The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.
A 37-year publishing veteran, Troy Tomlinson is in charge of day-to-day operations for Universal Music Publishing Nashville. Among his current writer/artist hitmakers are Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Maren Morris, Luke Combs, Shania Twain, Chris Young, Brandi Carlile, Brad Tursi (Old Dominion), Scotty McCreery, Sam Hunt, Ingrid Andress and Caitlyn Smith.
Notable hit songwriters at UMPG include Chase McGill, Paul DiGiovanni, Justin Ebach, Lee Miller, Sam Ellis, Derrick Southerland, Ray Fulcher, Jacob Davis, Shane Minor, Bart Butler, Jamie Paulin, Troy Verges, John Pierce, Greylan James, and Dave Cobb, among many others.
Prior to UMPG, Tomlinson served as President and CEO of Sony Music Publishing Nashville from 2002 until 2019. Before that, he served as EVP of Acuff Rose Music Publishing from 1988 until 2002.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up up 40 miles north of here on the Kentucky line in a little town called Portland, Tennessee. I grew up on a beef cattle farm. My brother and I roamed the 80 acres that we had and had a really great childhood that made us grow up to be curious. There was just so much to explore on that farm and it really did expand this notion of curiosity for me. That’s been something that I cherish now as an adult looking back on it because we really don’t meet a lot of people in our creative business who don’t have a sense of curiosity, because that’s what spurs creativity.
Did you always want to work in the music business?
When I graduated high school, I went straight to work at a plastic injection mold company, in a mentorship program. I was burned really badly on both my hands. I had second and third degree burns on both hands from this accident that happened with 700 degree molted plastic.
At the same time, I was volunteering for a civic organization called the JCs, or the junior chamber of commerce. We did about a dozen events each year to raise money for one event a year, which was to take underprivileged children in our area Christmas shopping and to throw a big Christmas party for them. I became president of the JCs when I was 19 or 20.
At my induction as president, there was a guy there that I had only met a couple of times named Cliff Williamson. So fast forward a few months, I’m laying in a burn unit here in Nashville with skin grafts on my hands, and Cliff called me. He said, “Hey man, have you ever thought about changing careers?” I was thinking, “As a matter of fact, I’m thinking about it right now!” (laughs)
Cliff hired me as a tape copy boy and as a beginner song plugger to teach me the art of song plugging at a company called Multimedia, which was a New York firm that owned TV shows like The Phil Donahue Show, Sally Jessy Raphael’s show, and some early talk shows. They also owned Channel 17 here in town and a magazine called Music City News. Cliff just thrust me into this world that I could have never really imagined being a part of.
After getting your start at Multimedia, where did you go next?
When Multimedia was prepared to sell off pieces of the company, they began to do layoffs. I got laid off after a little over two years.
One of my writers was a writer named Don King. Don had built a new studio and started a little side publishing company. He and his father, Don Sr., asked me to come and work for them to help build up a roster. I stayed there for a couple of years. Then Rick Hall—the Muscle Shoals mogul, producer and publisher—had an opening for someone to run his Nashville office. He hired me to do that.
I was only there about a year and I learned so much. I learned what standards were. Rick Hall taught me the difference in hit songs and standards in American culture. That catalog that he owned, Rick Hall Music and FAME, it’s a patch quilt made of America’s music standards.
Then you went to work for Jerry Bradley at Acuff Rose.
All those years prior that I had been in the business, Acuff Rose and Tree Music Publishing were, to me, the preeminent country catalogs. Jerry Bradley was running Acuff Rose, and they were reinvigorating the sleeping giant [that the company had been]. It had drifted when Mr. Fred Rose became ill. So Jerry Bradley hired me and pushed me out in front of our parent company, Gaylord Entertainment and Mr. Bud Wendell, every time he could. If Jerry couldn’t be at a meeting, he pushed this little 24-26 year-old to go sit in for him in these corporate meetings and make presentations. That’s the mentoring that he did, he pushed me to the front of the stage, metaphorically.
I worked for Acuff Rose from ’88 to 2002, and moved up the ladder in that company to my final position, being Executive VP of the company and Jerry as the President. Then we were bought by Sony, and Donna [Hilley] allowed me to come over and bring a half dozen of my employees with me to Sony.
You had many successful years at Sony Music Publishing, and then left in 2019 to become Chairman/CEO Of UMPG Nashville.
We become an aggregate of all of life’s experiences, the good ones and the bad ones. That period working for Jerry, and then that period working for Martin [Bandier, former CEO/Chairman of Sony/ATV] were the largest aggregation of knowledge about publishing for me.
Marty was retiring and changes within Sony were occurring. At the same time, Jody Gerson, who I had worked with for a number of years at Sony and always respected and admired so much, we had breakfast together in LA at some function we were both attending. At breakfast she proposed that we find a way to work together. She was very convincing and ultimately, I made what, in one respect, was a difficult decision because myself, my staff and most people on Music Row thought that Sony/ATV is where I would spend the rest of my career.
In that regard, it took some thinking to process why I should do it. The reason I ultimately did it was I knew Jody was another one of those people that would mentor me, support me and grow me in that sphere of influence that a publisher has. I also watched the culture she had built at Universal Music Publishing since she got there and was blown away. She’s a culture-centric leader, it’s very top of mind with her.
That was a little over two and a half years ago now. Of course two years of that has been eaten up by COVID, but we’ve not only nixed a beating, but we have grown remarkably in every measurement over COVID. That’s a testimony to the employees here and the support that Jody has given us.
Looking back, what are some of the first few songs you remember having success with?
The first No. 1 that I pitched was the Alabama song called “If I Had You.” Barry Beckett, a dear friend who’s gone now, cut one album with Alabama. I’d known the boys from Alabama since I was a teenager through a variety of interesting ways. But my first pitch appointment at Acuff Rose when I got hired was with Beckett. I wanted to impress Mr. Bradley that I could get Barry Beckett in the room.
He was producing 15 acts at the time. So Beckett came down at the end of the day. He was tired and was notorious for falling asleep during pitching appointments, which was beautiful. You’d cough really loud or turn the volume up real quick [to wake him up]. (laughs) The last song on the tape was the Danny Mayo and Kerry Chater song, “If I Had You.” It was just a work tape. When it finished, Beckett said, “Randy will love that, I’ll love cutting it, and we’ll have a hit together.” Within six months, we had a No. 1 record.
Interestingly enough, as I told you, “If I Had You” was the last song out of 10 that I played Barry that day and it was the only one he loved. Fast forward a few months or a year, I’m in our new building at Acuff Rose, playing for Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs who were producing Collin Raye. The first song I played them was “Love, Me.” We had a No. 1 on it. I played them three or four more and every time they’d pass on one, they would say, “We gotta cut that first song.” So after four songs, I could see where the meeting was going, and I said, “Do y’all just want to stop listening and go to lunch?” They said, “Yeah!” (laughs). We didn’t listen to another song. I’ll never forget that. That was a wonderful experience.
What are some of the best qualities about our industry?
We are truly a community. We’re not strung out miles apart like Los Angeles is forced to be. We run into one another and spend time with one another at the ball field, concerts, restaurants and clubs. We have a sense of community. LA, New York and Atlanta all have their own sense of community, but there’s no question that this is pretty unique.
Earlier this week I was in a label meeting with three other heads of Nashville publishing companies, and we’re all in there together talking, conversing, asking questions and sharing together. That’s a little more iffy in other places. Obviously we all compete with each other in a certain sense, because you’re trying to get the cut or have the hit, but in another sense, we truly are friends. That’s what sets this community apart.
One of the most satisfying things about the Music Row community is raising a child around all these gifted songwriters who are such characters and then having that child grow up and want to work in that same culture, both with some of those same writers but also with their own generation of creators. Seeing my son Joshua, find his place in this community as songwriter representative at BMI has been particularly gratifying.
What does it take to be a successful person in business and in life?
There is a a quote from To Kill A Mockingbird that I try to live by. It’s when Atticus is sitting with Scout, his young daughter who’s really torn up inside because she sees the divisiveness in their community over this false accusation of rape by a Black man. She sees this miniature culture war that’s happening all because of this lie that’s told. She’s obviously trying make sense of it and, I’m paraphrasing, but Atticus says that great line: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I would say that, one of the ways that one might measure success that seems more important to me than a lot of other ways we can measure it, is what Atticus was describing: empathy. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes to the best that you can.
I really believe with all of my soul that you will look back on your career and call it successful if you have loved the people that you work with, if you’ve poured yourself into it, and if you have tried your best, even in difficult times, to show them empathy. Even when we disagree, even when it’s hard to show empathy toward people, I believe that would be the premier expression of success for me. If I’m doing that, I can feel successful. And if people see me doing that, they might consider me successful.
The string of No. 1s or the string of awards from organizations, all the pictures that we take with ourselves and with artists, all that’s wonderful—that’s part of our culture and who we are. It’s all important and a joyful experience. But if we gain all that and we sacrifice loving one another and showing empathy to one another, all that other stuff is just a breeze that blows by for a second and is gone. That would be my underlying definition of success.
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