Why Indie Publishers Are Flourishing In Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee
JacobH/Getty Images

Nashville, Tenn.

Something curious happened last September: A trio of Nashville executives from the three main performing rights organizations in the United States all announced separate plans to lead new publishing companies. Jody Williams, vp creative at BMI Nashville, revealed he was leaving the organization to start his own firm; Shannan Hatch, who most recently served as vp creative services at SESAC, became president of Fourward Music, the newly launched publishing wing of management/production company Fourward; and former ASCAP Nashville vp Michael Martin, who left the PRO in June, unveiled Endurance Music Group, backed by Raven Capital Management.

The moves close out a year of high-profile acquisitions and expansions in Music City. In June, Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, backed by The Carlyle Group, bought Big Machine Label Group in a deal that included its publishing division. The following month, concert promoter/production company Blackbird Presents, with backing from The Raine Group, launched Blackbird Music Publishing Group with offices in Nashville as well as New York and Los Angeles.

So what’s driving all the action? “There is so much content coming out of Nashville, and that is part of the excitement,” says Martin. “It is such a melting pot, with a lot happening musically, even beyond country: We have an indie-rock scene, Americana, Christian, an evolving urban scene.” Streaming, of course, has also helped make publishing one of the hottest sectors in the industry, with catalog valuations breaking the 20 times multiple level for net publisher’s share (gross profit) — up from a 13 times multiple just a few years ago. “I have never seen so many Nashville songwriters willing to sell their co-publishing or songwriter shares,” says Williams. “People didn’t do that here in Nashville.”

In the past, “the feeling was that country didn’t have the longevity of rock and mainstream pop standards,” says attorney Lisa Alter, of Alter Kendrick & Baron, who has advised some recent major publishing deals, including Mojo Music & Media Group’s acquisition of the Nashville-based HoriPro Entertainment Group in March. But a host of factors has made the market more attractive to investors. “Country radio is very strong, so that means more performance royalty money,” says one publisher. “Country is crossing over into pop more than ever. And as the publishers, you are likely to get bigger chunks of the songs because Nashville only has two or three songwriters in the room.”

The flurry of activity in publishing has many wondering if they should try to cash in sooner rather than later. As one publishing dealmaker recalls a songwriter saying, “Twenty years from now, I don’t think my songs will be worth anything near what they are now.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of Billboard.