BMI’s Frances Preston: A Woman Of Substance (06/07/04
By Reed Bunzel, editor-in-chief
As president and chief executive officer of Broadcast Music International, Frances Preston oversees a business with annual revenues of more than $600 million. It’s a company viewed as one of the music industry’s most consistently successful and progressive players. Under Preston’s direction, BMI has become an internationally respected leader as the twin forces of digital technology and globalization have transformed the music business. Her rare combination of business acumen, insight into the impact and capabilities of technology, and her intuitive understanding and empathy for musical creators have made her one of the industry’s most widely admired and respected executives.
Preston joined BMI in the late 1950s, when many women were content to live a June Cleaver life, rather than crack the corporate glass ceiling. “I was the first woman Rotarian in the state of Tennessee — probably one of the few around the whole United States,” she recalls. “I became the first woman to work with the National Chamber of Commerce, and I was the first businesswoman to be a member of the Friars Club in New York. The music business was very much a male-dominated industry, so getting involved with that was a great breakthrough. They were very slow to open their doors to women, who would go only so far — and then they stopped.”
From her early work of signing southern regional songwriters, Preston ascended through the BMI ranks and was named to her current position in 1986. Since then, she has more than tripled BMI’s revenues and increased the company’s repertoire of songwriters, composers and music publishers from 84,000 to 300,000. Additionally, under Preston’s leadership, BMI was the first music publisher to launch a website (1994), make its entire catalog available online (also 1994) and enable writers and publishers to register new works directly via the web (2001).
A well-known figure on Capitol Hill, Preston frequently testifies in support of songwriters’ rights, and she has made BMI a key member of the creative alliance debating the public policy issues of the digital age. She maintains a passionate dedication to a number of the industry’s leading charities and serves as the non-salaried president of the largest: the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research. Not surprisingly, a Fortune magazine profile of the music industry called her “one of the true powerhouses of the pop music business.”
This year, at BMI’s annual dinner coinciding with the NAB convention in Las Vegas, Preston announced that, after serving BMI for over 45 years, she will be stepping down from her leadership role at the organization. She also said that Executive Vice President Del Bryant has been named her successor, while John Cody will continue as chief operating officer. The Bryant-Cody team will take the BMI helm in September, at which point Preston will become President Emeritus.
Radio Ink recently had an opportunity to speak with Preston — on the same day that the Tennessee State Senate and House of Representatives honored her with a joint resolution commemorating her 45 years of service to the music industry and the Nashville community.
INK: Can you give us a brief background on how and why broadcasters formed BMI in the 1940s?
PRESTON: BMI began its formation in 1939, but its actual formation was announced in 1940. There were two performing rights organizations at that time — SESAC, which represented European stage authors and composers, and ASCAP, which had a very limited membership. In fact, you had to have five standard works in order to get into ASCAP. They primarily represented authors of show tunes, both Hollywood and New York. At the same time, there was so much music breaking out all over the country in a variety of styles: country, rhythm and blues, western and jazz. But these recordings couldn’t be played over radio because the songwriters couldn’t get into ASCAP, and broadcasters couldn’t risk playing the music because they could be charged with copyright infringement because they didn’t have permission. Nor could they possibly go around and locate every composer of those works and get his or her permission.
Meanwhile, ASCAP tripled its rates to radio overnight. Broadcasters refused to pay that much money for a limited source of music, so they had a strike against playing ASCAP music. During that period, they played public-domain songs such as Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair and Swanee River.
Did the strike create an urgency to form BMI?
Well, while this was going on, people got together and formed BMI, with the understanding that there would be no dividends, and the stock would not be sold or go on the stock market. It was just to ensure a competitive source of music. BMI’s policy from the beginning was that there would be an open-door policy, so any songwriter who wrote any kind of music could join. As a result, songwriters came from all over the country to join BMI — and the music of America started being played all over. I have always referred to it as “the explosion of American music.” Later on, the root music of America went on to make up rock ’n’ roll as we know it. It was a time that was very important to American music.
When did you first appear in the BMI picture?
I joined BMI about 45 years ago. I was just a baby, delivered to the office in my bassinette.
Of course you were. But what were you doing to make them notice you?
I had worked in Nashville at WSM, the radio station in town. I started out as a receptionist and then developed a fashion show at noon when the television station came along. I wrote and produced it, and I was the on-air personality. I did telethons for the stations, and I worked on their big Country-music festival. With other WSM people,I traveled to New York and talked people into sponsoring lunches and dinners for everyone coming to the Country-music festival. At one point, I met Robert Burton, who was president of BMI; I convinced him that BMI should do an awards ceremony for songwriters. The only open place on our agenda was a 7:30 breakfast. Burton said, “Nobody’s going to come out at 7:30.” I responded, “Yes, they will.”
We chose the musicians for the live band, and they played the songs that were most popular during the past year. We held the breakfast at the Maxwell House Hotel, which is no longer in existence, but it was an historic old hotel in downtown Nashville. Guess what! We had standing room only at that 7:30 breakfast. That was the beginning of our Country music awards.
But BMI isn’t just about music; there’s a solid political element. Did you have a political background?
I had become politically savvy because WSM was a clear-channel station, and politicians came from all over the United States to have airtime. I met them as they came in — people such as Senator Gore Sr., Senator Kefauver, and then-governor of Tennessee Frank Clement. They were all good friends of mine. My connection with so many government people was attractive to BMI, because the organization has always had issues before Congress.
So you were hired to work in Nashville?
Until then, BMI had never had an office in the south, even though the president would come down to visit. They asked me to open the first BMI office in Nashville, and that’s what I did. My territory quickly grew to include Alabama, Georgia — about 17 states in all. At one point, the president said to me, “I think you should leave some of those states to the rest of the company.” I was made a vice president in 1962 and headed the work in the 17 southern states.
There had been no person who went to all these territories to convince people to join BMI, but it wasn’t hard to do. We’d go to a place like Mussel Shoals and set up, and writers would flock to sign with BMI. It was a great time. There are more songwriters in the state of Tennessee than you have in any music capital in the world. Most of them are in Nashville, but there’s also a good representation in Memphis and Knoxville.
At that time, there weren’t many women in business, isn’t that right?
Yes, and they were very interesting times. I remember serving on a Red Cross committee with Chet Atkins. One of its meetings was at the Cumberland Club, which had only one room where women could go: the women’s dining room. Chet didn’t think to book that room. When I got there, I walked up the steps and the staff said the meeting was across the dining room, but I couldn’t go there. They would not allow me to cross the dining room to get to the Red Cross meeting! It was amazing.
How long did it take for you and other women to be accepted as a part of the daily business scene?
It was very slow. I was the first woman Rotarian in the state of Tennessee — probably one of the few around the whole United States. I became the first woman to work with the National Chamber of Commerce. I was the first businesswoman to be a member of the Friars Club in New York — Nancy Sinatra was the first woman. It was so funny, too, because years later, CNN sent a camera crew to my office, and they asked me, “What did you have to do to get in — were you sitting on the doorsteps or burning bras, or what?” I said, “No, they called me and said that I was the type of person they wanted in their membership and I would set the standard.” So that was a big step. The Friars Club was just a no-no for women, and I wound up as the first woman to serve on its board of governors.
What was the reaction from the male establishment?
It was kind of funny, really. I sat on a number of boards where I was the only woman. When they started the meetings, they usually would say, “Welcome, gentlemen” — and then they’d say, “Uh-oh, welcome, gentlemen and lady” or “Welcome, gentlemen and Frances.” Finally, I said, “Don’t worry about it — go ahead with your ‘welcome, gentlemen.’ It’s okay.”
The music business was very much a male-dominated industry, so being involved with that was a great breakthrough. They were very slow to open their doors to women, who would go only so far — and then they stopped. The music industry is gradually beginning to open its doors, but you get to that senior-vice-president point, and you stop. The glass ceiling has been broken a bit, but it’s taken a long time to do it. Thank heavens for Robert Burton and BMI, because he believed so much in women. Our chief legal counsel at that time also was a woman named Theodora Zavin. Mr. Burton really worked hard to promote women.
Fast-forwarding to today, do you think women have cracked the “glass ceiling”?
Women in the workplace have changed greatly. When the Tennessee Legislature honored me with a joint resolution, I looked across the room at both the Senate and the House, and I was shocked at the number of women. I remember earlier days, when you just didn’t see women, period.
You’ve been one of Radio Ink’s Most Influential Women in Radio since the inception of the list. What does the word “influence” mean to you?
Influence is your ability to make change and have things you say affect other people and what happens with them.
The MIWs, as the group has come to be known, is very involved in mentoring. How important is it to give back to others in the industry?
It is very important to give back, whether it’s to work with within your own industry or charitable work. When I was coming along, I went to every seminar possible. It didn’t matter whether it was about the record industry or the radio industry or whatever — I went to as many as I could. I didn’t have one-on-one mentoring, but it was very important that I connected with people who were giving advice. I really never thought of myself as being a working woman. I always thought of the job I was doing and never made an issue of the fact that I was a woman doing that job. That’s very important — to be just a business person, treated like everyone else.
Let’s change direction for a minute. How quickly and severely did digital media change BMI’s view of recorded music — and airplay?
We’re probably the most progressive as far as technology is concerned, more so than any record company or publisher. I served on Vice President Gore’s National Information Infrastructure Committee. Thirty of us sat on that committee, including Bill Gates, people from AT&T and Apple. Our task was to study the Internet and its need for copyright protection. During this two-year project, I learned so much about the new technology: what all these companies were doing, and what the future was going to be. During this time, I convinced the BMI board to make a big commitment to let us totally rebuild our data processing system — everything technology-wise. We saw the need many years ago, and we’ve gone forward with everything we planned.
What methodologies has BMI developed and deployed to remain current with communications trends?
When something new comes on the market, the first questions we ask ourselves are “How do we track it?” and “Where is the basis for the license fee, and who is responsible?” It made a big difference that BMI got an early jump on these things. Some companies are just now beginning to understand what’s happening with digital technology. For a long time, many record companies kept their heads in the sand; they wouldn’t acknowledge that there was going to be a different way for delivering music. Likewise, a lot of industry people would say, “That won’t be licensable.” Well, any transmission of music — whether it’s underground or up in the air or done by dots and dashes — is a performance of that music, so we have to stay on top of it. This has been one of my main interests, and I take great pride that, technology-wise, we have made ourselves the best.
From your perspective, what position is the music industry in today? Can the labels “survive” digital music, or do they need to reinvent themselves?
When all this first started happening, I talked with several label heads who insisted that people would not want to go online to buy records. “They’ll want to go to the store and touch and feel,” they said. But [online purchasing] did happen — and in a big way. I’ve always felt that, if the record companies had been first to set up websites where people could pay to download music, they would have set the model for all others. In fact, the opposite happened. Everyone did whatever they pleased over the Internet, and the record companies came along only after they were really hurt.
If you were to look 10 years down the road, how much do you think this picture will have changed?
It will be totally different from what it is now. Today, when you look at a telephone, it’s also a camera and recorder, and thousands of songs are downloaded on them. It’s all very difficult to track, but we’re keeping ahead of it.
Every year, BMI hosts a lavish dinner at the spring NAB convention. What was the origin of this affair?
The BMI dinner was started by Carl Haverland, one of our presidents before Bob Burton. It was created to bring together the primary people in the broadcast industry. We couldn’t entertain the thousands and thousands of people in the business, so we chose to entertain the FCC chairman and commissioners, the NAB radio and television boards of directors, BMI board members, and past BMI board members as well as our shareholders. People have enjoyed it through the years, and it’s very popular.
What memories stand out when you look back at your years at BMI?
It was always a special time when we won a congressional battle. There’s always a battle to do with songwriters and performing rights. Songwriters always seem to wind up at the low end of the totem pole, so we constantly must keep watch to see that they’re not being cut out of the picture. It’s hard for some people to understand this, but nothing in the music business happens until the song is written.
It also thrills me when we make nice contracts with the users of music. That’s always time for a celebration for our composers. Our last radio deal was a wonderful one. When both sides leave the table still wanting a little but proud of what they’ve done, it’s a good negotiation.
You have also left an indelible mark in your work with charities.
Thank you. One of the proudest times was the naming of the Vanderbilt Cancer Center research building in my honor. It’s nice to ride by a beautiful campus and hospital grounds and see your name on a building. I always thought you had to be dead for that to happen, so it’s been a real pleasure for me.
I’ve also enjoyed the charitable work with the Martell Foundation, which, along with the City of Hope, is the primary charity supported by the music industry. So that’s always been something on all sorts of business levels — it’s the greatest way of connecting and getting to know the people in your industry. I enjoy giving back in any way I can, and as a result I give very little time to myself.
What will you miss most when you walk out of your office for the last time later this year?
I’m going to miss the employees. The most valuable asset of any organization is its people, and our people are special. They work very hard, and I’m very proud of them. The day-to-day contact with them I will certainly miss. And of course, the songwriters and the publishers have become wonderful friends through the years. They’re never just a songwriter and a publisher to me — they’re friends. So it’s always hard for me to separate a business acquaintance from a friendship. Nobody is just a business acquaintance — I consider them all friends. I’ll miss that day-to-day contact with them. On the other hand, sleeping late in the morning I’ll enjoy.
But you’re not retiring for good. Tell us what you’ll do next.
As president emeritus, I’ll be continuing with BMI in my expertise, which is in the international field and also government. It will be like the tour of the Rolling Stones: They’ve been retiring for years, yet they’re still here. Actually, I served on the executive bureau of CISAC, the confederation that is over all performing-rights organizations. All these organizations are members of the confederation, with rules and regulations by which we all abide. BMI has a staff that deals with international rights, but CISAC is where the presidents or chairmen of all the organizations come together and set rules. It’s a very important organization, and that’s where I’ll continue my work.
Some people want me to teach, and others are clamoring for a book. It’s nice to be wanted, but I think: “Hey, I’m going to slow down, and this is not slowing down.” Ultimately, I want to get better acquainted with my grandchildren, so they’ll know who I am.
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