Publish or Perish: Publishing and A&R’s Lasting Impact on the Music Industry
By Cillea Houghton
According to music industry veteran Jim Ed Norman, “Music is a product of people gathering…sharing ideas, being creative together—and in that creative togetherness, in many cases, just extraordinary success stems from it.”
At the heart of music is songwriting, and at the epicenter of a song’s success is the publisher.
The important role of a publisher is to pair songs with artists while enduring the songwriter is compensated for their work, while an A&R director (artists and repertoire) aids in the artistic development of both artists and songwriters. Both roles serve a significant purpose at a record label and in music history. Two examples of these titans of industry are ASCAP Vice President Ralph Murphy and Terry Choate, former publisher for Tree Publishing Company and A&R director at Capitol Records. Murphy was introduced to the industry in 1965 in England during his early days as a solo recording act. “I was led to publishing by great writers who said, ‘You really need to find a publisher who will help you find other talented people to write with,’” Murphy explained. “The publishers are very dependent on recorded works,” he continued, describing the job of a publisher as finding works that connect with the listener. “Find the pieces that are relevant to the consumer that the consumer will lock onto. There is a symbiotic relationship between the publisher and the songwriter.”
“The genesis of the business is songs,” said Choate about A&R and publishing. “Publishing in itself is not as important to the industry as it is to the protection of the copyrights of the songwriters.” Choate spent several years working for Tree Publishing (now owned by Sony/ATV Music Publishing), a journey that showed him all elements of the publishing and A&R industry. He started at the company working in the mailroom but taught himself the process of engineering, which led him to producing demos and records. His time at Tree was a valuable one, introducing him to world-class songwriters and artists. “Tree Publishing was, and still is, the largest publisher of country music in the world. That in and of itself had a huge impact on the industry,” Choate said about the significance of the Music Row giant.
“I was lucky to be around some of the very best, most talented songwriters ever,” Choate commented. “That group of writers we had at Tree? They were on fire. They almost couldn’t write their songs fast enough for us to get them cut.”
Just some of the writers he’s referring to include Bobby Braddock, Red Lane, Roger Miller and Don Cook, who collectively have written hits for stars like Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson and countless more. This diverse range of songwriters, coupled with the incredible music they created, is just one of the reasons Tree saw astounding achievement.
“The neat thing about that publishing company at that time is everybody was pulling for everybody else,” he said of Tree. “It was without question one of the most musical places I had ever been. I learned the importance of revering songwriters. That’s where it all starts and stops.” The spirit of Music Row was a key factor not only in Choate’s experience at Tree, but in the success of country music as a whole. Choate described the atmosphere of the area as one that was both vivacious and welcoming. “It was a big musical community. All the record labels and publishers were in close proximity to each other,” he described, saying how he could spend the better part of the day pitching songs to his neighbors on the Row. “It was very cool. And you’d run into all kinds of people while you were out doing your job.”
But Tree wasn’t the only power player on Music Row, with Choate naming Acuff-Rose Music, the product of a collaboration between industry legends Fred Rose and Roy Acuff, as a key force in the industry. “Acuff-Rose was Tree’s biggest competitor back in those days…They were smart enough early on to realize the value of copyrights and songs.” Rose and Acuff joined forces in 1942 to form Nashville’s first major country music publishing company, with both figures becoming prominent figures on the Row. The company experienced great success with artists Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers and more. But the company’s most significant impact came not only through the hits it produced, but by the owners’ desire to conduct fair business, as many acts in country music had encountered corrupt industry executives and unfair copyright issues.
Roughly 10 years later, Jim Denny and Webb Pierce would begin Cedarwood Publishing Company in 1953, creating another big competitor in the publishing world. Much like Rose and Acuff, Denny had a strong connection to the Grand Ole Opry, where he served as manager, booking acts and determining the show’s lineup.
Going into business for himself in 1956, Denny worked as a publisher and manager with acts including Minnie Pearl, Ray Price and Jimmy Dickens. His decision to move his offices to Music Row made him one of the first music executives to move to that historic area. The continuous hits churned out by his writers earned him the title of Country and Western Man of the Year by Billboard magazine in 1955.
“The independent publishers played a role that they had in those early days with just these amazing, phenomenal songwriters,” said current Curb Group CEO Norman, who’s the former head of Warner Brothers Records, record producer, A&R director and previous owner of three publishing companies (Jensing Music, Jensong Music and Jedi Music). Describing Acuff-Rose, Cedarwood and Tree as “the big three,” Norman would frequently travel to Nashville “and would go and spend hours at Tree Music, listening to songs and people would come in and play them,” adding that he’d then visit Acuff-Rose and have a similar experience. “It was just, again, a very inspiring, wonderful kind of experience coming from those people, the true ‘music’ people.”
Fast forward to the future where people like Murphy have had their own storied pasts in the industry. Murphy started his career as a young solo musician and worked his way through the music world to become a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. The ASCAP VP immersed himself in the world of publishing when he and Roger Cook started Picalic Music in 1977. “We started a publishing company with three songs, a chair and a telephone,” he said of the business.
The company made a name for itself on Music Row, generating success in its first year in business when Crystal Gayle’s “Talking in Your Sleep” hit No. 1 in 1978 – a rare accomplishment for a new publishing company. “We were very lucky to do that,” Murphy said about having a No. 1 record their first year. They continued to have success with Gayle and a roster of hit songwriters, along with a Grammy nomination for Don Williams’ No. 1 hit, “I Believe in You.”
Hand in hand with the work of a publisher is the title of A&R director, with Choate saying that the former often becomes the latter “whether they want to or not.” “A lot of times, publishing companies act as A&R developers because they’re right there at the very start of the process, which is the song,” he said.
So what exactly does an A&R director do?
“A&R takes it from the song, to the artist, to the public. They’re the engine that makes it go down the track,” Choate described. A significant element to the role of A&R is collaboration with the artists, helping them decipher who the best producer is and what songs are a strong fit for them. Overall, an A&R director collaborates with the artists, finds out what they want and sells their ideas to labels, working as an advocate for the artists.
“Knowing what the expectation of the producer or the A&R person is really, really important,” says Murphy. “The publisher is supposed to keep their eye on the ball and on the interchangeable parts,” referring to the A&R staff and their responsibility to find up-and- coming artists through multiple means, including attendance at showcases that are a hub for promising talent.
How are publishers able to match the right song with an artist?
Choate says it’s a combination of intuition and creativity, as opposed to a formulaic process. “It’s an instinct that you have,” he said. “But a lot of times, I got songs cut because I would take a great song to an artist that you wouldn’t ordinarily think they would like this song— pitching outside the box.”
Pairing a song with artists who manage to make their way to the top of the charts is the most rewarding aspect of being a publisher, according to Choate. “From a publishing standpoint, there’s nothing more gratifying than to see one all the way through,” he said, referring to a song that hits No. 1.
But the process of getting a song to that coveted position is no easy feat. It involves many layers, including recording the demo, pitching the track and experiencing an artist connect with a song so much that he or she records it. Then, once the song is recorded, it must then clear the hurdle of making the album and then be released as a single. The next step is to see if it climbs the charts, reaping the benefits when it does. “To see one go all the way like that is pretty gratifying,” Choate said of the experience.
One of the most important elements of the business of A&R and publishing is being able to nurture the talent you’re working with. Murphy says the way to accomplish that is by “nudging” the talent in a way that helps them grow while keeping their dreams alive, in addition to “looking for the ‘gift of perception’ in a songwriter.” This camaraderie found in the publishing and songwriting community is what Norman describes as a “campfire,” saying “it becomes the thing around which people gather and share ideas that become the generator in many cases of just enthusiastic response for what someone is doing.”
On the other hand, Choate believes that one of the best ways to nurture an artist is to connect them with similar talent that will foster a thriving relationship. “One of the best things publishers do if they’re doing their job is being able to connect their songwriters with other songwriters to co-write,” he said, along with introducing them to producers and other artists. “That’s so important, making those connections—not just attaining the connection, but maintaining it. I think the maintaining part is the most important part.”