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Interview with TROY TOMLINSON, publisher for Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts (both No.1 US) - Dec 10, 2007

“Without a passion for the music and a respect for the songwriter, I would discourage anyone from getting into music publishing,”

picture ... so advises Troy Tomlinson, reaffirming the importance and position of what is often forgotten in today's music industry - the song!

Tomlinson is a veteran of the Nashville publishing industry, and as President/CEO of Sony/ATV Publishing, is working with country stars like Kenny Chesney (No.1 US) and Rascal Flatts (No.1 US).

He talks with HitQuarters more generally about the publisher's work (not strictly in relation to country), and about how to give all you can when pitching songs and making sure your catalogue is always in the awareness of those who may want to use it.

How did you make your entrée in the world of music publishing?

I began my career at Multimedia Entertainment in 1984 as Professional Manager of the Nashville division. Cliff Williamson of Multimedia Publishing gave me my first opportunity in publishing and multimedia.

Jerry Bradley gave me an opportunity to move to Acuff-Rose Music in 1988, where I stayed for almost fifteen years. They’ve both really been considered mentors for me in the publishing world.

Sony/ATV Music Publishing acquired Acuff Rose in 2002 and I was hired as Vice President Creative. In December 2005, I was promoted to President and Chief Executive Officer.

What was significant in the learning process of the music business?

What Cliff taught me in the early years was the value of the song and the pre-eminence of songwriters within our industry. The songwriter is at the very top of the creative hierarchy. Without a songwriter and a great song, everything else just doesn’t work.

What I learned over the years at Acuff-Rose had more to do with the day-to-day operation of a publishing company. Contract negotiations and sub-publishing deals. Though I remained a creative for many of the years at Acuff-Rose, I was slowly transitioned into a more executive role where I learned the ins and outs of the day-to-day operations of a publishing company.

What skills are necessary for a publisher to have?

Obviously, there has to be a love and a passion for the music. Without a passion for the music and a respect for the songwriter, then I would discourage anyone from getting into music publishing.

First and foremost, a passion for the song, the songwriter and the music. In addition to that, inter-personal skills are a must.

You must be able to take rejection with a smile. You must have thick skin. And be able to go in to pitch songs that you believe in knowing that the person you’re playing them for may very well pass on each one of them.

You still have to carry yourself in such a way that even though you’re disappointed that the person has passed on the music, you want to leave that room with that individual desiring to call you back again and to ask you to come back again later.

The ability to talk to people in a positive manner and to relate to people on their level. And to be interested in other people, just as in any sales type job. Just to actually be interested in the people that you have to do business with.

What does your work as CEO mainly involve?

I still try to identify and sign new writers and new writer/artists. I do more negotiating of actual deals now more than ever before. I’m responsible for the operational budget of Sony/ATV Nashville. I’m responsible for the creative staff at the company as well as the synchronisation staff that pitch our songs for film, TV and commercials.

There’s the Sony/ATV Music Publishing that my boss, Martin Bandier, runs, but everything I’m talking about simply relates to the Nashville division of Sony/ATV.

Which different styles do you cover?

The Nashville office is still primarily day-to-day focused on country music. Although, now and again we are able to secure some cuts outside of the country music market. Maybe in the contemporary Christian or in the pop market.

What projects are you currently working on?

We work very hard to help some of our biggest artists with setting up co-writings for songs that they may record themselves. We are also busy pitching songs that are written by our other songwriters to our writer/artists.

I work with Kenny Chesney in setting up co-writings for him to try to write things for his upcoming project. But in addition to that I will be taking songs by our other writers and pitching them to Kenny to try to get him to record them.

I’m doing the same thing for Rascal Flatts. They write for us. Taylor Swift is a wonderful new artist that we’re just so blessed to have on our roster and we’re encouraging her in new co-writing opportunities.

What do you offer artists when you sign them?

The range is just a super wide. It’s according to whether they’re strictly a songwriter or whether they’re a writer/artist.

Obviously, we can pay higher advances for writers who we believe have artist potential as opposed to a brand new songwriter who simply is going to have to try to get their songs cut by other artists.

What kind of advances are we talking about nowadays?

In country music, a brand new straight ahead songwriter who’s never had anything recorded could ask for and receive $30,000 a year as an advance. If that person were a writer/artist, who we really thought will have a great potential of getting a record deal for, then that amount would obviously be more than that.

Writers often complain about the big publishers because they sign them but then they don’t do anything for them …

It’s very easy for a larger publisher to fall into that place where they’re simply expecting the writer to deliver their own recordings. We work diligently in order for that not to take place at our company.

We have a very proactive, deliberate, intentional program of ‘touching’ our writers - meaning communicating with them via the telephone and in person as well as constant communication in email form. We’re never more than a few days from touching our writers in one of those manners. We have to be deliberate and intentional in doing it, otherwise you can very easily have someone feel like they have slipped through the cracks. And we don’t want that to happen.

Isn't there a downside for songwriters with exclusive deals, with many songs getting locked and thereby causing frustration?

I don’t find that to be something that we’ve had to deal with. We do a few single song type agreements to pitch.

If someone has a few songs that we really like, but maybe they’ve got a full time job and they’re not looking for an advance, then they just want us to pitch some of their songs. Now and again, we will enter into those sorts of deals, but generally speaking we want to jump in all the way.

If we’re going to give our teams time and effort to pursue getting recordings for someone, we want to go in and enter into an exclusive agreement and really try to build a long term relationship.

You signed Kenny Chesney as a songwriter before he was a major star. How do you manage to attract this kind of stellar talent?

I was very fortunate that a friend of mine, Clay Bradley (HQ interview), was working for BMI at the time, and Kenny got an appointment with Clay.

Clay called me up and said, “I met this kid today from East Tennessee. He’s a good singer, a good songwriter, and more than anything, I think you’re going to really like him as a person.” I agreed to take a meeting with him. Kenny came in and played me five songs.

First of all I was attracted to the songs, because I thought that he painted great pictures in his lyrics, particularly for someone who had not been around the typical Music Row co-writes. I thought that he sang very well too, but more than anything there was a kind of this ‘I-will-do-it’ look in his eyes. I was really drawn in by the fact that he was so set on being successful in this business.

I could have never ever dreamed on that day fifteen years ago that we would have experienced the nice ride that we’ve experienced. He had the same drive, the same focus, the same intentionality fifteen years ago that I’ve seen today. As a matter of fact, it may even have somewhat intensified today. He is the most focused artist that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with day-to-day for that period of time.

Besides the Sony/ATV catalogue, where do new songs come from?

ASCAP, BMI, and CESAC. All three do a very good job of filtering a lot of new songwriters and passing them along to us to ask us to take meetings with them. I have to applaud all three of the publishing rights organisations here in Nashville for the work that they do in helping us find new talent.

In addition to that, the majority of the writers that we sign come to us as referrals from other songwriters that we work with. They can meet a young kid in one of the In The Round shows and bring a CD over.

What does it take for the material to grab your interest?

I want to hear a lyric expressed in a way that is not typical. I want to see pictures that are painted in the lyric that aren’t just mundane every day sort of pictures. I want something lyrically that’s compelling and draws me in from a visual perspective.

Melodically, I need something compelling. Not just a stock melody, but something that draws the listener in. A melody that has highs and lows and movement, rather than just something that’s been done before.

Who decides if a song is picked and a writer will be signed?

We have four song pluggers. They and I talk about new writers and whether we ought to sign someone or not. We try to have a consensus. We don’t necessarily have to have consensus in order to sign someone. All I really need is for one of us to say, ‘I will take responsibility for this and make it happen.’

That’s all I really have to ask, but I love it when I have a general consensus among the five of us that we should move forward on a signing.

Regarding signings, if you love the music can you be completely uncompromising, or must you always consider the market?

I would love it if we could simply sign music that we personally love. However, all five of us have different musical tastes. Each of us has to ask himself whether they personally find this writer’s work attractive or not. But the ultimate question is, do we as a team believe that this person’s work can find its way through the competitive arena that we work in? Can it be something that the public will accept and embrace?

When you’re pitching, what’s important in the way you present the songs?

Fortunately for us, all of our writers do a very good job of demoing their songs and presenting them in a way where the lyric can be understood, and where the melody can sort of shine through the instrumentation of the demo.

It’s important that the demo is a good clean presentation of the song. And we as song pluggers have a responsibility to present that song in its best light, with regard to how we approach the pitch.

We need to go in positive. We need to go in with an upbeat disposition, hoping to present our song and our writer in the very best, most professional successful way.

How do you work with A&R?

We work very closely with A&R. A large percentage of our songs get recorded each year via A&R representatives and all of the record companies. We cherish the relationship that we have with A&R.

Are you trying to find new ways of using music?

The revolution of digital delivery has caused us to question or constantly look for new ways to utilise technology in order to get more uses for our songs. There’s of course a lot of opportunity there. Obviously, we’re still working through some of the means of being paid when we use these digital sources of delivery. But we’re all hopeful and encouraged at the prospect of what digital delivery can do.

It seems that we have a greater demand for music than ever. And we have an easier means of delivering music than ever. My hope is, as we do evolve with this new delivery form, that we will all benefit from it – the publishers, the writers and the record companies too.

How can you make sure that your music is at the forefront of somebody’s mind when they’re on the look out for new material?

We use a couple of things. First of all, if it pertains to albums that are being recorded, we try to stay on top of things primarily through the A&R representatives. The A&R traffic in our building is heavy. Every day we have A&R people, producers, managers that are in our offices. We try to stay on top of things with them for ongoing recording projects that way.

Secondly, we have CD samplers that we continue to use for ad agencies and creative people at the film companies and television. We have samplers of our biggest hits from the catalogue that we give them.

We’re also of course using the Sony/ATV website. There is a service in there that allows our clients to be able to get deep within the site and stream music in order to consider it for projects.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of placing songs in movies or TV?

We simply have to be very careful that the use will work well over a long period of time for any song that might be requested. We want the integrity of the song to be maintained in the use that’s being proposed. We have a healthy respect for the songs that the creators of which placed in our hands. They have asked us to be stewards of those songs.

We take seriously every request that comes through our door to use them. And we try to make sure that the integrity of the song is maintained throughout any use that we might license.

Who do you contact to place your music in TV and film?

For film, TV and commercials, the person in the Nashville office who tries to keep our Nashville catalogue on top of mind in that sync world, is Marc Wood.

Marc Wood and his team have placed Sony/ATV music in ad spots for Hallmark TV and the Dr. Pepper soft drink brand, major films (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby with Will Ferrell, RV with Robin Williams and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) and numerous songs in HBO's popular series The Sopranos.

We also work very closely with the Los Angeles Sync office as well as the New York Sync office. We communicate very well with them. Of course, in LA they will hear of film needs quicker than maybe we will in Nashville. And in New York they might hear commercial needs quicker than we will. We work very closely with them to keep our Nashville titles in front of film, TV and national advertising agencies.

How do you get paid, with regards to sync licenses?

Generally with sync licenses it’s a negotiated fee according to the use. What the use is, how long they intend to utilise our song. It’s fee based.

In regards to royalty rates, does every writer get a standard contract or do they negotiate about every submission?

The exclusive publishing agreement that we enter into with a writer - the umbrella agreement if you will - contains the rates and the splits. Whether they have 25% of the publishing or whether they have 50% of the publishing or whatever the deal might be, is all laid out in the exclusive publishing agreement.

If we enter into a new deal, which is a three years publishing deal, then that three years will be governed by that contract. So we don’t have to go back and forth all of the time during that time.

How far are you from your overall goal of creating ‘a place of excellence’?

I think we have reached it. Sony/ATV to some degree has always been a place of excellence. The publishing company Tree and Acuff-Rose, who are the two largest catalogues that make up Sony/ATV, were already places of excellence.

What I’ve intended to do and what I believe we make progress on every day, is looking at everything that we do and the way that we do it and asking ourselves, can this be better? Can we do it more effectively? Can we do it more efficiently?

And are we impacting the lives of our employees and our writers positively? Are we making life for them better, obviously to the extent that we can control that? And as we do that, I believe we just get better and better and better, and exhibit more excellence in what we do.

Interview by Kimbel Bouwman

Read On ...

* Rascal Flatts songwriter busbee on the value of PROs to unsigned writers
* Interview with Clay Bradley, A&R at Sony Music Nashville for Gretchen Wilson, Josh Turner