When singer/songwriter Michael Tyler came by the Nashville office of his publishing company, peermusic, one day in 2014, his attention was drawn to an old photo of Jimmie Rodgers, a legendary pioneer of country music.
Tyler, who has co-written songs including Dierks Bentley's No. 1 "Somewhere on a Beach," learned that day that he is a distant cousin of Rodgers, one of the first performers inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and one of the first writers signed, in 1927, by peermusic's founder, Ralph S. Peer.
Few independent music publishers stick around long enough to sign the young relatives of the writers who helped build their companies. But peermusic is celebrating its 90th anniversary as one of the music industry's most successful independent publishers, representing classic songs and contemporary hits alike.
Among the writers peermusic publishes: Jimmie Davis, who wrote "You Are My Sunshine"; Hoagy Carmichael, co-writer of "Georgia on My Mind"; British singer-songwriter Donovan of "Sunshine Superman" fame; Ester Dean, who collaborated with Katy Perry and others on "Firework"; and Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, who co-penned Rihanna's smash hit "Umbrella." Tracks co-written by peermusic writers appear on current hit albums by Justin Bieber, Jason Aldean, Drake and Beyoncé, among others.
"We're blessed to have a fantastic repertoire," says chairman/CEO Ralph Peer II, the son of company founder Ralph S. Peer.
A global firm with 160 employees in 29 countries, peermusic nevertheless remains a family business, guided not only by the founder's son but also his granddaughter, deputy CEO Mary Megan Peer.
"We have a privilege to represent this catalog of domestic and foreign works," she says, "but we're also a publisher with A&R, and we work on modern hits as well as catalog."
Ralph S. Peer founded the company that became peermusic while he was an A&R executive for the Victor Talking Machine Company, an early record label, under an agreement that let him manage and publish artists he recorded. In the summer of 1927, Peer went to Bristol, Tenn., where he recorded Rodgers, The Carter Family and other acts in a series of sessions that Johnny Cash once called "the single most important event in the history of country music."
Peer also played a role in the founding of the performing rights organization BMI, an early champion of country music.
As one of the first American publishers to recognize the value of the music market outside the United States, peermusic became a major force in the international spread of Latin music, publishing songs in the 1940s like Pérez Prado's "Mambo #5" and Consuelo Velázquez's "Bésame Mucho." The company also placed Latin tunes in films from Walt Disney and MGM.
As rock 'n' roll arrived in the 1950s, peermusic published hits recorded by acts from Elvis Presley to The Rolling Stones. It connected one early rocker with more than hits: Buddy Holly met his wife, Maria Elena Santiago, at the publisher's New York office, where she was working as the receptionist.
When Ralph S. Peer died in 1960, his wife, Monique I. Peer, ran the company for 20 years. Ralph Peer II became CEO in 1980.
Peermusic today controls more than 350,000 copyrights. Although the company is privately held and does not report financial results, it is recognized as one of the world's largest independent publishers.
Ralph Peer II and Mary Megan Peer recently spoke with Billboard by phone from their offices in Northern California and New York, respectively, about the past, present and future of the company.
Congratulations! The Recording Academy presented a 2017 Trustree Award to Ralph S. Peer in this anniversary year.
Mary Megan Peer: Yes. And Jimmie Rodgers received the award as well, and he started his career with my grandfather, so the fact that they were honored the same year was nice.
Ralph Peer II: As far as we can tell, it's a coincidence. But we got together with the Rodgers family heirs in Los Angeles, and it feels good to have a good family relationship after 90 years.
American music is your family business. At what point did you realize that where your dad worked was so culturally significant?
RPII: There wasn't any "a-ha" moment. When I was growing up, it was just the way it was: Pérez Prado [the Cuban bandleader-composer] came to the house. So did Nat "King" Cole, when he did his Spanish-language albums. My father wasn't a person who relished notoriety, so it wasn't as if there were big parties every night.
When did you decide that music publishing was what you wanted to do?
MMP: I spent eight years on Wall Street prior to joining peermusic. I did investment banking for media and entertainment companies. In 2008, I decided that wasn't the place to be, and I took the opportunity to join the company. At the time, I wasn't sure it was going to be my career path.
Ralph, you've been around the publishing business for decades. From the long-term perspective -- not just the last 10 years or so -- what kind of shape is the business in?
RPII: Obviously, around 2000, there was a major downturn. When the market is growing, you have more opportunity, and when the market shrinks, it reduces your flexibility. As much as any time that I can remember, the success of music publishers really depends on the external environment. It's terribly important to us and to every publisher, for example, that we get a reasonable outcome from the current Copyright Royalty Board deliberations. [Editor's note: The board will set the rate that music users pay for the use of songs in broad circumstances.]
It sounds like less of your success as a music publisher is under your control. How much can you do about that as an independent publisher?
MMP: We're at a point where industry dynamics are driving our success in a lot of ways, which means we spend more time on those. It's a hit-driven business, and success goes up and down, but those external factors affect everything. A massive hit today is not going to have the same effect as it might have a decade ago.
RPII: But I would say that indies play a big role in affecting that, because we are in a position to do things that the majors, which have broader corporate interests, can't. It's not unusual for me to get a call saying, "Ralph, will you take the football on this?" There are things that [a major publisher] can do that I can't. But there are also issues where indies can lead the way.
A lot of the issues you're talking about, such as how ASCAP and BMI will operate in the digital age, will be decided in Washington, D.C. Are you optimistic about how the new administration will affect the publishing business?
RPII: We're still in the early days. But we know that Silicon Valley was pretty tight with the previous administration, and I don't think that's true of the new one. And the president has said that he wants to promote small businesses, and the ultimate small-business person is a songwriter. So we're optimistic about that.
There's now a great deal of optimism on the recorded-music side of the industry. Do you share that?
MMP: I'm optimistic. We're seeing a lot of growth, which is a nice place to be when you have such a significant catalog. We've been seeing some good results recently on the digital side. And we're at a point where digital services are consolidating, so there's only a handful we need to focus on getting good agreements with. And we continue to see strength in the synch market.
Which companies do you see as your peers -- sorry, your competitors? There aren't many other big family businesses in the music industry.
MMP: It's hard to come up with a company to compare ourselves to. We're family-run and family-owned, but we have a footprint that's much bigger than most companies like that. We have a lot of international offices and we represent local repertoire everywhere we operate, which not even all of the majors can say.
My grandfather's idea was to have a global network, and that's how the company still works. We think it's important to be active in local markets, signing acts, having executives on boards of collection societies. Unless you're operating in a territory, it's hard to pitch songs to the synch market or understand what the pricing is.
The international market has always been very important to peermusic.
RPII: Before we came along, Latin music was barely known in some territories. We broadened that with local lyrics and cover records, and many of those songs became international hits. Today, we still have greater access to international music than indies that don't have overseas offices -- especially in Latin music.
MMP: We have a significant international footprint, and as a result a lot of companies come to us for sub-publishing. Generally, majors have their own offices in every major territory. In terms of indies, we probably have the most offices. But we only take on clients who have their [copyright] data in order -- otherwise it's not worth it.
Mary Megan, you ran peermusic's operations in Argentina and opened the company's first office in Beijing. Did that prepare you for a more important managerial role at the company?
MMP: There's a huge learning curve. Running the office in Argentina let me appreciate all the local nuances in the business: how the collecting societies operate differently, how copyright varies in different countries. We've been in China since 2011. How that market will develop is still up in the air. A lot of Chinese companies are investing in U.S. content, which indicates a new respect for intellectual property in China. We recently won a lawsuit there when a label didn't come to us for a license, and we were awarded damages and legal fees. That's new for the Chinese market.
Ralph, how have lyrics played into the success of the company?
RPII: I'm a big proselytizer for recognizing lyrics as a standalone source of income online. We now have, as the majors do, agreements with Apple for payment based on the usage of lyrics. The important part is making the lyrics available, and we ask for the best efforts to include the composer names. We want the composers to be stars.
What are you most excited about now in terms of the publishing business?
MMP: I'm very excited about some of our writers who had great successes in 2016 -- that's one of the pleasures of working for an A&R-driven company. Michael Tyler and Jaron Boyer just had their first No. 1 country hit [with "Somewhere on a Beach"]. And in 2015 we signed the songwriting and production duo The Audibles, and they got their first Grammy nomination for a song on the Justin Bieber album.
During the past decade there have been many transactions in publishing. You must have had offers to sell. Have you ever thought about it?
RPII: When I first took over the business in 1980, I had lots of people asking if I wanted to sell, and I told them that this is a business that I care about. It's wonderful to work with creative people. To be involved in the culture that crosses our desks on a daily basis is a real privilege.