“I literally could tell the second they looked at me; they just didn’t get it. I could just see the vacancy in their eyes. They were like, ‘Yeah… um, that’s great. But we’re going to move on.'” LA-based singer-songwriter Laura Pergolizzi, aka LP, is reliving the moment that almost broke her. She had been summoned to the corporate offices of her label, Warner Bros. Records, to meet the new chairman and the freshly appointed label president. She played her three best songs to the executives, but as the final track faded away an awkward silence enveloped the room. Then, from across the desk, five words made it crystal clear that their partnership was over, “We’re going to drop you.”
She had experienced setbacks before, but this time it felt like the end of the road. “I thought that I really gave it a try there. I thought that was my best shot.” A disheartened LP left the building, questioning her life choices, while the label put the necessary legal machinery in motion to expunge her, and her songs, from their inventory.
In hindsight, it turns out that her “best shot” was more than enough. The three songs that initially fell on deaf ears have subsequently gone on to demonstrate profound commercial value. “I played them ‘Muddy Waters’, which has been synched (licensed to be synchronized with visuals) an insane amount of times, and I played them ‘Strange’, which just got this huge Samsung commercial. Then I played them ‘Lost On You.'”
“Lost On You” is an anthem, a juggernaut, an all-conquering hit record reaching the equivalent of U.S. Platinum-level sales by selling in markets outside of the U.S. It has reached number one in 17 countries and has been streamed over a billion times. Thematically, it is a cry from a broken heart watching the fading embers of a dying love. It is a break-up song that has resonated with millions of people all over the world. It is resigned and hopeful, fragile and strong; the intimate lyrics and stadium-sized chorus capture the emotional rollercoaster of a heartbreak.
“Those three songs have been so good for me,” continues LP with some degree of understatement. Her former label agreed to write-off the $1.6 million which had been invested in their partnership. I detect a wry smile in her voice when she explains how the label ate the entire debt. “So here they were. They had me. You know, I would have had to pay them all back.” She acknowledges that the choice to drop her was an impersonal business decision, albeit an expensive one.
Growing up in New York, LP’s family expected her to become “something like a doctor or a lawyer,” but her decision to be a singer-songwriter was an early one,” I didn’t feel like doing anything else.” She put a band together in her 20’s, but the initial feedback was not encouraging, “I was always told I didn’t have songs.” Nevertheless, she persevered and released two albums on independent labels, Heart-Shaped Scar in 2001 and Suburban Sprawl & Alcohol in 2004. Despite the relative lack of success, her extensive promotional tours helped her to become a captivating performer.
Following an appearance at music conference South by Southwest in 2006, she sparked a bidding war between several labels, and landed her first major-label deal with the now-defunct Island Def Jam Music Group. However, after the initial euphoria, the label was unclear on what to do next. “First, they loved me, and then they were like, ‘Hmmm, which way should we go?’ So, they kept pairing me with all these big songwriters and going off in different directions.” She wrote tirelessly, but was eventually dropped by the label, and her album plans were shelved.
A much-needed watershed moment arrived in 2007 when her co-write “Love Will Keep You Up All Night” was picked up by Backstreet Boys. “I was suddenly like, oh, that’s interesting! At that point, I just figured I’m shit at writing. I didn’t think that could happen, somebody way bigger doing one of the songs.”
LP continued to write prolifically for other artists, but abandoned any hope of an artist career. She relocated to the “songwriting Mecca” of Los Angeles in 2010 and spent two years buckling down. “I started writing songs like a maniac, and I started to get cuts.” A cut is a songwriter’s share of the publishing royalties generated by a song’s performance or playback. A decent cut can be both a songwriter’s income and retirement fund, depending on its success.
Hitting her stride in LA, she started playing the ukulele and joining some open mic sessions at a local bar. “It was just a fun instrument to take to the sessions, and it sparked all this writing that was actually for myself.” One of the ukulele-inspired cuts got picked up for a big CitiBank commercial, while another became a co-write on Rihanna‘s album Loud. There was a music industry buzz around LP once again. “There was this little mini-storm, and I got signed to a major label in 2011.”
Into The Wild
She released Into the Wild: Live at EastWest Studios in 2012, but progress on the follow-up album ground to a halt when the producer was unavailable for two years. “I lost my steam a little bit, and in that time the entire staff changed, the regime changed.” This brings us up to date with her fateful meeting with the label execs who dropped her. “You can make light of it, in life, as you look back on it,” she muses, “but it was really at that moment I said to myself. ‘All right. Well, it might be time to hang it up.'”
Luckily Jon Cohen, co-founder of indie label Vagrant Records, didn’t agree, and LP was persuaded to join their roster. Dan Gill was the general manager at Vagrant at the time of her signing, and still remembers hearing “Lost On You” for the first time. “We were just blown away. We believed in it from day one, from top to bottom. Here she was, finally making the record that she wanted to make with no compromises.” Gill moved to the major label BMG together with his artist roster, including LP, when Vagrant was acquired by them in late 2014.
Ian McEvily from her management company, Rebel One, picks up the story from here. “I gotta say, this has been the most unique situation we’ve ever been a part of. We’ve never seen a song have a lifecycle like this one. I think that is a testament to the power of this particular song, but it’s also how the industry is working, and how people are discovering music these days.”
In 2016 “Lost On You” was sub-licensed to a Greek label, with BMG’s all-important blessing, and events unfolded fast. “It quickly went number one, and so we started to mobilize.” The team used geographical data to inform their release strategy, bypassing the traditional focus of breaking the U.S. market, and instead sub-licensing to labels where the data showed meaningful sparks of interest. Spotify, in particular, provided a real-time “global data point” to work around, and each release was supported with marketing campaigns on the ground. “Our focus from Greece was to pull it west through Europe. We brought on someone from Poland, someone from Italy and eventually France, and we just kept getting the same reaction with the song. Then we got another spark in Mexico.” The spark became a wildfire; the song became a huge radio hit, her single sales reached triple-Platinum status and her album made it to Diamond status.
On the back of her chart success, LP’s live gigs became something of a phenomenon, continues Gill. “It’s really about her live show, she’s an extraordinary live artist, the real deal. As a label, we’re there to amplify who she is as an artist. And that’s why the partnership is working.” Gill recalls when LP took to the stage in Mexico for the first time, “She comes out to perform ‘Strange,’ an album track. She is performing for the first time there, and thousands of fans are singing every word to that song.”
The Victories Of Songwriting Are Private
LP takes the long view. She views songwriting as a craft, one that is about building a body of work over time, much like a painter. Her inspirations are David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, artists who put out incredible records until right before they died. “I believe that your work builds on itself, and it’s very personal. The victories of getting better at songwriting are kind of private.”
For LP, the precarious road to success has given her “nothing if not perspective,” for which she is grateful. “It has allowed me to truly enjoy this moment. It’s been really, really a great experience being able to appreciate all this in real-time. But I appreciate how easy a song could get lost. It’s a good thing for people to know it’s not the end of the world if someone doesn’t like their song. One person is not the deciding factor.”
When I suggest that her career is “a masterclass in perseverance,” her warm laughter lights up the conversation. “Well, that’ll be a really boring masterclass because it would just be so long! Like ‘OK, so what do we do now?’ ‘Well, you just sit here for years, quietly working, quietly believing.'”
But maybe that’s exactly what it takes. One gets the impression that LP would continue quietly working, believing, and writing great songs regardless of the ups and downs of her industry, but it is heartening to see her talent not getting lost this time around.
Originally published in Forbes.
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