Senior VP, Creative Operations
Years with Company: 5
Address: 35 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203
Clients: 30,000 songwriters and over 400,000 compositions
The second oldest performance rights organization in the country, SESAC is responsible for the licensing and administration of hundreds of thousands of songs. Sam Kling, who became President of the venerated PRO five years ago, talked with us about what makes this organization unique and why not every songwriter can become a member.
We attract songwriters by talking to them or their representatives about how we differentiate in the marketplace and what that differentiation yields, which we believe is an opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship in which we are able to license their works on a free market basis and thereby pass along a premium that they otherwise can’t have.
The other element we talk to them about is the fact that because we are so much smaller, we know everybody’s name and are able to respond to needs, unlike our competitors. And we’re able to augment our songwriters’ teams whenever possible. If there’s something we can provide that your manager, lawyer, business manager or publisher isn’t able to help you with, we are able to bridge the gap.
We have a team that’s spread out across LA, Nashville, New York and we have a guy in London as well. We have a collective roster, but that collective roster is divided amongst the creative services team. We handle all kinds of questions, from the simple, like, “Where’s my statement?” or “Did I receive a check this month?,” to the very difficult, like, “I need to change the path of my career and I need your help planning out how that’s going to work.”
At one point in my life, I was a songwriter at another PRO. I never rose to the highest echelons of songwriters, but was lucky enough to be involved in one hit record; I did not receive [the type of] attention [SESAC’s songwriters get]. In all fairness, I never asked for it.
Culmination of Experience
My approach to SESAC has several layers of experience baked into it. It’s not only my experience as a songwriter, but it’s my experience as an artist manager, my experience as a publisher, my experience in the hospitality and customer service industry. So I’ve created what I think is a fairly unique viewpoint in which to leverage those experiences to our existing client base.
I like to work with songwriters who create great music, are surrounded by a great team and have a high likelihood of a successful career. The selection process is very specific in that I encourage my team (and I behave in the same manner) to approach [signings] as if they were a publisher or label and only have limited resources. The more they’re focused on making sure the songwriters they’re signing are people they believe are immensely talented, the more I encourage them to move forward.
Moving For Money
If we’re talking to a more established or highly successful songwriter who’s interested in making a change, we will look at prior earnings and catalogs and how those catalogs are structured to see if moving them to SESAC would actually provide them with a benefit. Nobody comes to SESAC to make less money than they’re previously making.
Making Festivals and Recording Sessions Happen
I try to keep things focused in a way that provides benefit to the writers. To the extent we are booking festivals or hosting showcases or encouraging our writers to appear at a certain event, we try to program stages in which those writers will reach an audience that they otherwise wouldn’t. That’s specifically helpful for emerging artists/songwriters.
With respect to booking recording sessions, we are not a record label and don’t create masters, but to the extent we can connect individuals to create great records we do that.
No Consent Decrees
Because we have the body of work that we have, we are able to negotiate with various licensing groups. SESAC has a unique ability to create a paucity of its works in the marketplace. Whereas some of our competitors are handcuffed by consent decrees that make them grant licenses to all comers, we can say no. We can say a price and, if they don’t agree to that price, we can say don’t use our music. That gives us a powerful proposition in the marketplace.
The Fair Pay Battle
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Obviously, the consumption of music has shifted from records and record stores to streaming. That’s been the battle since inception––making sure that users of music pay songwriters for their work. And advocating on behalf of songwriters remains our number one focus.
Maybe the players have changed, but the game has remained the same. Literally today, there’s a significant endeavor by several digital companies to change how copyright law works in the United States. We’re working with Senator [Thom] Tillis and his colleagues to ensure that the way copyright works stays the same and that songwriters and publishers continue to receive benefit from it.
We are creatively minded, but we think differently. What is normal or accepted at some of our competitors is not how we do things. We like to add as much value back to our songwriters as we possibly can. ASCAP has their I Create Music Expo. That’s great for ASCAP, but it doesn’t necessarily work for us. We’re not a one-size-fits-all kind of company.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
The best scenario is to have a great publisher partner, but if you’re a self-published songwriter and don’t have a business manager or lawyer who is highly skilled in copyright, the best thing you can do is educate yourself. Make sure your songs are registered properly, that your songs are being uploaded with the masters into our systems. Make sure you have your ISRCs and ISWCs correct and handy. It’s a garbage in, garbage out system. You put in high-quality data, you’re going to get high-quality results.
For Profits, For People
I’ve come across people who think that we’re profits over people, which we’re not, because songwriters and publishers drive our profits. That’s an important distinction to make about SESAC––we are an unapologetically for-profit company, whereas some of our competitors are not.
The biggest change at SESAC is our expansion into international rights management. We’ve created a company called Mint and we are working with publishers across the United States to represent their works, both on a European basis and increasingly into Asian territories––India, China… And we’re very excited about that.
There’s also the recent news where Harry Fox Agency, who SESAC purchased approximately five years ago, was recently awarded the vendor for the MLC [Mechanical Licensing Collective] gig. So we’re excited about that. And just on the PRO front we continue to be excited about songwriters who have an incredible talent for delivering something new, something that no one’s ever heard before and something that makes us get up and take notice in a way that’s unique to them.