The music business is still a male-dominated industry, but women like Alexi Cory-Smith have proven to everyone that women can be successful in it as well. Alexi is a music industry entrepreneur who aims at taking control of her own business and doing something unique with music while also traveling extensively. In this interesting episode, she talks about her journey towards becoming a music lawyer and music publisher and highlights some of the key events of her career. Publishing a song is a behind the curtain task. Alexi’s account as to how each piece of music is published shows that it is as difficult as coming up with the song itself. Learn more about this wonderful world of music from Alexi’s career and adventures as she narrates her successes and challenges in life.
Listen to the podcast here:
Becoming A Music Lawyer, a Record Company Exec and Signing Top Deals With Alexi Cory-Smith
I’m very excited to have as my guest the super small, incredibly successful and very well-traveled, Alexi Cory-Smith. Alexi, how are you?
I’m well, Tara. Thank you.
You’ve been quiet all over the place with your different travel adventures.
Generally, I’ve been lucky. I went to Australia for the first time, which I adored. I spent some time in Singapore in Asia, which is interesting. The summer was lovely. I was in the south of France. The highlight of the year has been a week in the Highlands where I went to the Isle of Mull and it’s breathtaking, proper God’s country, proper Highland stuff, fishing, walking, hiking and eating black pudding. It’s been good so far.
Do you have anywhere on your bucket list that you haven’t been yet that you want to go to?
I’ve put an extremely long bucket list. I didn’t know there were so many countries in the world and I literally do get a map with a globe. I get a map of the world, put it on a table and look for places. Namibia is one of them. I feel that I haven’t seen enough of the Middle East and it’s a region. I deeply regret not visiting Syria many years ago when I had the opportunity. I’m mindful about trying to visit the Middle East. I think Oman, Namibia and Mozambique are on the list.
It’s quite a few places to go just yet.
Plenty more and I intend to revisit them, all the ones I liked again.
You can write your memoir, sell it and it will be fabulous.
I hope so. I don’t think anyone wants to buy my memoir.
I’ll buy it. I was looking at some of the interesting information about you and I see that we share some of the same love of music back in the ‘80s, Roxy Music and Depeche Mode. It’s like love.
It was such a good era for music and I guess that was my music growing up. They were real stars as well. When I knew I was going to do this with you and it’s funny because you sit down and start thinking about music, think about the music you’ve loved and that’s had an influence on you over the years and one forgets. It’s great fun to go back and list up that year I remember what happened. There are these soundtracks or your life, these things. I remember the music in that way. I’ll remember an event or where I was, who I met, what I was doing and I’ll remember the music that I was thinking about or listening to at the time. I don’t know about you, but I always tried to be cool with good taste and then I realized I like great popular music.
I have to say that I’m eternally grateful to you because you took me to see Blondie. I think it was at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and you then took me backstage to meet Blondie or afterward. That was a big moment in my career.
I think it was for me too. I think that was the second time I’d met Debbie Harry and/or Deborah Harry and Chris Stein. I remember watching her, I think it was Sunday morning Talk Shop or something and being absolutely stunned by her, bedazzled by her. I was very young and that was in that absolute heyday. It took many years to get to work with her and meet her. I remember the first time meeting her, being that you’re like a child. You’re completely overwhelmed and star-struck. The funniest thing is she said to me, and I think you may be with me, it was in Shepherd’s Bush when we went backstage and she said, “I was nervous about meeting you,” and I’m like, “You’re nervous about meeting me?” You realize everybody’s human. We’re all humans and everybody’s shy or lots of people are shy. That was a pretty dazzling moment.
I remember talking about being human. I remember too when I first came to meet you at BMG, it was about an artist and you were the SVP of corporate developments.
I’ve been a senior vice, junior vice, every vice you could imagine.
I do remember coming to see you and talking about being human. I remember you sitting behind your desk all terribly elegant and fabulous and thinking to myself, “I’m feeling a bit stupid. I think I need to up my game now. What am I going to say to impress this woman?”
I’m happy to say not that much. I’m easily impressed. I don’t remember when that was. When was that?
It was about 2011.
That was the one I remember, the weird bunker on the top of the building.
I’m like, “I have to up my game here so I sound like I know what I’m talking about.”
That’s all on you.
It’s all on me. I was also interested to hear that you originally wanted to be a criminal lawyer.
I used to watch the Crown Court with my mother. I don’t know if you remember this TV series when we were children. I’m older than you, so when I was a child, you were not even of thought yet. I used to watch Crown Court with my mother. I remember watching a trial on Crown Court and this is our old black and white TV and the sense of injustice. It was one of the ones where the good guy got off and you knew it was the right thing. I thought then that I’m going to be a barrister. I’m going to wear the wig and the gown to go to court. I was quite theatrical as a child. I think the whole idea of a courtroom appealed to me and standing up and doing that.The soundtrack of your life include songs that reminds you of an event and a person. Click To Tweet
When I was old enough, I used to go and watch trials at the Old Bailey. I love the theater. It’s not theater obviously for the people in there. It’s incredibly serious. It’s real-life and then sometimes incredibly traumatic and sad circumstances. I did enjoy watching the barristers that play the defense and prosecution. It’s also very satisfying when one would witness what you felt was the right result. That was me. I wanted to be Gareth Peirce. Gareth Peirce was the woman who was the solicitor for the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. She is a formidable person. I remember thinking, “I’m going to go and be Gareth Peirce.”
Not an area of the law you’d ever want to go back into now?
Not now. I’m far too old and ugly. I think one of the things with criminal law is I did some work experience back then when we had citizens advice bureaus and I was quite shocked at how tough it is. I think at the time I realized that I’m not sure I had the intellect for it. These people could think on their feet and working incredibly traumatic circumstances. Going to the prisons and meeting people at that first interview and you’re trailing a lawyer around, it’s very interesting. I think it dawned on me then that it wasn’t quite for me.
When you joined Theodore Goddard and became a music lawyer, how did you enjoy those variants before you then obviously went to BMG?
It was an interesting time because I’d read law at the university and always had this fascination and interest in it more genuinely, whether it’s the area of jurisprudence, which is the Theory of the Law and the great question, “Could society exist without law?” You write a 10,000-word piece thesis on that, the short answer is I think no. You put back, which I always enjoyed, but it was combining that with the music business and how I could do something that I find could be stimulating but also in a proper living, probably build a career. I found going into a little firm was interesting because I trained in the city. I went into a music company as an in-house lawyer, business affairs as they call it, which is making the contracts, working on the artist’s contracts, all the deals and then going into an established law firm, proper law firm. I found it was a bit restrictive for me to be honest and the people, they’re very intellectual.
I sat in a room, I shared an office with the biggest brains I know. These two gentlemen consider speak to each other in Ancient Greek and I felt rather inferior and inadequate and out of my depths. It was a great learning experience. I think the discipline of working with people like that, brilliant minds are very good for one. I remember learning about writing properly and drafting properly and not overuse of words and things like that when you write things down. I remember my one of them saying to me, “Never write down something that would be embarrassing if it were read out front of you in a court of law.” That bell rings in my head all the time because you’re irritated, angry and about to fire something off. That always comes back to me. I’m a great user of the Grammarly app. I don’t really use that.
When you were at BMG, you signed some amazing artists that are from Liam Howlett of Prodigy, George Ezra, Beth Ditto, The Stones. That must’ve been quite an experience.
I can’t take full credit because some of those like George Ezra, it’s about the creative team. I had the privilege of working with and leading a very strong creative team, he signed George Ezra. One’s involved in that because they come to you, you have to approve the deal, question it, look at it, consider it. Although I do feel that if you have an equal, you’ve got to trust their judgment. Pin their name to a signing, you support it, otherwise you shouldn’t have those people in your team. You’ve got to let them do their job. I think we had some great successes. I would say lucky to inherit some great artists because when I joined BMG and we were building BMG, we did acquire quite a lot of other businesses.
We were getting the benefit of other people’s works. Beth Ditto came with Gossip that came with the Chrysalis deal, but I was lucky enough being a huge fan of Gossip. I ended up cultivating quite a good relationship with Beth and particularly with her manager, Tara. They’ve become friends and we’ve collaborated on quite a few things together and that’s been a great pleasure. The Rolling Stones was a massive turning point. That was a publishing deal and we became the custodians of the latter works, but also working with them closely on the some of the older songs. I got lucky we got to work with Joyce Smyth, their manager and Dave Trafford who does a lot of the creative day to day stuff and they’re fantastic.
That was an amazing time. They’re still friends and I loved it. I’ve been lucky with The Stones. I think I’m that big stalker. I go to all the weird concerts. I went to Pittsburgh and they arranged for me to go to the Andy Warhol Museum, which was incredible. That was amazing. I went to Cuba when they did the show in Cuba. The Stones put on a free show for the people in Cuba, in Havana. One of the best weeks of my life. I adored Cuba, but to be at that show on that night was spectacular. It’s the same week that President Obama and the Pope visited Cuba. It was interesting to watch the power struggle of who came first in the pecking order between His Grace the Pope, President Obama and Mick Jagger.
Who came first?
President Obama came top. I won’t comment on who came second.
Some people who are reading this may not necessarily know what a music publisher does. Can you maybe explain a little bit about what it is to be a music publisher?
When you have a piece of music, you’ve got a recording and you’ll hear the artist and people tend to know the artists, the performing artists of that song. In that recording there’s a song and the song is the basis of that recording. You made a record of that song and somebody wrote that song. Now in many instances, the writer of that song is also the person performing it on the record. In many instances, the writer of that song is not the performer. Anyway, regardless of who made or wrote the song, you have to look after that song. The music publisher’s job is we take that song when we register that song with copyright societies to make sure that it is protected. It’s a creative piece. It’s original work and it needs to be protected.
We register that song around the world. We’re like the custodians and copyright. We go to make sure that every time that song is played or used in any form that we get paid for that. We then go around basically chasing the money and it is down to tiny pennies. When you have a hit song, there’s lots and lots of pennies. That’s basically what a publisher does. You look after that song, you make sure that song is protected, you make sure then that song is collecting all the money it’s generating. You also do things that your work with that writer and put them with other writers.
Take someone like Joel Pott. He is George Ezra’s co-writer on many of the songs. Joel came out of a band called Athlete, a wonderful band. The other members of the band won’t take a sabbatical, but Joel wanted to write. You take a writer like Joel, who’s fantastic, and you basically blind date him, match him with people. He and George Ezra were a perfect match because they write incredible songs together. They also write very good songs on their own but together they create some magic. As his publisher, we would also put the writers together with other people. Think about collaborations and what would the minute show them to build those careers as writers. The registration and collection of money around the song is the key part. Sometimes people underestimate how difficult that is. You need very clever copyright people who they are like walking music encyclopedias. They’re this crazy, clever people who register the songs all over the world. If you don’t have people doing that Brooklyn, your writer won’t get his or her money. It’s incredibly complex, but I’m fascinated by it. I love the whole complexity and operation around music publishing.
If you’re a youngster who wants to be in publishing, what tips would you give as to how you would go about doing that?
I think the obvious things is perseverance. I wanted to work in a record company. Once I’d realized that I probably wasn’t going to be the criminal lawyer, that I wasn’t quite the Gareth Peirce, I realized I love music, I love film, I love the law, I like books. For me, I came out of university thinking I want you to be a criminal lawyer. I was going to go to the bar. I realized it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do at the time. I started dating a guy in a band and when I found out that band signed to record companies, they had these people called A&R, Artists and Repertoire guys who were the ones who looked after them. I thought, “You’re telling me you can make a living out of working with bands and signing? That’s amazing. I’m going to do that.”
I just set my mind on it and I applied for every and any job that I could. Remember, there was no internet then. It wasn’t like we went online and did the research. I went on the back of the newspapers, which is what one did. We looked at the small ads and I applied for every single job I saw that I thought was interesting. I went around the music companies with my CV. I used to go around with the CV so that if I meet someone, “Could I meet someone in your HR department?” That was how it was done then. That was a long time ago. When I was running BMG, things that used to impress people and me, we quite often hire people who effectively came to us with the job that we hired them into and that they had an idea and they’re creative themselves. They’d come along and I’ll be in as an intern and create something. A lot of people, they got something about them. Their energy. You look at them and you think, “I want to work with you. I like you.” You want this. You’re going to work hard. It’s difficult. What’s the advice? It’s tenacity. You want something and go for it and don’t take no for an answer.
When you look back at your career, did you have a defining moment?
I’ve had a few. I think meeting a guy in a rock band and learning that there was this thing called the record business. That was a defining moment because that took me away from what I thought I was going to do. It made me go and pursue something else. I’m so glad I did pursue that because I’ve loved pretty much every minute. Signing The Rolling Stones was a defining moment. I’ll never forget the day I got the phone call saying, “We’re going to come to BMG and do this with you.” I was walking down the street downtown in New York, I think it was in the village or somewhere, and I was screaming up and down and jumping up and down. Being New York, it’s fully of nutters. It was this amazing feeling. It was exhilaration. You never lose that. There’d been a few, but immediately off the bat, those are the ones I can think of.
This show is called For Love and Music, which are the two reasons I moved to LA. I wanted to ask, is there a specific love song that’s made an impact on your life? I’m trying to add in a little bit of love to these.
Any song by John Denver. That I would say is my put a smile on my face song. I had my first kiss, it’s Nights in White Satin.
Moody Blues.If you want something, go for it and don't take no for an answer. Click To Tweet
That one. That comes back to haunt me every night. I have this amazing moment with that. I think Creep by Radiohead, that’s a big song for me.
Has love ever guided you to make an unexpected decision in your career?
I’ll tell you what, love stopped me. I made a bad decision once because of love. I was offered an opportunity to go and work for an incredibly cool record label in Amsterdam and they came with a nightclub and it was in the jazz world, which I love. I turned that down because of love and the love didn’t work out. I remember at the time thinking I shouldn’t have. I went against my gut actually. That was a real lesson. I think that was one of the times I went against my gut and I shouldn’t have. I should’ve dumped the boyfriend and gone to Amsterdam and taken the job for sure. I have huge crushes on things. My crush on Brad Pitt is completely revived watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
He’s brilliant on that, isn’t he?
He’s utterly brilliant. I think he and Leonardo DiCaprio acting each off the screen. Typically, with Tarantino, the soundtrack is so brilliant. It’s perfect. I think there’s a Deep Purple hush moment in there, which again is one of mine, even though I knew it was a cover by Deep Purple, but it’s such a great track.
When you’re at home, what do you listen to? Are you still in the ‘80s?
I listen to Radio 4 when I’m at home. I was tending into my mother when I started telling people to hush so I could listen to The Archers. Americans won’t know what The Archers is but it’s absolutely iconic program in England around a farming community in the North of England. I listen to Radio 4. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to books. I enjoy audiobooks and I’m currently to The Testaments, Margaret Atwood. Because I listen to music quite constantly when I’m out and about, at home I tend to not listen to music so much. However, I go to gigs a lot. I still go to festivals. My favorite place to listen to music is in the car when I’m driving. Driving or walking is when I do my playlist time or Spotify time and new music Friday time.
If you had your top ten list if you’re stuck on a deserted island or just your top three list, what would it be? You’re stuck there for eternity with three songs.
I think Stevie Wonder. I was going to the Innervisions album. Am I allowed an album or does it have to be three songs?
I’ll give you an album.
If I can have an album, it would be Innervisions. I go hiking a lot. I enjoy hiking and that tends to be the soundtrack to my hiking and it’s the one I do a lot of thinking too. I don’t know if you know Charles Aznavour. That would be up there. I get to that one a lot. I was in Paris and I had to walk down the Left Bank playing Charles Aznavour looking for Catherine Deneuve. I did see Catherine Deneuve. That’s not a lie. I was having dinner at Les Deux Magots and eating snails. When I travel, I’m a real tourist. I do everything the most tourist stuff you can do. I went to Les Deux Magots and ordered snails and the glass of white wine. I saw this beautiful little Japanese dog walk past. I love animals. What a pretty dog. I’m not lying. It was Catherine Deneuve at the end of the lead. That’s as Paris as you get. I went back to my hotel listening to Charles Aznavour just to complete the picture with that one. There’s nothing like it.
I think Slave to Love by Bryan Ferry would be up there. We have to have something heavy. There’s got to be something Metallica. I’m mostly a big heavy metal fan, heavy rock fan like Slipknot, Metallica. A band I signed, Bring Me the Horizon, they have a great lyric in one of their songs, Thrones, and it was, “Throw me to the wolves and I’ll come back as leader of the whole pack.” I’ve always quite like that one. That’s a line. I’ve got so many, it’s hard to be pinned down. I don’t ever intend on being deserted on an island, I’ll tell you that.
Sometimes I think it might be quite nice.
In Great Britain, we are on an island already and I’m not sure it’s doing us any good at the moment.
I’ll join you there. Your politics over there and our politics over here need a little bit of help right now. That deserted island looks very attractive at the time.
I have to say the Isle of Mull was wonderful. I think if anybody needed to get away, I can highly recommend the Isle of Mull, provided you got a good, thick jacket.
How has being a woman, in what has been up until now a very male-dominated business, helped or hindered you?
I think it’s done neither. I’m not insensitive. There’s some bad stuff that goes on. There’s some awful behavior. I think some of the bad boys, the badly-behaved men have realized they’re not going to get away with it anymore. I think there’ve been some great moves made, but when you say up until now it still is a male-dominated business. More often than not I’ll be in meetings or was in meetings and doing things where I’m the only woman in a room. That’s quite common. In terms of my sexist experience, I have one that always makes me laugh. I was in a roomful of money man, men in suits. Nothing wrong with men in suits. I love the city, but I was the only woman at this meeting and I was sitting with somebody from the corporation I was with and we were with a group of bankers and other people. He actually introduced me as, “This is Alexi. She’s the face of the company.” I turned around and said, “Yes and some people consider me the brains as well.”
He was embarrassed and he did apologize afterward. I think he felt bad for it because it shows how that came out and he didn’t mean it. It was habit. I don’t think it’s hindered me. I hope it hasn’t. I hope I’ve got where I got to and mistakes I’ve made and the successes I’ve had. I happened to be a woman as well. I am a great supporter. I support the younger girls. When I was at BMG, we wanted to get our moms back to work as quickly as we could and support them as much as we could. I’m a believer in flexible time, flexible hours. I think that’s the future. It has to be. It has to be part of your makeup as a business. How has it hindered me? I don’t know. I haven’t, as far as I’m aware, suffered because of it or benefited because of it.
Finally, what’s next for Alexi?
I intend to travel more. I intend to eat more good food. I try to get someone to support me to make my travel and eating program, which would be politics comes food and hotspots around the world. The would-be tea and talk with them. No one was going for that one. I think it’s carrying on. I enjoy business. I love the business of music and I like the music industry and I’m working on something at the moment. I can’t give you too much detail, but I want to have my own company. I want to work for myself and I am doing that now and I’m going to continue pursuing that path. From a professional point of view, watch that space. From a personal point of view, I’m good to continue traveling. I’m still looking for Mr. Cory-Smith. Looking is the wrong word, but that’s still something that at some point I ought to focus on. Onwards and upwards, really.
Thank you so much. I’ve loved talking to you. I wish you all the success in the world.
It’s been lovely and it’s been great fun. I’ve loved working with you in the past and I hope we get to do so again. Congratulations to you and Dani on what you’re doing. If you want to make a program about food and politics and hotspots of the world, I would love to help you with that.
Every idea is a good idea. We embrace them all.
I want to mention one band I noticed. Suddenly, it’s popped up. When you talk about ultimate things, The National and being able to resign them to BMG after they came to BMG through the deal with Berg was one of the greatest. That was one of the greatest honors of my life. You talk about being on your own on an island, The National’s album, Trouble Will Find Me, would be in the pocket.
Thank you so much.
About Alexi Cory-Smith
Lived in London all my life. From Holland Park, to Belgravia, to Hackney, and currently Westbourne Park.
Degree: University of London, Queen Mary College – read Law – graduated in 1988 (and in 1989 Soul to Soul came out – a huge music moment for me.).
I originally wanted to be a criminal lawyer, defending the innocent. My head of Law at Uni Prof Graham Zellick, a leading civil libertarian, made a huge impression on me and I wanted to go out in the world and fight the abuse of power and corruption. I still do.
In 1989 I met a musician, and his A&R man, and I decided I wanted to become a A&R at a record company. Innumerable letters and applications and interviews later, I got a job at IRS cleaning the toilets (aka being a PA). Stella at Handle placed me there (via an ad in the Evening Standard) and she remains a good friend and mentor to today.
7 years with IRS (and via EMI) later, I had been exposed to record labels, publishing, agency, management and touring and one of my bosses suggested I pursue something meaningful and train to become either an accountant or an entertainment lawyer.
In 1995 I left IRS and worked briefly for a sports promotions company – I adore big sporting events; all of it. Athletics, tennis, Football world cups and championship; rugby, anything to do with horses (polo and racing); the Olympics, the Paralympics, even golf – then moved on to working for a Jamaican entrepreneur who had bought a recording studio and label. Which took me to Jamaica – one of my favourite places in the world. The music, the food, the people, all of it. The enduring memory is giving or receiving directions in Kingston – everyone revolved around the location of Bob Marley’s house –
I started Law School to qualify as a lawyer in 1997. Two years of Law School, and (one of) the oldest in the class, followed by two years at a law firm in the City.
I qualified in 2001 and re-joined the music industry as a in House lawyer for uber cool good taste label Source Records, working for the inimitable and brilliant A&R Philipp Ascoli. Turin Brakes was the band at the time, and I remember my first Mercury’s, when they were nominated for their brilliant first album with Source. That job led to a transfer into Virgin EMI, and major frontline records.
Poached to join city law firm Theodore Goddard in 2004 I worked with the brilliant entertainment commercial team, which then split to join Simkins, until 2007 – Decided to quit my job, rented out my flat and moved to Argentina.
Returned to London in 2008 and about a week later I won the pitch to be the legal representative for the X Factor finalists, one of whom were jls. And two years later I got the year which included One Direction. Working with those young people, and with Richard and Harry at Modest! was a tremendous experience and I learnt a huge amount from them.
I had met Hartwig Masuch, CEO of BMG, in 2007, just before I left for Argentina, and we had kept in touch. In late 2010 he approached me about joining BMG, and I started in January 2011, as SVP of Corporate Development. Just before BMG’s acquisition of Chrysalis. A tough nine months were to follow.
So many highlights at BMG – signing artists and songwriters whom I had been a fan of for years – the Rolling Stones; The Prodigy and Liam Howlett; Lenny Kravitz; The National; Beth Ditto and Gossip; and younger artists like George Ezra, and Bring Me Horizon, and on and on. (We can talk around this time and defining songs).
I left BMG at the end of 2017.
2018 – I went travelling
2019 – started my next chapter – took control, working for myself and becoming entrepreneurial.