At the end of this month, a legend in the television business, Frances Preston, will step down as president and CEO of Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI.
Ms. Preston joined BMI in 1958 and by 1986 had worked her way up to the top spot in the organization.
For her unparalleled leadership and innumerable contributions to our industry, TelevisionWeek is proud to name her our TV Music Executive of the Year.
As it happens, this fall marks the 65th anniversary of the creation of BMI. Though not well remembered today, the filing of the BMI charter back in October 1939 was a red-letter day for the broadcast industry.
Here’s what was going on: In most U.S. homes, radio was king. CBS, NBC and the Mutual Broadcasting Co. were the dominant networks at the time. Music on radio was predominantly licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
A seven-year deal between the radio broadcasters and ASCAP was coming up for renewal in early 1940. The broadcasters balked at the proposed terms of the new deal. As an alternative, they formed BMI, which by the end of 1940 had signed license deals with 650 radio broadcasters.
Most of the music that ASCAP had been licensing to the radio stations was “your mainstream Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood kind of thing,” Ms. Preston said. “What was happening was that different kinds of music [were] breaking out all over the country: jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, country music and Western music-those last two were two different types, by the way. So there was all this root music, yet most of the radio stations across the country could not play this music,” because much of it was not part of ASCAP’s repertoire. “And if a radio station played the music without permission, it would be infringing and there would be lawsuits,” Ms. Preston said.
Thus was born BMI. As Dick Clark has said about that auspicious occasion, “Prior to BMI’s founding, the music business was not readily accessible to newcomers. BMI opened the doors for the young, the black, the country, the nontraditional songwriter. It widened the opportunity for more creative people to participate in the art of music.”
Ms. Preston explained that “the broadcasters formed BMI as a not-for-profit organization,” which she noted “isn’t the same as a nonprofit. Not-for-profit means that all the money coming in gets paid out to composers and publishers, less operating expenses. So when BMI was formed it opened the door to all these other types of music. Songwriters and new publishers came flocking to BMI’s doors, and the radio stations could play this other music that their listeners really wanted to hear, because BMI was licensing it. It was this explosion of American music. And from this root music came Southern rock-what we would later call rock ‘n’ roll.”
BMI is now a business with annual revenues exceeding $600 million and that represents more than 300,000 music creators and copyright owners.
The awards bestowed upon Ms. Preston are almost countless, including the National Trustees Award, the most prestigious award given to a nonperformer by the people who present the Grammy Awards. She has also been named an American Broadcast Pioneer by the Broadcasters’ Foundation and is a recipient of the Golden Mike Award presented by the Broadcasters’ Foundation.
TelevisionWeek Editorial Director Chuck Ross was able to catch up with Ms. Preston for a phone interview a few weeks ago as she prepared to transition to her new post as BMI president emeritus.
TelevisionWeek: Tell us how you first connected with BMI.
Frances Preston: I worked for a radio station, WSM in Nashville. I was just out of school. I was going to teach school in the fall. And I decided to get a summer job and I got a job at WSM. At that time there were very few jobs for women there. I started as a receptionist. Now WSM was a clear-channel station.
TVWeek: By `clear-channel,’ you don’t mean the big company that owns so many radio stations today.
Ms. Preston: That’s right. What clear-channel meant back then was that no one else could get on the dial position where you were. There were only 11 of these clear-channel radio stations in the country. So WSM could be heard in New York, Hawaii, Alaska-all over.
While I had this receptionist job I met a lot of politicians from Washington. Since WSM was a clear-channel station, a lot of them would come down to Nashville to talk on the air, because the airtime was available to them for free.
Then I started doing events, and I had this fashion show on TV. All while I was this receptionist at WSM. So I was getting experience doing a lot of things. We had a country music festival, and we got the record companies out of New York to sponsor events during this festival. One of the things that was my job was to go to New York and talk to some of the record companies and convince them that they should pay for the breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
One of the things we did was give songwriters awards. Now back then, songwriters were really just known as songwriters and not songwriters-performers, or songwriters-artists. BMI gave the awards, but no one was really too interested. So I convinced BMI to give an award breakfast at 7:30 in the morning at the old Maxwell House hotel, and that was the first awards that BMI gave. We played all the songs live, with the studio musicians, and it was standing-room-only and it turned out to be a big, big thing for the songwriters.
So with this success and with my connections with the politicians I had met and with my connections with the artists and with my enthusiasm for creating new things, BMI asked me if I would open their Southern office there in Nashville.
TVWeek: And why were the political connections important?
Ms. Preston: Well, performing rights organizations always have problems in Washington. Unfortunately, no one wants to pay for playing music. Everyone who comes along thinks music is free. There’s a performing right to be paid. If people didn’t seek license, the source of music will dry up. Because then artists couldn’t make a living writing music. They have to be compensated when their works are performed and that is a big [thing]. There’s always an attack on music.
TVWeek: So it all started for you in Nashville. Is that where you’re from?
Ms. Preston: Yes. And along the way came things that you had to face as a woman at that time. Women working in a workplace-I pioneered some of that there. The first woman to be in this … and the first woman to be in that. I was the first woman in the South to become a Rotarian. Many things like that. First woman on the Chamber of Commerce board in Nashville. Then I was the second woman to be asked to join the Friar’s Club in New York.
TVWeek: Could you share with us the various responsibilities you’ve had running BMI?
Ms. Preston: Running BMI is like running three different businesses. You have the product side, which is the music. You bring in the best available that you can find. The best composers. That is your product.
Then you have to sell that product. That’s the licensing side. John Shaker heads that up for us. You have to get the license agreements from radio, TV, satellite, the Internet, restaurants, bars, ships, airlines-anyone who plays music.
In the middle is our data processing operation, which is tremendous, because we have to track all of this music that’s being played and then pay the songwriters and the composers and the publishers according to the extent that their works are performed.
TVWeek: How do you foster new music?
Ms. Preston: Our writer-publisher departments are up to date on everything that comes along. And they try to sign all the new and the best and all of the particular genres of music. Our foundation gives awards to young composers of classical music. We have a workshop for people who write for Broadway. We have scholarships that come out of our foundation. The Yoko Ono scholarship [John Lennon Scholarship] every year goes to a pop writer. So we have various scholarships that go to different kinds of writer in different kinds of music. We do everything we can to fu
rther the education of the young people coming along writing for these different sources.
TVWeek: What do you think are your most important accomplishments?
Ms. Preston: Our increase in revenues of 400 percent speaks for itself. Then I think that technically we’re probably the most advanced of any music company-whether it be record companies, performing rights organizations, publishers or anything else. I got heavily involved in new technology when I served on Vice President Gore’s National Information Infrastructure committee. We were to write the white paper for President Clinton regarding the new technologies for security protection. In doing that, there were only 30 of us. People like Bill Gates were on the committee, the head of Apple Computers, the head of AT&T. I learned an awful lot about what was coming along. And I came back and I said we have got to address our computer area so that we will be able to handle all of these new technologies. We started that way back when, so now when other people are frantically running around and spending millions and millions of dollars to build a system to handle all this we’ve only had to add each year to our system. I’ve always been able to have vision and look ahead to see where the next songs are going to be played how we’re going to license them and how we’re going pay for them.
TVWeek: Let’s talk about the retail side. Traditional music retailers have had a tough time.
Ms. Preston: Music will never be like it was. All of these new technologies make it so easy for those who want to sit home and download. There’s still that large group of people, however, that like to go to a record store and browse. I still like to do that. I’m not interested in downloading my music. I want to go to the record store and browse. And I don’t go in wanting any particular thing, but I go out with a stack of CDs. Because I saw them and I was enticed by them. So the record stores probably have to find ways to attract their audience and keep their audience. Some are putting in little coffee shops and things like that that make people come in and stay a while. It is a rough time. Everybody’s downsizing, and of course some people want to go to a record store and have you make an album of different artists from different labels and customize the music. It’s just a lot of things record stores have to be involved in that they weren’t in the past.
TVWeek: One of the things that makes BMI so vibrant is that you are open to new things.
Ms. Preston: We have always tried to be first. We were the first ones to have an Internet site. We try to adapt to all the new things that come along.
TVWeek: What’s your favorite music?
Ms. Preston: Growing up, my family played Broadway shows and the light classics and things of that nature. I developed my liking for country music through my job at WSM. I’m into all types of music. First of all, I had to be because I had to know what was going on. And so I really could say I like whatever the best is in every category of music. My listening is varied because I want to know what’s happening.
TVWeek: Certainly one of the biggest changes in music happened on TV, when MTV came around back in 1981. Do you remember that?
Ms. Preston: As it happened, a year before MTV came on the air I had the guys that put it on the air-Bob Pittman and Les Garland and I think Bob Emmer was with them-come down to Nashville. I had them in for a seminar to explain what MTV was going to be and what they were going to be playing and how they were going to choose their music. It was a year before they were going on the air. I did stay ahead. That was a big thing. I had them come and speak. And I invited people from the industry to come and listen. That was a fun thing at that time. And people couldn’t believe they were doing all that.
TVWeek: So you were an early supporter.
Ms. Preston: Exactly.
TVWeek: As you make the handoff to your successor, current Executive VP Del Bryant, what are the challenges BMI will have going forward?
Ms. Preston: I think that the changing environment has been happening for several years. And Del is very capable of taking my place and moving forward because Del has been working with me most of his career. He also started in Nashville. So he has come along just like I did through the ranks. And he is very capable of handling this. The most important thing BMI has to have is vision. And then you have to make it all happen. But you have to have vision of where you’re going. Del has that.
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a wonderful board to work with all these years and my staff is just the best. I didn’t do anything by myself. It was with their support that I did everything. The composers, the publishers, they’re my friends. It’s just been a wonderful ride. I love to go to work. I love work, and I think that’s the best thing you can say.