Nashville native headed performing rights org for 18 years

Frances Preston, former president-CEO of publishing rights org BMI, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure in Nashville. She was 83.

Long one of the most powerful and respected women in a male-dominated industry, Preston headed BMI from 1986 until her retirement in 2004, when she was succeeded by Del Bryant.

Hired by BMI in 1958 to open a Southern regional office in Nashville, Preston became an important ambassador to Music City’s professional songwriting community. In that role, she was reportedly the first female corporate exec in Tennessee.

She was promoted to vp of BMI in 1964, and later rose to senior vp of performing rights in 1985 and president-CEO the following year.

Preston looked after her cleffer constituents. On her watch, BMI writer royalties trebled; in her last year as president, the org announced record royalty payments. She also spearheaded important legislation in Washington, including the Copyright Amendments Act of 1992, which extended copyright protection for older compositions.

Among her many industry kudos, she was a 1998 recipient of the Recording Academy’s National Trustees Award, the highest honor accorded a non-performer, and a 1992 inductee in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Last year, BMI renamed its country song of the year award the BMI Frances W. Preston Award.

She was born Frances Williams in Nashville in 1928. (She was later married to businessman E.J. Preston, whom she divorced.) After attending teacher’s college at local Vanderbilt University, she became a receptionist at radio station WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and later segued into a job as host of a daily on-air fashion program on sister TV station.

Moving into promotion at the station, she worked on the annual DJ conventions that later became Nashville’s Fan Fair (today the CMA Music Festival). In 1958, BMI prexy Judge Robert J. Burton hired her to launch the org’s Nashville office.

That year, she was instrumental in mounting the BMI Country Awards, for years the org’s flagship event acknowledging the music’s writers and publishers. BMI acknowledged Preston’s importance with her promotion to vp in 1964.

After two decades as BMI’s key liaison with Music Row, she relocated to New York to become senior vp, and was swiftly promoted to prexy. She also acted as a member of BMI’s board of directors from 1986-2004, and served as a consultant from 2004-08.

Preston’s tenure at the top of BMI coincided with the ascent of the digital music business, and she was active in instituting legislative initiatives to assure fair compensation for writers and publishers.

Active in humanitarian causes, Preston was for years president of the T.J. Martell Foundation, the music industry’s biggest charity.

She is survived by three sons.

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