Publishers join big boys but growing pains exist

For decades music publishing has been considered a second-class citizen in the music industry, partly because few understood the business of plugging songs or acquiring and administrating song catalogs.

But thanks to some recent successes and some big deals, such as EMI’s $132 million acquisition of half of the famed Jobete Music catalog earlier this month, the industry is getting some newfound respect from artists, sister company execs and even Wall Street.

The business is not without its growing pains, however, and the competitive environment has caused deal prices to escalate at a rate some execs find disquieting.

“The little publisher can’t keep up with the mega-companies anymore,” says Billy Meshel, a widely respected publishing industry vet who recently sold his All Nations banner to Universal Music Publishing. “But the megas can’t compete with the individualized service a smaller publisher can offer. I know every one of the songs that I own. I doubt many publishers can say that. Unfortunately — and increasingly these days — it all too often comes down to who can pay the biggest advance.”

Jodi Gerson, who has brought artists Luscious Jackson and writer-producers Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri into the EMI Music Publishing fold, notes that the publisher has a marketing and promotion department that is charged with shepherding a client’s projects.

EMI, which is widely considered one of the most aggressive publishers when it comes to sniffing out catalogs or landing the next wave of writer-producers, also is one of the few publishers that puts an effort into marketing its signees’ wares.

Making investment pay

“Because deals are so much more expensive today than they were, say, 10 years ago, you have to also market and promote your artists after you’ve signed them,” says Gerson, a senior veep of creative for EMI. “Today being a publisher means not sitting back and letting it happen, but working hard to (maximize) an artist’s potential.” But industry wags suggest that EMI overpays for its pacts in its quest to be the biggest and is constantly raising the industry’s dealmaking bar with its splashy acquisitions.

“Most companies look at it as a rights business,” says Richard Rowe, prexy of Sony/ATV Music. “They acquire the rights and do nothing. We, on the other hand, are building a modern publishing company, but the traditional way: By signing writers and remembering the business is all about a song.”

While many companies still look to sign writer-producers or acquire hot companies, some, like Bug Music, have created a healthy existence through administration deals — pacts that only require the publisher to oversee the revenues generated by a catalog and funnel the proceeds to the owners after deducting a fee.

The publishing business, like the record business, is still about the emotion communicated by a song. But that’s almost where the similarities of the two businesses end. Publishers make their money pennies at a time, which when done correctly and efficiently can add up to millions in annual revenues. The Jobete catalog generates a net profit of more than $15 million a year.

Many publishers recently have begun working more closely with sister record labels to maximize the upside of artist signings.

It was not unusual for an artist signed to a label to have its publishing with a company outside the conglom. For example, the publishing of rock band Aerosmith is owned by EMI Music, yet the band is inked to Columbia Records, a Sony company.

David Renzer, worldwide prexy of MCA Music Publishing, is among a growing number of publishing toppers trying to reverse the decades-old trend. He has made great strides in inking publishing deals with artists signed to recording contracts within the Universal family, such as Merrill Bainbridge, who is signed to Universal Records, and Live, which is inked to MCA Records.

“Putting the potential for linking them with our film or TV studio aside, these are talented artists whose music should always be kept in the family,” Renzer declares.

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