Changing tech fuels power to the publisher

Even those with past radio, album success turn to the Web for distrib'n

NASHVILLE — As Internet downloading siphons more and more music away from major record labels, some country music publishers are looking for ways to bypass the labels and take their music direct to the people — to find more outlets for their songs and to feed listeners seeking different styles.

“Technology has provided publishers a lot of tools to work with these days,” says Pat Higdon, senior VP of Universal Music Publishing Nashville. “On the performance side, satellite radio and the multiple channels that need more content have been useful ways of getting a lot of material out there that would have died in the vaults or on the vine somewhere. As high-definition radio becomes more prevalent, there’ll be more need for more diverse music.”

The result, Higdon suggests, will be greater exposure for those who do not necessarily fit the definition of “hit acts,” but could still accumulate substantial fan bases.

“Historically, we look for great songwriters first, and then we try to determine if that great songwriter has artist potential,” he says. “Well, obviously the consolidation of labels has diminished the opportunities that you have — so there are fewer of those major label deals out there.

“Over the last few years we have begun to rethink the concept a little bit. From the first day, we start to think about creating a body of work in a CD format that these writer-artists can use to sell when they’re performing in writers nights, or if they happen to be lucky enough to get a slot to open a gig for a major artist or anything like that. Or that we can use for film or TV.”

Like his peers, Higdon does not expect to usurp the functions of the major record companies; the consensus remains that there is still nothing like a major label for mass exposure. But on a small scale, publishing companies may increasingly act like record labels in sending their music out to the public.

“At times we will invest a little bit of money into hiring someone to work (an) independent album in (a specific) market,” Higdon says.

Such expenditures, besides selling a few CDs, may attract major artists to the songs or result in a story Higdon can use to get his writer-artist a major label deal.

The alternatives to the major labels reflect music industry trends in general. In mid-September, Sony Ericsson announced an agreement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing that will allow the cell phone company to make a limited number of artists and bands available each month from Sony/ATV’s worldwide roster for downloads by Sony Ericsson’s phone customers.

At least one independent Nashville publishing operation has opened a Web site for the purpose of selling downloads of music from its catalog as sung by its songwriters. Mike Sebastian, company vice president of Blacktop Music Group, a 5-year-old company with nine staff writers and some major hits in its recent past, explains why the company’s success in mainstream radio and records was not enough to keep Blacktop from opening the Web site — even though early download sales were bound to be small.

“At the point when radio stations started being gobbled up by the conglomerates, we knew that everything was gonna change,” Sebastian recalls. “I don’t know that anybody realized how much it was gonna change until the popularity of downloads, iPods and satellite radio. By about 2003, I think everybody was realizing, hey, we’re gonna have to figure out another way to do business.”

Based on the number of hits the site has received in the few months that Blacktop has been offering music over its Web site, Sebastian believes it has had encouraging results, though Blacktop has not yet received any sales figures from PayPal.

“I was trying to figure out a way where publishers could represent their music to the public and bypass the record label, like they used to do it with piano rolls and sheet music,” Sebastian says. “Our demos sound as good as most of the records, so why not sell our music to the public? That’s what we did with our Web site.”

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