A professor from Belmont University emails me a long list of working publishers in Nashville, per my request. I need a few more interviews for the project and I’m interested in the publishing world. I email 20 different names. Four respond. One says no, one is out of town, Anne Wilson Music Group replies and, to my surprise, Troy Tomlinson, the CEO and President of Sony/ATV Publishing Nashville replies as well. “Call me at 4pm Thurs”, I read from the screen. A few days later I call and get his secretary on the phone. She’s very calm and polite. “It’s not gonna work today I don’t think”, she says with sympathy, “Something came up. He’s still in a meeting.” She calls me back. I miss the call. I call 20 minutes later. We call each other 4 times each before we get in touch. “It might be too late. Let me call you back” she says from the other side of the line and the sun is on its way back down I’m pouting. We play phone tag for the rest of the afternoon. “Okay!”, she calls back at 3:15, “He can meet with you at three-thirty if you rush but he’s only got 30 mins.”
I’ve researched him already. He has won BMI’s Publisher of the Year Award and BillBoard’s Country Publisher of the Year Award ten years in a row both. He signed Kenny Chesney and is responsible for the songwriting careers of Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan. Lomax and Saporiti are incredible men by any standard. They’re now semi-retired though. Troy is in the middle of it, the heat, the thick of it and he’s at the tippity-top, working. I’m getting the mason as he puts the rows of bricks on the trim, the farmer as he’s under the cow. I know I’m not in for just memories. I’m in for a show.
We walk into the 1st floor reception area. It’s glistening with black marble floors and walls. Original gold and platinum records are on the walls around us, dusted and shining. There’s a grand piano in the back. A pretty dark haired girl in a business suit is at the reception desk behind her computer. “Floor four. You can wait up there. They’ll tell you when he’s ready”, she says quickly. We wait in the elevator and rise. The doors open up into another reception room with another attractive, short tempered reception girl. She tells us to wait. We wander in a circle and pace the floor studying the room. All of a sudden the huge mahogany double doors on the other side of the room kick open and there’s a man standing in front of his desk in a white oxford shirt with sleeves rolled up. His hand and ear are attached to the phone but the chord is stretching out as the rest of him is trying to move in another direction. The phone snaps into place and then he screams from his giant office, smiling, “How the hell did you guys get a meeting with me!”
We walk in. There are more records around and a small bar in the back with expensive vodkas and brandies. I imagine singers and executives doing shots after releasing a hit song. We sit down in office chairs across from his big work space and shake hands. He’s extremely warm and cordial, a fast talker and very energetic, alive and fearless. He speaks with all the classic humor and grace of a real southerner and has the most distinct Tennessee drawl of anyone we’ve yet spoken to. We explain the project. “Most people find a way to travel around America and drink at all the best bars and then grade the drinks”, he grins, ‘but y’all decided that this is it. I would suggest the bars if you got time to rethink it.’ I immediately understand why he is where he is. He knows how to cut things down to a regular level, to jab and joke at the same time.
He asks us where we’re from. “Connecticut.” “New York”, we reply. “So true Yankees, man!”, he says astonished “sitting here with a hillbilly from Nashville. This ought to be the most interesting thing that you’ve done. Talking to me should be very interesting -like a caricature in a way.”
I mention the farm I grew up on because I had read that he grew up on a farm as well. “Yes. On our farm we raised cattle because we couldn’t get crops. We just sucked at raising crops.”, he says unapologetically. “We raised some tobacco. I hated it, I just said, ‘I don’t care what I have to do, I’m not going to do this. Now the government pays you not to grow tobacco. A lot of these old farmers were granted these tobacco plots on their property and they worked their asses off for 30 years and lost money and it was terribly hard work. Well, when the government decided they were going to back off on tobacco production they paid those same guys to not grow it anymore! Now those guys are driving new trucks and buying new tractors for other crops”, he waves his hands in partial blasphemy of the system. Its hard to believe we’re with the CEO of Sony Publishing and we’re chewing on tobacco stats and talking about farming.
“Okay so what do you want to talk about? I got till four so I have 25 minutes”, he closes his hands, grins and looks at us. “I’ll skip over a couple questions”, I say, “And yeah, I guess keep the answers brief given the time we have.” “That’s going to be hard for me buddy”, he winks.
I ask him how he got started in the music business originally. Troy tells us about a friend he met in the Jaycees, a local civil organization he was president of that hosted events and raised support for underprivileged kids. His friend was running a small publishing company in Nashville. “The Phil Donahue show and The Sally Jesse Raphael show were paying money to other publishing companies for their theme music”, he explains. “Somebody smartly said, ‘Why don’t we just start a little publishing company of our own, sign a writer, get them to write our own themes and then we’ll pay ourselves for the themes. So they called my friend from the community and said, ‘Hey, start us a publishing company.’ He did and then they hired me to make tape copies. Eventually I learned how to plug songs and get cuts.”
Since then he joined various publishing companies including Acuff-Rose Publishing. They were sold to Sony and soon, under Troy, Sony became the first country publisher to ever win four publishing awards in one year. Things took off fast for Troy once he was plugged in. He won a decade of accolades and has signed every body, to put it humbly. “What’s the key to your success?”, I ask him. He’s got the good pocket answers. “The companies that are underneath us, Tree publishing and Acuff-Rose, are historically great companies. Those are the two oldest publishing companies in Nashville. They’re 60 years old. Those two companies have had a winning tradition for decades so we’ve just continued to build upon that.”
“We also have a reputation of treating people with integrity. We have a reputation for truly pitching the songs. We don’t just open up, sign writers and they go get the songs cut”, he says lackadaisically. “We really pitch them and do our job well.”
“We’ve been very fortunate to identify talent and writer/artists very young in their careers, get in business with them and then be able to treat them in such a manner that we stay in business with them. I signed Kenny 20 years ago. We’re still in business together. Taylor Swift we signed when she was 14. We’re still in business with her; Miranda Lambert, since she was maybe 20; Blake Shelton, early 20s; Rascal Flatts, before they ever had a record deal; Luke Bryan had actually made one record and he was doing okay but we really thought he had potential so we got him before he exploded. With so many of these writer/artists, spotting them early and believing in them gives you the ability to stay in business with them for a long time. That’s what makes us successful.”
“Awesome, so that’s sort of the company’s answer which is great”, I say without pretense, “but I’m wondering what your answer is? What’s the key to your success as a person?” “Wow”, he pauses a moment nodding, thinking. “Well, I honestly think that I was born to be a music publisher. I believe that God gifted me with some abilities that I could’ve used moderately at certain jobs and maybe a lot at others but music publishing was the best application. Being able to deal with people, being able to gain the trust of people, really caring about the other person -particularly creative types cause they’re a little bit unique -He gifted me with the ability to build with people.”
Troy came from a place of undeniable faith, certainty and purpose. That and a burning curiosity for quirky lyrics. “From the time I was a little boy I would dissect the lyrics of songs. I was just enamored with the words. I wasn’t a musician and I’m still not but lyrics drew me in. Silly little lyrics like “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” or “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” or “Bad News” by Johnny Cash or “I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Ray Charles -Don Gibson song”, he adds, “I loved all of those as a kid. I remember the first albums that my dad and mom bought me and the first record player they bought me and the first transistor radio that they bought me with the earpiece to listen to at night under the blankets.” You can see him reliving the mystery of discovering music as a kid and being taken back to that magic of his childhood. “I found myself being amazed at the words. I really didn’t think a lot about the music. I think I felt the music but didn’t think about it. I thought about the lyrics, the words and I was amazed. I felt like I was in my own little world.”
“At that time I thought that everybody that sang a song wrote the song”, Troy reflects. “I thought that every song Elvis sang he wrote, same with Ray Charles. I remember thinking to myself, ‘How could they think of that?’ There is this line in “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” that goes, ‘Leroy looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone’ after some guy got a hold of him in a fight. I specifically remember as a kid thinking ‘Who thought of that? How did this guy think of that? How did he just dream that up?’ ” Poetry and prose became an intriguing fantasy world to Tomlinson as a boy and he showed early signs of absolute wonder and a burning need to explore.
“When I began to be around creative people and was given the opportunity to be a part of a music community -even as a tape copy boy making tape copies all day long and running them over to offices and dropping off cassettes- I was at home”, he relishes. “It was evident very early that I had found my niche.” Troy’s early fascination as a kid day dreaming to the radio grew and flourished. A simple seed, a little speck of marvel and sound set off like a dandelion head jumping in the wind. All it took was the right energy to make it land and grow indefinitely larger.
Methods of Success
“A positive attitude goes a lot further than knowledge, especially when you’re dealing with people”, he says positively. “If you’re in nuclear science it may be a little less pertinent but not much less. If you’re doing what you do, journalism, or what I’m doing, publishing, or with anything really, a great attitude is just at the top.”
“Be trustworthy, have a positive attitude and, obviously, a real work ethic”, Troy offers the simple but powerful truth.
He lives by another piece of advice, a farm analogy that finds a place in my heart immediately. “I like the idea that we ought to hold everything that we have, no matter how little it is or how much it is, we ought to hold what we possess with open hands, so that we’re continually giving it to those around us, to those people that we have influence over. I always say to my staff, ‘Hold whatever you’ve got, whether it’s money or possessions or information or relationships, whatever you possess, whatever you hold, hold it like you would hold a baby chick.’ You want to hold it enough that it doesn’t fall out of your hand and die but you don’t want to hold it so tightly that you kill the little sucker. You want to hold it carefully.”
“I said to a group the other day”, he continues, ” ‘There’s two postures that you will always choose: this one”, he crosses his arms and holds himself in, “and this one”, he puts his palms up and his hands out in offering. “That’s it man! There ain’t really a lot in between! It’s not like you can stop right here”, he holds his hands out half way, awkwardly like a robot and Eric and I laugh. “You can either close your life off or you can hold it with open hands and push it out to other people. If you push enough of your influence you will effect other people positively. You got to I think”, he says innocently.
“That’s what I think”, he decides then puts his eyebrows up and grins, “It’s sure not my stunning good looks or my hairline or my education! I didn’t go to college you know?”, he says without an inch of pity. “I took a CPR class one time but that’s the only thing aside from high school.”
He laughs at himself. “You know my son is in his first year at Belmont and I don’t understand what he’s talking about. When he’s talking about hours and semesters and all those things that ya’ll just take for granted, I have no idea what he’s talking about. I wish I went. It’s not like I don’t want to do what I do now. I’m happy where I’m at but I would’ve liked the experience that you guys have been through and that he’s going through right now. I kind of missed that”, says Troy subtly reminding us that humility and purpose are forces of success as well.
“I wouldn’t call it a regret though because things have worked out okay. And I would say this”, he levels with us. “I’m almost at 30 years. I think I’m at 28 years of doing this for a living. If it ended tomorrow there wouldn’t be a bitter bone in my body. It’s been so great. To see people, to be involved with creative people, to go places that I have never dreamed of, to get to hear a song the moment after it’s been created or halfway through the creative process, to walk in and have a writer play you the song and say ‘what do you think about this?’, that’s just freakin’ “, he pauses for a moment and looks around the room searching for the momentous word, “beats tobacca’ “, he says and shakes his head slowly in admiration showing that gratitude was another agent for his success.
I have to keep exploring the publishing world so I ask him how they find new songwriters. “We seek out songwriters and songwriters seek us out because we are a prominent company. We listen to their material. We’ll be doing it in a few minutes with this young lady right here.” He flips up a picture quickly. “My whole staff will be in here and we’ll listen to the music and we’ll decide if we want to sign her to an exclusive publishing deal. It’s like a one year deal with three one-year options that we can pick up. We’ll pay her an advance against future royalties, hoping there are some.”
“That’s our problem”, he shifts. “Our job is to make sure they’ll sell enough for us to get our money back. If they do we might begin working with her and with co-writers and listening to her songs and critiquing them. That’s for a beginner writer. Eventually they can become permanent fixtures like Kenny Chesney. If we love it we sign them to an exclusive publishing deal.”
“Kenny was recommended to me by a friend at BMI which is a music rights organization in the business.” He points over our heads, through the walls, a few doors down to where BMI’s building is. “He called me one day and said, ‘Hey, he’s a pretty good singer. He’s a pretty good writer but most of all, I think you’re going to like him. I think y’all are going to hit it off.’ We did. I signed him and I paid him $200 a week for an advance.” It amazes me how much can be accomplished in this town on sheer amicability, cordiality, relationship building and presence. To me, it seems like a southern thing. It’s so simple it escapes some of us yankees.
“He was making more than $200 though”, Troy continues. “He was parking cars at a restaurant too”, he laughs. “We have 20 years together now, a really solid career. That’s why I could never be bitter, stuff like that and watching Taylor go from this little 14-year-old girl who’s stunning us with her lyrics to selling her millions. I think she’s probably sold near 20 million albums now and in China, Japan, anywhere you go in the world, Taylor Swift, they know her name. The joy that comes from that is awesome.”
Insight for Writers and Performers
I ask him what advice he has for young songwriters. “They can never give up”, he says immediately. “Also, don’t give up the day job. I think the odds of hitting are not much better than getting hit by lightning”, he proposes. “It’s a pretty slim chance. It’s a tough business.”
“There’s two ways to look at your writing career”, Troy elaborates. “One is ‘I love to write. I write every day. I’m going to write for the rest of my life. I don’t care whether someone records it or not. I’ve got to write. It’s in my blood.’ That’s a really good sign if someone feels that way”, he nods confidently.
“If they go, ‘Well, I’ve always thought about writing and I wrote some poems in sixth grade, I got a 4-H ribbon”, he lists with a fledging certainty, “my mom always says I should write a little bit so I decided I’m giving myself one year in Nashville and if I get a deal I’m going to be a songwriter and if I don’t I’m going to be something else’, if they say that to me I go, ‘Hey, you need to go on back home!’ “, he chuckles. ” ‘Just go on back home’ because it’s either a part of you or it’s not. If you can see yourself doing anything else you ought to go do anything else. If you can’t imagine doing anything else then you pursue songwriting and you make contacts.”
“Now, assuming you’ve established the fact that you need to be here”, he advises “then you cannot make too many contacts. You’ve got to go to every event you can be, where songwriters and music publishers and record executives are. Every writer’s night, every concert, every community event they’re opening up for open mic night -you go to all of that. We have to trust that the cream will rise to the top.” It’s clear that Troy not only respects good attitude and hard work but also courage. In a way he challenges what defines a star or a ‘natural’. Most think of a star as purely talent but what Troy is stressing is that talent wanes in comparison to toughness and heart.
“For the most part I’d say that if someone is going to have the drive and the leather skin that it takes to make it in this business then they will have the drive and the leather skin that it takes to get in front of someone like me who will listen to their songs. If they don’t have that, if they don’t have the drive and the ability to take ‘no, no, no, no, no’ as an answer then they’re probably not going to wind up in front of a guy like me. If they can take ‘no’ dozens and dozens of times and still keep pushing through they’re probably going to end up in front of someone like me and get an opportunity.”
I ask, “So can just anyone have a meeting with you then or does it require certain connections?” “Only you two guys!”, he says laughing immediately and we all light up. “No, usually someone is referred to me. We probably get more referrals from our other songwriters than anywhere else. They’ll tell me, ‘Hey, I was at a club last night and before I went on this kid went on and he blew me away. Will you take a meeting?’ “
“Today this guy that used to write for us, the former lead singer of Lone Star, called me up. He hadn’t written here for several years. He said, ‘Man, I met this girl. I want you to hear her.’ He brought her in an introduced me to her this morning.”
“Others will go to an organization called Nashville Songwriters Association and they sort of feed us the cream of the crop.”
“BMI and a company called ASCAP and a company called SESAC are the performing rights organizations. They collect money for songs being played on the radio. They collect it for all of us writers and publishers and pay us. You can also sign with one of those performing rights organizations. In all three of those, for no money, you can just go in and meet with someone and sign up with them. They don’t pay you anything but you are a member.”
“Kenny -he got to know his BMI person personally”, Troy explains. “Kenny said, ‘Could you listen to a song while I’m here’ and he did and the guy said, ‘Play me another one’. Then he said, ‘Come back in a couple weeks and play me something new’ and Kenny developed the relationship. The guy calls me and says, ‘You need to see this guy Kenny.’ It’s that persistence of making relationships that will pay off.”
Now I ask about talent scouts. “There’s seven song pluggers in our creative department”, he answers. “They keep up with what’s going on in town and even a little outside of town. Every morning at nine they divide up the shows that are occurring that night. Most nights there’s something going on except for maybe…” The phone at his desk rings. He picks up instantly, half way into the first sound. The phone is still jingling in his hand as it whips it to his ear.
“What!”, he yells playfully and the person on the other end explains something for a while. “Yes, yes, there’s nothing cheesy about that!”, he encourages. “You mean you’re not going to remake that song but you’re going to create a new song called ‘Endless love’ ?” There’s a long silence as the person on the other side speaks again. Troy speaks, eyes trolling the ceiling. “Isn’t he looking for a new song? Didn’t he say that they cut a new song by that title? I might have misunderstood him. Find out. Send him a note asking that. Does he see ‘Endless Love’ being a new song, totally different, called ‘Endless Love’ or does he see a cover? Because if you got this idea for those two…”, he trails off, interrupted but still giddy in waiting. “No, no, don’t give them that idea first cause he’s liable to say ‘Yes’. Let’s pursue that. Ask them first. Does he see it being a new song or not?” Tomlinson suggests two of his writer/artists. “Say, ‘What do you think about us approaching them?’ That’s a great idea by the way. That’s killer. Thank you. Bye”, he says quickly and slams the phone shut and looks back to us grinning, ready the next question.
“Who was that?”, I say. “One of my song pluggers. We’re trying to pitch songs for a new movie that’s coming up and she had an idea from our phone call this morning about a couple of our artists who might be good for the theme. That’s the kind of stuff that happens which is fun.”
Working with Stars
Now we only have about three minutes left. Time is approaching quickly. “Do you work intimately, face-to-face with some of these big names or is it removed?”, I ask trying to get closer to the artists. “It’s different with all of them. Early in their career year I work with them a lot. As they explode and become huge they’re gone a lot. I don’t see Taylor as often as I did. We communicate more by phone and email. We see each other at functions. With Kenny, we talk every couple of days because it’s also a friendship. It’s now a 20 year friendship. With Eric Church it’s weekly, just a text or a phone call or an email. With Miranda it’s not as frequent. She’s touring all the time and she doesn’t live here. With the Rascal Flatts boys it’s mostly a lot of texting and talking on the phone and bumping into each other at functions. We see all of them at industry functions, award shows and number one parties. With the artists in particular it’s more scarce because they’re traveling. With our regular songwriters, the people that just write songs, like you guys, we see them here every day.”
“What’s it like for you being on a first name basis and being face-to-face with some of these megastars?”, I ask. He relaxes and shrugs, “You know, I respect them greatly and I am in awe of their successes”, he admits, “but I hope that I treat the trash man that picks up the trash just as well. I have a place out in the country and we live here in the city during the week. I don’t see the trash man here because we drop it down a shoot but out in the country I live way off the road. Many times I forget to take the trash down until the morning. They’re picking it up and I’ll come flying out early in the morning with my trash can running down to the end of the road. I’ll actually be there when the trash truck pulls up and I hope I’m as friendly and as real and as authentic with them as I am when I run into any of my artists.”
“This is an answer contributing to my success too”, he ads and realizes at the same time.
“An artist said to me a long time ago that they were frustrated because they’d been with an old mutual friend of ours, a superstar artist, and they said, ‘I was with so and so and they’ve changed.’ This act said, ‘No, I haven’t changed. You’ve changed how you react to me now.’ It was enlightening to me because I was a young man and I suddenly realized that sometimes we, the friends or the people on the outside, change how we react toward them because they’re now superstars. So I fight that at all costs. I respect them and I respect their privacy but when I’m with them it would be a conversation like we’re having.”
“It’s like that Joe Walsh song ‘everybody is so different but I haven’t changed’ “, I suggest. “Oh, great line”, he lights up. “It’s one of my favorite songs man. He gets it too. He was out with Chesney one summer and you can tell just by being around him that he gets that kind of treatment all the time. Now, he may have changed a little too but clearly people relate differently to a superstar. That’s not the fault of the artist. I’m impressed with them and I respect them but I hope when they walk in the door that I’m going to have the same conversation with them that I’m having with y’all”, he finishes and begins to stand up, hand extended out in appreciation.
“Aright! Is that good?”, he asks humbly, slightly tongue in cheek, signaling that it’s 4:00. Of course it is.
“Thank you all. I appreciate it. Great meeting you both”, he says. “I wish you the best. Now go do something with your damn life if you don’t mind!”, he jokes, as if the sheer direction of the gaze of a music project alone, being it’s from the audience’s view, isn’t creating enough of something. I don’t take offense. I only admire his strong character and oblivion to anything but utter greatness.
“Is there any way to get you a demo? Would that be possible?”, I have to ask. He laughs and kind of drags his head but then his better self takes over, “Yes, like an MP3. Can you do an MP3? Just send an MP3 to that email address, one song at a time because the firewall, or whatever you call it, shuts down if it’s more than that.” This is a straight shooter, a farmer, a jokester, a blue collar guy at heart from Tennessee that made it to the top with old reliable means: good manners, quick wit, compassion and honesty. He’s not sure what a firewall is but he can make a song flaming hot and put it in on a wall of gold.
“I appreciate it”, I say. “Thank you buddy”, he nods us down.
People have collected in the waiting room, waiting for Troy to be free. They’re all pumped up on some fun reckless spirit, like the world is an oyster or a playground. “Come on in you goober’s!”, Troy yells. “Troy!”, one screams. “Yes young man!”, Troy comes back. The young man shouts,”You see the Joe Diffie video yet!” An excited tall guy with wide eyes agrees, “You have got to see a snippet of this.” “Say what?”, Troy questions the two of them. “Go look at the new Joe Diffie video”, the young man reassures him and the tall one by the desk says, “Hey did that guy leave the tape recorder on?” He puts his head down to the corner of the desk then puts his face right up to the device and says, “Did you leave this? Hey, it’s still going. Hey, I’m on tape. Hey mom, I’m famous!” I walk back and grab it chuckling. They all laugh and the laughs continue and then fade as we walk out and the elevator door shuts. This is the life, the environment, the reality Troy Tomlinson manifested: one filled with laughter, honesty, spontaneity and a few goofballs and somehow all while publishing gold records of all things.
Troy realized long ago that good humor is a catalyst and cultivator for any successful partnership or practice and he fosters that. It seems to have taken on a life of its own.
He is fast paced and swift. Every finger snap response, every reach of the hand that jolts from him is decisive. The man appears to know no doubt.
My favorite part about Troy is that he’s a self proclaimed ‘hillbilly’. Like him I grew up on a farm working long hours at a young age, burning skin, riding four wheelers and learning traditional values like good hand shakes and hard work. His values probably weren’t as yankee-centric though. He has a warm sense of humor, raw southern charisma and quaint catch phrases. The analogy of ‘tobacco’ and the ‘baby chick’ and the ‘trash man’ are perfect. They are the classic southern mementos he said there would be. They take what’s complex and abstract and bring it all down to earth and hand it over, accessible and real. He has an ability to see everything, even vague emotional or social nuances, in the simplest and clearest terms. In the way that it always catches you off guard when the trash man talks about politics or spirituality it’s equally inspiring to hear a CEO talk tractors, beer cans and tobacco and stress old fashioned tenants like attitude, persistence, generosity, hard work and toughness.
While he’s the at the top of the publishing world and is buddy’s with super star country artists he’s also very humble, very real and naturally compassionate. While other interviewees have made a scarecrow out of the ‘mechanized and callous’ big music business it’s reassuring that amidst the shape shifters and changing clouds of big industry there are reliable truthful constants like Mr. Tomlinson who appear to carry selfless and wholesome priorities and motivations. That brings clarity and inspiration to young people and inspiring musicians. He also restores faith in upper management. The fact that he, a top executive at Sony, was one of twenty publishers in Nashville to reach out to us, two young guys, northerners, amidst a low level start up music project, says a lot. He dismantles the notion that executives are too busy and too arrogant for anyone but high rollers and cronies. He proves, in fact, that the most successful business men make a career out of compassion, joy, humility and character.