Executive Exits At ASCAP, BMI, SESAC Point to Renewed Optimism In Publishing

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Nashville, Tenn.

When, on Sept. 23, SESAC vp creative services Shannan Hatch announced her departure to become president of Fourward Music, she completed an unprecedented trifecta among performing rights organizations in Nashville.

All three PROs — SESAC, ASCAP and BMI — have now lost their top writer/publisher executives since the start of summer, creating turnover in one of the key segments of the city's music industry. The personnel changes create some challenges for the agencies, with six weeks left until their high-profile Nashville songwriter awards, held Nov. 10-12, before the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 13. But the job changes also signal that the publishing business is rebounding after a lengthy period of contraction:

•Hatch is actively seeking Nashville offices for Fourward, which is expected to hire personnel and announce its initial staff writers in the weeks ahead. 

•Former ASCAP Nashville vp Michael Martin was announced as president of the new Endurance Music Group earlier this month. The company already has two additional employees and a startup roster of four writers, including Clint Lagerberg ("Blue Ain't Your Color") and Scooter Carusoe ("Drunk Girl"). 

•BMI Nashville vp creative Jody Williams revealed plans this month to segue out of his post at the end of the year and form a new publishing company. Williams expects to found a co-venture with a to-be-determined major firm once his 13-year tenure at BMI is completed.

All three pursuits represent investment in the copyright business, now on the upswing after the transition to digital distribution ravaged publishing. The loss of album tracks gutted mechanical royalties, reducing the number of songwriters in town. Those composers who remained increasingly saw revenue come from streaming platforms, where micropayments demoralized many in the creative sector.

But the 2018 passage of the Music Modernization Act installed new rules that improve streaming rates, while increases in other revenue sources — including synch licensing, commercial use and gaming — have led to rosier expectations. For Nashville, heightened collaboration with other formats provides additional reason for optimism, and the PROs are a logical place for publishing investors to find executive talent.

"We know the climate, we know everybody who's anybody in the business and have a good Rolodex," says Williams.

Music publishing is a tricky endeavor. Most songs never get recorded, and those that reach the marketplace typically don't start paying royalties for 2-4 years, given the time lag of recording the song, promoting it and waiting for quarterly royalty payments.

Additionally, weeding through the thousands of hopeful songwriters in Nashville to find the best bets for success in a subjective business is difficult. Thus, publishers are tasked with balancing patience and motivation on their teams, creating what Martin calls a "culture of creative hope."

"When somebody knows that you trust them, they don't pull further away, they come closer to you," he says. "That's, I think, the mystique of managing creative people. Once you develop the trust with each other, it's like a coach and an athlete. It creates an amazing friendship and relationship."

Each PRO works with most multiwriter publishing companies, so the awards season in November focuses on the agencies' relationships in Nashville. All three execs were sensitive to those relationships when planning their transitions. Hatch and Williams timed their departures to smooth the awards process, and Martin — who was succeeded by ASCAP Nashville vp membership Mike Sistad — recently celebrated with his former colleagues when ASCAP held its Christian honors. 

"After 17 years at a company, it's a part of my family," says Hatch of her SESAC experience. "My relationships over there will remain intact for a long time, and I'm glad about that. So I'm leaving them on a really good note with a very strong system and really great people in place. There's comfort in that."

There's excitement ahead too. A recent Goldman Sachs study predicted that the music business will grow from a $62 billion industry in 2017 to a $131 billion one in 2030. The publishing sector's revenue is likely to balloon from $6 billion a year to $12.5 billion, which means it's an advantageous time for new players. 

Williams and Martin, who were both publishing execs prior to their PRO experience, are returning with experienced publishing partners. Hatch, who received a big-picture view of publishing at SESAC after starting her career in public relations, was lured to Fourward by Will Ward, who previously managed Zac Brown. Fourward has its fingers in a range of entertainment pots, including pop music, film, TV and even a fitness app. With publishing looking at a more stable future, that kind of synergy intrigued Hatch.

"It's not the Wild, Wild West like it used to be," she says. "There are just so many great opportunities going forward."

The digital transition that decimated publishing has also provided it with new tools. Publishers and managers now have the ability to serve as indie labels — to finance recordings and coax streaming and satellite play for their clients. Since the PROs are often the first place that new writers and artists go when they arrive in Nashville, writer/publisher-relations execs are perfectly suited to launch Nashville's new publishing entities, develop the most promising new creators and connect them to key mediums of exposure.

"My team did identify talent early on, before everybody knows about it," says Martin. "That's just what we do."

As they move into the next phase in their careers, the three ASCAP, SESAC and BMI pros have the opportunity to expand on that skill by jumping into their new publishing positions.

"The climate is better than it was just a few years ago," says Williams. "If you were ever going to do it, now would be the time."


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