Carlin America's Half Century of Hits for Sinatra, Sondheim -- and The Muppets: Q&A

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Frank Sinatra photographed circa 1945. 

In the midtown Manhattan brownstone offices of Carlin America, Caroline Bienstock is talking about her father. “I remember attending an industry event with him where somebody approached and said, ‘Oh, Freddy Bienstock. Are you Caroline Bienstock’s father?’ To him, that was just amazing because, of course, he was the music publishing legend and I was just his daughter.”

As Carlin president/CEO, Caroline Bienstock, 58, runs the independent music publisher of classic hits for Frank Sinatra, Stephen Sondheim, Billie Holiday, AC/DC, James Brown and countless others. She also carries on a rare music industry double legacy from her parents, the late Freddy and Miriam Bienstock.

Freddy, who fled to New York from Austria in 1939 as the Nazis were coming to power, had a remarkable career in music publishing, from his start in the stockroom of Chappell Music to eventually co-owning the company. (Warner Music acquired it in 1987 to form Warner/Chappell.) For years, Freddy helped pick hits for Elvis Presley from the catalog of Hill & Range, a music publisher he acquired in 1966. That same year, he founded Carlin America. He died in 2009.

Miriam, a co-founder of Atlantic Records, was remembered in a statement upon her death in 2015 by current Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald and chairman/CEO Craig Kallman as “a force to be reckoned with.”

Freddy derived the moniker of his company from his daughter’s name. But she had to overcome his opposition to her joining the family firm, even after she attended Yale University and earned a law degree at Boston University and an MBA at the Wharton School. She practiced law and worked in finance before finally joining Carlin. When her parents died, she inherited the company with her brother Robert, an attorney and recording engineer.

With her husband, Douglas Rodriguez, and their 13-year-old daughter (the couple has five adult children from prior marriages), Bienstock lives in the three-bedroom Upper East Side apartment where she grew up. And she works today in the same office at the landmarked Carlin America brownstone that her father had occupied -- a daughter who expresses a deep love for her parents, and a businesswoman who displays considerable fortitude.

“As the person who is managing these assets for the benefit of the family,” she says, “I have to make the best possible decisions that aren’t based on nostalgia or sentiment.”

Carlin America, as a privately held company, does not report financial results. But with 8,500 songwriters in its royalty system, 80,000-plus titles in its catalog and offices in Nashville, London and Paris, Carlin has a pervasive presence in pop culture.

What are your earliest memories of the music business?

When I was a child, I always ate dinner with my parents. But neither my brother nor I spoke about what happened at school. Mostly, we listened to my parents talking about what happened at work. And in those days, the industry was small enough that they knew a large percentage of the people in New York in the music business. I was old enough to form an impression about what they were doing and also to see that my mother was a significant executive. We didn’t have a lot of friends whose moms were important executives in any industry.

But it wasn’t certain that you would join the family business?

My father was really opposed. He was like, “I don’t have a job for you. I don’t know what you’re going to do here.” And my idea was to say, “It’s a complicated business. The copyright law is complicated. Managing this kind of business is complicated. And it will be even harder if I don’t have any training down the road one day. I think I should do this.” Finally, he relented.

How do you view the changes in the music business in recent years?

As somebody running an independent publishing company, but also sitting on the ASCAP and [National Music Publishers’ Association] boards, I have a perspective on where I see the industry trending. I still think there are opportunities, great opportunities, for future global growth -- in Africa, India, China. These are enormous untapped markets.

That said, the changes that are happening with respect to the structure and function of the performing rights organizations, and the way publishers relate to the PROs, it’s really hard to see down the road. These relationships had been more or less static. Now there’s a great deal of flux. In general, in business, uncertainty isn’t a good thing. People like predictability.

Has the rise of digital music caused that uncertainty?

No doubt. The changes began when file-sharing began [with Napster in 1999]. All content owners began to worry whether they were going to be compensated for their work. But publishers felt like they were sitting pretty because the people that we license to, they were not likely to use copyrights without paying.

Then there was a shift away from illegal file-sharing to streaming services. Those services pay the labels a much greater percentage of their revenue than they pay [music publishers]. So while it looked like we had a moment, that moment doesn’t look quite as rosy as it did a few years ago, until we are successful at trying to redress those imbalances, which I think we may be able to do. But I think that’s still an open question for the industry, particularly the music publishing industry.

How has your father’s business strategy for Carlin changed under your leadership of the company?

For my father, it seemed the safest and most efficient way to grow was by acquisition. So he was less about signing writers than he was about buying companies. And I think his model worked very well for a very long time.

The fundamental change I see today is that when I’m trying to do deals, I often find the prices are so high that acquisition is not always realistic. And part of it is because there’s a decent level of uncertainty about future earnings. If I pay a top-dollar price today for an asset, it may be worth less in the future should its earnings dwindle over time. So I’m aware of that. And I think those constraints didn’t affect us in our growth years in the same way.

How would your father have felt about the music publishing business today?

I’m often grateful that he died before the changes that are happening now. I know his philosophical belief was that any copyright he acquired would be worth more in the future, no matter how much he had to pay for it. I don’t believe that that’s still true. So that’s a real change. The future is more uncertain than it ever was.

Looking ahead, what is the biggest challenge facing Carlin?

For our particular business, we have many standard pop hits from the ’50s and ’60s. There’s a generation of people licensing music who may not be as familiar with our material.

But I remember having a conversation with my daughter Francesa, maybe eight or nine years ago. She came to me and said, “Mom, I’ve just bought the Juno soundtrack. I want you to hear a song from it. It’s really cool.” And she played me [Phillip Baptiste and George Khoury’s] “Sea of Love.” I said, “Francesca, that’s a really great song. I’m glad you like it. But I should tell you that song was first recorded in the year of my birth. So it’s not a new song. And second of all, it belongs to us [at Carlin]. So I’m thrilled that you like it.”

And I’ve always been gratified to see that young people discover music that’s really classic. It’s new to them, and they love it just as much as the previous generation did when they heard it. That’s one of the things that gives me real hope for the future. Some of these songs, they’re just great songs, and they’ll always be great songs.

This article was originally published in the Nov. 12 issue of Billboard.