Nashville's Powerhouse Indie Publishers On 'Hustling' In a Tough Year

ILLUSTRATION BY Sébastien Thibault

When Beth Laird was preparing to launch her Nashville independent publishing company, Creative Nation, in 2011, she turned to publishing veteran Carla Wallace, co-founder of fellow Nashville indie Big Yellow Dog Music. “I wasn’t telling anybody, but [she was] one of the first people I was hitting up with questions,” says Laird.

“She didn’t take any of my advice,” jokes Wallace, who co-founded Big Yellow Dog Music in 1998.

Over a decade later, Laird and Wallace have remained just as close while leading their respective teams (of around 10 employees each) with cautious optimism and motivating their songwriters to continued success — even through a pandemic. Both companies have landed No. 1 hits this year: Big Yellow Dog Music client Maren Morris had a crossover smash with “The Bones” and newcomer Tenille Townes crowned Billboard’s Canada Country chart, while Creative Nation’s Tyler Johnson co-wrote and co-produced Harry StylesBillboard Hot 100-topping “Watermelon Sugar,” and Luke Laird — Creative Nation’s co-founder and Beth’s husband — co-wrote and co-produced Sam Hunt’s throwback “Hard To Forget.”

“I love being a part of the initial creative magic,” says Laird. “To just think that writers come in and out of these houses on Music Row, write these songs, and we’re the first ones to hear them.” Adds Wallace: “It’s so much more gratifying than it was last year.”

How is being part of such a tight-knit community beneficial?

Carla Wallace: Beth’s office is across the street from mine, so we are definitely a tight-knit community. We’re so used to running into each other, and then you really find out what’s going on with people. But now [we’re] removed [from] that, so we don’t really have that source of connection.

Beth Laird: Our community is unlike any in the world, and a lot of it is just proximity to each other. I think that really keeps everybody honest and checks egos and makes people want to do right by each other. We all see each other everywhere, so it makes you care about people beyond just emails, pitches and business. You’re competitive, but in a way that’s healthy.

When the coronavirus first hit, how did you help your songwriters stay motivated?

Wallace: Everyone had to shift gears. We set up a seminar that all of our writers could join to [learn] how to record yourself at home, how to do your vocals, so you’re not having to go to a studio or figure that out. Some of them still come to the office and they’re writing there, but for the most part we’ve had a lot more success on Zoom. If this had happened in Nashville 10 years ago, I think we would have been devastated because so many of our writers were so geared toward sitting together.

How do you find new opportunities right now for your writers who are worried about revenue?

Wallace: We’ve gotten more advertisement and brand placements, and [TV] is just now coming back. We have a whole synch department with synch writers set up, so that never stopped. Everyone looks for opportunities everywhere; especially if you’re an indie publisher, you’re a hustler. You’re not sitting around saying, “Well, I don’t know what I’ll do today.” It’s like, “What can I do today? Who should I contact to let them know I’m here?” As far as streaming royalties, I don’t make my business around any of that — it’s got to be about the songs. Certainly next year we’ll probably see a lot of those big changes with royalty streams and songwriters, but we’re all going to be affected by COVID, there's no way around it.

Laird: The biggest thing I’ve learned about trying to do this on my own is people aren’t coming to you until you have established yourself. No matter where you are in the indie-publisher cycle, you have to hustle — and it has to be about being proactive. You can’t be reactive. It’s not like you have 100 songwriters. You have less songwriters that you’re more focused on, so you’re always trying to find them opportunities. Like Carla, when I get into too much of the royalties and PnLs [profit and loss statements] and all of that, it can just explode my brain. And I know that I have to be aware of my business, but at the same time, the one thing we’re good at that can help keep business flowing is if we really can help create creative opportunities, that’s our job.

Country artists are starting to crack TikTok — how do you talk to your songwriters about using the app?

Wallace: The artists, for sure, are on TikTok; Logan Mize saw a bump in his duet “Grew Apart” with Donovan Woods. And then you hear about some of our friends finding talent on TikTok and they’re signing them and getting deals and you definitely question yourself, like, “Should I jump on there and start pulling people off?”

Laird: I’m not TikTok-ing. I feel like, for me, [when] I work with people I’ve got to verify it. I’ve got to go through this process. We don’t sign that many people, and we like to overserve, and we like to vet, so if you blew up on one song and there isn’t a catalog or a depth to them as a songwriter, then that’s not really what we’re looking for. If you blew up on TikTok and you do have that, and that was your outlet to be seen and we listen and think, “This feels like a career songwriter or artist,” then I absolutely would do it. I don’t care where it comes from. But I need to know that there’s more than one song. [Majors] can sign 10 people like that and if one works, they’ll put their resources there and it will pay for all their other deals — Carla and I aren’t in that business. We want everyone we sign to count.

What changes do you anticipate moving forward?

Wallace: A lot of the songwriters have moved away. They have completely left Nashville and gone to their second homes, and they’re just Zoom writing. You’ve got these top songwriters who have left, so I’m curious — later on, I want to know: “What does that mean? What will happen?” Because if I went to my second home, I may not ever come back. Does Music Row go back to the same way?

Laird: I think it’s going to shift, but nobody knows how much. The one thing that I do know is, most of my writers have said they’re super grateful for Zoom but can’t wait for it to be over. They really, really miss the in-person energy and creativity.

What growth opportunity is there in all of this for the independent community?

Laird: If you are an independent publisher and are always looking for opportunities and being proactive, the one thing that you learn is that there’s a lot of fear in change, but there’s a lot of opportunity because we shift and move quickly. Carla doesn’t have to go get permission to do something, I don’t have to go run [an idea] through and get approvals. The beauty of being small is that we can come up with really creative ideas, and if you fail, just fail fast and move on.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020, issue of Billboard.