SONY/ATV MUSIC NASHVILLE: A Grand Publishing Tradition

In 1951 Nashville radio executive Jack Stapp and a New York media man named Lew Cowan founded Tree Publishing Company. Stamp’s part may have been funded by writer’s royalties from the hit song “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy.” That song was published by Acuff-Rose and written by its co-founder Fred Rose, who gifted the song to another broadcasting man, Harry Stone; Stone later gave half to his buddy Stapp.

In 1951 Nashville radio executive Jack Stapp and a New York media man named Lew Cowan founded Tree Publishing Company. Stamp’s part may have been funded by writer’s royalties from the hit song “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy.” That song was published by Acuff-Rose and written by its co-founder Fred Rose, who gifted the song to another broadcasting man, Harry Stone; Stone later gave half to his buddy Stapp.

A decade or so later, Tree would overtake Acuff-Rose as the top publisher in Nashville, and many years after that, Tree (by then Sony/ATV Tree) would buy Acuff-Rose. Now officially known as Sony/ATV Music Nashville, the company’s vast catalog includes such Nashville staples as “Heartbreak Hotel,” most of Roger Miller’s great hits, “Crazy” and other classics that formed the core of Patsy Cline’s career, all of Hank Williams’ and Don Gibson’s valuable copyrights, “Green Green Grass of Home,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and other songs recorded by most of the prominent country artists of the past 50 years.

The catalog also includes many pop hits, and Sony/ATV also controls the overseas rights to much of the magnificent Boudleaux and Felice Bryant catalog (“Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Rocky Top,” etc.).

Over the past 10 years the company has been a dominant force on Nashville’s Music Row, but we all know that times are changing and the company will also have to change if it is to maintain its position among Nashville’s greatest publishers.

Tree moved from a tiny nothing into its power position under the leadership of Buddy Killen-and then under Donna Hilley. At the beginning of 2006 the reins passed to a Troy Tomlinson, a youthful man from Portland, Tenn. who earned his spurs as a vice president for Acuff-Rose before it was acquired by Sony. He seems comfortable in his new position and welcomes the uncertainties of the industry’s future.

“I think it’s in a wonderful place,” he says, “but at the same time it’s kind of a cautious time, almost as if every opportunity that I will view as a benefit to the publishing world comes along with some baggage, if you will. So I have optimism for not only how far we’ve come, but where we’re going…but it’s cautious optimism.”

Like everybody else, he sees the digital revolution as the driving force in the industry, yet he acknowledges that we are in uncharted territory. And his naturally optimistic worldview is tempered by the unknown.

“…concerning digital delivery, whether it’s an XM broadcast being recorded or a song being downloaded from the Internet, or it’s a person duplicating CDs and giving them to all his friends…it cuts both ways; on one hand, as publishers, we’re very thankful and grateful that the consumer is enjoying our music. But on the other hand, maybe more than ever-at least in my lifetime-there’s great concern regarding whether we’ll be compensated properly.

“However,” he adds, “even with that being said, the vast number of pipelines that feed the consumer our music is so great that I have to believe inside me [that this] ultimately will build publishing companies into stronger businesses.”

The industry still operates under well-established standards that draw impressive income from airplay and nine-cents-a-copy royalties from record sales. But if terrestrial radio stations lose listenership to satellite stations, Internet stations and automobile CD players, and if major labels continue to lose sales to downloading sites, will the publishing companies feel the pinch?”

“Something’s gotta give at some point here,” Tomlinson cautions. “But for the near future, and by the near future I mean the next five years, it would seem to me that for the typical publisher like ourselves, (performances will continue to be) a large chunk of our revenues, and traditional mechanicals, the second largest chunk, synchronization third, and then other mechanicals, meaning downloads and such, growing ever year and growing at a greater rate-but for the near future traditional mechanicals to me the strongest of the mechanicals.”

Songwriter-Businessman: The New Hyphenate

As singer/songwriters become more entrepreneurial through the use of their own websites and other sites for promoting and selling their product, more of them identify the joys of a new model; it’s one where record executives and publishers are not looking over their shoulder, seeking to guide their careers for the glory of the bottom line. In this new model, writers and artists imagine themselves writing and performing the material they believe in, and then finding an audience with a deep abiding love for their music-instead of struggling to find a place for themselves in the mass marketplace. Will large publishers serve a purpose in the new marketplace? Tomlinson does not see that much change in the future of this realm.

“I think the guys who have that sort of entrepreneurial spirit…that five years ago would have recorded and duplicated their own album with their own songs and sold it on the road…are the same sort of guys that today will say, ‘I can do it myself. I can record my music myself. I can put it up on a website for easy access by people.’ But the sort of writers or writer-artists who five years ago would have said, ‘Man, I need a team around me to help me fulfill my dreams,’ are same sort of personalities that today would say, ‘I know there are a lot of different streams to get the music out there, a lot of ways to easily get it to the consumer, but I need a team around me…I need somebody that does this every day all day long.’

“I think a person who naturally has an entrepreneurial spirit will just love the period that we’re moving into right now; the person who’s not necessarily naturally an entrepreneur will still like the approach that we take as a traditional music publisher.”

Traditionally, most Nashville writers have tended to follow the path of the old Tin Pan Alley songwriters, in that they made their living strictly as writers. In the old Tree days, the writing staff often numbered more than 100; today most of the publishers on Music Row seem tilted toward signing artist-writers. Does Tomlinson intend to follow that trend to the point where the unhyphenated songwriter becomes an endangered species?

“My goal [in this company] is a healthy mix and balance of both,” he insists. “My goal is not to sign artists-as songwriters-simply because they are artists. But obviously, if we find an artist who is able to convey the emotions in their songs as a writer…and it’s compelling…then what a wonderful thing to have a writer/artist. Anybody with the resources can sign every singer that comes through the door as a writer, and they’re gonna hit on something sooner or later. I don’t think my bosses want me to operate like that. I think they expect me and my creative staff to be a bit more discerning than that and to be able to spot raw talent, whether it’s a writer/artist or simply a guy or gal who writes really great songs that other people could record. I must tell you that there is a certain special sweetness in signing a writer, demoing their songs, and having some artist that they have listened to on their own private radio for years, at home, record their song. There is a real special sweetness to that as a publisher that I still enjoy.”

Like nearly every major homegrown publishing company in the history of Music Row, what was once Tree and Acuff-Rose is now the property of the giant electronics company called Sony. Instead of answering to the boss in the office next door, as Buddy Killen did in the early days of Tree, Tomlinson answers to bosses in New York-different culture, different dreams. What’s it like sitting in Tomlinson’s third floor office, phone receiver in one had, trac-ball in the other?

“For years, all I have heard are horror stories about the corporate monsters pressing in on the local creative entities. I must be the exception. If I had drawn up myself a support team in New York, I could not have drawn up a better team than the one that we have. I feel nothing but support and a desire from New York that we succeed in Nashville. There’s no animosity, no unfair expectations. They always expect more than you think you can deliver, but I think this is actually a healthy relationship. I think they have very high expectations for this company because they know the quality of people we have-and the quality of music we have. They drive me and our staff to stretch toward those high expectations, and sometimes we are able to accomplish things that we otherwise might have not thought we could.”