“There’s a trail of dead British bodies in the American entertainment industry. Sometimes in the past there’s been a thought process of, ‘We’re gonna show the Yanks how it’s done.’ Big mistake. That’s insecurity talking.”
Kenny MacPherson has spent more of his professional life in the United States than he has in Britain – and he’s clearly learned the rules of the game.
Yet, despite the relaxed LA demeanor, and the near-ever-present Californian grin, there’s no mistaking the underlying grit – born and burnished in North Ayrshire, Scotland.
MacPherson, the co-founder/co-owner of Big Deal Music, has been in the entertainment business for nearly 40 years, but has enjoyed some of his sweetest success in the past half-decade following the birth of his own company.
Encino-based Big Deal Music’s catalogue includes the likes of St. Vincent, Underworld, Sylvan Esso, Cigarettes After Sex, The Afghan Whigs, Beach House, The Black Angels, Dan Wilson, Dave Sardy, Ethan Johns, Kamasi Washington, Local Natives, My Morning Jacket, Nick Lowe, Pavement, plus hotshot songwriters like Teddy Geiger, Jake Sinclair, John Ryan, Julian Bunetta and many more.
With offices in LA, Nashville, New York and London, Big Deal – which acquired Nashville-based Words & Music in late 2015 – was recently named by Billboard as the seventh biggest hit publisher in the US, with a 1.57% market share of the Top 100 radio songs in Q2.
MacPherson’s earliest major professional break came in the comedy world, working as the tour manager for his fellow Scot, and comedy legend, Billy Connolly.
“Billy was super kind to me,” says MacPherson today. “He took time to talk to me about how you treat people and how you behave; he was just a really stand-up guy, very helpful.
“I didn’t have many role models growing up because my family split up when I was very young, and Billy became a bit of that for me, really.”
Perhaps that explains the honesty.
“People say the music business was easier back in the eighties or nineties – it wasn’t, we were just high!”
MacPherson has that all-too-rare quality in executives who’ve risen to the top of their field: he doesn’t self-edit, and he doesn’t concern himself with the ripples his words might affect tomorrow. He just tells the truth.
“I hear people say the music business was easier back in the eighties or nineties,” he says. “No it wasn’t, we were just high!
“We were probably partying too much, so it all seemed kind of easy, but it wasn’t. It’s always been the greatest gig in the world, and bloody hard work.
“You’ve got to keep your sense of humor and your sense of perspective in this industry – remember, as important as it seems, none of us are curing cancer.”
Prior to this, MacPherson worked for 13 years as a creative executive at Warner/Chappell, working closely with artists/writers such as The Afghan Whigs, Semisonic, Radiohead, The Blue Nile, Savage Garden, White Zombie, Walter Afanasieff and others.
Here, he gives his view on the rise of Big Deal, the global publishing industry and the lessons today’s business can learn from the music executives of yore…
Much has been said and written about Chrysalis and the influence it had on its employees. What was that time like for you?
Working at Chrysalis was a great experience overall. Funnily enough, Chris Wright (pictured), back in the day when Chrysalis started, was a live agent. I ran the Apollo Theatre in Glasgow and I used to book bands from Chris’s agency.
Many people forget that Chrysalis was a publicly traded company. So when I became the head of the American company, I was like the lowest man on the totem pole! There was hardly any domestic [US] roster, so our brief was to build one. I hired a brand new staff – that’s where I first hired Jamie [Cerreta], who’s now my business partner – and we built it up.
If we made one mistake, it was that we drank our own Kool Aid, and we forgot we were employees. We could see the value being created by Jeremy [Lascelles] and Alison [Donald] in London, and the value of what we were building over 11 years in America.
The hurt of being sold [to BMG] was one thing, but we all also realised, Oh my God, I’ve done this for the last 11 years and I don’t have a pot to piss in. I really am just an employee.
Do you remember getting told that Chrysalis was selling up?
When you’re a publicly-traded company, shareholders can drive that. I don’t know if Chris Wright really wanted to sell. Going public, you have to be careful what you wish for – it’s kind of like making a deal with the devil. You are beholden to others and then people start saying, ‘It’s just business’ to cover a multitude of sins.
After Chrysalis was sold, I needed some time off. I was knackered; I’d never had a break since I was 17. I needed to sit back and consider, Do I still have this in me?
I found out that my wife can only have lunch with me so many days a week. So she made it clear, I should get back to work.
What happened then – how did Big Deal form?
I was listening to a lot of music; I’d grown so used to listening to music for business, I’d almost forgotten how to listen for pleasure.
That was really enjoyable. At that time, I had a couple of opportunities to go to some other places, which was very flattering, but I just thought, I would really love to try and do something myself.
I started out in the entertainment business paying my own telephone bills, so I didn’t have complete shock and awe when that happened again. [The mission] was about putting together a group of people I wanted to work with. I knew it was probably my last rodeo.
“I started out in the entertainment business paying my own telephone bills, so I didn’t have complete shock and awe when that happened again.”
I used to think that the older you get, the more tolerant you become, but the opposite is true. I vowed never to work with any dickheads ever again, and I was also sick of working with other people’s music and being told, This is the way it goes.
I’d worked with Dave [Ayers] and Jamie [Cerreta] for many years, I completely trusted them, so I said, Let’s start a company, and we’ll all be partners.
Shortly after that, Pete Robinson joined to head up our Nashville office, and another Chrysalis alum, Casey Robison, came aboard to spearhead our pop division. That’s the core team at Big Deal.
How did you convince your funding partner to get on board?
I presented Dirk [Ziff], our funding partner, with a plan for Big Deal based on our time at Chrysalis. He had done his homework, he knew what we had achieved there and he believed in our vision and ethos.
Dirk is an insatiable music lover and has been a fantastic sounding board for me and my team. He has established a number of close relationships with some of our writers and artists; he shows up and is involved.
When Big Deal set up shop, Spotify was just a year past its US launch. Was that an uncertain time?
People told me it was a bad time. ‘What are you starting a new publishing company for – are you crazy?’ Yeah, I am, so what?
If there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that there’s constant change in life, and you really can’t be afraid of it. Technology has ushered in all of this data, and data can be interpreted six ways to Sunday to suit people’s purposes.
So there’s a balance to all of it, and you hopefully use every potential asset that’s out there to give you an advantage and to help you do the right job for your clients.
What do you think of all the new money that’s washing into publishing and the valuations that we’re seeing for companies like Carlin and SONGS?
The valuations are what they are; everybody will have a different opinion about why it’s gone the way it’s gone, and where it’s going next. But the bottom line is, these prices show the overall strength of publishing assets.
At the majors, certainly Warner and Universal, that money’s ultimately moving into the same pot as their sister record companies…
It’s very important that this business has a strong independent sector. Not everybody wants to be signed to a behemoth.
“I hate reading about people banging on [negatively] about the majors; be careful, you might end up there one day.”
I think there are really good people who work in every area. I hate reading about people banging on [negatively] about the majors; be careful, you might end up there one day.
They’re not evil empires. There are people who really care about music, and songwriters in those buildings.
Look at Jody [Gerson, UMPG CEO/Chairman] – I know she is a music lover, and has had a very high touch with writers and artists. But, yeah, she’s a businesswoman as well; she knows the score.
BMG, a partner of yours, says it’s the ‘fourth major’ these days.
BMG’s growth rate over the last [decade] has been massive – they’ve got, like, two million copyrights now. And [yet] earlier this year they won Independent Publisher of the Year at the ASCAP Awards; it’s funny.
On the major/indie thing, if you work at a major corporation in any business, you have a responsibility to your shareholders; if you reach a certain echelon in business, your remuneration is somewhat based on your market share.
How do you feel about the fact that the music publishing industry has become more administration focused in a post-Kobalt world?
I’ve come to be at peace with the fact that one size doesn’t fit all.
I have a lot of admiration for Kobalt; I like Willard [Ahdritz, Kobalt CEO, pictured]; he’s a character, and I like characters. And I really like Laurent Hubert who’s there now; when Big Deal did our first admin deal with BMG, he was a great partner.
“The transparency talk in this industry is important, but I don’t buy the idea that there’s a conspiracy of people [at publishers] deliberately trying to rip people off.”
Kobalt had an advantage when they started, because they were the first publishing administration company to start in the digital age, so they were completely unencumbered by old systems and old ways of thinking, people in the back going, I’ve got to protect my job.
That was Willard’s initial thing, and he’s created a great platform, although others have learned from it.
I would imagine that, as advanced as Kobalt’s platform is, it could probably be used for multiple other things apart from music.
The transparency talk in this industry is important, but I don’t buy the idea that there’s a conspiracy of people [at publishers] deliberately trying to rip people off.
How do you ‘sell’ Big Deal to writers you want to sign?
Community. We’ve built a community of people here who are all supportive and help each other and have a patient look at things. That takes time, and young songwriters need a lot of attention at the beginning of their careers. And then, as they grow, that continues in various ways. It still takes a team to maintain a career after you’ve had a couple of hits under your belt.
We’re completely committed to what we do, and if we don’t get it right, the lights go off, so there’s no place to hide. We can’t sign something and just say, Let’s take a flyer on that, if that doesn’t work we’ve got this deep catalogue to cover it up. It’s very frontline for us; it’s passion and it’s culture.
I know we can’t work with everybody, so let’s not worry about it – it sounds clichéd, and perhaps naïve, but we need to cultivate the grass we’re standing on.
“To all the naysayers, kiss my Scottish ass!”
We are at a certain size and we’re still growing. We’ve only been going five-and-a-bit years, and it’s been like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at times. With all humility, we’ve done a lot more than some people thought we would, and we’ve learned a hell of a lot. We also treat people right.
It’s always in your best interest to bank a lot of karma chips in this industry, so people will want you to do well down the line. But there’s always the naysayers. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it or how big your Rolodex is, it’s always like, Prove it.
So to all the naysayers, kiss my Scottish ass!
Ha! What do you make of the worry around the ‘death of the album’ in terms of how people consume music these days?
Pop culture, in some shape or form, has kind of always been like that. People still ‘go deep’ on music; I see the way my granddaughter consumes music; she’s 15, and she’s mad for it.
She’s hip-hop crazy, but she’ll hear a song, and then she’ll go back and she’s discovering Tupac, she’s discovering Biggie, and Eminem and many more. We live in a faster world, a more instantaneous world. My hope is that if people treat music as a disposable commodity, they will eventually find something and go, God I love this, and start a journey with that artist.
I think there’s always a desire for something that’s going to be culturally significant, and be visceral, and just connect in such a way that’s undeniable. I would hate to think that humanity’s going to get so homogenised that music loses all personality.
A world without art would be a very dull place.
Are you optimistic about the future of the music business?
Yeah, I am. When iTunes came along people would say, You don’t need a record company anymore. Oh, really? Try and go do all of that shit on your own, and see how far it goes – it’s a big world out there!
You need a team of people around you, whatever you call that, and there is a cost of doing business. If you make the model right, there’s enough money to go around, and it’s fair on both sides, everyone wins.
It’s vastly different when you’re an owner of a company, too – your decision process has to be different, because [one mistake] can be the end of you. You have to look carefully at your deals: can you stay in business with certain people, can you not? All of that is a balance.
When you lost your job at Warner/Chappell, prior to Chrysalis, what was that period of your life like?
I have a sense of humor about that. Ninety percent of the people that affected that change for me are no longer in the music business.
I’ve had a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes mentality ever since then, and there’s probably something about my upbringing that plays into that. Revenge is a twisted thing, so you have to stop yourself going there – but the best form of showing somebody that they’re wrong is to have a successful career.
It doesn’t feel good getting fired for the wrong reasons, but you get on with it, and trust in karma. I was fortunate that Chrysalis called; I’ve never taken that for granted.
Are you oddly thankful for the extra energy that ‘I’ll show ‘em’ feeling has put into your career?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a driver. Even to this day in this business, there are people who, in my book, are behaving badly. I’m like an old elephant, I don’t forget.
Sometimes, you just have to think, life is too short – this might be a [financial opportunity] but, basically, go fuck yourself, you’re a dickhead and I don’t want to work with you.
“Sometimes, you just have to think, life is too short.”
That’s one of the great things of owning a company: you can say no, I don’t want to work with you, I don’t trust you, especially if you’re exhibiting bad behaviour when we’re trying to do a deal; I know it’s not gonna get any better once the deal is done.
You always have to remember that stress will kill you!
Isn’t that a continuous thing where you try to balance your passion and your commitment to stuff and still have a life? Sometimes I wonder if that’s quite a British thing – needing to punish yourself somehow with work.
Yeah, Presbyterian guilt, man, it’s every bit as bad as Catholic or Jewish guilt!
I know where I come from, I know my family background, and I do sometimes catch myself going, Wow, I’m the president of an internarionally-known music company.
“I really don’t mean to bang my chest and go, ‘I was a working class boy’, but there’s some pride in it.”
I come from a working class family in a town of 8,000 people on the west coast of Scotland. I really don’t mean to bang my chest and go, ‘I was a working class boy’, but there’s some pride in it.
It’s a lot of hard work, that journey, but along the way I hope that people get to learn to really value ethics and morality and things that seem to be in short supply some days.
What ambitions do you have left for Big Deal? After six years going strong, where would you like to take the company?
I would like us to grow in the right way and be able to adapt to the needs of our clients and our employees. It’s important to me that we have a work environment where people feel they can flourish and grow. I want us to be aware of what’s going on, but I want us to win with style and grace. And I would like songwriters to know they have a safe harbour here, where they will be treated with dignity and respect.
Obviously you have to try and run the smartest business you can, and believe that if you build it, they will come. Talent attracts talent. That goes for songwriters and staff. They all talk about their experience with Big Deal and so far that has drawn top writers and execs to the company. We have a history of staying with people through thick and thin.
“I really admire and respect [SONGS founder] Matt Pincus.”
We’re still in our infancy. I was very sad when SONGS got sold, I really admire and respect [SONGS founder] Matt Pincus (pictured). He used to come and talk to me when I was at Chrysalis, and tell me how he wanted to build SONGS and make it like Chrysalis. Now I have to return the compliment and build Big Deal to mirror SONGS. Matt’s a very committed individual, super smart, and having him on sabbatical from our business is a huge loss.
The independent sector is very important to me: Pulse, Downtown, Reservoir, Beggars, Peer, etc. we need to have this strong, independent renegade sector. Because it keeps the entire industry on its toes.
All physical subscribers will receive a complimentary digital edition with each issue.Music Business Worldwide