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HEARTS, MINDS AND SONGS: NASHVILLE PUBLISHERS ADDRESS CHANGING TIMES

By Simon Glickman

Faced with huge societal challenges and recognizing the need for systemic change, how are Nashville songwriters and publishers responding? We asked the Music City heads of the three major pubcos to weigh in.

“Most importantly, we are having honest, empathetic conversations like never before,” relates UMPG’s Troy Tomlinson, sounding a recurrent theme. “On multiple levels, we have learned from what we have lost. Every single one of us has a desperate need for one another. We are emotional creatures and we yearn for healthy relationships. Coming face to face with disease, whether medical or cultural, while in isolation has reminded us of that fact in a painful but hopeful way.”

Such talks were widespread. “Across Warner Chappell Music,” reports Ben Vaughn, “Guy Moot and Carianne Marshall brought everyone together for an open discussion on racial injustice and gave people a safe space to ask tough questions, speak freely, and share their feelings, experiences, and ideas on how we can effect lasting social change in and outside our offices. It was raw and honest, and probably one of the most important conversations that a company can have. There was new perspective and a heightened awareness that I think has sparked new determination and hope.”

“I think as the walls are coming down to talk about these things publicly,” adds Sony/ATV’s Rusty Gaston, “songwriters are becoming more confident in expressing or writing about these things. Now that it is on the forefront of conversation, I think we’re going to start seeing it in songs.” Gaston is effusive in his praise of the approach taken by the pubco’s boss. “I’m so proud to be involved with Sony and the way that Jon Platt has championed inclusion and openness,” Gaston says. “He’s morphing this company as a whole, making sure that every voice is heard and represented. I just can’t say enough about how great his leadership has been through this.”

Tomlinson confirms the response from songwriters. After an initial period of more subjectively emotional material, he reports “an increase in songs that are hopeful, encouraging and aspirational.” Vaughn points to songs like Thomas Rhett’s “Be a Light” (co-written with Matt Dragstrem, Josh Miller and Josh Thompson) as an example of “how music can carry a bigger message,” especially as its proceeds benefit MusiCaresCOVID-19 Relief Fund. “The strongest voices are going to address what we’re feeling most strongly,” agrees Gaston, who also points to “Be a Light” as well as Kane Brown’s “Worldwide Beautiful” (co-penned with Shy Carter, Ryan Hurd and Jordan Schmidt) as songs that provide uplift amid our myriad crises.

Vaughn expresses his admiration for the power of emerging artist/writer Mickey Guyton. “She’s leading the way with her natural gift for songwriting and commanding singing voice,” he says. “Songs like ‘What Are You Gonna Tell Her’ [co-penned by Guyton, Karen Kosowski and Victoria Banks] and ‘Black Like Me’ [which she wrote with Nathan Chapman, Fraser Churchill and Emma Davidson Dillon] give you a view into what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes; they force you to pause and really take in the lyrics. As her publisher and friend, I literally remember exactly where I was when she sent those songs, and I got to hear them for the first time. Her words stay with you.”


“I’ve been absolutely knocked flat out by a songwriter named Zachary Kale,” notes Gaston. “He just celebrated his first #1 with ‘I Hope’ by Gabby Barrett. Now it’s crossing over to pop. Zachary actually co-produced the entire Gabby Barrett record. He’s also in a brand-new duo called YA’BOYZ with another SATV writer, Joe Ragosta, and it looks like a major-label deal is on the horizon. He’s making some of the most genre-bending, hit-oriented, heartfelt, amazing music out there. I’m telling you, write this guy’s name down—you’re going to hear it for years to come.”

Tomlinson underscores the incredible wealth of female songwriters at present as well. “Whether it’s Maren Morris, Taylor Swift, Caitlyn Smith, Caylee Hammack, Ingrid Andress or Natalie Hemby, they are all great artists and songwriters who have the ability to tell authentic, relatable stories.”

Gaston emphasizes the breadth and range of the tunesmiths in town. “Creatively, I think Nashville is as healthy as it’s ever been—across the board and in multiple genres. I think more than ever, the fact that we are Music City is prevalent today. It’s not called Country Music City. You’re seeing so many genres—rock, pop, hip-hop, country—all coming out of Nashville. It’s refreshing to see; all of that stuff is combining and crossing.”

Asked about the possibility of systemic change in the biz, Tomlinson is reflective. “It starts within me; it starts within you,” he says, crediting the supportive and open tone set by chief Jody Gerson. “Systems follow our lead. We lead when we listen with an open mind and empathetic heart. We lead when we listen to things that make us uncomfortable. Only then will we be able to see clearly what must be done to achieve the equality we desire.”

 

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