Nashville songwriters may be fewer in numbers than in years past, but they can rest well knowing that hits still pay well.
"The good news is a country hit is still worth as much as it's ever been," said Jody Williams, VP, Writer/Publisher Relations, BMI Nashville, at the second annual Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville.
And there are many opportunities for publishers to get a song into the market, added John Barker, Founder and President, ClearBox Rights, such as synchronization uses and video games. "I'm optimistic about the future because now we so many more outlets for songs to be available."
But publishers don't have it easy, either. "We've all lost a lot of income to the decline of mechanicals," said Pat Higden, president, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville. As album sales have declined over the years, the amount of mechanical royalties publishers earn from those sales has fallen (the full mechanical rate paid to publishers is 9.1 cents per track). In fact, Higdon claimed that three years ago Universal Music Publishing lost 45% of mechanical revenue that has yet to return to the company's books.
Fewer mechanical royalties from album sales means an album cut might not recoup a publisher's investment. The result is a market that is almost completely hit-driven, said Chris Dubois, partner at Sea Gayle Music. "If you're a publisher and you're not getting singles, you're not surviving." And while Dubois agreed that digital has breathed life into mechanicals, he cautioned that mainly singles were the beneficiaries.
BMI and ASCAP are currently renegotiating their deals with radio stations, noted Williams, and the interim agreement has reduced BMI's collections of radio performance royalties by about $4 million.
Perhaps the biggest change in Nashville is the rise of the artist-songwriter. As labels seek out artists who can both perform and write songs, publishers are finding the best way to get their songs onto albums is for their songwriters to co-write with recording artists.
But it's a controversial aspect of today's artist development in Nashville. "There is a misconception with artists over the last few years that just because you have a record deal you are all of a sudden a songwriter," said Higdon. "Every artist is not a songwriter. There have always been those great artists that didn't write that just interpreted songs, and we still need those in the format."
It's just a fact of doing business in Nashville today if you want to get a song recorded, said Dubois. "The reality of it is if you're not getting cuts you're not making money then you're not going to be doing it for long. I think a big part of publishing has shifted from song-plugging to politically positioning your writers to have the best opportunity of getting cuts. That means trying to infiltrate the little camps that exist around town, around artists."
Carla Wallace, co-owner and VP Creative of Big Yellow Dog Music, takes a balanced approach to working with artists. "If it makes sense for Josh Kear to write with Lady Antebellum because musically it's a good match, then that's great."