Singers come and singers go, but songs keep working forever. That’s really about all you need to know to understand why Sony/ATV, the giant music publisher, shelled out $157 million last year to purchase the songs in the historic Acuff-Rose publishing catalogs.
Since the switch in ownership last August, the Acuff-Rose division has yielded eight country singles. Some of its best-known works are being featured in a popular off-Broadway play about Hank Williams — a play that Sony/Acuff-Rose now owns. Other songs from the collection turn up regularly in movies, TV shows, national commercials, video games, toys, greeting cards and as the “ring tones” in cell phones. Clearly, Sony is well on its way to earning its investment back.
Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff and songwriter-musician Fred Rose established the company in 1942, a time when Nashville had virtually no country music publishing activity. It didn’t take long for the business to catch on. In 1946, it began publishing songs by a promising young newcomer, Hank Williams , and later added such lyrical heavyweights to its roster as the Louvin Brothers , Leon Payne , Felice and Boudleaux Bryant , Marty Robbins , Don Gibson , Roy Orbison, John D. Loudermilk , Martha Carson, the Everly Brothers, Mickey Newbury , Liz Anderson and Dallas Frazier.
Rose (who also wrote under the pseudonym “Floyd Jenkins”) was a fountain of hits in his own right. His compositions included such durables as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “It’s a Sin,” “Deep Water,” “Roly Poly,” “Fire Ball Mail,” “’Foggy River,” “Low and Lonely,” “Pins and Needles (In My Heart)” and “We Live in Two Different Worlds.” Among the many other early Acuff-Rose treasures were “Tennessee Waltz,” “Ashes of Love,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Satisfied” and “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation).”
In 1985, Gaylord Entertainment bought Acuff-Rose for $15 million and put it under the control of veteran publisher Jerry Bradley. Its value grew substantially every year afterward. In making the purchase, Sony didn’t just buy the songs, however. It also hired key members of the team that had been working the songs, including Troy Tomlinson and Mike Whelan of the creative department (whose function is to get songs recorded) and Marc Wood, who heads the film and TV department.
Over the past eight months, Tomlinson reports, the Acuff-Rose brand has graced the chart singles “Red Ragtop” (Tim McGraw ), “Brokenheartsville” (Joe Nichols ), “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” (Tracy Byrd ), “A Lot of Things Different” (Kenny Chesney ), “Beautiful Goodbye” (Jennifer Hanson ), “The Love Song” (Jeff Bates), “I Believe” (Diamond Rio ) and “Country Ain’t Country” (Travis Tritt ).
National advertising campaigns are using Sony/Acuff-Rose’s “I Love” to sell Coors Light beer, “You Got It” to lure shoppers into Target stores and “Bread and Butter” to make Applebee’s restaurants more appetizing. “Blue Bayou” made its way onto the soundtrack of the recent movie Dreamcatcher, while “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” landed in Sweet Home Alabama.
Peggy Lamb, who licenses Acuff-Rose music for use in toys, greeting cards and other amusements, cites a series of current and upcoming applications. Dino Dance Barney and Kasey The Kinderbot use “The Hokey Pokey.” Various dolls have digital chips that play “Tennessee Waltz,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Elvira” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which Wood says is the most popular Acuff-Rose song for cell phone ring tones, can also be heard in an alarm clock. “I Fought the Law” is the tune of choice for a dancing hamster and a singing turkey, according to Lamb. The Sony PlayStation game Road Rash opts for “Mean Machine.” An Elvis-themed slot machine favors “American Trilogy,” while another model slot — the Sneeki Tiki — blasts out “Limbo Rock.”
With toys, Wood says, Acuff-Rose is paid an agreed upon fee for each unit sold. Licenses are granted to manufacturers for the shortest time possible to enable the publisher to adjust rates as the evolving economy dictates.
Acuff-Rose’s most imaginative publishing ploy may have been to buy outright from its authors the stage play Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Built around nearly 20 songs that Williams wrote, co-wrote or made famous, the play was first launched in 1996 and enjoyed a long run at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. After that, it toured the U. S. Recently, it has been wowing critics and filling the house in New York City, first at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater and then, after proving its appeal, at the large Little Shubert Theater. Nashville singer Jason Petty, who originated the role of Williams, continues to star in the play.
“It’s a no-brainer to [buy] a play about a songwriter who’s prominent in your catalog,” Wood observes. “The play itself becomes publicity for the songwriter and his songs. Through that publicity, you’re generating a new income stream because you’re selling tickets to the play. It’s kind of double-dipping.” Acuff-Rose bought the play from authors Randal Myler and Mark Harelik while the company was still a Gaylord property, and it became part of the Sony/ATV acquisition.
“[The play has] been on more than one tour of the U. S.,” Wood says. “We’ve never toured the major theater markets — it’s always been the second tier. But we certainly foresee major markets after the New York show.” Noting that Sony/Acuff-Rose doesn’t own all the musical rights in the play, Wood explains, “Most of the Hank [songs] in the play are co-published with Warner Chappell, and then there are two or three songs in the play that Hank did not write but sang — like ’Love Sick Blues.'”
Wood says there has been some “preliminary and casual discussion” with the writers of Hank Williams: Lost Highway about creating another such play around a Sony/ATV songwriter. But there’s been no decision yet on which one.