Michael Knox, Kathy Spanberger Discuss peermusic’s New Nashville Office, The State Of Songwriting [Interview]

peermusic Nashville Sr. VP, Michael Knox. Photo: Haley Crow

In 2019, peermusic has been on the move—on many fronts.

peermusic relocated its Nashville office to 55 Music Sq. E., Ste. C—a space that previously housed SESAC’s offices, and remodeled the building to include more writer rooms, and communal, creative spaces.

Michael Knox, who has produced 23 No. 1 hits in his career, contributed to 45 million singles and 20 million albums sold, and is known for his longtime work with Jason Aldean, was promoted to Sr. VP, peermusic Nashville. The company recently celebrated the renewal of contracts for two writers—Jaron Boyer and Michael Tyler.

Tyler and Boyer each have songs on Aldean’s current chart-topping album, 9, and have co-written hits including Aldean’s “Girl Like You” and Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere On A Beach,” among others. Other recent peermusic hits include “There Was This Girl” (Riley Green), “Rearview Town” (Aldean), and “Love You Too Late” (Cole Swindell).

Ken Burns’ recent documentary Country Music featured the story of peermusic founder Ralph S. Peer, producer of the famous “Bristol Sessions,” the 1927 recordings from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, which are considered the “Big Bang” of country music; Ralph Peer II, son of Ralph S. Peer, currently serves as Chairman and CEO of peermusic.

peermusic President/COO Kathy Spanberger celebrates her 40th year with peermusic this year and is responsible for all creative and administrative operations, including direct supervision of all U.S. signings to peermusic in the pop, urban, Latin, and country space, as well as overseeing peermusic’s international operations in Australia and Canada. Under her tenure, peermusic has seen a 25% year-over-year increase in global receipts. Spanberger began her career at peermusic in 1979 as an assistant to Ralph Peer II and went on to become one of the first female execs to serve as President and COO at a music publisher.

Michael Knox. Photo: Haley Crow

MusicRow spoke with peermusic Knox and Spanberger about peermusic’s relocation of its Nashville office, the company’s role in Burns’ Country Music documentary, and the state of music publishing.

MusicRow: peermusic recently relocated to 55 Music Sq. E.. Why was it so important for peermusic to remain located in the Music Row area?
Knox: Well, we went round and round about it because so many people were moving off the row. A lot of people, as you know, are moving out and going downtown or out by I-440. For a while there we were like, “Wow man, we’ll just take what we can get,” because they were knocking everything down. Then this spot opened up and I was like, “That’s a vintage-looking place where we’re not jumping into a corporate office visual, where we can still kind of be part of Old Nashville.”

What was your vision for the new space?
Spanberger: Well, my first thing was I had to make sure Michael Knox was happy [with the space]. Few of our offices outside of New York are in big office buildings. It’s just not the feel of the company that we want, because it’s a family-owned firm. Here, the whole feel of it is modern but still original.

Knox: The main thing I wanted was to keep the creative people in the same space, so they bump into each other. They create together, they feed off each other. You bump into your co-writers and you bump into your co-writers’ co-writers. It’s hard to find that kind of space that feels like a living room when you’re walking around. I wanted people to bump into each other and say, “Wow, this is our club. This is where we hang out.” That was the biggest part of the direction of the attitude you see. Being in publishing, that’s the big battle we have is you want to make those people want to be at your company. I mean, it’s not about the money at the end, it’s about where do you feel most comfortable. You want to have a place where other writers go. I mean, the place felt great.

peermusic Nashville. Photo: Haley Crow

What has been your approach to building a team of writers?
Knox: I’ve been working with Michael [Tyler] since he was 13. He’s a small-town America kid, but his melodies are really advanced. He’s singing about our target audiences. I met Jaron through cutting a song of his on Jason’s [album]. The first cut he ever got was “I Ain’t Ready to Quit,” I believe. He wrote it with Thomas Rhett. I brought Jaron in, and he and Michael hit it off, because that’s what I was hoping. I was looking for a mentor, and an up-and-coming producer mixed in with the new artist. Then, I just started building other people around that, and trying to create an environment where nobody does the same thing, so when they’re in the same room together, they cover so much area.

We’re a record label in a sense, with a mindset for developing talent. Our target audience is every A&R person and artist. We have to find a way to make them say, “I want my artist to be like that songwriter.” Our songwriters today would have been artists in the ’70s. My goal is to find artists that are exceptional songwriters.

Michael, you have been with peermusic Nashville for nearly a decade. What is it about working at peermusic that keeps you excited?
Knox: It’s very important for people at each [peermusic office] to have our vision of things. It’s great having Kathy and Mr. Peer to support my vision. Also, allowing me to produce and do these other things like having my own radio show and Music Knox Records, that’s a lot of gifts that peermusic gives me. I also think it helps my process of working with all the writers here. I feel like the key is keeping people motivated and excited. I want them to feel more like part of a team, instead of all this pressure of “Hey, if you don’t get a cut immediately, you’re gone.”

Artists seem to rely more on the same teams of co-writers for their albums. Do you see that shifting?
Knox: I think that’s deteriorating a little bit because now you only see three or four people at the cream of the crop. You see a lot of hits but not a lot of money. You see a lot of people winning awards but they’re only selling 80,000 records. You’re like, “Well, that’s got to change at some point.” I get it. I genuinely get it, because there’s a bulk of people I go to that I know have that right sound for what I do, but you still have to have that mindset of best song wins, because our biggest songs aren’t from the clique.

The thing about pop and country where we are, is [pop artists] can have one monster hit and it’s billions of streams, where we have to have four of those to equal that. In the pop world, and their camps, their audience is a lot bigger than ours. We have to have eight great songs, and a few album cuts. We don’t have the same privilege as some markets.

peermusic Nashville. Photo: Haley Crow

The country audience is different. We’re a club audience. They come to the clubs, they sit through a four-hour show. They want to hear multiple great songs. If you have one incredible, through the roof hit, of course you’re going to get an audience there, but over time they’re going to get tired of paying 30 bucks to go hear one song.

That’s the pressure for us, and the pressure with the cliques or the writing teams. They’re great taking off because everything’s so unique and new. New [songwriter] camps always do great at the beginning, but they recycle their ideas and then you come into the third album and you’re in trouble. If you look at Jason’s world, I’ve changed writing crews multiple times. It’s because we’re moving with the element of what we’re doing. It took me three or four years to build the team around him now; you have got to have the mindset of, “In five years, I’ve got to be doing something different.” I don’t think that some teams are thinking further than, “Oh my god, we just had a hit, so let’s put all 12 songs on there.” I think that just hurts in the long run.

And there are so many hit songs that were written years before they were recorded.
Knox: “Drowns the Whiskey” is seven years old. It took two demos to get us to hear it. Jaron Boyer and Michael Tyler have got five or six songs on Jason’s new record, and some of those are years and years old. It just takes time for things to find their place, especially given how competitive it is right now with getting an outside cut in general.

peermusic played an important role in the recent Ken Burns documentary Country Music. What kind of increase in interest and sales have you seen since the documentary came out?
Spanberger: Well, the documentary appearance has garnered the most interest in Jimmie Rodgers we’ve seen in probably the last 15 to 20 years. There was like a quadruple spike for Wikipedia searches and Google searches for Jimmie Rodgers after the documentary aired. There was a increase in monthly listeners on Spotify—It increased by 300,000 listeners per month.

Knox: I should say that just on a side route, [Ralph Peer II] told me that he’s gotten more phone calls and messages from people he hasn’t heard from in like 20 years, congratulating him on the documentary. It’s been very impactful for the company as well as on Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family and their music.

What are the biggest opportunities you see in the publishing space in the next 5-10 years?
Knox: peermusic started out with the first songwriter, the father of country music and the first family songwriting team: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family. My goal is to just keep that moving forward and finding this next generation version of that. We all want to evolve into what’s happening, but you still want to find people who understand melody and who understand writing a great lyric.

Spanberger: Music is really is becoming more and more global. One of the things I’ve always felt very strongly about with Nashville is that, if I could get every songwriter I’ve ever worked with anywhere in the world to come learn how to write songs in Nashville, I would, because the craft of songwriting there transcends genres in my opinion. It’s wonderful to have a bigger presence there to perhaps expand on that philosophy going forward. Our company has 30 different offices around the world and I found in the last five years, that artists and writers from all over the world—Australia, Korea, the United Kingdom, you name it—they want to come and write in Nashville. It has become an international destination like never before for creative and songwriting opportunities from people all over the world.

peermusic Nashville. Photo: Haley Crow

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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