BMI President/CEO Del Bryant: “It All Begins With A Song” (09/05/05)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
If you're the son of hugely successful songwriters and if you grow up in a household where regular visitors include Chet Atkins, Kitty Wells, and the Everly Brothers, you know you're not growing up to be a fireman - or cowboy or doctor or lawyer. No, you're pretty much destined to be a songwriter - or at least you'll work in a business where looking out for the interests of songwriters is Job One.
That's the brief back-story for Del Bryant, who recently finished his first year as president and chief executive officer of BMI. Born into the Nashville music business, Bryant was immersed in the creative process from the day of his birth. His parents were the legendary songwriters and publishers Boudleaux and Felice Bryant - creators of such pop staples as Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Susie, All I Have To Do Is Dream, and Love Hurts - and the house was always filled with music. “My folks were the first professional songwriters in Nashville, a town that's synonymous with music,” he recalls. “That sounds like a hell of a boast, and indeed it is. They wrote for everybody - Tony Bennett, Frankie Lane, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, even the Grateful Dead and Dylan. In so doing, they outlined the dream that every songwriter goes to Nashville to fulfill, and that's to be a professional songwriter.”
As a young man, Bryant went to work for the family's music publishing company, House of Bryant, but he welcomed the opportunity to go to work for BMI in the early 1970s. He started in the company's Writer/Publisher and Performing Rights departments, where he worked directly with songwriters in Nashville and throughout the south. He re-located to New York in 1988, when he became vice president of performing rights to oversee BMI's royalty distribution system. Three years later, he was named senior vice president of performing rights and writer/publisher relations, directing staffs in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, Puerto Rico, and London.
Over the past three decades, Bryant has developed close working collaborations between BMI, writers and publishers, and the music business. He was responsible for re-engineering and modernizing BMI's royalty distribution system as well as developing an aggressive writer-acquisition campaign. This endeavor marked a sharp turn-around at BMI and attracted many new writers across key genres of music, resulting in substantial increases in the company's market share. Under Bryant's direction, BMI's film and television department in Los Angeles was revitalized, leading the company to a predominant position in the representation of Hollywood's leading composers. He also reorganized and expanded BMI's London outpost, and directed the establishment of a Latin music division and an urban music division, headquartered in Miami and Atlanta, respectively.
The writer of a BMI Award-winning song in 1978, Bryant served with his brother as co-director of the music publishing company founded by their parents, House of Bryant Publications. Aside from his current responsibilities at BMI, he serves as a member of the board of directors of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, and he has served as a member of the Board of the Nashville Songwriter's Association International. He is also an active member of the Recording Academy, the Country Music Association, the Gospel Music Association, and the Television Academy.
On the first anniversary of his tenure in the top office at BMI, Radio Ink invited Bryant to share his unique perspective of music, songwriters, and the receiving end of the license fees that BMI collects from radio broadcasters
INK: Growing up in Nashville as the son of successful and prolific songwriters must have been an amazing experience.
BRYANT: Without a doubt, I had an amazing childhood. Of course, children going through childhood don't realize it's amazing or common, so my brother and I just saw it as what our parents did. Everybody played an instrument, everybody sang, everybody sat around and made up stories. When you're a little kid, people get right down in your face and pinch your cheeks and say, “How're you doing?” The very first faces I remember in our house, other than my mother and father, were people like Kitty Wells and Chet Atkins and Eddie Arnold. When we got older, it would be Burl Ives and Robert Mitchum, the Everly Brothers and every one-hit wonder who cut a song with my folks - people like Mark Dinning, who sang Teen Angel. Mom and Dad wrote the B side of that, but Dad really produced it. I was raised in that cauldron of music, and it was a lot of fun. My folks wrote at home, and we had great exposure to two of the most creative and really loving people. My folks were married two days after they met and were divided only by death.
How did radio play into the early years of your lives?
My brother and I were raised backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. My father was a musician well-known throughout radio. He'd been a really hot fiddle player on WSB, and everybody knew him through his fiddle-playing fame on WSB. That enabled him to jam around, and every night at the Grand Ole Opry, while people were jamming, he was pitching songs that he and my mom had written. Before you knew it, they were on fire. They had their first hits in the very late 1940s, and by the early '50s, they were known as the hottest country songwriters in the business.
How did they cross over to the pop side of the business?
Their publisher was Acuff-Rose, which had connections around the block; and they were very close with Mitch Miller, who would do pop versions of the country songs coming out of Nashville. That was the formula back then. My parents' first big pop hit was a song called Hey Joe. A country version was released by Carl Smith in 1951, and Frankie Laine did the pop version. They would have a Tony Bennett pop cut and a Hank Williams country cut. My folks slipped into writing really cornbread songs and real pop crossovers. By the mid-'50s, with the advent of Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Suzie, and All I Have To Do Is Dream, they blew the rockabilly top right off the business and brought some of the biggest crossover successes to Nashville. No community recognizes more than Nashville that it all begins with a song.
No one grows up dreaming of heading a performing-rights organization. What were your aspirations in those early years?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy, then I wanted to be an Indian, and somewhere down the line, maybe even a fireman. But after those initial thoughts passed, I finally started realizing that there were other things in life. My family's influences were pretty profound. I'd written songs from the time I was 10 or so. It was a game around our house, playing with rhymes and having your favorite songs. My parents wrote 4,000 of them, although only 700 were ever cut. It was just what you did if you had any skill, so by the time I was 17 or 18, I began to think I might be a songwriter. When I was young, my parents had contracts that caused most of their works to revert to the family publishing company, so it was understood that my brother and I would probably work in the family company - the House of Bryant - if we wanted. As I got more mature, I was going to be a writer and/or publisher of family music.
Instead you ended up working at BMI in Nashville.
That's right. Real life happens - you have children and bills that need to be paid. The next thing you know, you're ready to take the first real job that's thrown at you, so I worked for my parents, and it wasn't a joyride. My family had done it the hard way, so you worked your way up. When I was 23, a call came from BMI to my folks, asking if either of their kids wanted to work there. Frances Preston knew my family; she had seen my brother and me since I was 10 or so - our folks carried us around like rabbit's feet. My brother, recently home from 'Nam, said, “Not me,” but I thought it might be interesting. I had a kid and another one on the way, and it sounded like something I'd do for two or three years, then come back into the family with a few more contacts and really be able to do my job.
Was it all you expected it to be?
The first day I worked for BMI, I had to go over to my parents' house and have my dad teach me how to tie a tie; I'd never worn one. I had no intention of going down the executive track, but it was a lot of fun. I immediately took to working with songwriters - that was certainly my background - and once people realized where I came from, they would listen to me because I listened to them. I was signing people up, working with writers who might have problems, explaining our systems. In addition to providing a music license to the user, we try to build a catalog that the user wants. In that regard, the most important thing is to get our writers' songs to the next step and the next step, which then gets them to a performance. I was always trying to help the songwriters get to that next step.
Part of that next step must be talking about earnings. Is it possible to figure the value of a song before it begins to show returns?
When I was working for my family, I was good with numbers and became very good at calculating what a song might be worth, gauging it by the charts and other activity it seemed to have. I'd seen that income coming in since I was little - I was born in '48 and my parents had their first hit in '48 - and I had a good sense for what songs could earn. As I grew more experienced in the BMI systems, I always was in touch with songwriters and understood what they wanted, what their needs were, and what their expectations were.
There seems to be a lot more music produced today, but fewer doors are open to songwriters. Is it tougher for someone break into the business today than it was in the '50s, when your parents' were hitting it big?
There is a certain constriction in the music business today. There are fewer outlets for the creative products. You have fewer labels, fewer major publishers, fewer radio stations with the freedom to choose their own programming. When I was a kid, we traveled around in the car with a load of records - 78s as well as 45s - in our trunk. Dad always had them specially placed so they'd be flat. Eisenhower was building those interstates, and gas was cheap. We were always traveling between Memphis, Atlanta, Knoxville, and Gatlinburg. Anywhere my father or mother saw a radio tower, we pulled over and got out; the next thing you'd know, my folks would be on the air, talking about Little Jimmy Dickens or Carl Smith or the Everly Brothers or Buddy Holly or Mark Dinning.
Those opportunities just don't exist anymore, do they?
No. You used to be able to go to a radio station, and they'd put your song on the air. On many occasions, they would call the next day or two and say, “Man, we played that thing, and we got a lot of requests. It's in our charts now.” A lot of those outlets are gone today. More music is being played today, and there are more hits, but some of the channels have been constricted. If you're a writer, you won't break your record on a little mom-and-pop station. You have to go through a different kind of funnel.
Many broadcasters still resent having to pay a fee in return for playing licensed music on the air. From your personal experience, what would you say to them to change this perspective?
Radio has always been extremely important to my family. It paid for my youth, my childhood, my education. My parents fortunately were very successful, and they never forgot that a high percentage of their income - probably the highest - came from radio. I really owe - and my family owes - so much to that vehicle for exposing and allowing access to expose their material to a mass.
Still, the perception is that songwriters should profit from record sales, not radio airplay, which promotes the retail end. Shouldn't songwriters just be happy to hear their songs on the radio?
When my folks first moved to Nashville, they lived a trailer court. One day, a well-known artist came to my dad and said, “I want to hear some songs, Boudleaux.” My dad pitched a bunch of them, and this guy loved one song. He said, “I want to record it.” Dad said, “That's great.” Then the guy said, “One small item, though: I want to put my name on it as the writer.” Dad said, “I'm trying to make it in this business, and that isn't going to make it for me, even if I get the money.” And the guy says, “Oh, no - I want to put my name on it as the writer, and I'll get the money.” Whereupon, my father said, “That's absolutely crazy. Why would I go for that?” And the guy says, “Well, you'll be able to hear your song on the radio, and you'll know it's yours.”
The fact is, these people make their living from writing songs. It's not just the thrill of hearing your song on the radio, and it's not simply the thrill of seeing it in the record store. The one-two punch - the way you have to make your living - is through the performance and the mechanical rights, because neither component is so well compensated that it sustains a livelihood on its own. Now, there are some people, such as my folks and Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who have hit such good licks that any of us could live of any component of their income. But for the most part, we talk about one-hit wonders, who have that one cut, and 10 years later no one remembers their name - if anyone ever knew their name. All these people have are the royalties, which naturally diminish anyway.
How difficult is it to get even one song produced?
There are more people struck by lightning in a year than there are songwriters who take off out of nowhere. It was a tough profession yesteryear, and it's tough today. A pure writer without contacts is in a world of hurt. You really must have sponsors, people who believe in your work. Quite often, that is an artist who may become a co-writer of a song. You have to get an advocate, and what we at BMI have done since we first came into existence in 1940 is be strong advocates of the writers and publishers we represent. After all, we're trying to get their works to a performance, where we could build a market share and provide a good catalog for our shareholders.
Do your competitors take this approach with their songwriters?
We've trained our competition to build a department similar to our writer-publisher department, which tries to help these people. In the past, when there was only one organization, no one provided that service; and it hasn't been done around the world, where there generally is only one organization within a country. We have always been advocates for the writer and publisher, and without that assistance, the pure writer is really alone. Sure, you have the “A&R” people and producers who are always on the lookout for songs, but their doors are getting harder to go through. Every promoter in the world says, “Listen to my song.” They use a filtering system that has to do with a small handful of publishers and writers, so for a new writer to get in the door, it's tough.
Was the recording business ready for the explosion of new technologies that hit the entertainment industry over the last 10 years?
A lot of people in the recording industry have bumbled. Back in 1994, we went online with the first major music website. By '95, we had licensed one of the first streaming companies. We've been on the absolute edge: We were the first to put our entire catalog on the web so people could see if they were playing our music. If you just woke today from a 20-year sleep, the first thing you'll [see] is that a lot of people weren't ready for this. Frances Preston tried to get the record companies into one room back in the mid-'90s to discuss these technological developments, but they were too worried about competition and business as usual. Consequently, they put their heads in the sand.
With music available through so many legal and illegal means, has the value of a song diminished or appreciated?
Regardless of whether everybody was ready, it's safe to say that more people will enjoy music, more people will pay for music, and copyrights are becoming more and more valuable. The value is there because people refuse to discount digital, even though a lot of digital technology has enabled people to rip songs, whether they're physically ripping by copying or just stealing. There are all sorts of piracy, from peer-to-peer to hardcore piracy.
How is the value of a copyright calculated?
The way copyrights and publishing companies are bought and sold is probably very similar to broadcast, based on multiples of earnings over a certain number of years. You try to flatten the income of a huge song or two to make sure there isn't a blip. You take 3 to 7 years of average income and come up with a multiple. When CDs were coming into play, the multiples were going way up, and people were buying companies at 15-20 times earnings. When the economy slipped and the bubble burst in the last couple of years, a lot of people were asking, “Are these copyrights going to maintain their value?” The last couple of years at MIDEM were depressing, and people asked, “Why are we spending the money to be here? This is depressing; the industry is tanking.” Well, last year at that event, it was all cedar trees and pine, with all the green. Everything smells green now: There's a lot of optimism in the business. No one is selling their copyrights, but there are many prospective buyers, which tells you that people think there's still a lot of value in a song.
It still seems that record companies are in a quandary over how best to produce and distribute music in a way that benefits the artists, the labels, and the consumers.
The industry is excited by the prospect of moving more music and filling this tremendous demand for music. The digital challenge is tremendous; we've been facing it here since Day One. We're geared up for it, investing heavily in technology, and we've built a number of plugs to accept any kind of feed you can imagine. We'll continue doing that because the numbers are tremendous. Whether you're dealing with ring tones or music services, there are billions of transactions in a quarter. We're all using music more than we ever have. Music is blaring into the streets from every crevasse, corner, and door. Studies show that we sleep less, and during these waking hours, we listen to more music. Everything is running toward more entertainment. TV, cable - all the media that carry the visual image - are showing that image with music embedded behind it, often in the foreground. We've had to grow more technologically than anyone would have ever guessed just to keep up with it, and that's been a tremendous focus of this company since the mid 1980s.
How has the introduction of new media changed the way BMI collects and distributes revenues that come from music licensing?
Diversification of our revenue is really moving fast, an indication of the demand for music and the various ways that receiving music has grown. Radio isn't playing a less significant role; it's just that in the aggregate, it's not as big a share. Our classic core income when I came to BMI included radio, network and local television, and general licensing, and made close to 90 percent of our income. In 1990, it was 72 percent. Today, those three components make up 52 percent of our income. Each of those components makes more money than it made the previous year. We're distributing more radio dollars this year than we did last year, and we'll distribute more next year. What this tells you is that cable and international have just soared; the value of our music around the world has soared. In the last 15 years, we've gone from 18 to 28 percent of our income coming from international.
How do you strike a balance between what's fair for the user to pay and what's fair for the songwriter to earn?
We've always tried to figure out how to give the customer what he or she felt they needed, and at the same time make sure we had what we thought the creator needed. We're user-friendly, and that's not too unusual when you look at how we came into being. We have always had the users' interest at heart, because if you don't serve them, how do you serve the creator? If you don't serve the creator, how can you serve the user? You have to be effective in the middle.
Your annual financial statement indicates you've been extremely successful in that role.
We have had the most successful year in the history of any performing-rights organization in the world. We've clearly and strongly crossed into the $700-million mark, close to $730 million. It's heartening for many of our board and many people in the broadcast industry that diversification is such a good story and that we've found more money through all these other areas, whether it's international, cable, or satellite, general licensing venue, live music, or new media. When I came to work at BMI in 1972, we were doing around $40 million, and ASCAP was around $70 million. The thought of closing that gap even 5-10 years ago seemed like something that might never happen, because our gains would be similar to their gains.
How aggressively did you set out to overtake ASCAP's Number-One global position as a music licensing organization?
We haven't been aggressive in terms of licensing for “more-more-more.” We've been aggressive in finding new ways to find money for our creators. We've been aggressive in making sure we are collecting foreign money. We've been aggressive for getting into business with people, finding new license types that work and not busting their chops. With our primary competition, we have always been sort of the Hertz-Avis story in performing rights.
Now that you have leap-frogged that competition, will you continue to “try harder”?
We will continue to try harder, but the bottom line is - whether you're Hertz or Avis - you have an important responsibility to the public you serve. We're both not-for-profit, we both do a good job, we're both important business models that can teach a lot, and I'm the first to say that ASCAP serves the people they serve very well. We obviously wear a different hat and think we do it better, but we're both the good guys. It feels good to be where we are, and I'm sure everyone in our shop will make every commitment to see that we grow and do as well as we can. If that means we're consistently the leader, that's great. What's important is that we don't leave a stone unturned, that we invest prudently and properly so we never get caught short without the technology we need to do the business that our writers, publishers, and users of music need us to do.
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