‘Majors and independents have the same end goal. Being aligned on how we get there, and garnering the same respect from different services, is crucial to that.’

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.

Emily Stephenson was named President of Publishing at Downtown Music last year after an 11-year tenure at the company that’s seen her move through the ranks.

She took on the leadership title after a transitional time at the company that saw it pivot from a more traditional publishing approach to focusing on offering services and encouraging clients to own their rights (under the leadership of former Downtown Global President, Mike Smith).

Since then, Stephenson has overseen bringing together Songtrust and Downtown Music Publishing under one management, alongside a raft of significant deals.

Those deals include an admin services agreement with Spirit Music Group (whose catalog includes hits recorded by The Who, John Legend, Tim McGraw, Camilla Cabello, Jay-Z and Madonna), plus deals with Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Colbie Caillat, Amsterdam-based independent Next Era Music Publishing and South Asian company Outer Voice.

After growing up in Nashville, Stephenson had a solid understanding that you could make a living working in music and the songs business is what she connected with most.

Upon graduating with a degree in communications, and doing the rounds in internships, she set her sights on New York.

Stephenson joined Downtown in 2012 in a very intentional move that started by emailing the Founder and Chairman of Downtown Music Holdings, Justin Kalifowitz.

Kalifowitz kindly responded to her email, they met for coffee, and when a job became available, he gave Stephenson a call.

“We were quite small at the time so it was a great opportunity for me to get in with a company that was going to be growing quickly, where I could get my hands in a lot of different areas of the business and understand different processes,” Stephenson remembers.

After her first son was born, Stephenson moved back to Nashville in 2018 to be closer to family, which is where she’s based today.

Here, we chat to her about her career to date, the music publishing business at large, TikTok, AI, and much more besides…

What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned across your career?

I would not be where I am in my career today if I had not found work/life balance and if I had not been in a company that supported that. I think it’s important to remember that balance is not always 50/50. There are going to be times when life is heavier and there are going to be times when work gets heavier. Finding ways to make space for both and setting boundaries for yourself is really important.

“I would not be where I am in my career today if I had not found work/life balance and if I had not been in a company that supported that.”

When I look back on my career, if you told me I would have been President in 2024, I would never have believed you. But I look back and know that when I was early in my career, I took the time to invest in what I was doing: to work really hard, to soak up as much as I could, to respond to emails quickly, show up on time, be reliable and take notes. All those little things built a foundation that allowed me to grow quickly. Setting yourself up for success later on, whatever that looks like for you, has been another important learning.

What are some of the ways that you establish work/life balance now?

You have to do it for yourself. For me, I start [the work day] a little bit earlier… well, earlier than the rest of the Nashville music industry, which is not saying a tonne, but I start early. And when I am done, when I’m with my kids for the rest of the day, my phone is away, laptop closed, and I am all theirs until they go to bed.

If I need to check back in after bed and I don’t have plans, I have no problem getting back on and cranking out a bunch of emails or preparing for the next day. For me, that works. I would never expect our team to log on after their kids are done — in theory, you should be able to do your job in the 40 hours a week that’s allotted for it.

It’s about figuring out what is and isn’t important for you. I’m one of those moms who does not want to miss a school performance or a class Valentine’s Day party. If that’s a priority for me, barring something else that’s massively urgent at the company, I will block that time off in my calendar and ensure I’m there. By setting boundaries like that, it keeps me happy at work. When I’m here, I’m 100% Downtown, I’m not distracted. And vice versa when I’m with my family.

You’ve been President at Downtown Music Publishing for a year. What are the qualities that make a good leader?

The qualities in the leadership I’ve seen that I’ve responded well to are transparency, communication and vision. Transparency can also be vulnerability. I had a meeting yesterday with a colleague, our knowledge bases are very different, we’re at different places in our career, but I really value that person’s opinion. So I wanted to ask a bunch of questions and get a bunch of feedback.

“We’ve been bold and brave in what we’ve gone after and that’s been really beneficial for us.”

It’s also about engagement. Not just ‘We’re going to share the numbers with you because we’re so transparent’, but truly being like, ‘This is where we’re at, this is the work that you’re doing and this is what it’s leading to’. I think that’s really important. There’s also an element of boldness and confidence that’s required to not shy away from hard and big decisions and from going for those really big deals that you feel you may or may not even get a meeting for. We’ve been bold and brave in what we’ve gone after and that’s been really beneficial for us.

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

It’s about taking time to make the right decisions. There are going to be times when you feel like you have to make a decision right away – and maybe you do. But in the instances where you have a little space or can push to make sure you have all the right data and information, be extremely thoughtful about it.

Going back to what I was talking about earlier, it’s also about investing in yourself early in your career and seeing the time that you’re putting in as building blocks of the foundation that the rest of your career is going to be set upon.

From where you’re sitting, what is the most exciting development happening in today’s music business?

I love seeing independents making a lot of waves. The majors have their place in this industry and they do what they do really well, but more so than ever, independent companies, artists and writers have a lot more ability to impact and succeed than they ever have.

Is there anything you’d like to see change that would further strengthen the position of independent companies and artists moving forward?

A lot of it’s already happening. Something that’s top of mind here in Nashville is, for so long you had to be with a major to get radio play and you had to get radio play to be successful. That formula is changing really quickly.

One thing that is a huge conversation point is digital licensing and how majors license differently, or are approached with different types of deals by the DSPs than some companies that might be just a publishing company or just a record label. Fair and equitable licensing is really important. Both majors and independents all have the same end goal so being aligned on how we get there and garnering the same respect from the different services is crucial to that.

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TikTok is a big player in that conversation and Downtown expressed support for UMG/UMPG pulling its catalog from the service. How might your licensing deal with TikTok evolve in future?

It was really important for us to show public support for songwriters and artists in relation to what UMPG and UMG were doing. That’s been our mantra from day one, regardless of what the platform or service or rights type is.

As far as TikTok goes, we have the publishing company, but we also have a large bulk of rights and different rights types that we license for between FUGA, CD Baby and the various companies that we have under the umbrella.

So because of the size of Downtown, we are able to negotiate fair deals for our clients and we’ll continue to use every effort to champion the rights of our clients. We will see what that looks like with TikTok but that’s where we are right now.

Would you like to see anything different from the platform moving forward?

We’re still trying to figure out what TikTok’s place is in the music industry: is it a consumption platform or is it an exposure platform? We did this in the early days with YouTube too and the argument can be made for radio: is this a discovery tool? Is it a consumption tool?

So if you’re asking what I would like to see change about TikTok, I would just say I would like to see songwriters and artists compensated fairly for how users are using the platform.

AI has been another big talking point in the music industry recently. What are your thoughts on the potential of the tech and the dangers of it? How are you dealing with it at Downtown?

There’s two sides of AI: there’s the side that we have benefited from greatly by using it for things like trust, safety, data analytics and income tracking. We are not afraid to lean into technology at Downtown — part of one of our core tenets is to use technology to collect as much money as possible for a songwriter.

“The biggest challenge will be for publishers to figure out how and if to license their catalog to AI platforms.”

The side of AI that is about creating music and using lyrics that our writers have written to create a new song, that’s scary. The biggest challenge will be for publishers to figure out how and if to license their catalog to AI platforms.

It’s so new that a lot of media or tech companies are trying to loop some of that into licensing structures that already exist and that just doesn’t work. As far as Downtown goes, we are really involved in the conversation both here in the US and in Europe, particularly.

Have you got any idea about how the licensing of AI could work?

How it could work versus how it is currently working versus how it’ll probably end up working are three different scenarios. There’s some that argue that it’s fair use because it’s educational, but we’re not trying to educate AI, that’s to be used in, like, schools! So it’s going to be a challenge and publishers should have the right to not license and serve music to AI if they don’t want to. That will be really what it comes down to.

“We’re acknowledging that AI is a new reality in our life and we can benefit from it in many ways.”

There are elements of AI that some songwriters lean into, mostly for demo creation. So if you want to put female vocals on a song and you’re sitting by yourself in a room and you’re a man, you might use AI to do something like that. It’s all a balance. We’re acknowledging that AI is a new reality in our life and we can benefit from it in many ways. But going back to the TikTok conversation, our entire mantra is to protect the rights of our songwriters and to ensure they’re getting paid fairly for their music. We’ll always point back to that.

How do you see the role of a publisher evolving in the future?

I think we’re seeing it. People are responding really well to Downtown’s transition to a services-based company, which, for us, means that we are focused on doing publishing administration deals and not necessarily co-pub and traditional publishing deals. People want to maintain and own their rights. There’s a lot of different ways that music is being used and not necessarily generating as much revenue as it used to. It used to be that someone bought a CD and you got paid for that. Now, it’s micro pennies. So people maintaining their own rights is really important.

With that comes a renowned focus for publishers and for us at Downtown in ensuring that we’re collecting royalties in the most efficient and organized way possible and using technology to ensure that we’re collecting every single penny our writers are owed. That’s hard because there’s a lot of different third parties involved in helping us do that, but we’re using every best effort.

“There are a lot of different priorities here at Downtown.”

We’re focused on using technology, we’re focused on our administration efforts, we’re focused on efficiency, but we’re also not losing sight of the creative side. That’s something that’s required to balance a successful music publishing company: what is your sync team doing and how are they rethinking the catalog? How are they putting music in really creative spots, and looking for new clients to sign that are garnering a lot of success and prioritizing maintaining their own rights? There are a lot of different priorities here at Downtown.

What would you change about the music industry and why?

Data integrity is a really important thing to have captured right now: trust and safety. There’s a lot of things that we need to focus on and spend time figuring out just to ensure that the right people are getting paid the right money.

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

If I look back at the beginning of my career, I’m actually really proud of how I approached it. I’m proud of how hard I worked. But I would have never thought that I would be where I am today. So I would just say, ‘Don’t underestimate how far you can go and how successful you can be’.

I was just excited to be working in the music industry and I was going to do everything I could to make sure I did a good job. I truly am proud when I think back on what I was doing and I wish the same for anyone entering the music industry: that they’re looking ahead, setting goals and finding people who they can follow and learn from early on so they too can find that success.

How about future plans and ambitions? What are you working on for the next year and beyond?

We’ve hit a really healthy stride here at Downtown and, culturally, we’re in a really good spot. People are happy, the numbers are good, the roster is happy, growing and creative and making a tonne of amazing music. I’m really excited to take the momentum that we have right now and see where it takes us.

We have a lot of visions, goals and objectives that we were really thoughtful about. Using the momentum that we have right now to follow through with those is going to be really fun. Personally, I just want to keep working hard, enjoying watching my kids grow up, and maintaining the balance between having a really fun job and an even better family.

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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