‘As a publisher, you can’t just sit around and wait for the money to roll in. We really have to be proactive.’

MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Virgin Music Group.

Ashley Winton has spent the last four years building Warner Chappell Music‘s global creative services arm from the ground up.

As part of that role, Winton has been focusing on finding non-traditional opportunities for songwriters at a time when making a living as a creator is arguably harder than ever.

Winton and her team help writers experiment with writing for film and TV, secure brand partnerships, engage with short-form content, and more.

The department isn’t the only new venture Winton has been tasked with in her career: she’s got a history of starting something from nothing.

That began, aged 25, with building the music department for TV production company Reveille (which later rebranded to Endemol Shine North America).

Alongside supervising music for shows on channels including NBC, CBS, BRAVO and MTV, Winton found the source of missing publishing revenue and transformed Reveille’s music publishing business from a $40,000 a year operation to a $1.5 million business.

After the company was sold, a three-hour dinner with Carianne Marshall, who was then Partner at SONGS, resulted in Winton landing a job in New York building the sync department for the publisher on the East Coast.

Winton was then poached by her old Reveille boss, Howard Owens, who was newly named President at National Geographic and wanted her to build him another music department.

Marshall remained a close contact and when she joined Warner Chappell Music (where she’s now co-Chair and COO), Winton was hired to lead a department tasked with amplifying catalog and creating opportunities for songs and songwriters in a new way.

Prior to her professional career, Winton started off on the other side of the fence as a budding artist. While growing up in rural Minnesota, she and her twin sister would spend eight hours a day sitting in their living room, playing the piano, singing and writing songs.

They later formed a musical duo and set off for Los Angeles in the hope of making it aged 17. “I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t really want to be a performer,” she remembers. “You’re a small fish in a big pond at that point.”

She adds: “We were hungry to learn and to meet people who could advise us. Ultimately, it’s pretty discouraging when you don’t know anybody and you go out there as two young girls and there’s a lot of people that try to take advantage or give you bad advice. I’m grateful that I went down the path I did — being a performer is not an easy thing and I don’t think we were really ever cut out for it.”

Instead, Winton majored in music business and marketing and her first job was as an executive assistant at Reveille.

Now, as Senior Vice President, Global Creative Services at Warner Chappell Music, Winton tells us about lessons learned throughout her career, making a living as a songwriter in 2023, and the future evolution of music publishers…

A running thread throughout your career is building something from scratch. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt throughout the various processes of doing that?

You can’t be afraid to pave your own paths. I was never trained into any of my jobs in the entertainment industry. I always created the jobs I’ve had from scratch. I didn’t wait for people to tell me what to do. I was very resourceful and proactive and I think that goes a long way — not being afraid to step into something that doesn’t exist and morphing it into something that you care about.

“I was never trained into any of my jobs in the entertainment industry. I always created the jobs I’ve had from scratch.”

There is no one path to success in this business. It’s about being open and willing to take a good opportunity that you find interesting, even if it’s not exactly what you envision for your path. I was not really interested in television at all, I’m not a TV person. But I learned the value of it and I’ve learned to love working in TV and film, to build those relationships with producers and executives and to see the power of that and how it connects with music.

Learning, being open to opportunities, learning from the experiences you have, making the connections you have where you’re at, and using those as a stepping stone to the next thing, is really important.

What’s the best career-related advice that you’ve ever been given?

My dad always said to take advantage of every opportunity you’re given. My parents were teachers, I grew up in a town of 4,000 in the middle of the country, so we were not influenced by New York or even Minneapolis. My introduction to the music industry was watching MTV, wishing I could be a part of it and not really understanding what that meant.

I haven’t always liked that advice but I have stuck with it and really tried to, even if an opportunity comes up that feels kind of lame at times, take advantage of it. Even if it’s an opportunity that I’m not really sure how it fits into the big picture, go meet the people there, understand how that part of the business works and then use that to your benefit.

Have you had any mentors along the way? If so, what have you learned from them?

My first mentor was Howard Owens who became my boss [at Reveille]. One of the things that I found very interesting, and often I was uncomfortable about, is that he always treated me like a colleague. He would invite me out to the after Grammys party at the Polo Lounge and there would be a bunch of celebrities there. He would introduce me to these people who were very high up at these companies as his colleagues. Meanwhile, I was 26 and felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.

“If people are hungry and motivated, and they’re doing what they love, they’re going to be happy and do a great job.”

He always asked people around the company what they really wanted to do. He believed that if people were doing what they wanted to do, they would do a great job. He was great at building a certain culture because of that. It wasn’t for everyone, it can be a bit polarising and some people are uncomfortable with that. But I do think I’ve learned a tonne from him about how to go for it and how not to be afraid and how to believe in people, even if they’re not necessarily qualified yet. I try to impart some of that with my team. If people are hungry and motivated, and they’re doing what they love, they’re going to be happy and do a great job.

Give us an overview of what your job at Warner Chappell entails.

A way to think about creative services is that we’re here to help our songwriters take advantage of all the new opportunities that exist. It’s a very dynamic digital era we’re living in and there’s increased global connectivity. It’s a crowded marketplace, there’s a fractured media landscape. How do you get noticed and how do you connect with your fans and music fans today, when they literally live everywhere and they’re in these different pockets? At Warner Chappell, that’s what we call the new songwriter economy. My team, along with the rest of us, are trying to help our songwriters navigate that.

“On a day-to-day basis, we’re working to amplify our songwriters.”

Another way to think of my team is almost like a label services team but focused on the specific needs and opportunities that exist for songwriters and publishing. On a day-to-day basis, we’re working to amplify our songwriters. We’re speaking directly to them and our catalog managers, and we listen to what their challenges are, and what they’re trying to do.

We’ve built a lot of solutions based on direct feedback from them. We’re vetting on the other side, too — incoming opportunities, whether it’s from filmmakers, immersive companies, or Web3, we’re connecting those dots and figuring out how to make it all make sense. We also mine our catalog and think about how we can creatively amplify a song or one of our songwriters.

Do you find that the new avenues coming up now for creators, particularly in the Web3 world, are truly revenue-earning opportunities?

It depends. We look at things in two ways. Trying to build revenue is something we’re trying to do for our writers but the other piece is increasing engagement. We are trying to make sure that whatever opportunities we explore do one of those two things.

It’s still a bit of a wild west when it comes to some of Web3 and we end up vetting a lot of opportunities that we don’t feel are going to go very far. A lot of what we’ll also do is if we know writers or producers are interested in that space, we help them navigate the landscape and make sure they are not giving away rights they shouldn’t be.

“Trying to build revenue is something we’re trying to do for our writers but the other piece is increasing engagement.”

There are a lot of really cool ways to get creative and connect with fans. Thinking of my old songwriter self back in Minnesota, I had no way to talk to a songwriter or one of my favorite artists to get advice or to hear how they’re doing it. Nowadays, people want access and insight into what’s happening behind the scenes.

We are very much also in a creator economy so having songwriters and producers share their process means they can monetize that in certain ways. Even just to connect with people, get their name out there and get their story heard, that’s something we are building for all the time.

It’s said to be harder than ever to sustain a career as a songwriter these days. What’s your perspective on that?

There are unique challenges today. In certain ways, it is harder, but in certain ways, it’s easier. If they are creative and have an open mind, there are all these tools that exist for writers to build various revenue streams for themselves that are related to songwriting but might not look like it did in the traditional sense 20 years ago.

It’s more about diversifying and taking advantage of multiple, multiple avenues of opportunity, as opposed to just trying to write a hit song. There’s a lot that writers can do.

How do you see the role of music publishers evolving in the future?

At Warner Chappell, we are trying to be at the forefront of what that looks like. We’re always fighting for songwriters, we’re always looking for new ways and new opportunities to help them and support them. I think the importance of that is going to be more and more visible.

“We’re always fighting for songwriters, we’re always looking for new ways and new opportunities to help them and support them.”

As a publisher, you can’t just sit around and wait for the money to roll in. We really have to be proactive, we have to keep the legacies and the songs alive and we have to do the work. Carianne [Marshall] says that and it’s really true.

We have to get our hands dirty and work and collaborate with our writers and catalog managers, really listen to them and understand what they need. Once you dip your toe in that water, it’s like, ‘Wow, there’s really a lot here’. People are going to start to see that more and more and are going to have to pivot.

What would you change about the music industry and why?

Catalogs really need to get onboarded and transitioned into the digital era. I think about this all the time, it keeps me up at night. A lot of these old catalog stories, icons and gems are going to get lost because it’s not getting put into the digital era.

“A lot of these old catalog stories, icons and gems are going to get lost because it’s not getting put into the digital era.”

There’s not an easy solution for that. We’re trying to do that with our catalogs on a case-by-case basis, but even from what I’ve seen, multiply that by all of the history… it’s a little daunting and overwhelming. I wish that work didn’t have to be done, maybe! It is a big problem.

We work with our catalogs and estates all the time on that but you’d be amazed at how much of that hasn’t happened yet and we’re running out of time for some of it. That is a big concern for me. I think we have some good solutions for that at Warner Chappell with what my team is focused on but around the world, I don’t think people are thinking about it enough.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

Don’t worry, you’ve got this. Being a small-town girl, I’ve always been determined but I never felt necessarily like I knew what I was doing and I guess that’s okay. In today’s landscape, there are so many question marks so I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Being able to lean in and figure things out, which is what I’ve done, goes a long way.

When moving to LA, I felt like everyone had been around this forever. I remember meeting people with business cards and businesses at 17. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m behind.’ But not everyone is willing to put the work in and not everyone is determined or can see those gaps or is willing to get their hands dirty. All of those things have been very beneficial. So I would reassure myself that I’ve got it and that what you don’t know isn’t going to be as problematic as you think.

Do you have any future plans and ambitions?

There’s still a lot of work to do at Warner Chappell. Ultimately, I just want to keep telling these amazing stories. I want to keep amplifying our songwriters and songs and I feel like I won’t feel completely satisfied or ready for the next thing until we’re doing that at a mass scale.

But I don’t know if it will ever feel like this job is done! Looking at the next five years and beyond, I want the knowledge and insight that we’ve learned and gathered and the opportunities to get more ingrained in our songwriters and the estate managers and for people to really understand it.

Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.

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