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.
Respected music publisher Rusty Gaston took the reins as CEO of Sony Music Publishing Nashville in January 2020. In this role, he leads all creative and operations, including the signing of new songwriters and development of strategies to exploit its catalog. As a lifelong country music fan, Gaston is focused on continuing Sony’s legacy through songwriter empowerment.
MusicRow: Where are you from?
I am from Van, Texas. It’s little town in east Texas. There were about 1,000 people there when I was growing. I knew nothing about the music business or how to get into it. I didn’t know anybody in the music business.
My mother was a huge George Strait fan, so there was a period of time where if he played anywhere in Texas, my mom and my aunt would go. Lots of times, I would go with them, because it was a Saturday and nobody was around to keep me. I’ve slept through more George Strait concerts than most people will attend in their whole life. (Laughs) I was a little kid. I would get tired so we’d pull some chairs together for me to lay down. By the middle of his set, I’d be asleep.
Were you musical?
Growing up in such a small town, I spent all my time in the record store, going to the music department of Walmart, and sitting in my room and reading liner notes for hours on end. I was super lucky to have some defining moments in life. I remember being in the locker room in elementary school, standing on a bench and looking down on some friends of mine who were singing a new Beastie Boys song. I remember thinking to myself, “Why are y’all just now singing that? I played that for you last school year.” I don’t know why that stuck out to me as a moment, but it did.
I noticed the songs that I was always attracted to on these records I would buy, eventually became popular. I didn’t know those were called singles or what they were, but I had somehow pieced together, “Somebody has a job figuring out which songs on this record should be played on the radio. That’s what I’m good at. How do you do that?”
What did you do with that realization?
I was in choir and drama in school. One weekend during my senior year of high school, some friends of mine who were in college said, “We’re going to Dallas to Six Flags Over Texas to audition for performer jobs. Do you want to go with us?” So we rode two hours away to Dallas and auditioned for performer jobs at Six Flags Over Texas. Long story short, I got the job and none of them did. So, my senior year of high school, they let me graduate early and I moved two hours away to Arlington, Texas and performed, sang, danced and played guitar at Six Flags.
I was planning to go back to east Texas to go to college. There was another performer in my show and he was an alumni of a college in Fort Worth called Texas Wesleyan University. He said, “My buddy is the dean over there and they’ve got some scholarship money. You’re pretty good at this. You shouldn’t move back, you should stay here and keep doing this.” I went and met with this dean at Texas Wesleyan University and he gave me a full scholarship. I stayed there in the metroplex and worked for three years as a performer at Six Flags.
How did you go from being a performer to being in the music business?
While at Six Flags, I had another real defining moment. I saw an interview on TNN with Trisha Yearwood. She said she was an intern at a record label and that she went to Belmont. I asked another performer on my show, whose full-time job was as a school teacher, if he had ever heard of an intern. He said, “It’s where you work for free and you get experience.” I was like, “I’ll do that in a second! How do I do that?”
I ended up cold calling the production company in Dallas that produced my show for Six Flags and asked to be their intern. I had no interest in being a performer or being an artist, but I wanted to be in the music business. This was my only way to try to figure out how to get into the music business.
That production company still operates today in Dallas. The guy that runs it, Mark Brymer, he’s the number one print arranger in the nation for Hal Leonard Music Publishing. He arranges music into choral arrangements, so when The Lion King would come out, they would send the music to this guy in Dallas and he arranges it into choral arrangements that they could sell to churches, choirs, and show choirs. So I started learning about print publishing that way. He produced Looney Tunes records—like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck—so I got to be around the studio aspect. I learned about live stuff and print publishing.
What was next?
There were some people from Sony coming to Six Flags to see a singer in our show. After that performance, we got to have a meet and greet with these music business executives. One of them was a publisher named Jerry Smith. Jerry had a joint venture at Sony called Fire Hall Music. His venture existed for him to sign singer-songwriters and get them record deals. The first three people he signed were Terri Clark, Rhett Akins and Lonestar. The rest was history.
He and I met at that meet and greet and he started explaining to me what he did. I had this God moment, thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is it. This is what I’m supposed to do.” He had told me he was leaving Sony and he was starting a new company with Warner Chappell. Off the cuff, he said, “If you ever come to Nashville, call me up. You can help me.” I took that as an invitation. I left all my family, I left a full ride scholarship to college, I broke up with my girlfriend, I quit my job, and I packed it all up and moved here. It was August 17, 1996.
I enrolled at Belmont. I took my classes early in the morning and late in the evening so I could work for free all during the day. Jerry was the best boss for me possible. He had an office inside the Warner Chappell building. We had seven or eight songwriters. He had a filing cabinet behind the desk that had all the contracts he had ever been involved in. He told me I was free to go through them and check out anything I wanted. He said, “Whatever you want to do in this business, I’ll help you do it, just help me build my company.”
Where did you go from there?
I worked with Jerry Smith for about five years. One day I got a cold call from a producer named Byron Gallimore. He had a company with Warner Chappell. This was when Byron was really busy with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. They were firing on all cylinders.
He called me and said, “I’ve got this publishing company and people tell me you’re the guy that should run it. Would you be interested in talking about it?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely. When do you want to get together?” He said, “Right now. I’m at the Waffle House on 65 and Harding.” For five years, I ran that company called Song Garden Music. We had some wonderful songwriters and had some big hits.
How did you start THiS Music?
During that time, both of the companies I’d worked for were joint ventures at Warner Chappell and, contractually, they just weren’t set up for success. Even though both companies were having success on paper, it wasn’t looking that way [behind the scenes]. I was at a point where I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a family and I could really risk taking a chance on myself. I had approached Warner Chappell about an idea I had and to my complete surprise, they did not laugh at me and shut the door. Fast forward six months or a year later, Tim Nichols‘ Warner Chappell deal was up. He was wanting to do something different, so he and I got connected. Tim and Connie Harrington had just written two big hits together. We all got together and started the idea of THiS Music.
We started THiS Music in January of 2006. The first writer we signed from was Ben Hayslip. As good as we laid out the business plan of THiS Music on paper, it went better. What started out with me and three writers ended up being me, three or four other employees, and a dozen songwriters. We ended up having 50 to 60 ASCAP and BMI-award winning hits. It was incredible.
Then Sony Music Publishing called. You started your current role as CEO of the Nashville office in January of 2020. What went into that decision?
Jon Platt cold called me on June 19, 2019. I was at a Thomas Rhett and Dustin Lynch concert in Charlotte. I was standing backstage and my phone rang and it was Jon Platt. At this point, he had became the chairman of Sony, but he had only actually been on the job about three months. We knew each other and it wasn’t weird that he would call, but he never calls. (Laughs) I’ll never forget looking at my phone and thinking, “My God, this is weird. I better answer this.” I answered it and he just said, “Hey man, can you come to New York next week?” I said, “Absolutely.” He said, “I’ll make all the arrangements. Don’t tell anybody you’re coming, just your wife.”
I flew to New York a few days later, not having any idea what was going on. He laid out his idea and said, “I’ve watched you build a destination that songwriters want to come to and a culture that writers want to be a part of. That’s what we need.” I just started laughing. I thought, “What are we talking about? I’m a kid from Van, Texas. How am I in New York City overlooking this park?” I’ve never been accused of having a lack of confidence, but Jon Platt makes me feel that he believes in me more than I do. He didn’t just make me feel that way, he backs it up every day. He’s a fantastic leader.
Needless to say, it was a no-brainer. Especially in Nashville, Sony is the premier legacy of the history of country music. When I moved here, this building was the hottest place in town. If you were a writer, you wanted to write over there. If you were recording, you wanted to be in that studio. If you were a song-plugger, you wanted to work there. I worked right across the parking lot, so I saw it every day. You couldn’t get a parking spot in this lot because it was packed. The idea of helping be a part of bringing that legacy back to life is overwhelming and the biggest honor I could think of.
You’ve talked about some defining moments you’ve had in your journey. What are some of your proudest, now that you’re on this side of your career?
When I lived in Texas and was just dreaming of this, there was an article in the Dallas Morning News about a local realtor who had written a No. 1 song. His name was Tom Douglas. He had just written “Little Rock” for Collin Raye. I had read this article in the paper and didn’t know about publishing or anything like that, but was enamored with songs. I knew this song because I just worshiped country radio.
I went to my grandparents’ house and by the telephone, they had a Yellow Pages and a White Pages [phone book]. I pulled out the White Pages and looked up Tom Douglas. I just cold called this guy up. He answered and I just said, “Hey, could I come talk to you? I’m interested in being in the music business.” He invited me to his house. I sat with him for an afternoon and talked to him about songwriting.
All these years later, technically I’m now Tom’s publisher and get to work with him… It goes to show God’s plan is bigger than your plan. I am a big dreamer but I never dreamt this big.
I grew up in a town of barely a thousand people. I never met a soul in the music business. It was nothing more than I’m a kid that loved music who wanted to chase this down. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody if you’re willing to put in the work and be nice to people.
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