Big Deal Music Chief Kenny MacPherson on Building an Indie Publishing Powerhouse With 'High Touch'

ISSUE 2 2019 - DO NOT USE - COMES OUT JAN. 25, 2019
Damon Casarez
“Nothing would make me happier than if we could leave a legacy,” says MacPherson, photographed on Jan. 10, 2019 at Big Deal Music in Los Angeles. “Then they can just roll me out in a chair to tell stories.”

The career-long publisher on reaching the top 10 of his sector, advocating for songwriters and the importance of his long-standing relationships.

Around 40 years ago, when Kenny MacPherson was tour-managing Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, he got advice that sticks with him to this day. As he admired the view of the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames from the London offices of Connolly's publishers, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, Martin told him, "You know, Kenny, if you want to be in the music business, get into publishing -- it's a gentleman's game."

The Big Deal Music Group founder/president recalls taking in the picturesque surroundings and thinking, "This ain't half bad, is it?"

Publishing is a "penny business," says MacPherson, 63, that has turned into a "fraction of a penny" business, which he was drawn to by a love of music while growing up in Scotland, where he realized he was more adept at organizing gigs than performing them. Sitting at his desk today at Big Deal's Encino, California, offices, he recalls failed attempts at writing songs with his high school bandmates before he ultimately pivoted to a management role. "I was fascinated by the fact that people could do it," he says. "Still am today."

After working with Connolly, MacPherson took Martin's advice and got into publishing, forming Redhead Music Publishing before joining Warner/Chappell in 1989 to run the company's New York outpost. In 2001, he joined Chrysalis Music as president of its North American division. MacPherson and his team -- including future Big Deal co-founders Jamie Cerreta and Dave Ayers -- built up the catalog, signing My Morning Jacket, OutKast, TV on the Radio, St. Vincent, Afghan Whigs, Thom Yorke and others, until BMG bought the parent company in 2010. That pushed MacPherson to strike out on his own again, founding Big Deal the following year -- which counts a roster that includes Teddy Geiger, Kamasi Washington, Sleater-Kinney and more -- for what he expects will be his "last rodeo."

"My experience at other publishing companies was predominantly really good, but they were corporations and I came from starting my own business. So my journey has come full circle where I wanted to be an owner again," he says. "I wanted to build a place that was culturally significant and great for people to work, where manners, courtesy and high touch are important."

Is publishing still a "gentleman's game"?

That depends on your definition of a gentleman. I have met really caring men and women in music publishing who really believe in what they do and are very committed. There's always hucksters and fly-by-nights in any business, but I love publishing, and I think people have tried really hard to make sure that songwriters get paid appropriately. There's a lot of work still to do and there are steps to that, but I think the [Music Modernization Act] is super important. It's the first time in a long time that everybody from all sides got on the same page. Maybe our government could take a lesson.

You joined the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) board last year. What are your big takeaways from the MMA passing and what happens now?

It is a perfect bill? No. Is it compromise? Yes. Is a start? Yes. Is it better than nothing? Yes. The thing I'm really pleased about is potentially for the first time the songwriters found their voice and united, or at least a great percentage of them did. Now there's still some divisiveness and people have varying opinions about how the [Mechanical Licensing Collective] should be set up, or not set up, but by the fact that -- however it ends up -- songwriters are going to be on the board and songwriters are going to have a voice there... I think that's one of the best things to come out of it.

And I would advocate that the NMPA should have songwriters on the board. It's just so important. Then if you want to talk about transparency -- and people pontificate about how transparent they are -- well, have songwriters on the board then. What have you got to hide? You've got nothing to hide. You're not dealing with a bunch of people that don't know the meaning of words and the power of music. They've got something to say. Just because they're an artist doesn't mean they're not a smart business person. I think it belittles them.

With the MMA passed, what's the biggest issue facing songwriters?

Songwriters' health insurance. I think there might be a system where all the publishers or the performing rights societies worldwide took a percentage of their gross earnings and put it into a health fund. People smarter than me will figure it out, but I just think a world without songs would be a very dull place. Some form of universal health care for songwriters is an essential thing, ultimately.

How is running an indie different from a major, especially now when indies are making such aggressive moves in publishing?

I don't think it matters what size you are, running a company, you'd better be careful what you wish for. It's full of challenges and being the leader or being the perceived leader can be a lonely place. I think anybody that is in the modern-day publishing business that runs a company, we all have varying degrees of the good, the bad and the ugly. It's life.

How does your vision for Big Deal compare with other companies making aggressive deals right now?

Big Deal started as a very A&R- and artist-centric company. Kind of the longer approach: Find new talent, develop that and break it. Risky business. So you need to put your seat belt on, because it's not easy. And there are moments when you're white-knuckling it, like, "Whoa, got to get this done." We haven't gone and raised hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire catalog or do anything like that. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. There's no one-size-fits-all.

We are financially limited because of the size of the company at the moment, but our imaginations and desires and ambitions are not limited. We have to grow a certain way. Publishing is a very cash-intensive business, and it takes a while. We've had a lot of success, we've grown relatively quickly, and all along the way you need to be able to look in the mirror and say, "OK, what have we got right? What have we got wrong? Where are we going? What's our bandwidth?" before you lose that high touch. You know, the balance of being a high-touch company that can become commercially viable -- that's the goal.

How does hip-hop -- music's most popular genre -- play into that vision?

We've sort of gathered this beachhead of talent five-and-a-half years in, and we built the company so far across certain genres of music. You have to walk before you can run, and we are moving into what I would call alternative urban music, kind of like the way we signed alternative bands -- a lot of our pop songwriters were in alternative bands and have become amazing pop songwriters.

We just started to work with Mick Jenkins and Phoelix, who co-produced the Noname record, and we work with a couple of young chaps called Two Fresh Beats. But people get too caught up in labeling and tend to put people in boxes. I've had people say to me, "How come you got this person together with that person?" You're putting them in a box. They're human beings, songwriters, artists. Let them get in a room, let them talk about music, let them decide if they're going to pick up an instrument.

For the past couple of years, Big Deal has consistently ranked among the top 10 publishers for market share. What can you discern from that?

What it means is we're having hits. I think people spend a lot of time dogging what other people are doing. It's a waste of energy. What we need is a strong publishing business that will support songwriters, and there's enough to go around. There's always competition, but how about first and foremost being in competition with yourself to be the best you can be at your job and serve your clients the best you can serve them?

You've been in publishing since the early 1980s. How important are those relationships from earlier in your career to your business now?

That's probably one of the things we're all really proud of. I mean, myself, Dave Ayers, Pete [Robinson], Jamie Cerreta, Casey [Robinson], we work with artists that we've worked with for decades. I'd been Underworld's publisher for almost 30 years, Greg Dulli [of Afghan Whigs], Dan Wilson [of Semisonic]; Jim James for Jamie; St. Vincent and all the people that Dave works with. Casey signed probably six to eight of our pop songwriters when he worked at BMI and they came with them here, so that's really important. I would like to think that we could stick with people for a long time, if it's meant to be. Sometimes you lose, but that's probably one of the things I'm proudest of.

It would be so great for us to continue to grow and be here for our writers and the next generation of writers. I would like Big Deal to go from strength to strength and, you know, I look at Jamie and Casey and I want them to sit at this desk. I mean "Nothing would make me happier than if we could leave a legacy that can carry on. Then they can just roll me out in a chair to tell stories.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of Billboard.