When, on September 23, Shannan Hatch, creative services of SESAC's vice president, announced her departure to become president of Fourward Music, she completed an unprecedented trio of copyright organizations in Nashville.
All three professionals – SESAC, ASCAP and BMI – have lost their top copywriting / publishing executives since early summer, creating turnover in one of the city's major music industry segments. Staff changes create some challenges for the agencies, with six weeks to go before the Nashville high-level composer award, held November 10-12, ahead of the November 13 Country Music Association Awards. But job changes also signal that publishing business is recovering after a long period of contraction:
• Hatch is actively seeking Fourward's Nashville offices, which are expected to hire staff and announce their initial writers in the coming weeks.
• Former ASCAP Nashville vice president Michael Martin was announced as president of the new Endurance Music Group earlier this month. The company already has two employees and a list of four writers, including Clint Lagerberg ("Blue is not your color") and Scooter Carusoe ("Drunk Girl").
• IMC Nashville VMI creative Jody Williams has unveiled plans this month to step down at the end of the year and form a new publisher. Williams hopes to found a joint venture with a large company to be determined once he has completed his 13-year term at IMC.
All three activities represent investments in the copyright business, now on the rise following the transition to digital publishing devastated by digital distribution. The loss of album tracks destroyed mechanical royalties, reducing the number of composers in the city. Remaining composers increasingly saw revenue from streaming platforms, where micropayments demoralized many in the creative industry.
But the approval of the 2018 Music Modernization Act has set new rules that improve streaming rates, while increases in other revenue sources – including sync licensing, commercial use and games – have led to brighter expectations. For Nashville, intensified collaboration with other formats provides an additional reason for optimism, and PROs are a logical place for publishing investors to find executive talent.
"We know the weather, we know everyone in the business and have a good Rolodex," says Williams.
Publishing music is a complicated undertaking. Most songs are never recorded, and those that hit the market usually don't start paying royalties for 2 to 4 years, given the late recording of the song, promoting it and awaiting quarterly royalty payments.
Plus, it's hard to hoe thousands of hopeful Nashville songwriters to find the best bets for success in a subjective business. Thus, editors have the task of balancing patience and motivation in their teams, creating what Martin calls the "culture of creative hope."
"When someone knows you trust them, they don't walk away, they approach you," he says. "I think this is the mystique of managing creative people. Once you develop trust with each other, it's like a coach and an athlete. It creates incredible friendship and relationship."
Each PRO works with most publishers from multiple publishers, so the November awards season focuses on agency relationships in Nashville. All three executives were sensitive to these relationships when planning their transitions. Hatch and Williams timed their matches to facilitate the awards process, and Martin – who was succeeded by Mike Sistad, a member of ASCAP Nashville vice president – recently celebrated with his former colleagues when ASCAP held its Christian honors.
"After 17 years in a company, it's part of my family," says Hatch about his experience at SESAC. "My relationships over there will remain intact for a long time, and I'm happy with that. So I'm leaving them on a very good note, with a very strong system and great people in place. There is comfort in that."
There is excitement ahead as well. A recent Goldman Sachs study predicted that the music business will rise from $ 62 billion in 2017 to $ 131 billion by 2030. Publishing revenue is likely to increase from $ 6 billion a year to $ 12.5 billion, which means it's a win-win moment for new players.
Williams and Martin, who were publishing executives prior to their PRO experience, are returning with experienced publishing partners. Hatch, who received an overview of publications at SESAC after starting her public relations career, was attracted to Fourward by Will Ward, who previously ran Zac Brown. Fourward has its fingers in a variety of entertainment pots, including pop music, movies, TV and even a fitness app. With the publication looking for a more stable future, this kind of synergy has intrigued Hatch.
"It's not Wild, Wild West as it used to be," she says. "There are so many great opportunities going forward."
The digital transition that decimated the publication also provided new tools. Publishers and managers now have the ability to serve as independent labels – to finance recordings and persuade satellite streaming and playback for their customers. Because PROs are often the first place new writers and artists go when they get to Nashville, writer-editor relations executives are perfectly suited to launching the new Nashville publishers, developing the most promising new creators, and connecting them to the top means of exposure.
"My team identified talent from the start, before everyone knows it," says Martin. "That's exactly what we do."
As they move into the next phase of their careers, the three professionals from ASCAP, SESAC and IMC have the opportunity to expand this skill by jumping into their new publishing positions.
"The weather is better than just a few years ago," says Williams. "If you were to do that, now would be the time."