Warner/Chappell Music Exec VP Ben Vaughn’s life played out like a movie plot. His dogged determination to succeed propelled him from an intern at Warner/Chappell to the top boss at the Nashville major music publishing company.
Fresh out of high school in Kentucky, the former disc jockey moved to Nashville with dreams of a career in the music business. He enrolled at Belmont University, but his energetic eagerness quickly took him beyond the classroom and into the real world. The tenacious teenager landed an internship in Warner/Chappell’s catalogue department when he was only 18 years old, something that’s normally not allowed.
“You’ve got to ask,” Vaughn said. “They can say yes or say no. No matter what it is in life, make sure you ask. I got the internship, and they made an exception and let me do it.”
Two years later, Vaughn stepped into executive status as General Manager of Nashville’s Big Tractor Music before moving to EMI. He was chosen in 2010 to lead the company’s country division, making him the youngest executive to head a major publisher in Nashville. During his 10-year stint, Vaughn signed top tunesmiths like Hillary Scott (of Lady Antebellum), Dallas Davidson and Rhett Akins. In 2012, when Sony/ATV bought EMI, Vaughn moved over to Warner/Chappell, bringing his career full circle.
With his hard-driving quest for success, Vaughn is anxious to support the country music industry with his stable of songwriters. He works with Little Big Town, Brantley Gilbert, Kacey Musgraves, Jana Kramer, Liz Rose, Brett James, Michael Dulaney, Wendell Mobley, and Marv Green to name a few. The busy business executive took a break to speak with SongwriterUniverse from his Music Row office about his latest venture, the perfect publishing partnerships, and discovering new songwriting talent.
BC: What kind of strengths do you bring to the company?
Vaughn: Drive and pace. I’m pretty relentless. I really love being a music publisher and working with songwriters every day. If you can think it up, you can do it. You can be trying to find ways to position your people for success all of the time. I don’t really have an off switch. I’m always thinking about it.
I think the music industry is all about talent and relationships. You have to have the talent, and you work with that talent through your relationships for mutual success for everybody. I feel like we’re always looking for a win/win situation for the songwriter, for the song, for the label, for the artist, for the manager, for the agent. It’s all an interconnected web. If we can get the right music with the right artist, then they will have the right ability to tour, which affects ultimately the guy selling t-shirts.
BC: What are your main goals at Warner/Chappell?
Vaughn: Every day starts the same. You try to think what am I going to do today to move the ball forward for a songwriter. When you’re in a company like this, and you have the blessing to work with a lot of diverse people at different places in their career, they all have different needs. One size doesn’t fit all in music publishing. I think very simply the goal every day is how do we serve our people. What are we doing to get a song recorded, to make a new relationship, or to maintain a relationship. What are we doing to find out about, as a creative team, what the needs are in the market place, and how we put our songwriters in there to meet those needs? When you say, what are the goals for the company, I think very simply, to be the best servants for songwriters that you can. If you’re doing that on a daily basis and you’re really making plans for your people, for songwriters, and you’re executing on those plans, generally, success will happen, and then you get do fun things like go to number one parties. As we continue to grow our reputation, we’ll continue to be a place where people will want to write. In our business, there’s no greater honor than to have a songwriter entrust their career to work with you.
Our company is the hub of a lot of things in the business. Every record label knows that if you need good material that can further the career of their artist, they’re going to come to Warner/Chapell. So, you know if you’re writing here, there are constantly, emails, meetings, people saying I need this. I need this. Here’s what’s going on with this artist. You constantly have access. That’s huge. That’s a big piece of it. Also, we’re making bets on writers & artists. We develop a lot of artists here. We work with people at different stages of their career. We try to set up collaborations that will matter for the long run. I’m not a huge fan of the shotgun approach. Just try a bunch of stuff and see what happens. I think you’ve got to be deliberate, and hopefully, you can make some connections where writers have chemistry and through those collaborations a lot of amazing songs are written. That’s where creativity can really get interesting when people are very comfortable with each other and they’re willing to take some risks.
BC: Are you good at reading people?
Vaughn: I hope so. You’ve got to be right a lot more than you’re wrong. Writers need to trust you and your instincts. There’s definitely some psychology to it.
BC: What do writers need to provide on their end in the relationship with the publisher?
Vaughn: I look at it as a true partnership. When it works like a real partnership, you have to have an open dialogue. I can deliver a tough message, and they can deliver a hard message back, and it’s okay. That’s when it really works. You just make a plan. I need to know they’re not going to let up, their drive. They’re working all the time, and they want to work all the time. One thing that doesn’t work in this town is laziness. You can have all the talent in the world, and you can get lucky for a while, but if you’re not committed to it, it will always fizzle out. I always look for people who are truly dedicated. They show up every day. They want to work, and they want to get better.
BC: How do you discover new songwriting talent?
Vaughn: I get that question a lot. It’s become so many different ways. Word of mouth is huge. I’ve only got so many roster spots. It’s kind of like being on a pro team. If you want to be on the Chicago Bulls when they’re winning the championship, there are only so many spots. To get up to a level where you get on a platform like a Warner, the funnel gets pretty narrow. You learn to listen to people, and sometimes you hear the same name enough it can be worth checking out. There’s not a lot of overnight songwriting superstars in our market. It’s really a process of years, generally, and a lot of work to help a songwriter build their brand and their reputation. I do a lot of listening to my team and also trusted friends in the business. That’s one way. There are times writers want bigger opportunities than they’re currently at. They want a company with some more muscle or a higher platform where they know their songs are going to be constantly exposed to new opportunities.
Also, the Internet, especially from an artist’s perspective. I was listening to a couple of songs last night. Somebody had said you should check this out so I was watching a couple of people’s shows on the road. That’s kind of a newer part of the game. I’ve signed people from random CDs before. It’s very rare. We don’t work in a business anymore where, ‘Oh, we’ll just try that. Let’s see what happens.’ Everything is much more deliberate. I believe if you’re going to make a commitment to a writer, make a commitment. The writer/publisher relationship works the best over the long term. You build a catalogue of songs, and you make that catalogue valuable. That’s the sweet spot for everyone.
BC: How have you seen the business change?
Vaughn: I think with the consolidation of the business, what you’re finding is from a major label perspective’the major labels are what distribute music to radio and radio is generally is what drives the needle in country in terms of building big brands of stars’we now have less companies actively putting music out to radio. When I started, nearly 20 years ago, we had over 25 imprints. Now, you’ve got maybe six major labels with a few radio imprints each. That’s probably the biggest change, less people driving the overall music business. Songwriters need a lot of outlets. I know people are doing the best they can. The good news is the country format is scorching hot. Consumption is at an all time high. That’s a really good thing for everybody. I’m hoping some more investments will be made in country because you know there’s a fan base.
BC: How much has technology come into play? Has radio started to fade out in terms of influence?
Vaughn: I don’t know. I think it depends on what the conversation is. If the conversation is, how do you make a nationwide star, I think it’s still the biggest factor for our format in our genre. The cool thing is you do have a lot of other ways to expose music. We didn’t have those outlets in the past. If you’re talking from an artist perspective, it’s all pieces of an overall strategy. You have more ways to get your music out and get it heard. I don’t see a bigger driver. I think we just have some additional ways to add to the radio strategy than we used to have.
BC: What advice do you have for beginning songwriters who hope to be at the level of a Warner/Chappell some day?
Vaughn: Don’t give up. If you can give it up, you’re probably not meant to be a professional career songwriter. You almost have to have to do it like it’s such an all consuming fire that you can’t do anything else. It literally takes that much dedication. If this can be looked at as a passing fancy, it’s probably not your calling. The writers I’ve seen and worked with over the years that really make it, they just don’t want to do anything else. They have the talent to write new creative songs almost every day. That’s unbelievable! That still blows my mind.
If you have the drive and you have the talent, you have to get in your mind “if this is what I’m called to be, if this is my career, I’m going to be creative every day. That’s my job.” Then, you find ways to do that. And that will look like a lot of collaboration to get a lot of songs in the marketplace. Then, you’ve got to have some luck. Getting that first cut is the big deal. I’m a big believer that cuts breed other cuts. You have one cut you get a little more confidence. Get another one and another one. Maybe you’re up for a single and you don’t get it, but you keep plowing ahead. Then, you get it, and it dies at 40 [on the chart]. You can’t stop. You can’t give up. If you look at some of the most successful songwriters in our business and how they got started and how long it took and how much failure was in the beginning to get to the good stuff, that’s a common, common story.
BC: What do you see for your future?
Vaughn I love music publishing. It really fits my make-up. I get the opportunity to be really creative. Also, I enjoy the business side. I like all of it. For me, working at Warner/Chappell is a new opportunity still, and it’s about putting solid roots down.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Google+