My Music Row Story: Creative Nation’s Beth Laird
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.
In 2011, Beth Laird co-founded Creative Nation, an independent music publishing, management and record company in Nashville with her husband, two-time Grammy winning songwriter and producer, Luke Laird. Today, the company boasts a roster that includes Barry Dean, Lori McKenna, Steve Moakler, Kassi Ashton, Travis Wood, Jonathan Hutcherson, Derek Bahr, Mia Mantia and Oscar Charles. Creative Nation has celebrated more than 70 Billboard Country Radio singles, over 20 of which have hit No. 1.
Beth started her music business career at BMG Nashville and spent time at Windswept Music Publishing and BMI before forming Creative Nation.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Winchester, Tennessee. It is an hour and a half from here but a world away.
Were you into music as a kid?
I was really into music. I came to Nashville to go to Starwood, Dancin’ In The District and things like that, but I didn’t know that there was a music business. I certainly didn’t know that if you weren’t musical, you could work on the business side with music people. I also did not know that there were actual music business degrees at MTSU and Belmont.
How did you discover the music business?
I went to the University of Alabama. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved working with people, so communication seemed like the best major for me. The summer after my freshman year, my old babysitter Regina Stuve ran into my mom in the grocery store in Winchester when she came home for a weekend. She asked what I was doing and my mom said I was coming home for the summer to get a job. Regina said, “Why don’t you move her to Nashville and have her intern for me?” So my mom told me, “You’re going to go to Nashville and intern with your old babysitter, Regina, for free for the summer.”
She negotiated a deal at the extended stay hotel so that I could stay three nights in Nashville and then go home on the weekends. I walked into Capitol Records and Regina was the head publicist there. That is the day that I found out about the music business.
That is awesome. What did you do there?
Regina and I became the best of friends. It was the best summer and honestly, that is when I fell in love with the music business. I also realized I did not want to be a publicist, but I saw business people working behind the scenes helping creative people and it really opened my eyes to using what your skillset is to help people who are creative fulfill their dreams. That changed my whole world.
I asked Regina if she would let me move back the summer after my junior year of college to intern again. The summer after my junior year, I actually shared a bedroom with my best friend here in town who was also doing an internship here. We were living with one of my high school friends who was going to Vanderbilt. I would just do anything to get to come back. That summer I realized that this is a lot about relationships, so I really tried to get to know everyone at Capitol. I made some great relationships and then really tried to stay in touch when I went back to Alabama.
What happened after graduation?
I graduated and I moved here. I couldn’t get a job in the music business because, as you know, they don’t post jobs online. A couple of my sorority sisters worked at Nashville Bun Company and Bun Lady Transport, which is a manufacturing bakery that makes English muffins for McDonald’s and Pepperidge Farm. Ironically, they were looking for a front desk logistics manager on the shipping side and they asked if I wanted to interview. I interviewed and I got that job. I was so excited just to have a job so I could be in Nashville. I was booking back hauls with the refrigerated truck drivers, running all the logistics, answering the phone and being an assistant.
I always kept in touch with Regina and I told her to let me know if there was anything that I could do to help. After I had been here for about a year, Regina’s husband Ron Stuve took over the old BMG Music Publishing and the receptionist left. So I applied for that job and I’m so grateful I got it, because the day I went to work I realized that there were people graduating from Belmont and MTSU with degrees. That really set me on fire to learn a lot in a really short amount of time because I didn’t have those relationships they were coming in with, as well as all those internships and a degree in music business.
Tell me about that time at BMG.
I was so grateful because I realized that that was my chance and that I really needed to learn quickly. I tried to go out every night and meet people. I assisted everyone in the office to learn from them what all the different jobs were. That job is the reason that I know all the different jobs at a publishing company, and I feel like it really helped me when we started Creative Nation.
That’s also where I met [my future husband] Luke. He was a new songwriter that hadn’t had any cuts yet. I was the receptionist. We all had a crew that ran around together and that was really fun.
What was next for you?
I was approached by Steve Markland, who was running Windswept Music Publishing at the time. He needed a song-plugger, so he hired me. That was so fun. That whole crew was amazing and I learned so much. Steve and Cliff [Audretch III] did a great job of bringing me along and helping to teach me what an independent music publisher is.
I had a lot of friends at the time who were older than me and were friends with Jody Williams. I heard about him all the time. They said, “You really should meet Jody. You’d really like him.” I probably had more guts then, but I just randomly reached out to Jody and said, “We have a lot of mutual friends and I would love to meet you.” He was nice enough to meet me. He says now that I asked him to be my mentor during that first meeting, but I don’t remember that. If I did, I’m really proud of myself—it turned out really well so I’m glad I did that. [Laughs]
Then you started working for Jody at BMI.
He told me that BMI was looking for a female writer rep. I knew I was under-qualified and I didn’t know what that job was. I just knew I liked songwriters and publishing. We kept meeting and he had offered the job to someone who had more experience and she turned it down because she had another job she loved. He came back to me and asked me if I would like to hear more about the job and I said, “I love publishing, I don’t think I want to leave.” He said, “Do you know what this job is?” and I said, “No.” [Laughs] He told me what the job was and I was like, “Wow, this is actually my next step. I would really love this because I would get to work with all the songwriters and all the publishers.”
I’m grateful Jody gave me a shot. I was the youngest and the only female rep on the team, so again, I went in feeling under-qualified and I had a lot to learn. I worked for Jody for five years and it was an incredible experience. He is still my mentor today. He’s just one of a kind and he taught me so much about music, life and business. He really helped me understand the ins and outs of the business side, but was always encouraging me to keep my passion for music and my passion for people.
What led up to starting Creative Nation?
I loved my job at BMI. That’s where I made tons of connections with everyone in town—particularly with publishers and writers—but I also made a lot of connections out of town because I was able to work in a lot of other genres as well. At the same time, I took on more than I had energy and time to do, so I was very overwhelmed by the end of it. I’m not someone who’s good at letting people down and I always wanted to help and do as much as I could, realizing that I really was taking care of all genres and so many writers. I just wasn’t capable, so that was really getting to me.
Luke was in a publishing deal at Universal because BMG had folded into Universal. He was coming to the end of his deal. He had his admin rights back, he was recouped and had songs on the chart, which usually just does not happen in that way. I’m really grateful to Derek Crownover because he really helped, and Luke was really smart about the deals he did instead of just taking more money.
So me, Luke and Kella Farris all met. She said to Luke, “Your deal is coming up and you could sell your catalog. You could sell your copyrights and get some money for them.” If you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, that money is basically songwriter retirement a lot of times. We were shocked. She looked at Luke and said, “What do you want to do next?” Luke said, “I want Beth to be my creative person, but she won’t leave Jody at BMI.”
Kella said, “Beth, what are you going to do next at BMI?” In that moment, I realized my title would change, but my job never would, and I was really tired. So I immediately thought I have to leave my job and it’s time for something else.
What was starting a company on your own like for you and Luke?
We decided we would do a five year business plan. We would sell Luke’s catalog and put money in the bank for five years. We wanted to do it ourselves and set up the company the way we really wanted a publishing company to be. We decided at the end of those five years, we could make a call [on what to do next.]
There were independent publishers out of town that had reached out to us about us being their Nashville office. We talked it through, but we just felt like we would still be using their name, their culture and their deals. Luke said, “If all these people who don’t really know us are willing to fund our company to own 50% of it, we should double down bet on ourselves.” Another thing he said was, “Worst case scenario, we’re going to be trying to get these same jobs back.”
We knew that this was a moment in time opportunity that might not ever come around again. It just felt like the right time. Most people I talked to about it were supportive, but a lot of people gave me the advice of, “Don’t start a company with your husband and don’t use your own money in the music business.” I understand both, but for us, it has been so great. I think we’re an exception to the rule in that because we both do two completely different jobs. We’re really different in what we do every single day and it compliments each other.
We also felt like if we used our own money to create the culture we wanted and the company we wanted, then by the time we got to five years, if we needed to, we could take other people’s money, but it would already be established what we were about. We really pulled on our experience from the previous years and tried to build the company we wanted to work for. We grew small. We started November of 2011 at the kitchen table.
Now you have 10 writers, a well-rounded team and two buildings on Music Row. What was an affirming moment from the beginning?
Two things come to mind. I was having some imposter syndrome and I told Luke maybe I should just call Jody and ask him if he’ll hire me back. I was just going through a real season of doubt. I went to my first plugger group pitch meeting with Todd Ramey. The first song I played was “Pontoon.” When Little Big Town loved that song, recorded it and it took on a complete life of its own, that moment reaffirmed to me that I should quit worrying about if I was capable, what people would think and if I could handle it, and just focus on what I knew. [It told me I should] put my head down and focus on booking great co-writes, pitching songs and taking care of these writers strategically.
Another huge moment we had is when we had a No. 1 song and I got to go on stage as a BMI publisher at the BMI Awards and Jody handed me an award as a publisher. I had been the one at BMI who handed up all the awards to Jody for him to give out. That was such a moment.
That’s amazing. What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
The most fulfilling part of my job is that I get to help songwriters dreams come true. Truly the thing I love the most is when a songwriter tells me a dream they have or something they want to accomplish and we start working on it.
What’s a great piece of advice you’ve received?
One piece of advice that I wish I would’ve known earlier was to pay attention to things that give you energy that you do really well and quickly—that’s your skillset and that’s what you’re good at. Pay attention to things that drain you and make you feel very tired—those are things that are not your skillset. You can do them and you always have to do a little of both, but if you can try to get to a place where you are eventually are in a 75-25 or an 80-20 split, you’ll enjoy what you do and you set yourself up for success.
Another piece of advice was something Jody told me. I used to be one that would work myself to death and then crash. I would get sick and have to take time off. I wasn’t good at balance and I was not good at taking care of myself. Jody was the first one to say, “You’re good at this job. I want you to be able to do it for a long time, so you can’t keep working like this. You’re going to need to learn how to take breaks or you’re going to get completely worn out and want to leave the business.” That changed the way I thought about doing a good job and longevity in this business.