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Peermusic’s Power Trio Nurtures Songwriters Like Prince Royce, Jason Aldean and Russell Watson

Peermusic, one of the world's largest independent music publishing firms. But three senior executives -- Kathy Spanberger in Burbank, Calif., Nigel Elderton in London and Michael Knox in Nashville -…

Peermusic, one of the world’s largest independent music publishing firms, with 32 offices in 29 countries worldwide, marks its 90th anniversary this year.  It remains a family-run firm. Founded in 1927 by Ralph S. Peer, it is guided today by his son, Ralph Peer II, and granddaughter Mary Megan Peer.

But three senior executives — Kathy Spanberger in Burbank, Calif., Nigel Elderton in London and Michael Knox in Nashville — also play key roles in peermusic’s success.


Kathy Spanberger: The Career Coach
“Creative people need time to write”

After graduating from the University of California Los Angeles nearly 38 years ago, Spanberger landed her first job at peermusic. She’s been with the company ever since.

“My first full-time job was as a secretary to Ralph Peer II, who hired me when he was a vice president,” recalls Spanberger, now president/COO, Anglo-American Region, overseeing peermusic’s business in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

The peermusic culture of developing talent applies its staff as well as its songwriters. In the `80s, the company sent Spanberger to run its office in Australia to give her international experience.  

“When you work for a family-owned company,” she says, “the whole company is treated like family.”

Spanberger looks to nurture songwriters and their careers the same way. “Creative people need time to write songs. No one goes into a studio and says, ‘Today I’m going to write a hit,'” she says. “If you’re constantly chasing market share, you’re not focusing on the creative part of the business.”

She offers as an example the band Family of the Year, which peermusic began representing for synch licenses on a non-exclusive basis, then signed to a publishing deal — and placed their song “Hero” in the Richard Linklater movie Boyhood.

Other recent successes include the Audibles (who have co-written songs for Chris Brown and Justin Bieber and are now working with Mary J. Blige). And peermusic still punches above its weight in Latin music with contemporary writers including Gloria Trevi, Victor Manuelle and Prince Royce. “The Latin business, which has always been very important to us, has great respect for its past,” says Spanberger, so peermusic’s history with the genre gives it a competitive advantage. “Artists grew up hearing their parents play this music, they know it, and they identify with it.”


Spanberger, who bakes as a serious hobby — she recently earned a certificate from Le Cordon Bleu Patisserie School and is known for her cakes — says that peermusic’s established catalog and emerging talent boost one another in other ways as well.

“You do justice to your catalog by being in the contemporary market and having new songwriters,” she says. “You get greater credibility in the synch market; if you only pitch catalog, they only go to you when they need catalog material. So we’re always making sure we’re 90 years young.”


Nigel Elderton: The Rights Fighter
Seeking “more control over the value”

Nigel Elderton, president, Europe, and managing director, United Kingdom, for peermusic, guides some of the company’s most important international business at a time of unprecedented change.

A peermusic veteran who’s been at the company since 1991, Elderton oversees the work of some 40 employees in nine offices, all of which sign writers as well as manage peermusic’s international repertoire.

Right now, much of Elderton’s attention goes to the European Union-mandated shakeup of the Continent’s copyright collection societies, which now compete to license digital rights across Europe. (The collection societies will still maintain their national monopolies offline.) In practice, that means music publishers have to choose a collecting society to represent them.

Peermusic was one of the first publishers to withdraw its digital rights from the national collecting societies, and it now licenses its Anglo-American repertoire through IMPEL, an organization set up by independent publishers to take advantage of pan-European licensing opportunities. 

The idea is that, by aggregating rights from a few dozen independent publishers, IMPEL will have the scale it needs to make good deals and operate efficiently.

“The European Commission created this situation [with a directive that forced collecting societies to compete] and there’s a lot of complexity,” says Elderton, with a bit of British understatement. “But you have more control over the value of your rights.”

The other important development in Europe is the EU copyright reform process, which was originally expected to go badly for copyright holders, but has shown more promise of late. The current language of the legislation would push platforms like YouTube to do at least some screening for unauthorized content. Music creators and companies believe that would give them more leverage to strike better licensing deals.

“Right now, one of the problems is that the availability of free music has been depressing the market for paid music subscriptions,” Elderton says. “But the reform process has been very slow.”

All of these issues are important from what Elderton calls “the 35,000-foot level — you have to get the ecosystem functioning right or you can find hits and the money won’t come.”

In the meantime, peermusic has also invested in the online tool Syncsite, which lets music supervisors access its catalog. “And my job on a daily basis is more about finding great new songwriters.”

Among those he’s now working with are the pop-classical tenor Russell Watson (currently recording his next album in Rome) and the post-punk icons Public Image Ltd — about as wide a range as exists in popular music. “We have a broad spectrum of writers,” Elderton says, “and they’re all very busy.”


Michael Knox: The Country Partner
“We’re in it for the long haul”

As peermusic’s VP, Nashville, Michael Knox works close to the roots of the 90-year-old music publishing company. 

When founder Ralph S. Peer recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol, Tenn. in 1927, he created what many have called “the Big Bang” of country music.

Knox’s signing of singer/songwriter Michael Tyler — a distant cousin of Rodgers — proves that, at peermusic, the musical circle truly is unbroken. The publishing executive, who also manages Tyler, has been helping him develop as an artist and songwriter for three years.

“He contacted me online and I checked out his music,” recalls Knox. “He has a unique voice with a rock edge; he’s a country kid who looks like Justin Bieber. So I asked him to write a song a month for me, and he did that for two years. He developed his own style.”

That songwriting style already has paid off with “Somewhere on a Beach,” co-composed by Tyler, which Dierks Bentley recorded and sent to No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. This month, Tyler will release his debut album, 317, on Reviver Records.

Knox knows a country star when he sees one — he discovered and produces Jason Aldean. The two have collaborated on 16 No. 1 Country Airplay singles. He has produced songs for Trace Adkins and Thomas Rhett as well.

He’s also the son of Buddy Knox, a country and rock singer and songwriter who had several hits in the late 1950s and 1960s, including the 1957 song “Party Doll.” Knox says his father had his biggest hits on Roulette Records, run by the notorious Morris Levy, so he never got paid the royalties he was owed — which motivates him to do right by his own creators. “Seeing how this company takes care of writers,” he says, “I wanted to join them.”

Knox, who speaks with a Southern politeness — he refers to peermusic executives Ralph Peer II and Kathy Spanberger as “Mr. Peer” and “Miss Kathy” — supervises a select roster of songwriters and steers them toward lasting careers. Last fall peermusic renewed its publishing deal with Jaron Boyer, who co-wrote “Beach,” as well as several songs on Jason Aldean’s new album.

“I would rather have a writer have 10 hits, one a year for 10 years, than 10 singles in one year and then nothing,” Knox says. That’s how peermusic was built, and Knox says the company’s history can be helpful. “It’s an asset because it lets songwriters know we’re in it for the long haul,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how big the business around us gets — we’re still here.”