The State Of Music Publishing: Mark Meckel, Shawn McSpadden and Pat Finch Discuss

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Videos by American Songwriter

A wise man once said, “The times they are-a-changin’.” Another wise man added, “again.”

Well here we are in the 21st century (or is that next year?) and yet somehow, sometimes, it still seems like 1984. I mean we’ve got Kenny Rogers on the radio singing the same songs he always sang right along with Steve Wariner and Randy Travis. On top of that there is an all-out war over what country music really is or should be. Alan Jackson and George Strait are asking who killed country music, but we all know that happened in Texas and California in the early seventies. Don’t we?

Shawn McSpadden

A wise man once said, “The times they are-a-changin’.” Another wise man added, “again.”

Well here we are in the 21st century (or is that next year?) and yet somehow, sometimes, it still seems like 1984. I mean we’ve got Kenny Rogers on the radio singing the same songs he always sang right along with Steve Wariner and Randy Travis. On top of that there is an all-out war over what country music really is or should be. Alan Jackson and George Strait are asking who killed country music, but we all know that happened in Texas and California in the early seventies. Don’t we?

There are many young artists with promising careers and, let’s face it, plenty of songwriters to go around. Is this thing where big companies are buying small companies and then being bought by even bigger companies calming down? Are we strumming headlong into internet oblivion? Is country music or rock music even relevant anymore? Is country and rock music the only constant in a light speed race for all other music to become obsolete?

At most times these days the industry seems like that Kristofferson song Cybil Shepherd uses in the movie Taxi Driver to describe Travis Bickle. “He’s partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.”

I look at the Row Fax (a tip sheet for songwriters to see which artist is recording and what kind of songs they are looking for) and I see the artists looking for traditional country, hip country, pop country, lyrical integrity, no honky-tonk, and then one that’s always my favorite, “good songs.” Where do those good songs come from? The writers? Yes, but what about the writer’s left side of the brain?

We don’t often think of publishers in the grand scheme of things, but they truly are the skeleton key between a writer’s pen and the listener’s radio dial. So what is the state of the publishing industry today? Confused? Contradictory? Scared? Hopeful? Mercurial? Well, it’s all that and a bucket of fish and chips as yours truly found out from talking to several publishers of the large and small variety.

I posed the same question to several different publishers and found differing results on some topics and remarkably similar responses from others. I was first curious to know if the buyouts of smaller publishing companies would continue.

“Buyouts will continue for as long as major publishers are in the business,” Street Singer’s Mark Meckel predicted; “as long as there’s a race for the almighty dollar, and to be number one.”

On the other hand, Pat Finch of Famous Music Company said, “Seems the trend has to be nearing an end, if for no other reason than who’s left to buy? There are still many good individual artist catalogs out there and I think we’ll continue to see these on the market, but there just aren’t many big catalogs left.”

Shawn McSpadden of Word Entertainment agreed. “The trend of buyouts is going to continue based on the belief that bigger is better. It seems corporate America is thinking about market share and how content can be distributed through different channels. The problem with content is how much is it going to be worth? Will it be more valuable or less?”

The second question I asked was what the role of the independent publisher is in today’s marketplace and is it possible for an independent to start up and become successful? Everyone seemed to agree on this one.

Meckel feels that the role of the small publisher will remain the same- finding talented writers and making money. He also felt that more established writers will be starting their own companies. Finch feels that the major independents can offer the same perks as a major with more intimate attention. He added, “Now is the perfect time to start an independent company if you can do it small and remain mean and lean for the next ten years.”

My next question revealed some of the greatest concerns from two of the publishers that we polled. It is the matter of the internet and MP3. Judging from these answers, it really does feel like the music industry is experiencing an unprecedented push towards the next step in entertainment evolution. The problem, it seems, is that the charm of keeping music “simple” doesn’t work when it comes to the internet. Not only is music in jeopardy of losing its identity, it is also in danger of losing it’s place as a money making entity.

All three publishers saw the potential for positive results from the internet but warned of things to come if we don’t make a serious effort to get up to speed with this outbreak of new technologies.

Meckel feels this is an issue of the utmost importance for survival. “The internet has already affected publishing,” he says. “I know several writers who are actively co-writing on the internet. The downside is the infringement of royalties by companies like MP3 that allow free downloading of intellectual properties. This needs to be worked out or we will all be looking for new jobs. You need to dedicate a whole issue to this topic.”

Finch was pragmatic on the subject. “In my opinion, it will either expand our abilities to make more money for our writers in ways we don’t even know yet, or it will do away with professional music as we know it, because we weren’t able to as an industry to figure out a way to put a leash on free music downloads. If people aren’t getting paid, we’re all going to have to find new jobs. I’ve got a family to feed.”

On the other hand, McSpadden didn’t find any downside. He feels the internet creates opportunities for publishers of any size. “The ability to e-mail files is a great tool for pitching around the world.”

I also asked publishers what they are doing to help songwriters adjust to today’s community. Each publisher had a different opinion of their role in aiding the writers to thrive in the present-day marketplace. They did agree that the writer as an individual is the most important aspect of the writer/publisher relationship.

“I’m just trying to keep a level ship and I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the internet so I ca try to assimilate the information and pass it along,” Finch said.

McSpadden feels writers are looking for more opportunities in the marketplace. This means diversity. Many of the world music writers have cuts on country, Christian and pop at the same time. Folks at Word encourage writers to write anything and then try to find the songs at home.

Meckel feels his role is limited. “Writers write songs. You might say that a publisher could help a writer by saying, ‘stay true to your heart and just write a great song and I’ll try to find a home for it,’ or a publisher could say ‘don’t turn in any songs that aren’t pop, ‘cause nobody wants to hear it.’ I’m not aware that the publishing community is organized to help writers adjust.”

I also asked the publishers if they felt there were more or less opportunities today for songwriters than there were ten years ago. All three noted major changes in the film and television industry that have helped to open up doors for songwriters to find places for their songs. It seems while the technology poses a threat to copyright laws and royalty collection it also broadens the spectrum for market penetration to occur. Apparently the prospects of the Internet are two-fold. One, that it is the great change bringer and provider of endless content to the hungry consumer; the other, that it is the economic destroyer of a struggling business.

Meckel had an interesting viewpoint of this dilemma. “I believe the smaller independent publisher is where more writers are headed, back to the old days of one-on-one writer publisher relationship. You don’t need 60 writers to be successful.” He adds that there are so many untapped markets as a result of the internet that more small level success stories will start to crop up.

The internet may seem huge but it could actually bring out the inner songwriter in all of us. The question is where will this leave the big dogs with their fortresses, SUVs, and high salaries? Well, history says the big guys always find a way to regulate their territories. Only this time there isn’t a mechanized military machine to enforce the laws of intellectual properties. Or is there? At least the internet will keep the lawyers happy.

So what is the state of the publishing industry? I suppose that depends on whom you ask, which isn’t much different than asking different publishers what they think about the different songs. I suppose it’s par for the course not to know what will happen to the music industry. From talking to these industry veterans, I would say as long as there is a creative person with an idea the publishers will somehow find a way to help those creative types keep making that “money for nothing.”

“As we work to exploit content through technology and collect from these uses, we will see opportunity and monies continue to increase,” McSpadden believes. “The internet is obviously a big concern.”

“Technology is changing faster than the industry has been keeping up,” Finch observes. “We all need to do a lot better job or I’m afraid we won’t have one in ten years.”

Publishers will have to make a greater effort to keep up with the times, to ensure that people are not taking music from the internet and not paying for it. Doesn’t this sound like what they said about cassette tapes? If you remember, the concern was “Oh no, they’ll tape songs off the radio!”

When the chips fall and the dust clears there will be battle scars, new rulers crowned, a brief feeling of relief, a sense of belonging in the universe and then, more money, more songwriters and more publishers. Perhaps the songwriters will take over the publishing industry someday. Of course, that would actually mean they would have to pull themselves away from their guitars long enough for another writer to write the great song they would have been writing if they weren’t spending so much time online or at the keyboard.

When it comes to the paperwork and business side of the business, songwriters are lazy. That’s why they will always need publishers to take care of the details. Times will change again but we can all take solace in the fact that the song will live on and somehow, somewhere, someone will figure out how to make money from it for the writers, the artists and the publishers.

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