How did Music City pubberies fare during lockdown? What new approaches to collaboration were opened up by our Year of Zooming? What lies ahead? We invited some key players in the space to join us in a virtual bourbon and give us the lowdown. 

Sony Music Publishing
“Working virtually over the last year has provided us with many new opportunities for collaboration,” reflects SMP Nashville CEO Rusty Gaston, “and it also enabled us to create new ways for us to engage with our songwriters and staff.” The pubco’s 2021 Kick-Off Week virtual event was a smorgasbord of information, resources and support for songwriters, including guest A&R execs who furnished specific goals, and revealing conversations with artists like Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan and Garth Brooks. All these talks, Gaston emphasizes, “were geared toward fueling our songwriters for the year ahead and making them feel engaged.”

This strange and unprecedented period, he adds, produced some extraordinary moments. Gaston says he was particularly energized by the phenomenal crossover success of new signing Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” which was co-penned by fellow SMP tunesmiths Zachary Kale (another new signing) and Jon Nite and co-produced by Kale and Sony veteran Ross Copperman. 

Another huge inking, of course, was Kane Brown, who launched the JV Verse 2 Music with the pubco. Sony’s subsequent purchase of River House Artists and JV go-forward preceded Luke Combs’ #1 monster “Forever After All.”

Gaston is effusive in praise of his team, and gives particular credit to Dane Schmidt (newly upped to Senior Creative Director) in the success of Zachary Kale and the signing of Gabby Barrett. Publishing veteran Dale Bobo, meanwhile, came aboard in the freshly minted role of Catalog Strategist, while Kenley Flynn was tapped as Senior Creative Director.

Warner Chappell Music
Ben Vaughn and team Zoomed to ever-greater heights during lockdown, scoring ASCAP Country Music Publisher of the Year honors for the eighth consecutive year and their third straight BMI Publisher of the Year. Superstars like Dan + Shay (third straight Grammy for Country Duo/Group Performance, third consecutive ACM for Duo), Chris Stapleton (ACM Album of the Year) and Thomas Rhett (ACM Male Artist) claimed mondo hardware. Breakout Mickey Guyton became the first Black solo female artist to earn a Grammy nom in a country category (for the amazing “Black Like Me,” which she co-wrote at an all-genre WCM writing camp with Fraser Churchill, Emma Davidson Dillon and Nathan Chapman). Rookies Parker McCollum and Niko Moon scored their first #1 singles, as well as Music Row’s Breakout of the Year and 200m+ streams, respectively. 

In addition to Rhett, WCM’s recent Nashville inkings include Priscilla Block, Willie Jones and Boys Like Girls writer/producer/frontman Martin Johnson. Vaughn and company also cheered the major-label deals secured by writers Kat & Alex (Sony) and Ben Burgess (Big Loud).

WCM’s virtual writing camp, Vaughn relates, presented new possibilities to tunesmiths who couldn’t yet gather in a physical space with their guitars. “Everyone in the [virtual] room was so open to new ideas and new sounds,” he insists. “The energy was tangible.” Indeed, Johnson’s collab with Lady A, “Like a Lady,” was a byproduct of that confab and is the lead single on the band’s new album. 

“Our songwriters are really creative, and it doesn’t surprise me that they found ways to continue making new music despite the quarantine,” Vaughn adds. “Whether it was joining a virtual camp or sharing voice memos back and forth over text, they did everything they could to continue doing what they love. It’s never been easier to bring together different voices that location or distance might have made impossible before.” 

“I’ve been blown away at how our entire roster and team never missed a beat, but rather excelled during such a stressful time,” says Troy Tomlinson. “That gave us a year of substantial growth across every key measurement.”

Still, he allows, “Like everything else this past 15 months, there have been good and not-so-good outcomes. It has opened up so many doors for multi-genre writers and has provided many more opportunities without having to travel. However, it was lacking some of the camaraderie, vibe and emotion of face-to-face songwriting.”

Such an absence was in part compensated by a great deal of winning. Let’s start with Uni’s trove of awards. Grammys were presented to Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Taylor Swift (the latter taking Album of the Year, becoming the first female artist to win thrice in that category); at the CMAs, Maren Morris took home Female Vocalist, Luke Combs won Male and Brad Tursi of Old Dominion shared a Vocal Group statuette; Tursi also took an ASCAP Song of the Year Award for “One Man Band.” Carlile, Hemby, Morris and Amanda ShiresHighwomen project also claimed Americana Awards for Album, Song and Group of the Year.

Grammy nominee Ingrid Andress and “More Hearts Than Mine” (co-penned with Sam Ellis and Derrick Sutherland) scored an array of laurels. Among these: Music Row Breakthrough Aritst, Artist-Writer and Song of the Year, not to mention Song of the Year at the Nashville Songwriter Awards. Andress’ Lady Like was named the all-time top-streaming debut album by a Country female.

Hitmaker signings included Luke Combs, Kenny Chesney, Carlile, Scotty McCreery, Caitlyn Smith and Dave Cobb, among others. Meanwhile, numerous writers secured label deals, notably Catie Offerman (UMG), Ian Munsick (Warner), Laci Kaye Booth (BMLG), Dan Smalley (BBR), Hemby (Fantasy) and Ray Fulcher (BRE).

Tomlinson also hails a new “rock star” on his creative team, Director of A&R Roxy King.


Big Machine Music
“Working virtually influenced co-writing at the two extremes,” reflects Big Machine Music GM Mike Molinar of the pandemic’s impact on co-writes. “Some writers were more willing to collaborate out of genre and across time zones with L.A., London or Australia, while others stayed very close to their core co-writers. It was very difficult to introduce a writer to a new camp or tribe of writers, which stunted the growth of new or mid-level songwriters.”

The complexities of COVID times notwithstanding, Molinar is naturally thrilled about being named Publisher of the Year at the AIMP Nashville Awards. He also points to a banner, breakout year for writer Ryan Hurd; CMA, ACM and BMI Pop Song of the Year honors for mega-smash “The Bones;” and three #1 songs to kick off 2021 (Luke Combs’ “Better Together” and Forever After All” and Brett Young’s “Lady”). Other big cuts inlcude Luke Bryan’s “Waves,” co-written by Hurd; Lainey Wilson’s “Things a Man Oughta Know,” co-penned by Jonathan Singleton; “It’s Cause I Am,” co-written by Callista Clark and Laura Veltz, and performed by Clark; Michael Ray’s “Whiskey & the Rain,” co-written by Josh Thompson; and Young’s “Not Yet.” Hurd and Veltz also co-penned “What a Song Can Do,” the title track on Lady A’s album.

New signing Sara Davis—a young pop writer—is among the other highlights of Molinar’s year, which also saw a TikTok breakout for aritst/writer Lauren Weintraub and song “She’s Mine.”

Of “The Bones,” Molinar notes that its sustained growth at radio had “an unusual pattern,” moving from Hot AC to Country to Pop and back to Hot and AC, and that it “took on new and different menaings as the lockdown progressed,” with its trenchant metaphor likening relationships to domiciles. This was particularly resonant for Molinar, who welcomed a second child, Ellis, in September. “The experience,” he says, “helped us keep things in perspective.”

Zoom sessions “made writing a lot less personal and more business,” confides Shane McAnally. “Without all the small talk and going to lunches, the songs got written much faster, and surprisingly the quality didn’t drop off. I’ve been excited to get back into the room with people so you can feel that energy when you’re creating something. For me that’s always going to be preferred but now we know Zoom is an option. If I want to work with somebody in another city, it no longer requires a day of travel. I can jump on a Zoom for a few hours and get a great song.”

SMACK racked up a passel of #1s during the shutdown, including several co-penned by McAnally and Josh Osborne (the Blake Shelton-Gwen Stefani duet “Nobody but You,” Sam Hunt’s “Hard to Forget” and Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers”); McAnally co-wrote Lady A’s “Champagne Night” and Osborne had a hand in chart toppers from Hunt (“Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s”), Darius Rucker (“Beers and Sunshine”) and Blake-Gwen (“Happy Anywhere”). Canadian #1s came from writers Emily Falvey and Matt McGinn (Mackenzie Porter’s “Seeing Other People”) and Nicolette Hayford (Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standards”). Writer Lalo Guzman also joined the pubco’s roster.

“I was blown away by the production in this team,” marvels McAnally. It was actually the biggest year we’ve had from a cuts-and-releases standpoint. It’s a testament to our staff and the type of writers we’ve signed here, because last year it would’ve been easy to kick back and not do as much.”

Team Scrip is amped about the buzz on troubadour Joy Oladokun, notably a big This Is Us sync for “breathe again” ( co-written by Prescription writer James Droll; this was followed by big Fallon, Today and Colbert looks and love from Hulu, Amazon Music, YouTube, Spotify RADAR and GAYTIMES, among others. Meanwhile, tunesmith Nick Bailey co-wrote the Demi Lovato/ Marshmello single, “It’s OK not to be OK”; Producer/writer Sean Small earned multiple upcoming placements on Keith Urban’s album; and there was mondo Super Bowl/ESPN action for writers Tim Gent and Bryant Taylorr with producer Jon Santana. Office-wise, A&R veteran Chris Martignago joined the pubbery from Atlantic

“The best part of the pandemic is that we collaborated more than ever internationally,” notes Katie Mitzell Fagan, Head of A&R, Nashville. “We partnered with Budde Publishing in Berlin and did an entire virtual writing camp and invited multiple major-label A&Rs from both the U.S. and Germany to weigh in. We caught up with our international friends more than ever before because all of us were in the exact same boat and wanted to keep the train on the tracks.” Greater efficiency was one result—to be expected when the Germans are involved. 

At the same time, she says, “Quarantine forced many writers out of their normal comfort zone and pushed them to master skills that they likely already had in them,” including learning to produce demos (and finding the courage to sing on them).


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on a Saturday night
Lamborginis and caviar Dry martinis, Shangri-La

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