A plush-doll battalion stands at the ready inside the 12th floor office of Shapiro Bernstein in New York. A princess in a purple gown, a white rabbit clutching an oversize carrot, a green dragon with a dopey look on its face — the few, the proud, the googly-eyed. Give in to a boldface plea to “Press Here” and the dragon dances, spins and belts out the chorus to “Ring of Fire” in the unmistakable, if tragically flattened and slightly tinny, voice of Johnny Cash. Michael Brettler, president of Shapiro Bernstein and great-grandson of company co-founder Louis Bernstein, pokes all of the buttons with apparent glee. For a moment, the modestly sized, off-white office space is transformed into a cacophonous jamboree, with miniature animatronic revelers spouting dime-store versions of hits spanning roughly a century of pop music, from “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to “Club Can’t Handle Me.” The rabbit sings a saccharine take of the Dean Martin standard “You’re No Bunny ‘Till Some Bunny Loves You.”
But the noise doesn’t faze the 10 or so employees who click away at computers and stuff royalty stubs into envelopes: It’s business as usual at Shapiro Bernstein, the oldest family-owned independent music publisher in America. Incorporated in its current form 100 years ago — it operated for the 13 years prior as Shapiro Music in an office on Tin Pan Alley, the legendary, long-defunct songwriter’s row on West 28th Street — the company has licensed songs for use in toys, bars, on the radio, onscreen and beyond since piano rolls first inspired the term “mechanical rights.” The song that launched the company, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” was inspired by the 1908 best-selling Western novel of the same name and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music in 1913. “We had eight printing presses in those days,” Brettler says. “We were not only the publishers but the distributors of music.”
Shapiro Bernstein’s string of early hits, commemorative plaques of which still line the halls of its headquarters, included the Depression-era classic “Yes We Have No Bananas”; the official song of the state of Ohio, “Beautiful Ohio”; Great American Songbook standard “The Way You Look Tonight”; and big-band anthem “In the Mood.” The company’s credits reflect a century’s evolution in American genres and movements, from novelty songs and jazz to rock and EDM.
In 2008, Brettler ushered in a new era of prosperity for the publisher when he signed French producer/DJ David Guetta for U.S. representation, just prior to the U.S. EDM explosion. A year later, Guetta co-wrote and produced the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” which spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This summer, Shapiro Bernstein songs by Guetta and others make their mark in the films “Man of Steel,” “Fast & Furious 6” and “Despicable Me 2,” among others.
In Midtown, Shapiro Bernstein has a relatively small staff of 15 full-time employees divided among creative, copyright and royalty services. The publisher has contracts with an estimated 20 active songwriters, plus a catalog of more than 7,000 songs owned and many more administered. In the United States, Shapiro Bernstein is a member of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, and operates in territories worldwide, either through subpublishers or, in the case of 18 territories across Europe, as direct members of the appropriate regional performance rights society.
Wherever it does business, the company takes an old-school customer-service approach to its relationships with prospective and current licensees and artists. Despite its humble size, it increasingly dispatches employees to other countries to meet with music supervisors and managers in person, and has a policy of paying rights holders 30 days after the close of a royalty period instead of the typical 90. In 100 years of doing business, Brettler says, Shapiro Bernstein has never been late on a royalty payment. “The way you stay in business for 100 years is by keeping people happy,” he says. “And the way you do that as a publisher is by paying people correctly, accurately and on time — every song, every license, every royalty period.”
To ensure that it sails smoothly into its next century, the publisher has taken to signing promising bands at the earliest stages of their careers and nurturing them through increased levels of exposure. In 2009 the company signed Brooklyn indie-pop band Savoir Adore, whose lead singer and songwriter, Deidre Muro, got her start at Shapiro Bernstein as an intern. “We had no idea she could sing until another intern told us,” recalls David Hoffman, director of creative services and co-A&R lead. “But when I heard her demos, it was obvious she had talent.”
Hoffman served as a soundboard for early drafts of Savoir Adore songs, and even helped the band, which Duro founded with co-writer Paul Hammer in 2008, find a lawyer. Success came early through the licensing department, with placements including ABC Family series “Pretty Little Liars,” international videogame hit “Pro Evolution Soccer 2013” and big-ticket commercials for Tide, Hanes, Hershey’s and Citibank.
“They intentionally keep the company small so they can give every client the attention they need,” Muro says. “From what I’ve heard from friends who have been with bigger publishing companies, it’s easy to get signed, get a nice little advance and then be totally forgotten. That would never happen at Shapiro Bernstein.”
Brettler has served as president at Shapiro Bernstein since 2000. He initially didn’t want to follow his dad, legendary 40-year ASCAP board member Leon Brettler, into the family business. After he finally agreed to give it a chance in 1979, however, there was no looking back. “This company becomes an addiction when you’re a part of it — it’s like a love affair,” he says. Brettler’s brother, Doug, oversees the company’s finances.
A century after its founding, don’t expect Shapiro Bernstein to leave family hands anytime soon. Brettler says he has no desire to sell or merge with another company, despite having received offers. “It’s our life,” he says. “We’re in this business because we love it.”