Rhett Akins signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell.
In an average week with a typical songwriter, that statement would be worth a line in the Billboard Country Update’s ’Round the Row section.
But Akins is not a typical songwriter, and the signing is not an average one. Akins is a two-time winner of the BMI country songwriter of the year trophy, a guy who has amassed 16 No. 1 singles on either Hot Country Songs or Country Airplay since 2010 (17 total, including his 1996 title “Don’t Get Me Started”).
And the deal is a professional family reunion for him with two executives — Warner/Chappell Nashville executive vp Ben Vaughn and Warner/Chappell chairman/CEO Jon Platt — who were at EMI Music when Akins began his run. They knew his work habits as well as his track record, and signing him became a priority.
“It’s not every day that you’re able to find diamonds on the street,” says Platt.
Akins hasn’t always been held in such high regard in his career. He tasted success as a recording act, earning a No. 1 single in August 1996 with “Don’t Get Me Started.” But the hits dried up after that. He made an independent album for Koch in 2004 and recorded another for BNA, only to have the label drop him without releasing it. By the fall of 2006, he was extraordinarily discouraged.
“It was just like, ‘What the crap am I doing?’ ” remembers Akins. “ ‘I’m 36, I’ve been here since I was 23, I’ve already gone up and down the ladder of the artist thing, and I’m kind of tired of playing that game and too old. What the crap am I going to do?’ ”
Akins had an artist/writer contract with EMI that required him to record 4.5 self-written songs per album, and without a recording deal, he was likely to lose that contract, too. He went to Vaughn with his figurative hat in his hand, asking for a chance to prove himself as a writer. Fortunately for Akins, Vaughn heard something in the album that BNA had decided not to release.
“The songwriting just killed me,” says Vaughn. “Just floored me.”
So he fought to keep Akins on the roster at EMI. The company as a whole was leery of the risk and gave Akins six months to prove himself under the existing artist/writer deal. Near the end of that term, Akins landed a Brooks & Dunn cut, “Put a Girl in It,” an upbeat, hook-filled affirmation of love penned with two of Akins’ frequent co-writers, fellow Georgians Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip, who collectively call their writing trio The Peach Pickers. It was destined to reach the top five.
EMI naturally gave Akins a full-fledged writing contract, and he became one of the most prolific hit writers of the last decade, authoring plenty of catchy, singable uptempo and midtempo titles, including Joe Nichols’ “Gimmie That Girl,” Frankie Ballard’s “Young & Crazy,” Rodney Atkins’ “Take a Back Road,” Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” Jason Aldean’s “When She Says Baby” and Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee” and “Boys ’Round Here.”
In every one of those songs, Akins took his own advice and put a girl in it. He has similarly made relationships key in his business life.
“He’s an awesome mentor to other artists,” says Vaughn. “He is them, he has been them. Some of the best artists in town, they lean on him for songs and for advice.”
When Platt started visiting Nashville in his role with EMI, Akins was the first songwriter Vaughn introduced him to. Platt was admittedly nervous in Music City, having worked his way up the ranks through hip-hop and R&B, with little exposure to country. He was caught off guard — happily — when Akins started grilling him about his past.
“We hit it off really big,” says Akins. “He’s such a fan of songwriters and music, and I was such a fan of all the ’80s and ’90s pop and hip-hop and artists that he’d been working with. We were just like buds from the moment that we met.”
Both Vaughn and Platt ended up at Warner/Chappell, while EMI’s sale in 2012 brought Akins’ contract into the fold at Sony/ATV. When that contract expired this year, Akins became a hot commodity. The publishing business is in crisis, with the shift to digital and the devaluing of the album reducing mechanical royalties that were essential to developing writers. Songs that get played on the radio or on streaming playlists are more important than ever, and that makes Akins valuable.
“He writes hits,” says Platt succinctly.
Warner/Chappell aggressively chased him, though the deal came close to folding. Platt gritted his teeth and agreed to a clause he usually views as a deal-breaker. He made an exception with Akins, but only because Akins is an exception as a writer.
“In different genres, if someone had 10 No. 1s, you would know they had 10 No. 1s, and you would know it to the point that they may not get to 11 because they’re so busy focusing on other things,” says Platt. “But to have  No. 1s and to act like this is still his first day doing this, you have to respect that.”
To that point, Akins pushed Vaughn to book writing appointments for him with new, upcoming songwriters in addition to his proven co-writers, such as The Peach Pickers. It’s a sign that he still remembers those dark days 10 years ago and that he’s determined to avoid repeating them by staying current. And he has: 2016’s hits include Bryan’s “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day,” Lee Brice’s “That Don’t Sound Like You,” Dustin Lynch’s “Mind Reader” and LoCash’s “I Know Somebody,” giving him around 30 top 15 singles. And Jon Pardi’s “Dirt On My Boots,” which debuted last week on Country Airplay at No. 49, could follow.
“More than anything, I want to combine what I’ve got going with what’s coming,” says Akins.
One other facet of the writer/publisher relationship for Akins extends to his family. When his son, Thomas Rhett, was studying kinesiology, he needed an internship to fulfill some of the college’s requirements. Akins asked Vaughn to consider Rhett as an intern. Vaughn took a meeting with the kid, and without hearing any music, he called Akins after the appointment and said, “Your son’s a star.”
“Some people just make an impression,” reasons Vaughn.
Vaughn set up a round of label conferences that led to Rhett signing with Big Machine’s Valory label. And that helps explain why Akins has restored his affiliation with Vaughn and Platt — as dismal as his outlook was when BNA dropped him in 2006, this relationship seems divinely guided.
“I have no doubt that the reason that record deal ended was for me to be at Ben’s office,” reflects Akins. “Thomas Rhett would’ve never had a reason to have an internship anywhere. That just opened the door for him to do what he’s doing. And for me to be where I’m at.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.