Music City Pubcos
If Music City was built on a song, then the music publishers are the master carpenters. Not just pitching the songs, but signing and developing the writers into hit makers, artists and occasionally superstars. Like everything else in Nashville, the publishing community is a collection of snowflakes—ranging from multinational corporations with longstanding history to brand new companies taking hold and maverick indies working with writers closer to the street.

As Troy Tomlinson, President/CEO of Sony/ATV Nashville, says of the creative community here, “Once the world heard the songs coming out of Nashville, songwriters began to come here to be with other songwriters and soon a community was born.”

Tomlinson should know. Before Sony/ATV bought Opryland Music—which was originally Acuff Rose—he signed a kid named Kenny Chesney to the publishing company where Hank Williams Sr. was a writer. No one thought too much about the kid from East Tennessee who wanted to have lunch with Whitey Shaffer, Dean Dillon and the like. And that’s how it works in Nashville.

“We are intentionally involved in our writers’ lives, walking beside them on whatever journey they are pursuing. We don't sign them and just ‘hope for the best.’ We want to deliver for them, to see them develop. To do that, we must be engaged in their daily lives.”

Tomlinson was right about the kid who went on to write several #1s for himself, as well as Rascal Flatts’ multiple week #1 “Take Me There.” And his eye for talent development—both Taylor Swift and Lee Ann Womack were signed to Sony/ATV as songwriters with an eye on a record deal—is unerring.

Still for every writer who becomes an artist and cuts their own songs, Tomlinson feels Sony/ATV—the only publisher to win ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and the bible’s Publisher of the Year in the same year—is really about fundamentals. Laughing, he says, “The majority of our songs get cut the old-fashioned way: by pitching. Yes, our writer/artists cut their own songs, and our writers write with artists, but the majority still comes from taking great songs to great artists who love them, and they want to record them. That’s the backbone of what we do.”

For BMG Nashville’s Kos Weaver, it’s about blending the timeless with the new. “I cut my teeth as an old-school Nashville publisher,” he says, “but I’m learning a lot of new things.” He cites the company’s artist-services division as an example of BMG’s forward-looking sensibility. “It’s an entrepreneurial music company with a fantastic spirit and writer and artist services at its core,” he points out, under scoring the superior transparency, communication and global collaboration that he feels set the pubco apart.

He’s quick to credit BMG leaders Hartwig Masuch and Laurent Hubert and staff in Nashville and around the globe, including Bertelsmann overlord Thomas Rabe, whom he calls a passionate music fan. With writers such as busbee (P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Hunter Hayes) and Hillary Lindsey (Shakira, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride) as well as promising artist-services signings such as Spanish Gold and Danny Gokey, Weaver enthuses, “This is an inspiring place to be.”

Ben Vaughan, EVP of Warner/Chappell, is about the pieces as well. But for the longtime EMI Publishing exec, diversity is key. Having just inked a co-venture deal with rock/occasional country producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Amos Lee, Hale Storm, Kelly Clarkson), he also has hard-country writer/artist Chris Stapleton, Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose, pop-leaning Bretty James and newcomer Nicole Galyon, who just co-wrote Miranda Lambert’s #1 “Automatic.”

“Andwe have artists, ranging from Brantley Gilbert, who just had a #1 Country Album debut, to Oscar nominee Allison Moorer; Dan & Shay, who are starting to blowup, and Kacey Musgraves, who defines songwriter/artist.”

Here’s part of Nashville’s advantage, as the man running ASCAP’s 2013 Publisher of theYear sees it: “We are a close community—we know what projects, which producers, the label priorities, who the agents are. We consider all that through what songs fit—and it allows us to be creative with our writers on all levels of their careers. No day is the same. One day we’re helping someone get a record deal or sending them to a manager, another day it’s looking at Brett James’ catalog and figuring out the best way to help him stay positioned and fresh.

“That’sthe good news, to work like that. And my staff is diverse, too, with all kinds of tastes, so whatever we sign, there are people to develop it, lots of opinions to make us a well-rounded team. In my opinion, lots of opinions make you stronger, open up avenues you’d might not have thought of for placing songs. That’s what makes what I do so cool.”

That buoyancy is evident in publishing veteran Dale Bobo’s new venture, Big Deal Music. With a home in Nashville’s legendary Studio A Building—recently the object of controversy over a developer who was going to tear it down—Bobo believes in the history but is looking to younger writers to pave a future.

Co-publishing Brett Beavers, who co-writes with Dierks Bentley, as well as producing breaking acts Dustin Lynch and Canaan Smith, plus Old Dominion guitarist Brad Tursi and Eric Church guitarist Driver Williams, Bobo has got the maverick thing covered. Add in classicist Tim James (hits for George Strait, Lee Brice and Toby Keith) and Christian producer/writer/guitarist Pete Stewart, and it’s apparent that Bobo knows how to mix things up. And it’s working

“Our first year in business, we’ve had songs recorded by Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, two Jason Aldeans, Tyler Farr, The Swon Brothers, Gloriana and more,” he says with the practiced hand of a veteran. Now we’re waiting for the cuts to actually stay on the projects and be released. We do a fair amount of finger-crossing every day, but that’s part of it. And with a roster like this and a creative team that includes Pete Robinson and Greg Gallo, you know it’s a matter of time, not if. That’s the thing about publishing—getting the right pieces together.”

Patrick Clifford, Disney Music Nashville’s VP of Music Publishing and A&R, describes his company as “an independent-minded, boutique creative force” even as he connects artists and writers with film, TV and other opportunities within the mighty Disney machine. For Clifford, it’s all about the old-school imperative of bringing great artists into the fold, even as the technological trappings of the biz change rapidly.

With signings like Lucy Hale (who’s inked to the new DMG Nashville label), James Slater, Jess Cates and Bobby Huff under his purview, the industry vet, who just celebrated his one-year anniversary at DMG, is clearly energized by the vibrancy and creativity of Nashville—and what he calls the “Rolls Royce company” built by Disney Music’s Ken Bunt and Mio Vukovic. “The last time I felt this exhilarated was working for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss at A&M,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for music in general, and country is on fire.”

For Frank Liddell, who got his start 25 years ago at Bluewater Music pitching Grammy winner Jim Lauderdale’s traditional if quirky country and has produced the Country Music Association’s Album of the Year three times, it’s the old-school independent publisher route. Smaller overhead, fewer staff and songwriters who’re creative and finding very unique voices, including Natalie Hemby, Bruce Robison and Scooter Carusoe.
“If you look at the majors as Walmart: big and a lot of everything, you realize you better have something they don’t—or you’re gonna get killed,” says Liddell, fresh from producing Miranda Lambert’s #1 Country Album Platinum, as well as the new one from David Nail and Lee Ann Womack’s upcoming The Way I’m Livin’. “Every writer we’ve ever had is a singer/songwriter. They’re not just looking for cuts, but are looking to express themselves—and I think it makes a difference. I think my writers’ work is reflective of themselves, their pain, their art, their joy. They need to be great songwriters, but I think in our case, it’s not the form, but the heart that makes our songs stand out.”

As an indie, the shrinking financial picture is a concern, as he acknowledges. “Webuilt this company on album cuts, which sustained us—that song that isn’t a single but everyone always remembers it—with a few singles trickling in. Now that is shrinking, but I don’t just wanna machine ‘hits’; I still want to maintain the integrity of songs like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s ‘Angry All the Time,’ the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Travelin’ Soldier,’ Kenny Chesney’s ‘Anything but Mine’ and ‘Better as a Memory.’ I think we can—and will—and new things present themselves.”
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