Ben Vaughn
Country

Country Power Players Executive of the Year: Inside Ben Vaughn's Winning Strategy

With a passion for finding and developing new talent, Warner Chappell Music Nashville's Vaughn is leading the publishing company to historic wins — and uplifting some of the genre’s most vital writers.

In 2013, while attending an industry showcase, songwriter Nicolle Galyon invited Ben Vaughn, then-Warner Chappell Music Nashville executive vp, to her car to listen to a rough mix of Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert’s “We Were Us,” a song she had co-written. “When it was over, he said, ‘I’ll see you at the BMI Awards next year. Have fun picking out your dress,’ ” she recalls. “That song went on to be my first No. 1.”

Six years later, at its 67th annual Country Awards last November, BMI named Galyon songwriter of the year. Vaughn “poured rocket fuel” onto her career, says Galyon. A WCMN writer since 2007, she felt a momentous shift when Vaughn, who became president/CEO in 2019, arrived in 2012 after 10 years at EMI Music Publishing. “He was like, ‘We’re going to make some stuff happen for you,’ ” she says.

Galyon isn’t the only songwriter who has flourished under Vaughn. Home to hitmakers such as Liz Rose, Chris Stapleton, Jesse Frasure and Kacey Musgraves, WCMN has become a powerhouse during Vaughn’s tenure, claiming the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s Publishers Quarterly rankings (based on the top 100 country radio songs) for 14 consecutive quarters. For the latest tally, ending June 30, WCMN’s share was 21.44%, six percentage points higher than the next-closest publisher. In November 2019, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC all named WCMN their country publisher of the year — only the third time a publishing company has been honored as such, and a first for WCMN.

Vaughn is particularly invested in nurturing young talent: Over the past two years, more than 20 WCMN songwriters have been recognized for their first hit at the BMI or ASCAP country awards. The company also signed and developed acts like Dan + Shay (when they still went by Ragtop Red), Midland, LANCO and Devin Dawson before helping them find homes at major labels. “There’s so many people that want that record deal, so helping someone get to that spot is one of the hardest things in the music business,” says Vaughn, 44. “So the job is to take away the nos and help that person get to a place where you get a yes.”

At times, that means taking a patient, long-term view of someone’s career. While Vaughn always wants his writers to have radio singles, he doesn’t define a song’s impact by its chart position alone: A tune can help make connections in Nashville’s tight-knit songwriting community or spur an initial contact with a big-name artist. “It’s not as simple as what are the hits and what aren’t with Ben,” says Galyon.

A father of three who enjoys listening to demos while sipping bourbon on his back porch in Brentwood, Tenn., Vaughn grew up in the tiny community of Sullivan, Ky., and comes from “a proud tradition of coal miners, teachers and mechanics.” As a high school student, he got a job as a weekend DJ at country radio station WMSK-FM, which set him on a path to Nashville. “I would devour the vinyl and read all the publishing and writer credits,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to go where these people are.’ ”

That led him to Nashville’s Belmont University and an internship at WCMN in 1994 under then-executive vp Tim Wipperman, who taught Vaughn the intricacies of publishing. While there, he got to know producer Scott Hendricks, whose Big Tractor publishing company had a partnership with WCMN. Hendricks was so impressed with Vaughn that he eventually asked him to run Big Tractor — while Vaughn was still a college student. “He said, ‘I’m going to give you six months to see how it goes, but if you quit school, I’ll fire you,’ ” recalls Vaughn.

Eric Ryan Anderson
Thomas Rhett and Ben Vaughn photographed on July 14, 2020 at Warner Chappell Music in Nashville.

Vaughn credits Hendricks with teaching him to fight for his roster. “He cared about every song because behind that piece of music is a creator who has labored so much,” he says. It’s an approach that still serves Vaughn today. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, he has launched Jody Williams Songs, a joint venture between WCMN and former BMI executive Williams, and signed Thomas Rhett, whom Vaughn had previously signed to EMI back when Rhett was still a student at Belmont.

“Ben is a dreamer. There is not a goal that is too high to attain,” says Rhett. “If I said, ‘Hey, man. It’s probably crazy to think we could get this song cut by an artist in Australia,’ Ben would be on a flight to Australia the next day to figure out how to make it happen.”

Vaughn says those kinds of moments — when he has a ringside seat to the creative process and an opportunity to help out — are what keep him motivated. “It is awe-inspiring how much talent it takes to create something out of nothing that literally can make the whole world sing,” he says. “The most sacred responsibility is to help connect writers’ dreams to their goals. The fact that as publishers we are trusted to hold that space for them is everything.”

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.