Brad Paisley owes a big piece of his bank account to the vision of Victor Herbert.
Herbert was a symphony conductor who lobbied Congress to have the copyright laws strengthened in 1909, only to wander into a restaurant and hear one of his songs being performed on a player-piano. He thought he should be paid for the use of his creation, and the Supreme Court eventually agreed.
Herbert rallied several of his songwriting contemporaries -- including John Phillip Sousa (“The Stars And Stripes Forever”), Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) and Otto Harbach (“Indian Love Call”) -- and they met at a hotel in New York’s Times Square on Feb. 13, 1914. They decided to form an organization -- the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) -- which would collect and distribute royalties on their behalf.
The agency was the first performance rights organization, and it significantly transformed songwriting into a business. Stephen Foster, after writing some of the greatest songs of the 19th century, had tragically died destitute, unable to collect revenues while large publishing companies printed his songs on sheet music and sold them for a hefty profit. Thanks to ASCAP and other PROs -- including American rivals BMI and SESAC -- songwriters such as Paisley and fellow ASCAP members Josh Kear (“Need You Now”) and Ashley Gorley (“That’s My Kind Of Night”) can now count on earnings for the use of their songs in restaurants, on the radio, on television and in live venues.
As ASCAP marks its centennial this week, the Billboard Country Update sat down with ASCAP Nashville membership co-heads Michael Martin and LeAnn Phelan in a showcase room that was once the office for SVP Connie Bradley, who ran the branch for roughly three decades.
Regular viewers of ABC’s “Nashville” might also recognize it as the room where Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus held a fictitious co-writing session with one of the series’ characters. Writing at ASCAP’s Nashville post has become a regular occurence -- J.T. Harding (“Alone With You”) was in the midst of a session during the BCU visit.
At this point [songwriters] generally come to town and they go to ASCAP and BMI first and then end up finding a publisher. I [originally] assumed they would find a publisher, and once they found a publisher, they would sign up. Is there some point when that changed? Or did I just not get it?
Michael Martin: The PRO has always been an important part of it. Even in the last 2-1/2 years we’ve helped 42 writers get publishing deals out of this office. There’s a lot of what our background is, is the incubation period of finding talent and developing it and getting it to the right places.
LeAnn Phelan: The role of the PRO has changed in the last five or so years. There still is an opportunity for a publisher to stumble upon a great writer, but in general, I think with the merging of all the companies that has gone on, there aren’t as many publishing companies, and with every merger, what happens is a creative person gets lost. The creative people that are still in town are the best of the best, but they’re all working tremendous hours, so there’s less time for them to meet with this random writer that called that they may have a hunch about.
So to think back, Victor Herbert wanders into some place and hears somebody playing his song and says “Well, I should be paid for that.” It’s really a strange thing to think that it’s only 100 years now that songwriters have gotten paid, other than by a benefactor or something…
LP: There’s a statistic that something like two out of three ASCAP members have been a part of some type of workshop, some type of ASCAP program that has helped develop them. We all have an example of somebody that came thru the ASCAP program that’s a successful writer at this point.
MM: I got a call yesterday, a guy that we both have worked with, Justin Cade, the publisher’s interested in him. It goes from zero to 100 like that when somebody’s interested, which means everyone else gets interested.
LP: This writer, Justin, was actually in GPS. [ASCAP creative manager] Ryan Beuschel and I came up with this idea. Our team would put 12 people in this class and would get 12 great publishers in town to agree to meet with a writer once a month, and then do a follow-up meeting, which is a big deal. By the end of the year, everybody’s seen six writers, the writers have seen six publishers and for instance, this guy, Justin, if he gets signed, the other people that he’s met in the program, they’re gonna be like, “Oh, that kids’s signed now. I remember him. Now I can hook him up [to co-write] with so-and-so.” So it works on a lot of different levels to really get them integrated in the community. The GPS stands for Guidance From Publishers for Songwriters. And I think roughly 30% of the people in the program have gotten signed out of it.
You think of Stephen Foster before that who wrote all these great songs and couldn’t get paid. Now 100 years into it, it’s still the same issue that you have to educate people that we can’t do this for free…
LP: The challenge is that we’re regulated under these government rules that are over 70 years old and the last time they were revised was before you had an iPod or a streaming service. That’s a huge challenge for us right now.
MM: That’s one thing, too, that we didn’t realize until getting here -- how much effort and time has been spent through the years fighting for those things. As independent publishers, we couldn’t stop our work and go to Washington and fight by ourselves. Our business would deteriorate.
The problem is basically that if you go to the store and buy a carrot, it’s physical, it came from some place, you’re gonna pay for that. When you bought a record years ago, you could hang on to the record and you understood that it came from someplace and you’re paying for it. But now we only hang on to the device. We no longer hang on to the original song.
LP: Yeah, the song is just this magical thing. But the difference would be like this: If I wanted to buy a carrot and you were selling the carrot and you said this carrot is worth 10 cents, and I say, “I don’t really want to pay that, let’s go to court and figure out how much the carrot is worth,” I still get to take the carrot home and eat it while we’re figuring out the price of it. Pandora and all these people, they still get to use music even though the price is [being contested].
MM: And we’ve been a part of some of these careers when no one knew them. And they were still getting paid an advance. Nobody thinks about that. How do you factor that in?
I was watching “Nashville” on TV a few weeks ago. I saw Jay DeMarcus. When he said, “We’re gonna go write in one of the rooms,” I was like “Why would you write at ASCAP?”
LP: That’s one of our greatest assets.
MM: [ASCAP president and chairman] Paul Williams and [CEO] John LoFrumento were here in the fall, and Paul pulled us aside and he said, “Man, this feels so good creatively. It feels like a publishing office.” And that’s the ultimate compliment from someone who’s been around a lot of publishing offices.
We think about ASCAP as collecting and distributing, but it seems like being a social catalyst for the business is part of the mssion…
LP: We’re the Ellis Island of Music Row.
MM: I always say when a building has creative hope in it, people want to be around.