The year was 1990, and Billy Mann had just rented a walk-in closet in a house located in Bernal Heights. He was 22 and had nothing to lose. He’d been busking his away across the country and eventually found himself setting up shop in the quaint southern San Francisco neighborhood. “My life was scrounging around for change from the dresser. I had lived in my car for two years up to that point,” he recalls.
“I was a street busker everywhere. Just to get across America, I would go someplace, and if I liked it, I would park there for a minute, play in the local town square, and try to make enough to keep it moving until I got to the west coast,” Mann tells American Songwriter over a recent Zoom call. With its sprawling coastline and cultural spread, San Francisco seemed to offer everything he was looking for. “It’s an incredible city. It’s a very transient city, especially then. I took whatever job I could get─and keep.”
Mann took a job at a futon shop, but was “fired for sleeping on the job,” he laughs. While trying to make ends meet busking, often in Union Square, for example, he played music around such hot spots as Sweetwater Music Hall, located just outside the city in Mill Valley, and The Albion Room, frequently getting paid in free beer. When the student from which he rented the walk-in closet gave him an ultimatum, he “panicked,” Mann recalls, and headed down to Fisherman’s Wharf to try his luck.
“The first day I went out there, I’d made very little money. I was playing covers, the hits like ‘American Pie,’ ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ and ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’ It wasn’t working out, but I refused to go back to the house without the money. So, I slept out here. The next morning, I got a McDonald’s coffee and sat on a beach,” he offers. “There’s a long walking path in that area, which is very much a honeymoon spot. There was nobody out there. I saw a couple walking down and I talked to them.”
After hearing their love story, he offered to write them a song in under five minutes for a cool five bucks. With a songbook stuffed with legal pads and scraps of paper, he took notes, coming up with rhyming schemes on the spot, that he would later flesh out into a full-fledged song. He whipped out his acoustic guitar, played them the song, and they handed him a crisp twenty dollar bill.
“It was a very weird moment. I’ll never forget it. As soon as they walked away, I was very emotional. First of all, it was 20 bucks and more than what I had made the whole day before. Then, it occurred to me, a songwriter can make money if a songwriter can value their gifts. It seems so simple, but when the next couple came along, I offered the same proposition, and they said, ‘yeah!’ I did that all day along, and I did it the next day. I made more than the money I needed. It was the moment I realized I would be OK.
“If you’re lucky, you get those moments that validate you, and it’s just you in the moment,” he adds. “It’s not validation from an executive or some other false idol or Wizard of Oz. It’s just the music doing the heavy lifting.”
Another life-changing moment arrived, years later, when he was rehearsing in the stairwell of an old Manhattan apartment building. There, he expected to meet Grammy-winning record producer Ric Wake (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez). “Having gone from being escorted out of the lobby by the police to speaking to the chairman of the company to close a deal, it’s definitely progress,” he laughs, referencing a recently-announced joint venture with Warner Music Group/ADA for his new label icons+giants.
His songwriter/producer friend Gregg Wattenberg (Train, Goo Goo Dolls) had been living in Manhattan and offered to introduce him to Wake, with whom Wattenberg had ironed out a deal with Wake’s company. “We were all coming up and he had this apartment in this building in midtown that had a stairwell. There’s nothing like playing guitar around a bunch of natural reverb, and you can sing your heart out. My biggest takeaway from Ric was that he believed in me and took action. That can be the hardest thing to find. I don’t think in retrospect he was very elegant in the way he looked at artists and songwriters, but he was spectacular at identifying really great, young talent.”
Countless serendipitous events have lined Mann’s life, personally and professionally. It stands to reason, perhaps, a greater design could be at play. “I believe our attitude and work ethic contributes to how lucky we get. If we’re prepared for the opportunities when those opportunities show up, then we’re ready,” he reflects. “I don’t think everything is just ‘luck,’ but I do think being prepared for moments of luck matters.”
Since the very beginning, as a young boy living in Philadelphia’s intercity, Mann never thought twice about pursuing a career in music. “I didn’t have a plan b that allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin. I think it would make my grandmother happy, but it didn’t make me happy. To be comfortable inside myself, it was always music. The business side came much later as a direct result of the resilience I needed from my experience on the creative side.”
Throughout his teens, him and his friends had an “eclectic taste by virtue,” he says. “I just loved songs.” He consumed predominantly the sounds that had long come out ot of the local scene, bands like Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell, essential figures in the soul scene, as well as the work of Linda Creed. “I was always into the songwriters,” he says, adding an early adoration for The Who.
As young kids do, he played in bands. “Well, there’s ‘playing in bands,’ and playing in ‘real bands,’” he laughs. “The part that was the differentiator for my friends and me was we would play covers, but we always wrote songs. I always wanted to do original songs. Even when I was in the seventh grade, I would play with other kids and we’d put an original song mixed in with some of the other songs.”
“All those kids I played with are now major musicians,” he adds. One of those kids was Steve Wolf, prolific drummer who has worked with everyone under the sun, from Alicia Keys and Katy Perry to David Bowie and Avril Lavigne. “We all made each other better.”
From his early days opening for Sophie B. Hawkins and Sting to his present work as a worldwide mogul, Mann has never slowed down. His resume includes production/songwriting work with Backstreet Boys, Martina McBride, Jonas Brothers, and John Legend — and in his journey, he’s always made sure to bring others along for the ride whenever he can.
“It’s a very strange experience to be a solo artist or a solo songwriter. It’s a solitary expression. For someone who’s a writer of prose or poetry, I imagine it to be largely similar. You are in a temple of your own making ─ your own thoughts, melodies, and ideas. There’s enormous risk that’s woven into that on a day-to-day basis,” he muses. “There’s really two steps to our lives. Step one is to create. Step two is to be judged. And if you marry to that, when you’re talking about music, songs, and commerce, you’re talking about marrying two very different experiences: art and commerce. You take the thing that’s the most original and born from yourself and then you attach it to money and financial value. You couldn’t have more of a stark difference.”
“It really should be automatic for the creative community. It’s so hard to create. And if step two is to be judged, which it is, we need to be better first responders for one another. The access is so abundant now,” he continues. “The level of access to the technology and communities has proliferated in a way that no one could have anticipated. It’s so much more meaningful to be an evangelist for other artists and songwriters you love. It also shows you’re not threatened.”
While P!nk, one of the most ambitious pop stars of the 21st Century, was on the rise, Mann’s career was in a swift transition. He had produced a song for a nameless artist, allegedly one of the biggest on the planet at the time, but his production was stolen by another producer. Then, the record label came back and asked for him to continue working with the artist. Mann politely declined. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. His wife was pregnant with their second child, and truth be told, “it was a pretty big artist to say no to. I said it wasn’t about the moment. After I hung up, I had a total panic attack. This is the part where you create your luck. I said, ‘I’m not going to sit idle from this. I need to be proactive.’ The period of time I would have spent traveling to LA to work with that artist, I decided I would just get in some studios in LA and call everybody I knew and make things happen.”
“Because I was there in LA, I connected with Alecia through her manager Craig Logan, who’d been co-managing with Roger Davies at that time. We met at around 11 o’clock in the morning. Maybe it’s because we’re both from Philly and real direct straight-talkers but it was a couple hours later and we’d been drinking whiskey in the middle of the day. I loved her.”
P!nk’s 2001 record, M!ssundaztood, took the Philly native from zero to 180 in a blink of an eye. Hit singles “Get the Party Started,” “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” and “Just Like a Pill” set her on course for total world domination. What marked her sophomore effort was a fearlessness, a gumption to draw “a line in the sand with L.A. Reid,” offers Mann. Reid, then label head for Sony Music, expressed great reservations about releasing the music, but P!nk pushed back. “She wanted to make music that was who she was without compromise. 20 years ago, in the music industry, those conversations were not frequent with someone who was considered a ‘pop star.’ When she first shared music with the label, LA was not into it. I have a lot of respect for LA for being transparent about the fact that he wasn’t into it and then said, ‘But you’re the artist and you need to do it.’ Alecia gets the credit for having the courage to say, ‘I’m going to be me without apology.’ That’s who she is, and it’s very much the foundation for what it takes an artist to be successful.”
“I had had some success before working with her,” he adds. But it was “God is a DJ” and P!nk’s 2003 record, Try This, that took his own career to the next level. “I still think ‘God is a DJ’ is one of the best records I’ve ever been a part of. She made a video with drag queens, and it was very gender fluid. That was not of the times. She’s always been ahead of the curve.”
Inking a joint venture deal with Warner Music Group/ADA, Mann looks to the future with icons+giants, a label forged with Benton James. “I tend not to look at the music industry as a gaggle of awful people. I actually think it’s a lot of great people who listen to demos and want it to be the greatest song they’ve ever heard. I have found that the folks at Warner who I’ve worked with over the years have that spirit when they’ve done business on projects I’ve been involved with. They are rooting for the artists and are really looking to sign the artists who are committed.
Julie Greenwald, music executive and Chairwoman/COO of Atlantic Records, once asked him a very important question: Do you think if you cut the artist’s arm that they would bleed music? “I will love her eternally for asking that question,” he says. “It can’t be a scheme to get famous if you’re in it for the long haul. That’s been the conversation I’ve had throughout the whole organization. We want to invest in artists who are committed. We want to believe in them so much that we are willing to die on the hill to fight for their cause.”
Among artists and singer/songwriters Mann is most excited about these days, he lists names like Christian Medice (co-writer for lovelytheband’s “Broken” and P!nk’s “I Am Here”) and Supah Mario─who went from being a janitor in a mental institution to landing a producer credit on Drake’s “What’s Next” and signing a global publishing deal with Sony earlier this spring. Mann’s interest in music goes far beyond artists with whom he directly works, but speaks to his long-held fascination with and consumption of a wide variety of stories and styles. Always a finger on the pulse, his new endeavor will surely reap dividends.