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Career Overview: Signs Songwriters to write demos, then pitches these demos to artists and labels as possible cuts on their records. They also pitch recordings for use in film, TV, and commercials.
Career Salary Range: $20,000 to $1,000,000+
Become a Music Publisher
“I sign Writers to a contract exclusively to my company,” says Ree Guyer Buchanan, Music Publisher and President/Co-owner of Wrensong/Reynsong, whose catalog includes songs recorded by big names in country music like Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith and Carrie Underwood. “I give them a draw [or advance] and I sign them for x amount of years, believing they’re going to make money for my company. They write songs every day and turn in work tapes at the end of the day (guitar and vocals for what they wrote that day). After a month or so, we’ll sit down and go through those songs and find the four or five we need to demo and make sure that it sounds like some major artist. There’s a whole culture of demo musicians who just go in studio every day and cut the demos of Writers and try to make them sound more geared towards Tim McGraw or something like that. My job is to make sure we’re picking the best songs they’re writing. I take the demos and go play them for Producers who are producing records for any number of artists. We’re called Song Pluggers. I spend my days out trying to get these songs cut on artists’ records. I play them for Producers, A&R people, Managers, and directly to the artist. My goal is to get on as many records as we can. When we get placed on a record we want to not only be on a record but get the single, which are the songs you hear on the radio.”
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Music Publishers begin their careers in a few ways: as Songwriters who set up their own personal music publishing companies to keep their own rights, as entrepreneurs who purchase several Songwriters’ musical catalogs and set up their own publishing company, or as Assistants who work their way up. The traditional career trajectory for someone who starts as an Assistant would be to work their way up to Coordinator, then to Director. Then, depending on how the company is structured, upward career moves would mean assuming roles as Senior Manager/Director, Head of Licensing, and Vice President before finally attaining a CEO/President position. For those who have established their own company, advancement means signing or attaining the catalogs of Songwriters with proven hits and strong reputations, which will then help the Music Publisher to start working with more famous names (and therefore make more money).
Education & Training
Attending a Music Business degree program won’t just give aspiring Music Publishers the academic knowledge they need to understand how the industry works. These programs also provide internship and networking opportunities that can set students up to find jobs right out of college. “The music business is a very ‘who you know’ business,” Ree says. “Most businesses are that way. If somebody really wanted to be in music — I wish I had this when I was growing up in the business— Nashville has four colleges that do music business programs. I would go to one of those programs. I think Berklee does a really good one, too. Belmont and MTSU [Middle Tennessee State University] and Vanderbilt have got programs and internships. I’ve gotten two of my best employees from internships and they came out of Belmont.
If they have an interest they can do an internship at a publishing company. I’d take them in because I get an intern every semester, and many, many, many kids get their jobs that way. The cool thing is you can try a management company, a record company and try all kinds of different businesses so you can really get an inside view of the music business.”
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Experience & Skills
Although work experience and a knowledge of musical history will help aspiring Music Publishers progress in their career, an innate love for the music and a gut feeling about what people want to hear are the real keys to success. “The most important thing is to be passionate about country music,” Ree says, about working as Publisher on Nashville’s Music Row. “If you’re going to be in Nashville, you have to love country music. [You must] have a great ear, which we talk about a lot. You have to really know that you know what a hit song is. Music publishing is where the songs start and if you don’t know what a hit song is you’re not going to do well. It’s a very instinctual thing. I’ve always known by intuition what was a hit and what wasn’t. I get butterflies in my stomach, kind of. It’s a feeling.”
Music Publishers need “that passion and knowing country music inside out, really knowing every artist, every record. I study records.” She adds, “What I do is very much of a sales job. I’m a salesperson. I’m trying to convince people to cut the songs; it’s a lot easier when you’ve got a great song.”
Working as Music Publisher requires strong business relationships and networking abilities, so an outgoing personality will take to the job much easier than someone who’s very reserved. “In general, this is a very social business,” Ree says. “You have to want to be social. I’m out doing an event probably three nights a week. It’s something I really have to be doing.”
Although Music Publishers typically hold regular office hours, they also spend some time off-the-clock checking out Songwriters and artists to see if they can build a working relationship with them. “I’m usually not working on the weekend,” Ree says, “but definitely during the week, I’m going to showcases. Labels will have showcases for a new act they’re trying to sign and you’ll go out to see what you want to pitch to them, what kinds of songs you want to get them. It’s a lot of nighttime events during the week. We work regular office hours, but a little more lax, like 9:30am-6pm. It is long hours in that you do always have to be at events. Showcases happen at six at night so you might still be home at seven. It’s very flexible. I do a lot of meetings with people, but really every day you’re doing something different.”
To land a first job in music publishing, Ree recommends either attending a Music Business degree program and interning or reaching out to people within the industry who are relevant to your career path. She says, “I’ve had a lot of people do research. Now it’s so easy to find out about people. When I started I was going through the phone book, but now you can use Wikipedia or Google to find out who all the Publishers in Nashville are. Then you can go search them on their website and find out if you like their music or their Writers.
When I was starting out, I didn’t know a soul in Nashville. I would do the research then I cold called people and asked if they’d go have coffee with me, [saying] ‘I’d like to know what you do and know more about your Writers.’ I do that. If people take the time and have researched me and want to get to me, I’ll give them time. I think most people in this town would. And there are so many events in this town that you could find out what events are going on and research people and meet people. That’s how social it is.”
Earnings for a Music Publisher can vary wildly, depending on the size of the company and the caliber of its Songwriters. A very small, independent Publisher (such as a Songwriter who goes into business for him or herself) will obviously not be bringing in the amount of cash that an established corporation will. So how do Music Publishers make money off the songs they own? Ree says,“The ways we make money are from a digital download or getting on an album or streaming. We get nine cents [from] a digital download, so if there are two Writers, they split that. The record labels pay us quarterly and send us a check for how many songs we had on that record for that period of time. When money comes in, I get to recoup the draw I gave them [the Songwriters] and once I’ve recouped that draw, we split the money 50/50.
We make money from radio airplay, television and sync licenses when songs are used in a television commercial, on a TV show or in a movie. Streaming is part of that, too. All radio stations, and anywhere you hear music being played like venues or restaurants pay money to PRO [performing rights organizations] companies that represent us. They have to pay a fee to play our music. All that music goes into a big pot and quarterly the PROs distribute the money to us. For instance, if I have a number one record — Blake Shelton’s “Sangria” — one of my Writers wrote that. A song all together makes like $800,000 and that’s a number one record.
Music Supervisors, who look for songs for TV, movies, and commercials, they’ll call us and say ‘I’m looking for [a song],’ for instance for a scene in the show Nashville. I’ll send them stuff I think is right for the scene, and if they use it, I’ll get paid for the whole song. If there are two Writers on the song and two Publishers represented, on a TV show we make about $7,500. But if there are two Writers, there are also two Publishers, so that’s split between four people. If you get into movies that’s a lot more money: $50,000 to $100,000. Commercials can be anywhere from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Those are few and far between, though.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Music Publishers belong to performing rights organizations such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), MPA (Music Publishers Association), and SESAC. They may also be members of trade organizations AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) and NMPA (National Music Publishers Association).
- Seek out an entry-level job in a major music market (i.e. Nashville, if you want to work in country music.) Ree says, “The thing about the music business is that its’s a hard business to learn unless you’re actually doing it. I know there are [college] programs and they’re teaching people about it, but you’ve just got to get an entry-level job and learn. You have to be in Nashville. You just have to be here.”
- Develop work experience and industry knowledge by interning as much as possible in the fields that interest you.
- Network and go to events, including concerts, industry organizations and Songwriter showcases.
- Study best-selling songs and albums to train your ear to find future hits.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Study the history of it. It’s so easy to do now. You can put Spotify on Merle Haggard’s music. You need to know the history. You need to know who Merle Haggard is and all his songs, who Roy Acuff is and all his hit songs, who the Carter Family was [if, for example, you’re working in country]. Music publishing is all about songs and knowing where songs come from and why. I think it’s really valuable to know the history of it because every artist or Producer I talk to has roots in some form of historical music. I now have to listen to every single record that comes out, every single one, and I think if you want to be in music publishing you need to know every important record of every artist there was.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“If I was going to get into it all over again, I would do it differently. The thing about being an entrepreneur is you have to keep your overhead very, very low; people make the mistake of spending too much money on overhead. If you’re starting your own company, I would buy into existing catalogs and study them because then you have a cash flow and you have something that will work right away. What I did was sign Writers and put a lot of money into them — but then it took years to get cash flow going. I think I would probably do the reverse.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I think that people have a notion that if you get into the music business that it’s all fun. You know, people are like, ‘That sounds like fun! You get to meet artists!’ But on a daily basis, I don’t meet artists. On a daily basis, it’s not all fun. It’s hard. You’ve got to be out there making stuff happen. But you know every job isn’t fun all the time!”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Ree Guyer Buchanan is the President/Co-owner of Wrensong/Reynsong, one of the top independent music publishing companies on Nashville’s Music Row. Her first big success came with the track “Little Things,” which became a #1 single for the Oak Ridge Boys. Since that time, Wrensong has continued to be a leader in the industry, with tracks recorded by Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith, Dwight Yoakam, The Band Perry, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood.