When Big Machine Music opened a Los Angeles branch, the publishing company extended a trend that has quietly developed in songwriting circles, adding more pavement to the creative highway between Nashville and the City of Angels.
With the walls between genres collapsing, Nashville artists and songwriters are collaborating with composers from other music communities in greater volume than ever before, and publishing companies — particularly the independent firms — have added offices, staff and/or business partnerships designed to encourage interaction among different markets and genres.
Big Machine installed director of publishing Timmy Haehl in its West Coast office on Jan. 19 at a time when the company’s Sara Davis is enjoying a global pop hit as a co-writer of GAYLE’s “abcdefu.” Jesse Frasure’s Rhythm House, which is affiliated with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, has generated recordings with OneRepublic and Plain White T’s on top of country hits for Lauren Alaina and Thomas Rhett, whose forthcoming album includes a Katy Perry duet co-penned by pop writer Jon Bellion (“The Monster,” “Trumpets”). Pop producer Dr. Luke (Doja Cat, Wiz Khalifa) opened a Nashville office for his Prescription Songs publishing company, stocking the roster with singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun in addition to the likes of Nick Bailey and Lauren Larue, whose credits stretch from country’s Jimmie Allen to electronic artist Marshmello.
“We want to collaborate,” says Prescription’s Los Angeles-based A&R executive Hannah Montgomery Bay-Schuck, who worked with Dallas Davidson’s Play It Again Music before taking her current post. “We want our writers to be involved in all the communities, whether it’s the Nashville writing community, the L.A. writing community, Miami. We understand the vision of collaboration and working outside of your team.”
The tide of investment in collaborative infrastructure is an outgrowth of changes in consumers’ music habits. Where radio stations have traditionally segmented music into stylistic silos, streaming has made it easier for listeners to create eclectic playlists, responding to individual songs and artists instead of music that fits within definable boundaries.
“When I was 13, I was making mixtapes with all these different genres: Dave Matthews Band, Garth Brooks, T.I., Ludacris,” Bay-Schuck recalls. “That’s literally what my mixtape looked like. So why wouldn’t creatives want to do that? Why wouldn’t [companies] want to do that?”
As it turns out, they do. Nashville’s Creative Nation, owned by songwriter Luke Laird (“AA,” “Hard To Forget”) and co-founder/CEO Beth Laird, foreshadowed the movement when they partnered with Los Angeles’ Pulse Recordings shortly after the company’s November 2011 formation.
In her prior role as BMI director of writer/publisher relations, Beth had championed numerous non-country talents, raising the eyebrows of some Music Row colleagues. It took time before she recognized the skeptics had a point.
“We have a lot of talent here that’s not country,” she notes, “but now I realize, to their credit, what they were saying is that there isn’t an infrastructure here. They had to move somewhere else to be on the team that kind of can help market and promote them.”
Creative Nation partnered with Pulse specifically to address that need. The company registered a fair share of non-country activity — Luke landed a cut with rock band Boys Like Girls; staff writer Barry Dean (“Pontoon,” “Heartache Medication”) co-wrote adult alternative artist Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys” — just before the explosion.
Since then, the collaborative highway between Tennessee and California is more heavily trafficked by numerous artists, writers and companies. Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard co-wrote “Meant To Be” with pop singer Bebe Rexha. Maren Morris scored several hits written by L.A. producers, the late busbee and Greg Kurstin. Songwriter Hillary Lindsey (“One Beer,” “Girl Crush”) co-wrote with Lady Gaga. Dan + Shay got assists from California writers Justin Bieber, Poo Bear, Tayla Parx and Ryan Lewis on “10,000 Hours” and “Glad You Exist.” Meanwhile, Ed Sheeran, Ryan Tedder, Julia Michaels and pop writer Sean Douglas (“Die a Happy Man,” “Talk Dirty”) all landed one or more country hits as songwriters.
The inner-city, genre-hopping collaborations flourished even though streaming — which has played such a key role in knocking down barriers — wreaked havoc on songwriter/publisher revenue.
“There might have been a certain connotation to saying that a writer was from Nashville or a writer lived in Nashville before,” concedes Big Machine GM Mike Molinar. “There’s a lot more mutual respect flowing back and forth for the writers who have survived through the years because we lost so many professional songwriters due to the streaming rates and the change of our model. The people who are left, I think, really have a lot of respect for each other.”
Mixing writers who concentrate on specific genres has some complementary value. Those from Nashville tend to put a heavier emphasis on lyrics than songwriters in other cities, where grooves and production often come first. Therefore, the collaborations can balance aesthetics.
“I do think that our writing style here is extremely detailed,” Rhythm House co-founder Frasure says. “We know how to turn a hook. It’s not just a title. If you start with an idea, it’s an idea, not just a couple words strung together. So when you get to the second verse, there’s a way to take this and spin it in a new direction.”
By collaborating with other cities, Nashville songwriters are finding new directions that were not generally available before. With country stations hanging on to hits for longer stretches, fewer songs are able to reach the airwaves. Thus, writers are less concerned about fitting into specific boxes, which makes mixing Music City talent with that from other markets much more attractive.
“There’s a young community that’s been brewing, and it’s starting to be the right time for them to hit,” says Molinar. “When you start to have that infrastructure, it gives the talent an opportunity to be seen.”