Nashville publishers are exciting to study and write about because they can be so unique. The companies that successfully build catalogs and create a sound business seem to invent their own “special sauce,” a formula that leverages their individual strengths and somehow helps to differentiate their efforts from those around them. Young Guns seems to be following that blueprint under the guidance of President, Cliff Downs.
Downs has extensive experience and success as a producer, songwriter and musician. He’s written title songs for movies and been a member of a team that received multiple Emmy awards and nominations, including Best Original Song. He also has written, produced and charted songs on Pop, AC, Country, Contemporary Jazz and Contemporary Christian charts for artists as diverse as Wynonna, B.J. Thomas, Glenn Campbell, Michael McDonald, David Pack and Ambrosia, Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers and more.
Unlike the mid-size publishers that have offices in multiple cities, Young Guns is a one office operation. But somehow, the company has found a way to extend its reach to LA and find success in film and TV while also pursuing the Nashville charts. NEKST sat down with Downs in his office on Music Row to find out the ingredients in his “special sauce” and his strategy for the company going forward…
NEKST: How did the company get formed?
Cliff Downs: Young Guns signed its first writer in Oct. 2011, but didn’t get staffed until the following summer. I had been doing songwriter seminars, talking to classes at Belmont and got intrigued by the energy and innocence I saw in those kids. Donna and Gene Brooks also wanted to help young kids succeed. When I said I’d like to start a company with mostly younger writers that I believe in and help them grow and develop, they jumped on board to make it possible. A good baseball scout can find those talents in college or in the triple A who with two years or so of hard work can blossom and be hitting 360 in the majors. That’s our philosophy. And the template seems to be working the way we hoped. Cassio Monroe (Tripp Weir, Jeff Garrison) is getting ready to open for a major tour and Bryan Dixon is getting interest from several labels.
NEKST: Are your writers all songwriter/artists?
Cliff Downs: We started with a heavy emphasis in that direction, but the second part of the equation was to sign several established hit writers who could be mentors, anchor the company and bring in some relationships. The other part of the strategy, because we started the company with a very small catalog, was to start laying a foundation with film and TV placements.
NEKST: Why sync? Don’t most companies go after chart success?
Cliff Downs: We all want to have a big ole top ten chart single, but by the time a song is cut, released and you start to seeing royalties it can be at least 12 months or more. For a young company that’s a long time to wait. The sync world is more immediate and I knew the music I was hearing come out of my writers was perfect for TV, so I just connected the dots. It worked and we’ve been fortunate to get spots on a lot of different network shows. We’ve had promos for Modern Family, Superbowl pre-game music, Nickelodeon placements and music on The Voice to name a few. We have someone in LA that represents us in that world and between what she does and the relationships myself and Micah Wilshire have we’re able to make calls and get in doors. And now the chart side is starting to get into focus, too. We just got a Swon Brothers cut which everyone is excited about and a Natalie Stovall cut on her new EP a song she co-wrote with Micah. As a very young company the overwhelmingly positive response we are getting from labels and producers is so encouraging. I believe it will translate into success.
NEKST: How do you characterize what a publisher needs to succeed and today’s music consumer?
Cliff Downs: You have to build credibility so when people see your emails or call they think, “This meeting is worth having, because I’m going to hear some good songs.” And that takes time. As for the marketplace, it’s much more diverse and exploding in the younger demos. The fans don’t categorize music and put things in a box the way the industry often does. They don’t care. If they like it they want it. These kids are sitting in their bedroom or dorm room with a phone in their hand, an open laptop, and information scrolling across a flat screen TV. Their attention span is brief. If the music doesn’t hit them quickly they are on to something else. When I was that age my friends and I would put an album on and listen all the way through. There was nothing else and no distractions.
NEKST: What lies ahead for Young Guns?
Cliff Downs: On our radar right now is to find the right person to bring their track record, talent and relationships to help make our company more well rounded. We’ve got several writers that have had some big country hits already, but I’ve got my antennas up and maybe by the end of the summer we’ll sign that person.
NEKST: Could that mean catalog acquisition?
Cliff Downs: Probably not unless something really intriguing came along with a writer attached so we were not only getting catalog, but somebody that continued to service it as well.
NEKST: Are these are challenging times for publishers?
Cliff Downs: There are so many revenue streams now. Most of them are really small, but it still adds up if you get enough things going. Unfortunately, I believe because of what happened with Napster there remains an underlying attitude among a huge number of young people that music should be free. They ask, “It’s on the the radio so why can’t I download it for free?” As I’ve said during classes, it’s no different than somebody walking into Krogers and taking a loaf of bread without paying. But it’s a problem for our industry. What I’m most proud of, especially since we’ve been here such a short space of time is that we’ve managed to establish a really great chemistry. It’s completely due to my writers and staff and their great personalities. When people walk into this building for the first time they always say, “Wow, the energy is so great, so positive and fun.” A lot of that is because the writers are young, wild-eyed and I love that. It’s an exciting time here and I feel so fortunate to have been able to get involved early on. Hopefully in a few more years we’ll be in a great spot and burning it up.