A Phone Call from Matthew Santos

At 2:09pm on Friday, May 16th, I received a phone call from Matthew Santos. Not many people can say that they have had the chance to speak with Matthew over the phone, so I feel lucky to be one of the few college students that has done so. My friends Rikki and Alli have interviewed Matthew three times to date. Once at Columbia’s Backline: Battle of the Bands, and then two times on their live radio show at Columbia – Radio Graffiti – on WCRX 88.1 FM. Another friend, Jessica, interviewed Matthew for the Columbia Chronicle, where she is the A&E Editor. You may be wondering why all of these people who have spoken with Matthew Santos are from Columbia College (including me). Well, for those of you who don’t know, Matthew attended Columbia College from 2002-2004 and studied Music Composition. He left school to pursue his music career, and right about now, that is looking like a very good decision to have made. Read on to hear what Matthew had to say when I inquired about his perspective from being on the inside of the music industry…


Fueled By Ramen is under the Atlantic Records umbrella and completed their first 360 deal with Paramore, one of the most successful bands on FBR’s roster. As an independent artist now debating whether or not to sign with a major label, Atlantic, I asked Matthew what his thoughts were towards the 360 deal model that the majors are now imposing on new talent that they find?

Well, first of all, Matthew politely informed me that he is not signed to Atlantic Records, like most people think. He is signed to Lupe Fiasco’s indie label – 1st and 15th Entertainment – a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, the label to which Lupe is signed. 1st & 15th is distributed by Atlantic via WEA. Matthew currently has a production deal with Atlantic, but is still looking for a parent deal. He has two choices: either do everything independently or go with a major label. If he chooses the latter, there is more funding, obviously, which is a huge perk. Money is the key issue here folks. The labels have the financial support an indie artist would need to get nationwide and worldwide exposure. But with a major, that label is expecting the artist to recoup all of that advance money. To get the deal in the first place, an artist will most likely have to compromise their integrity. Matthew said that if a major approached him to sign a 360 deal today, or anytime in the future for that matter, he would “laugh in their face and flatly refuse.” Well, so would I. Labels already have 88% of an artist’s income. Santos would not want to let them have a had in his publishing or writing. Nor would he want them to take a part of his live performance fees. The labels would be taking a chunk of their artist’s publishing/writing/performing royalties if said artist had signed a 360 deal.

Do you believe you yourself or other up and coming artists really need a major record deal in order to make it in the music industry these days?

When it comes down to the bottom of it all, “labels hold the skeleton key,” Santos says, “they can get your face plastered everywhere possible.” If you take the naturally progressive route – going at it independently – it will be the longer road. Some artists have an urgent need to be big as soon as possible. For them, they might want to take the fast-paced route with a major. Santos said he is personally “stuck in the middle.” Like any artist, he wants his music out there now. So now he just has to figure out the best way to complete this task and has some very hard decisions to make.

Ingrid Michaelson started her own label and publishing company and owns her copyrights and has no intention of signing with a major. What prevented or is preventing you from going in that direction with the business side of your career?

“When you have your own publishing company, you may not see the benefits for 10-15 years,” says Santos, “you have to be business-minded when signing publishing deals.” Some publishing deals are for $1 million when you sign with a major label. Santos signed some of his publishing way to Lupe when he signed with 1st & 15th and is now somewhat regretting his decision to do so. That was before Superstar became the HUGE hit that it did. Santos says he had no idea how big the song Superstar was going to be when he collaborated on it with Lupe during the recording process. In a world where CD sales are declining every year by 25%, artists (especially those that are also writers) need as many forms of revenue streams as possible. Along with touring and merchandise, publishing and licensing are practically at the top of theses various income sources.

What made you decide to forgo finishing college and getting your degree in Music Composition? Do you ever think about going back to school?

If Santos needed a certificate or a BA to do what he is doing today, then maybe he would have stayed in school. That is not the case though. Matthew simply didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on tuition every year. Columbia College is a private school, so tuition well over $10,000/year. He took the courses he wanted and had no interest in taking the gen eds and completely unnecessary classes that the school requires every student to take.

Without taking private lessons, how do you improve your skills on guitar and piano while out on the road and holed up in recording studios?

“I play and play,” says Santos, “it’s all about discipline and your individual creative expression. If you worry about being a virtuoso, you will represent virtuosity.” Santos doesn’t worry about that. He is quite aware that there are thousands of better guitar players than him in this world. But he is also keen on the fact that nobody else on the planet writes his songs like him. There will only be one Matthew Santos and only he can write the songs he writes.

If you could choose any teacher to study under, who would it be and why?

To study piano, Santos chose Mozart – “a genius and a master of improvisation and chord progression.” I could not have chosen a better instructor myself. I LOVE Mozart. For voice, Bobby McFarrin and better yet, Ella Fitzgerald. And for guitar, Jimi (Hendrix, that is). Who wouldn’t?

Being a songwriter associated with ASCAP, what is your opinion on the recent U.S. District Court decision that $100 million in license fees is to be paid to ASCAP by AOL, RealNetworks (Rhapsody) and Yahoo! for their online performance of musical works?

Though Santos agrees that this is a big step for songwriters, he also says that we have to make sure the money is actually getting to the right people and paid out correctly to the publishers. Quite often, the money doesn’t get to the publishers like it should. Therefore, the publishers cannot get the royalties to their writers, whose hands the revenue should ultimately end up in. With this recent court ruling, Santos just hopes that the public doesn’t get charged and continues to get access to their favorite music.

What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned from mistakes you have made in your career in the music business so far?

“The lesson of compromise,” says Santos, “you have to find a balance.” He says the industry is a game and playing by the rules is sometimes the only way to survive and win. Santos is still in shock from being on BET, the Billboard Top 10, and touring with Kanye. Though not where he wants to be, Santos is grouped in with pop/mainstream artists. He has lost credibility for being associated with rap artists like Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West.

What are some of the lifelong lessons you have learned from your former Music Composition teachers at Columbia College?

Santos actually didn’t learn the lifelong lessons from his Music Composition teachers, but from his Humanities teacher – William (Bill) Hayashi. Santos was at Columbia for his freshman and sophomore years. Just 18 and 19 years old. He took a Mythical Consciousness class with Hayashi and loved it so much that he signed up for another course taught by Hayashi called Philosophy of Love. Both of these courses taught him to be more confident and gave him a profound sense of self-empowerment.

What are some of the important lessons you have learned from Lupe Fiasco and other music professionals with more experience in the biz?

“That it is important to take care of family and the people who take care of you,” says Santos, “and that means your touring family as well.” Another very important lesson Santos has learned is to “watch what you say in public.” You would think that all of those in the public eye would have come to the realization that reporters twist a story to get more readers and higher ratings. But looking at today’s tabloids, it seems like not all artists have learned this lesson. FYI: I am NOT one of those reporters. I am not out to “get” the artists I talk with, I request interviews for the purpose of promoting the music I love and more specifically, the people who make it. Santos says that every artist learns to “bite the bullet” and make sacrifices in their career. Lupe Fiasco, for example, could be raking in the millions if he was headlining his own tour playing at smaller club-sized venues like he was before jumping on Kanye’s Glow in the Dark Tour. But to Lupe’s credit, he took a pay cut (so-to-speak) to join Kanye’s current tour as an opening act so that he could give as much exposure as possible to his artists on 1st & 15th, one of which is Matthew Santos.

Did you take any Music Business courses while at Columbia? If so, which ones did you get the most out of? If not, what do you wish you could have learned while still in school?

Although he didn’t take any Music Business courses while in college, he will say that he wishes he would have learned more about publishing, and that taking a couple of publishing courses would have been very helpful. FYI: I just completed Music Licensing and Music Publishing courses at Columbia and my brain is on information overload. But Santos has no regrets because he knows that all the information and resources were available for him while in school. He simply chose not to take those courses. Since leaving school, Santos has read two books on the business and is now quite informed on the vital role that publishing plays in the life and career of a songwriter. Once out of school, there was a grace period of about two years before Santos signed his first recording contact. The only person in his life at the time who worked in the music business was his lawyer who “tried” to school him on the industry. Unfortunately, Santos gave away a large percentage of his publishing and is not comfortable with his current contract, the first one he signed. Take note future songwriters/artists: PAY ATTENTION!!

What are your thoughts on having your recorded live performances downloaded for free by your fans?

To my surprise, Santos is already trying to do this on his own website. He believes that music belongs to the public (not legally of course) once released and available to the public. He is currently trying to start his own company to have his live performances recorded and accessible, via his website, to his fans to downloaded for free. Now this is an artist who truly understands how to keep a relationship with his fans stronger than ever.

What are your thoughts about these online music companies that let users download artists’ live recordings for free?

Santos says that it all depends on what stage you’re at as a musician and I couldn’t agree more. Personally, Santos says he would do it right now – give away his music for free, that is. If an artist generates millions and millions of downloads, they are probably going to want the money from that revenue stream that is rightfully theirs. But if an artist is independent and struggling to get heard, than giving out their music and receiving no compensation for their work might be okay with them. Artists at this grassroots stage will most likely be willing to get their music out to the public and their fans by any means possible. And that might mean not getting paid for their work. I asked Santos how he felt about Napster’s business model of unlimited music downloads for a subscription fee of just $10/month. Just as I suspected, he said he didn’t like Napster’s idea and company (neither do I, hence I don’t use Napster and never will). “Other people should not be giving your music away for you,” says Santos, “the music should only be given away from the artist who created it.”

I will leave you with that last statement because I truly believe that this concept can help save the future of the music industry. Just look at what Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have accomplished so far. I am blown away by Reznor’s ideas and business-savvy moves. I would give anything to sit down with him and pick his brain about surviving in the music industry today.

Matthew Santos will be performing at Martyrs’ on Thursday, May 22nd at 8pm. Tickets are $15adv/$17door and are available through musictoday.com or (800) 594-TIXX. He will be headlining the Martyrs’ show and I will for sure be there – you should too! Santos is also performing with Lupe Fiasco on the Glow in the Dark Tour this Friday and Saturday, May 23rd and May 24th, at the United Center. I will ALSO be checking out Santos on the first night – Friday – with Kanye.


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  1. Vilmarie R says:

    Great interview and extremely insightful. It was interesting to read how honest and upfront he seemed to be regarding the music business. I agree as well that songwriters need to take note of what Matthew and other songwriters have experienced. Great job! Kudos

  2. Alli says:

    way to go jen. nice interview. very insightful about matthew.

    all of you who are interested, there’s a video or two of Matthew performing on my radio show, Radio Graffiti, if you search for him and WCRX on youtube.com

    add us as myspace friends too and you can see all sorts of videos of artists we’ve had on the show.

  3. nikki says:

    Nice Job Jen

    I think it was good to discuess busness decisions and not just the music itself.

    I am also glad that you addressed the school vs work issue many artist at Columbia face

  4. Caitlin says:

    I love how straightforward he was, and the lessons that teachers can impart on their students.

  5. david b. says:

    hey fur that is totally awesome to receive a phone call from a musician and get to do an interview not to mention one as good as that. Is this your first interview? If so great job and it can only go up from here. By the way i am kinda of a fan of free music so good for Santos

  6. Katie says:

    I loved this interview because it was in your face and he was totally honest and straightforward. Not a lot of interviews are like that.

  7. Sarah says:

    Great interview. I agree with alot of what he said, especially about free music. It’s good to see that he has an idea of how to handle his business, unlike some artists that DO sign with a major record company and have no idea that they are getting themselves into.

  8. Claire says:

    Wow! It sounds like Matthew Santos has a good head on his shoulders. I hope he really finds a way to make it big like he wants to~he deserves it.

  9. rikki says:

    Nice interview! really got me pumped for tonight’s show.

    also thanks for the shout out

  10. Kate says:

    a truly genuine guy!

  11. Ashley says:

    I’m a huge fan of Matthew’s work and I’m excited that he’s come so far in his career!

    Great questions!


  1. […] That, and the fact that his own music (w/o Lupe) is amazing, is what makes me a huge Matthew Santos fan.  Need more information on Matthew? Read the interview I had with Matthew here. […]

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