Sheeran and Ryan Tedder at the 2016 Grammys.Larry Busacca (Getty Images for NARAS)

Of course, the fact that Tedder feels right at home in the streaming ecosystem does not mean that he likes it. His friendship with Daniel Eck, founder and CEO of Spotify, does not keep him from questioning a system that he considers flawed. “With radio, all it took was one DJ, one program director, one station saying: ‘You know what, these guys, nobody knows them, but this song is amazing.’ We don’t have curators anymore. Curation has died,” he laments.

If curation is dead, the songwriter’s profession is not going through its best time, either. “You can’t make a living from it. The labels make tons of money from streaming, but songwriters, if they put a song on an album but it is not a single, they will not make decent money,” he explains. At this point, we have to take out the calculator: Spotify pays songwriters $0.003 per stream (half as much as Apple Music and a quarter as much as Tidal), so the most successful song of the year, Flowers, by Miley Cyrus, has generated approximately $435,000 for its authors. The most streamed song in Spotify history, Blinding Lights by The Weeknd, has generated just over $1 million. It is estimated that the most successful song of 30 years ago, I Will Always Love You, by Whitney Houston, generated $10 million. The one from 40 ago, Every Breath You Take by The Police, $20 million.

In an article published in Rolling Stone, Tedder showed the disparity with concrete figures: his song Stranger Things generated more than $1 million for the record label, while he made $62,000. And some managers say that if you want their artist on a song, he continued, “they need 25 percent as a songwriter credit.”

“Before, if you put a song on an album, even if it wasn’t a single, you received a proportional share of the album’s sales. That allowed you to stay afloat, keep working. You built relationships with the A&R [artists and repertoire] department, who married the hit song with the artist. Their job was meaningful, and I knew a lot of really good A&Rs. Having a room full of people at a record label who all have really, really good taste and good ears and can hear hits is valuable. Now most artists don’t want anything to do with that. Now the artist goes, ‘here’s my album, that’s the single.’ They don’t take advice.”

Ryan Tedder
Ryan Tedder, Adele, producer Ariel Rechtshaid and producer Samuel Dixon at the 2017 Grammys.Christopher Polk (Getty Images for NARAS)

According to Tedder, “there used to be four or five artists per year” that would go beyond being one-hit wonders, while now “there’s one every two, three years.” The reason is market saturation. “I don’t think it was the intention of Spotify or streaming, you know, their goal. The goal of Daniel Eck was that everyone in the world could have access to music. It’s a very good goal, a pure goal. The downside is that now you have 110,000 songs per day uploaded. Olivia Rodrigo is the last new artist to break, that was three years ago. The reason is there’s too much music. The analogy I use is this: imagine if the Guggenheim said, ‘we’re expanding; anyone who has internet access, you can hang your art on our walls. Anyone can fill the Guggenheim with any piece of art that they want to, as long as you have Wi-Fi, a piece of paper and a crayon.’ That’s what streaming has become,” he laments. His biggest challenge, he explains, is that every time he releases a song it competes with all the songs in history for the listener’s attention.

And if the benefits were already scarce, now there are more people to share them with. Rihanna was the first artist to resort to what Tedder calls “song factories”: one songwriter writes an intro, another a verse and another the chorus. They work separately; they never meet each other and even operate in different countries. “It makes me sad, a little bit, because I learned to write songs by myself, which was how songs were written,” he reflects. “Then, by 2010, the average number one song had five writers on it.”

Tedder uses his latest song, Back For More, as an example. He wrote it with his frequent collaborator, Tyler Spry, and the Korean Slow Rabbit. “But now Anitta did a version of it. She’s on the second verse now. And she wanted the Drop Killers, who are a production team from Brazil. There are one, two, three, four people, and it’s just for a second verse. Now you have a song that has seven names on it. You have a song where you wrote the chorus, but your friend did the music, but then they brought in someone else to do the drums, and then someone else came in with the artist to help finish their verses.

“Very few artists will take outside songs that they did not write anymore. I don’t know if they look down on it, or they think it hurts their image, but there used to be lots of artists who were just great singers and great personalities, and if they heard a hit song, it didn’t matter if they wrote it. Whitney Houston didn’t write anything. She’d hear a hit song and go: ‘That’s me.’ Adam Levine is phenomenal. He hears songs all the time and goes, ‘I want that one.’ Frank Sinatra didn’t write anything. It’s very political. I’ve had maybe one or two songs where all of a sudden there are nine, ten writers. And I just go, ‘this is pointless.’”

Ryan Tedder
Ryan Tedder and Pharrell Williams pictured at the NBC studios in 2015. NBC.NBC (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via)

However, Tedder is comfortable with his conflict between working as an old-fashioned songwriter and making the most of the economic advantages that the new system offers. Two pieces of advice shaped his life. One was given to him by his grandfather on his deathbed: “Find a job you would do for free 40 hours a week.” He did. He doesn’t actually do it for free, though – which brings us to the second piece of advice, from a lawyer who used to work for Michael Jackson: “Put every dollar that you make from music into the real estate market.” Tedder has several properties in the United States and has invested in various businesses, from a brand of hemp water to a salad restaurant chain.

He knows how to adapt to the times. In 2021, OneRepublic became the first band to accept cryptocurrency payments for concert tickets, and Tedder sold his catalog to the private equity firm KKR for around $200 million because, he explains, he understood that his music was never going to be worth as much as it was at that moment. Today he is confident that he still has many songs left in him to build a solid new catalog of his own. The first is I Ain’t Worried, which became the tenth most streamed song in the world last year, thanks to its appearance in the movie Top Gun: Maverick – and in all the TikToks on the planet.

“[The whistle in I Ain’t Worried] is what went viral. Not even the chorus. People are simple. We all love nursery rhymes as kids. There are elements that you can incorporate to songs, simple nursery rhyme elements that will help your chances of going viral. But they don’t guarantee anything,” he says. Still, despite the lack of guarantees, he did not get to where he is by leaving things to chance: he commissioned two analysts to carry out a three-month study to decipher the formula to make the TikTok community choose 15 seconds of your song for their videos.

“When the song was finished, I changed the intro to be more TikTok-friendly,” he admits. “TikTok is MTV. When MTV existed, if you weren’t on MTV, you didn’t break. The hard part about TikTok is going viral; that’s the only thing that matters. Going viral is the same as winning the lottery. You can’t make winning the lottery a strategy. It’s never a strategy. ‘What are you doing today? I’m going to go buy a lottery ticket.’ It doesn’t work. In the end, the song matters. The song still needs to be great.”

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