Exit Interview: Del Bryant, BMI President And CEO
Recipient of the 2014 Golden Mike Award from the Broadcasters Foundation of America, Del joined BMI in 1972, and worked in numerous areas of the company for 32 years, rising to President and CEO in 2004. The son of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, the legendary songwriters who penned classics such as The Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love,” “Wake up Little Susie,” and more, Bryant’s rich musical heritage inspired his accomplishments and passion for the business. Del has seen the industry change with the explosion of online music companies, direct licensing deals and government involvement in how licensing should be structured. As Del has announced his retirement after 42 years with BMI this coming June, RBR-TVBR sat down to ask some important questions about where the industry is heading, what threats and opportunities there are to the business, and what he plans to do after BMI.
Tell us how it feels to be this year’s Golden Mike recipient [question asked before the event]
Well, I couldn’t be prouder. I am just a little bit bowled over that I am going to be receiving this award, there are so many deserving members of the broadcasting community out there. I received a call from Phil Lombardo and I said, “Phil, are you sure? There are others that you should be considering.” Phil said, “No. And I am not going to take no for an answer.” If you know Phil Lombardo, when he says he is not going to take no for an answer, you are going to be honored.
I am flattered at the number of people in the music industry who stepped forward to be there that night and say something nice about me, and entertain on my behalf. I can’t tell you how proud I am that Kris Kristofferson, Michael Bolton, Brenda Russell, my dear friends, Sandra Lee and Jack Sander are all showing up, a host of people sending videos and that my friend Bob Schieffer, who is a BMI songwriter, will be our MC. I am so thankful for their friendship, and for the ability to work with that community. To receive this kind love back from them is truly heartwarming.
Most of all, I am extremely proud of the work the Foundation does. It is heartfelt work. I have participated in meetings where the would-be recipients are discussed. The honest concern and heartfelt respect for the jobs that these professionals in the broadcast industry have done throughout their career, and the ability to help at a time when help is so needed, has been the hallmark of this organization. The work the Foundation does is so urgently needed, and given without the expectation of anything back from these people. I am most proud to be involved with the organization and with the work that they do.
Give us some highlights on how you’ve grown BMI’s business since starting there and after becoming CEO in 2004.
When I joined BMI in 1972 the company had fewer than 25,000 songwriters, today it has more than 600,000 writers and publishers. When I joined BMI, the revenues were $38 million, today they are close to a billion.
But growth in the number of songwriters and revenue doesn’t really tell the story of my time at BMI. I am probably most proud of having put together a team of the industry’s most capable and sought-after executives to head new divisions and new offices in important emerging genres of music. I was an early believer in the rising popularity of Urban music, and helped assemble a powerful team dedicated to that music, a team who signed writers like R. Kelly, Eminem, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Lil’ Wayne and will.i.am. Latin Music was another important focus during my time. Our Latin music department formed strong relationships with songwriter-producers and artists from Gloria Estefan, to Carlos Santana and John Secada, and today’s superstars like Shakira and Juanes. BMI’s London office was a priority, and we developed it into a major hub to attract the best songwriting and performing talent from Europe and beyond. We maintained the relationships with megastars like Sting, Enya, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Tim Rice and Elton John, while we engendered new relationships with new superstars like One Direction, multiple Grammy winner Adele, and this year’s Grammy album and record of the year winner, Daft Punk. We expanded BMI’s footprint in Los Angeles in film and television music to include not only legends like John Williams and Mike Post, but also multiple Oscar winners like Alan Menken and Latin composer Gustavo Santaolalla and international sensation Alexandre Desplat, to mention but a few.
Our leadership in country music is legendary. Always one of BMI’s traditional strengths, BMI’s Nashville team is now a powerhouse whose writers have won 90% or more of the Country Music Awards over the last few years. That repertoire encompasses industry legends like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Kris Kristofferson, and today’s hottest crossover hitmakers like Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Toby Keith and so many more.
All the while, our New York and Los Angeles based creative teams built the industry’s most successful roster of pop and rock stars, from Pink, Kid Rock, Jennifer Lopez, Adam Levine and Maroon 5, to Ke$ha, Pitbull, and so many more. And in classical music, I am proud to say, that during the 10 years of my presidency, 10 BMI composers were accorded classical music’s most prestigious honor, election to the American Academy.
Technology, which was always one of BMI’s strong suits, became a mission critical goal for us during my presidency. We introduced the industry’s first iPhone app, and a groundbreaking program to permit performing songwriters to digitally upload data on their songs and performance venues from their smart phones and iPads. Our website was also the first to establish a digital portal for new members, which enabled our membership to double during my presidency from 300,000 to 600,000. I was also proud to serve two terms as chairman of the global music rights technology partnership, FastTrack, the organization that is now playing a key role in developing the world’s first comprehensive, global database of music copyright information.
Beyond the business achievements, I am proud that during my tenure we maintained a corporate culture that bore Frances Preston’s legacy, her hallmark. . .an abiding and genuine care, concern and support for the writers and publishers we represent. That tradition continued during my time at BMI without losing a step and under the new leadership of CEO, Michael O’Neill, I am sure it will continue to flourish.
BMI’s progress has been steady during my term as CEO. The last 10 years have been a period dominated by the challenges and the disruption of the transition to a global digital marketplace for music. But BMI always found a path to opportunity, diversifying its repertoire and its streams of income.
How did your songwriter parents help to influence your career direction?
When you are raised in a family that writes songs, and they are writing songs in the home, at the dinner table, in the car, in the living room, on the front porch…when that is going on in your life, you have a tendency to think that the world, indeed, is all about music. If my parents hadn’t been in the music industry, I don’t believe that I would’ve gone into this industry. I think their unique involvement, their tremendous success, and the sheer force of their talent, colored my life greatly.
I learned all the ins and outs of that end of the business from the time I was born. My parents had their first hit the year I was born, in 1948, and continued having hits throughout much of my adulthood. I worked for my family and their publishing company shortly after college and the Air Force, and before I went to work at BMI. So, I was completely programmed to work with songwriters, dealing with their creativity and channeling that into the business of music.
It even enabled me to have some success as a songwriter. I have written quite a few songs in my life. I even wrote a Top 5 Billboard hit in the late 1970s, five to six years after I had gone to work with BMI. That was truly exciting but, I was ready for an even greater involvement in the industry. I had gained an understanding of the psyche of song writers, understanding how they felt about their creations, how they felt they should be compensated for those creations, understanding the process itself, what made it click, what, in essence, made it commercial. All these experiences prepared me for a meaningful role at BMI.
What was it like growing up with in such a music household at such a unique time?
It was very exciting. I had the opportunity to see all of the early country stars, pop stars, and many of the early rock and rollers come through our household looking for material.
Music was truly coming together—country, rockabilly was fusing into what was being called rock and roll. My parents had a truly significant role in that. My father had been raised in South Georgia, where he had been steeped in the blues and the gospel church music of the Deep South. He has been classically trained from 5 years old and by 18 was playing in the Atlanta Symphony. He was in a perfect position and had the talent to fuse country, blues, gospel, folk, R&B, into a commodity that exploded in the 1950s—the birth decade of rock and roll. Their importance has been cited by everyone from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, to Paul Simon, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. It was an exciting time.
From my childhood, I was around a who’s who in the business. Chet Atkins was my father’s best friend, and is literally one of the first faces I can recall seeing as a child. The Everly Brothers were often at our home. We were around Roy Acuff, Hank Williams Sr. (Hank Jr. who I played with backstage Grand Ol’ Opry), Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Dickens, Carl Smith and the entire cavalcade of country stars from Patsy Cline to Jim Reeves. And so many of these people were crossing over. They were starting to be a part of the new rock and roll/pop explosion. We had Burl Ives in the house, a wonderful man and friend to my family. Bob Mitchum came into town to cut an album my folks wrote for him. There was a host of others—it was active, eclectic. It was a melting pot for everything musical and creative.
What are some of the important emerging trends in the music licensing business today?
There is a lot of attention right now to the digital distribution of music, and that will continue to be significant into the future. More about that in a moment. What many people don’t understand is that digital today is just a small part of a songwriters’ income, far outweighed by royalties from other forms of distribution, or what we call “musical performance.”
A growing revenue source is “general licensing,” royalties from bars and restaurants, exercise salons, bowling alleys, anywhere that music is used to make the experience more attractive. There is music accompanying people while they are buying groceries at Whole Foods, their clothing at Macy’s, an engagement ring at Tiffany’s or just kicking back and enjoying life at Buffalo Wild Wings General licensing revenue is growing faster than ever, and that is very good for the creators we represent. Music is an integral part of so many experiences. BMI is also seeing an increase in license fees from live music in large and small venues alike; it is increasingly important today. People can’t seem to get enough music in their lives.
Another key area for BMI is music on television. Whether it is American Idol, The Voice or the many similar shows, music is again at the center of the entertainment, and more so than ever. These shows have been helping established songwriters and established stars. These shows allow the “long tail” of music to get longer and longer, because so much of the music used is standards, or newly created standards; and it gives them renewed life on the airwaves today. For example, the work of songwriter/artists like Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo, Shakira (all BMI songwriters); their success has been enhanced greatly by TV and by the visualization of their artistry. The building of a new star has become so closely tied to video and the ability to see the music performed.
There are more and more ways to monetize the “performance” of music in all its forms. Radio is still a large part of our business. Cable is a true juggernaut and it is still growing. Our foreign business, our catalog around the world, is growing dramatically. The money that we make around the world from radio, film, television, cable and general licensing now accounts for about a third of our entire income.
We are at approximately $950 million. At this point, our digital piece of that pie is approximately $60 million dollars. So, there is a lot of business that our eyes are focused on other than digital. It is important for us at BMI to keep our eye on the entire ball—and the ball is made up of many, many, many important pieces.
Now, when we look at the digital world, the biggest trend would be the tremendous growth of streaming. Downloads are starting to diminish as of course, CDs have. That has reduced the amount of “mechanical income,” the money for duplicating a piece of music that songwriters and publishers are paid generally by the record companies. We are moving more into a streaming world, which is the type of “musical performance” that BMI licenses. The income to be derived from streaming is being sought by all sides of the creative industry—the writer, the publisher, the artist and the record label. But right now, this new group of digital distributors, which have tremendous investments in the technology to help bring the music to the masses, would like to pay far less than we feel they should. They would like the music to be less of a financial burden to them as they build their businesses.
There is a need to develop sustainable business models that work today and in the future. Models that do not only work for the organizations that are delivering the music to the masses, but also for the creators of the music. They cannot be given the short end of that equation. We at BMI continuously struggle to ensure that music isn’t commoditized without respect to its true value to the creators and the underlying copyright owners. It has to be a two-way street. The creators of music have to be compensated, not after the business is built, but while it is being built upon their backs.
Some feel that the ever-larger number of performances that are being delivered to listeners will generate sufficient income. They say that the numbers will eventually equate to meaningful dollars. But the micro-payments, at this point, just aren’t where they need to be. That, itself, is driving some of the activity that you are seeing in new licensing trends and some of the conversations that are ongoing in Washington.
How would you sum up BMI’s relationship with the tech community, the digital community, today?
I think it is a growing relationship. It is important to note that we were one of the first large music business organizations with a website. We started that in early 1994, a year before Bill Gates introduced Internet Explorer Version 1. We have embraced technology since the beginning, tried to understand it at the very dawning of its applications in our world. We were the first PRO to license the Internet. We have really tried to stay hand-in-hand with the development of all the platforms that use the music of our writers and publishers. We are maintaining what I would say is a good and open relationship.
What about the regulatory environment in D.C.? How do you advocate for the creative element with those agencies?
Obviously, there are two forums primarily that we interact with the most. One would be Congress, and the other would be the Justice Department that regulates our consent decree and our rate court. With Congress, our biggest need from that body is modification of some of the laws to ensure that there is a level playing field for all of us. We are trying to modify laws that preclude our rate courts from looking at other relative benchmarks that indicate the true value of music. We are, at this point, not able to introduce all the benchmarks that are driving the value of music for other licensing areas. That is unfortunate.
Music is far more valuable today than it was in the past. The value continues to rise based on the trends we discussed. We need to be able to play by the same set of rules that everybody else is playing by. That really brings us squarely into the conversation about the Justice Department, our consent decree and rate court, which regulates the rates that we are able to charge. We need modification to our consent decree to ensure that there is a level playing field for all of the constituents, small or large. I think it is safe to say that one could question the need for a consent decree. At a minimum, we certainly need to examine it and to amend the way that our decree has been operating for close to 70 years. Our oldest consent decree dates from 1941, and was amended in 1966. There is no other business you could think of today that operates under decrees that have been around that long. Without a doubt, it needs to be examined and amended in order to provide fairly for creators large and small, publishers large and small. We are actively in an important conversation in Washington with the DOJ, as are other constituents in the music industry.
What other challenges are BMI and other PROs are facing, as you turn over the reins of BMI?
We are highly focused on the relationships with our largest publishers. When I first came to BMI, there were hundreds of important publishers. Today there are a small handful of very important publishers. We are carefully managing the relationships with these publishers, fiercely maintaining the relationships with our writers and smaller companies while delivering the value that they need for their livelihood. We are in the process of redefining the services we can provide, the best pricing for the services that we render, and how we can best work together.
Technology today allows us to add services that no one envisioned before. Which ones do the writers really want? Which ones do they need? Where is the sweet spot in cost/benefit for new applications? We have to find ways to do it cheaper and more effectively, and at the same time more creatively. That is always the leading challenge for any performing rights organization.
Another challenge is the traditional challenge of finding new talent. There are a lot more ways to find music, but you still have to get through the sheer volume to find the gems, the keepers. We have an exceptionally creative team of people at BMI in all genres of music – from film and TV to classical, from Latin to country, from bluegrass to Americana, from Urban to rock and roll – whose job is to find the music that will be important and to help fast-track it to success. We are a part of the large music industry network, linking people as fast as we can, handing a very talented person to the next person who can help them, while offering valid information and guidance to all. There is always a real creative challenge in doing that, and doing it so you don’t lose something in the process.
What do you think about the recent direct deals radio groups and digital platforms are making with the labels?
Record labels are making specific deals with radio groups to ensure payment for performing rights in the sound recording… the record. While that is not BMI’s business, BMI strongly supports the rights of all the creative people who participate in making music; be they songwriters, artists, musicians, or the labels that own the sound recording.
However, I would not like to see the performing rights of songwriters and publishers diminished because businesses were looking to fund a new stream of income flowing to other rights holders. I believe in all creative rights. But I would hate to see this done to the detriment of songwriters or their publishers that share in the performing rights administered by BMI. As my predecessor, the great Frances Preston said: “It all begins with a song.”
The RMLC was fairly recently denied an injunction in its lawsuit against SESAC. The court did note, however, that BMI’s rates have gone down, whereas SESAC’s have gone up.
SESAC does not operate under a consent decree, like BMI and ASCAP. This situation points up once again how BMI’s consent decree may not be enabling us to get the true value that is available in the marketplace. Performance rights are so vitally important that publishers feel they can take specific catalogs outside of a consent decree environment to achieve a dramatic increase in revenue. If that is true, then the true value of music is not being reflected by organizations that are bound to a rate court, such as BMI and so we need to correct for that.
What is next for Del Bryant?
I am a copyright owner myself. My brother and I own a large number of copyrights whose potential to grow is vast. We have a handful of important copyrights that I think I am going to “work” a little bit harder. I am going to become more involved with the heritage that my family left my brother and myself. He’s been in real estate and I’ve been in performing rights. In the coming years, I will pay more attention to songs such as “Rocky Top” and “Bye, Bye Love” and “Love Hurts” and “All I Have to Do is Dream” and “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Rainin’ in my Heart” and dozens of classic songs that could have a little more oxygen breathed into them, and consequently breathe out a little vitality for my family. I want to help the public to discover some of my folks’ songs that were never recorded. They wrote between 3,000 and 4,000 tunes. I might become involved in developing some projects around these and other portions of their catalog.
I have a lot of other interests. But I’ve been so absorbed in the music business from the perspective of BMI, so dedicated to working with the writers and the publishers, that I haven’t had time to explore them.
Most importantly, I have a nine-year-old, Thaddeus, that I and my amazing wife Carolyn are going to enjoy raising. I want to enjoy every moment of this experience while being a father and a friend to my 43-, 41- and 31-year-old children, and of course my five grandchildren.
We bought a farm right outside of Nashville, in Franklin, and we are going to raise some chickens and a couple of cows. We are just going to fool around, like the song says: “Green Acres is the place to be.” Just dilly-dally in the fields. We’ve got a river on the place, and we are just going to have a little fun.