Founded by legendary producer, arranger and musicologist Milt Okun in 1960, Cherry Lane has grown into a leading independent publisher with around 75,000 copyrights in all genres of music. It is not surprising that Okun (born 1923) started out as a music teacher for junior high students; a love of education, of setting positive examples within the industry, has permeated his career. For many years he has published Music Alive!, a not-for-profit magazine designed to instill a love of music within young people.
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Founded by legendary producer, arranger and musicologist Milt Okun in 1960, Cherry Lane has grown into a leading independent publisher with around 75,000 copyrights in all genres of music. It is not surprising that Okun (born 1923) started out as a music teacher for junior high students; a love of education, of setting positive examples within the industry, has permeated his career. For many years he has published Music Alive!, a not-for-profit magazine designed to instill a love of music within young people. His influence as a role model has recently been cited by younger producers such as Phil Ramone. Okun worked with some of the most notable artists of the 1960s, among them Peter, Paul and Mary; Laura Nyro, Harry Belafonte and Odetta. Near the end of the decade he discovered John Denver, guiding the young artist’s career through a path that eventually led to superstardom. Today, with a client roster that includes John Legend, Quincy Jones, and Ashford and Simpson, Cherry Lane continues to represent some of the industry’s most successful composers.
In person, Okun is dignified and genial. A California resident, he recently found himself in New York City to receive the Abe Olman Publisher Award at the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame gala. Reflecting upon his longstanding reputation for honesty within the industry, Okun says, modestly, “I don’t think it’s as special as people make out.”
American Songwriter: How did you make the transition from record producing into publishing?
Milt Okun: Before I was a record producer, I was just a musician/arranger, and I was doing arrangements of folk songs for Vanguard and Elektra Records. I would take my copyrights… arrangements of folk songs…to a well-known, large publisher. My wife once asked me [why I was] giving them the publishing, because they do nothing. They serve no purpose at all. So she said, “Why don’t we do it ourselves?” There was one other consideration: I was producing a very fine folk group, and I was writing some of the arrangements, so I was part writer on many of their songs. They were signed to one of the majors, and since I was their producer the publishing company treated me as part of [the group]…not as a writer. I noticed that they were kind of unblushingly trying to set up things in such a way as to maximize their part of the income and minimize the writer’s. I was very put off by that.
So you were doing it all simultaneously. You were producing, and you had a publishing company. Was that pretty unusual for the time?
Frankly, I was very naïve or stupid. I didn’t know that the “producer” was the producer. I thought the producer was the man who put up the money. So I insisted, on my records, to be listed as musical director and/or arranger. And this is before the Grammys were telecast. So a number of my records were nominated, and some guy from Warner Brothers Records would pick up my citations because I wasn’t listed as producer. I listed the group’s manager as the producer.
At what point did you start to realize that you needed to be credited as a producer, rather than just as a musical director?
Probably halfway through Peter, Paul and Mary’s career-certainly in time for John Denver. I thought I’d have a very easy time selling John Denver to a record company…it turns out it was a very tough time. I went through probably 10 or 12 companies in New York, and they all turned him down-not because they didn’t like his tape, but because folk [as a musical movement] was over. Even the famous John Hammond, the great talent finder, turned him down. I had one interesting experience…I went to [reputedly Mafia-owned] Roulette Records. Do you understand what that means? I didn’t. I had a little cassette tape, and I gave it to Morris Levy, who was the president. He said, “I don’t have to hear it. If you say he’s good, I’ll sign him.” I was in total shock. So I said, “I’ll need a deal of seven percent: five for John and two for the producer, me.” He said, “I’ll give you five.” I said, “I really need seven.” He said, “Put seven in the contract… you’re gonna get five!” So that night, when I mentioned this to my lawyer, he went bonkers. The very last place I went was RCA Records, and a wonderful man named Harry Jenkins played John’s cassette and loved him right away. Again I was in shock: he said, “What kind of a deal do you want?” I wasn’t prepared. I said, “We’d like an advance of $20,000.” He looked up sharply, and I realized I had overplayed my hand. I said, “But that’s for four records.” John happened on his fourth album. If it wasn’t for that silly mistake I made, he would have been history before he started.
There was an interview you gave in 1999, where you mentioned that the print division of the company had never been profitable. Is that still the case?
Publishing is like the cable business; it’s never profitable, but you’re building value. If you sell folios, there’s the return privilege. You never know how many to sell. You lose money on the winners as well as the losers. You print too many, or you print too few. It’s hard to get it right. And with the publishing division, if you’re building the company…if you’re expanding, you constantly have to lay out new monies. We were lucky when I was a successful producer. We never had to live off the publishing.
Another important figure in the history of Cherry Lane has been Okun’s wife of many years, Rosemary. Sharp and intelligent (she wrote the liner notes to Denver’s best-selling 1981 album with Placido Domingo, Perhaps Love), Ms. Okun helped steer the company through a rough period during the 1980s: “I came in and pretended to be the president, because nobody else had the courage at that point,” she says. After a year of organizing, sorting out contractual difficulties and getting the company back into shape, she came up with the idea of bringing in her nephew, Peter Primont, as president in 1986. Primont, a former systems engineer for AT&T, has acted as CEO of the Cherry Lane Music Group since 1990. Today, he oversees a New York staff of 70, plus offices in Nashville and Los Angeles.
What kinds of advantages are there to being an independent publishing company?
Peter Primont: Well, I certainly think that nowadays there’s a big psychological advantage with songwriters, their managers and attorneys, who hear all the crazy things that are going on with the major publishers. So right off the bat, you assume that there’s going to be a different kind of feel…and that hopefully the people you’re dealing with are still going to be around three months, or a year, from now. On the other side of the fence, there’s an advantage when we’re developing relationships with clients that might want to license music from us. Then again, you’re dealing with a smaller operation, a smaller catalogue-but our people are able to know the catalogue that much better.
When you’re reviewing and approving a license, how much interaction does your staff have with your songwriting clients?
I’d say quite a bit. We always speak with the clients to talk about the licenses. It’s a very close relationship.
Between synchronization and mechanical licenses, which do you feel takes up a greater amount of the company’s energies?
Definitely synchronization, for sure.
But you also keep your print division going…
Yes, absolutely. Although it’s not what we consider to be a large moneymaker for us, we think print is a very important component of the whole publishing world. We’re the only independent publisher that has a separate print division. It’s very important to have songs put in print, so that they’re used both on pianos and also in schools. The educational market is very important. Typically, print publishers only print the big hits, because that’s what sells. But since our goal is to publicize the songwriters and clients that we have, we are more than happy to print the non-hits, as such. They’re still great songs; they just may not have been vast commercial hits. It’s a way to publicize the music…and a way to get the music out into the consumer consciousness. I can’t specifically quote that we’ve ever turned a song into a hit just by printing it, but it’s interesting to see how people learn to love music through print, by playing the songs, learning them as a kid in school. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the song “The Volga Boatmen.” I learned it as a kid, and it stuck my head for 40 years…I can’t get it out of my head! You never know, if I ever become a TV or a film producer, I may use that in some horror flick.
What kinds of steps have you taken to expand Cherry Lane since the 1990s?
The first real leap that we did was to get away from just signing singer/songwriters-and look at getting involved in film and TV music. That was a big departure for us. Basically, we looked around and saw that the major publishers were not paying attention to film and TV. It gave us an opportunity. As an independent, not being required to stand by any specific set of instructions as to how we should operate, we find ways to zig and zag. That was one of the ways that we “zigged.” (Today, Cherry Lane’s production clients include DreamWorks Pictures and E! Entertainment Television.)
Is there anyone at the company who specializes in looking for new writers?
There’s nobody specifically that’s called upon to look for new writers, but our creative department-there are probably about 10 or 12 people in the department now-is requested to keep their ears open for new talent and bring it forward. Everybody is entitled to have a say. In fact, once a week, our creative staff gets together, and everybody is required to play one song for the rest of the group-something new that hopefully nobody else has heard. We’re always out looking.
What standards did Milt Okun set that are still evident in the way the company is run today?
Milt has always said…although this is an unwritten motto, “Without songwriters, we don’t have a company.” Therefore we have to treat every songwriter, regardless of how commercially viable they are or have been, as our most important client. Each should be treated individually and given the right level of respect that a king would be given. Because they are our kings.