David Ross Recounts 30 Years of Monitoring Nashville’s “MusicRow”
“MusicRow” founder David Ross. Photo credit: Isabel W. Ross
When David Ross moved to Nashville in 1981, it wasn’t to become a publishing mogul. After a decade of performing in the Boston area, he came to Music City to concentrate on songwriting but soon realized he needed a part-time job to support his family. Sifting through possibilities, he hit upon the idea of launching an information trade sheet that would list music-related companies and services. He named his fledgling publication MusicRow, a stroke of luck he sees as fortuitous.
“The name was so powerful,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it wasn’t already taken. I’d love to tell you it was the result of a massive marketing campaign, but it really just hit me like an apple falling from a tree. Of course, it was primitive in the beginning. It was certainly no New York Times. But people loved the idea that it was local. There was nothing local like it for the music industry at the time.”
Over the years, the magazine went from door-to-door hand delivery, to 12 color issues a year, to publishing biweekly (23 issues per year). Paid subscriptions and industry advertising boosted the bottom line. RowFax was introduced in 1992 to capitalize on the advent of fax machines, disseminating breaking news, song pitch lists and gossip each Friday to industry professionals.
Eventually, Ross reduced the number of print issues while rebuilding the magazine’s website as an instant source of information and news. Online subscriptions drove readership to an all-time high. MusicRow even debuted the first-ever HTML music trade newsletter. “None of our competitors had one, so for a couple of years, we owned breaking news,” he said. “We could send out stories as they happened. It was a powerful differentiator for us. We’d always been ‘the little guy,’ and now suddenly technology had given us a way to get a leg up on our competition.
“I never believed we were in the magazine business,” Ross elaborated. “To me, it was always the news and communication business. So as the industry morphed, whether it was a change from cassette to CD or from analog to digital, the pathway or the litmus test for coverage remained the same: to reflect reality. Only the vehicles we used to travel it changed. With Internet and email, the time frame for distributing news and information is shrinking rapidly. The window of relevance for news is now measured in minutes and hours, not days and weeks.”
Today, MusicRow has more than 34,000 Twitter followers. Traffic on MusicRow.com has swollen to more than 3 million page views per year. Annual directories and special issues such as “In Charge” and “The Artist Roster” are widely considered essential for anyone doing business in the Nashville music industry.
Ross sold the publication to SouthComm in 2008; it was later purchased by Sherod Robertson, former CFO of SouthComm in 2010. “I’m proud of MusicRow’s legacy and all the people that have contributed to its success,” said Ross. “We found a way to do something that very few magazines or newspapers have done, to transition successfully into the digital era. We created a hybrid model that delivers news and information across a variety of channels and formats.”
Though outspoken opinions and controversial critiques are no strangers to its pages, MusicRow has always been committed primarily to support for the music industry while striving to maintain a neutral, fair perspective. But it’s never been easy to communicate this in a media environment where people are quick to assume bias and trust is a fragile commodity. “It took years to acquire that reputation,” Ross recalled. “But I always realized it could easily be lost. It meant always going with stories based upon merit and not just highlighting friends.”
Looking back on MusicRow’s success at maintaining that balance between advocacy and objectivity, Ross admitted, “I’ve been very fortunate. The town may not have always liked what we wrote, but they supported us doing it. From the beginning, I always felt an obligation to try and be supportive and constructive to the industry. Sometimes that meant being honest. It meant cheering the successes but maybe sometimes also subtly pointing out things that weren’t right.”
Ross credits the local music community for his publication’s ongoing support and the Country Music Association for creating a positive, cooperative environment in Nashville. “CMA has always been a place where executives and companies take off their competitive hats and work together for the good of Country Music and the format,” he said. “CMA has been the catalyst that’s enabled Country Music to march with a voice and orchestrate its best interests.”
By Kip Kirby