How Nashville Publishers Pick Their Writers
It’s an elusive combination of traits that makes a songwriter win a music publisher’s attention. Quality songs are part of the equation, of course, as are the writer’s track record of hits and network of co-writers. But sometimes the writer’s drive and determination are what seal the deal. “I want a person who’s not only talented but is going to go for it with all they’ve got,” said Troy Tomlinson, President and CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing’s Nashville office. “Looking back on my first meeting with Kenny Chesney, I remember that determined look in his eye. That day at Acuff-Rose I saw something unique in the songs he played. But more importantly, he had this drive and intentionality when he talked about his songs and the people he was co-writing with. I knew that if we didn’t sign him, someone else was going to, because he was so driven.”
Fellow veteran publisher Pat Higdon, President, Universal Music Publishing Nashville, found similar qualities in Don Schlitz. His song “The Gambler” enjoyed monumental success when sung by Kenny Rogers, but afterwards Schlitz’s career began to stall. “Before I got to know Don, I considered him someone who had written one great song but may not be able to repeat that feat,” Higdon said. “But when I was at MCA, he wrote ‘Where Did We Go Right?’ with our writer Dave Loggins. As I got to know Don through that song, I soon realized he had a passion for what he wanted to achieve beyond ‘The Gambler.’ He was willing to dig in and work. So I signed him because I came to believe there was no way this guy was not going to succeed on a grander scale than he already had.”
Higdon signed Matraca Berg to his own boutique company, Patrick-Joseph Music, in the late ’80s for the same reasons he signed Schlitz: talent and determination. “When I was at MCA Music, I had developed a working relationship with her through the songs she wrote with Don Schlitz,” he said. “I also got a chance to work with her at Warner/Chappell Music in the early ’80’s. When I signed Matraca, it was not only because she was writing great songs, it was that she had ‘I want to be a successful songwriter’ written all over her face. She had the gift, and she had the passion to go after it hard. When you find people with both of those, you know that you should be in business with them.”
Publishers also look for more than just one hit song. “We always aspire to work with career songwriters and grow that long-term relationship,” said Ben Vaughn, Executive VP and GM, EMI Music Publishing Nashville. “I want to work with people that are going to write great songs over a long period of time, so I listen to a lot of their catalog. I pay attention to how they piece stories together. Signing someone is based on a gut call because their music makes you feel something. That is the key for me in deciding if it is somebody I want to do business with.
“When we signed Dallas Davidson and Rhett Akins, it was because there was really something in their songs,” he continued. “We felt that they could be hit writers, so we made a commitment to each of them and they made a commitment to us. We all rolled up our sleeves and went to work. And we’ve had a tremendous result because of it.”
The caliber of his writing alone persuaded Tomlinson to welcome Keith Gattis to Sony/ATV. “A few months ago, Keith walked into my office and played me a song that floored me,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s probably a fluke, or it’s the only outstanding thing he’s got to play me.’ But then I went on the press ‘play’ a second time, a third time and so on through an entire CD. I knew after the second song that I had to get this guy committed to me before he leaves this room.”
Drawn initially by songs that spoke for themselves, Tomlinson has since built a full working relationship with Gattis, whom he describes as “a great writer with artist sensibilities.” The hunch paid off: Kenny Chesney has recorded three Gattis songs for his next album.
The lesson here is that, considering the slim chances of anyone getting a publishing deal, those who do must come to the table with a determination that long odds cannot stifle. “I hear a lot of really good music from a lot of songwriters,” Tomlinson said. “But when I take the meeting with them, if there isn’t that drive, if they’re not ready to work as hard as we’re going to work for their careers, then I just can’t do it.”
By Sarah Skates