Jeffrey Steele’s independently owned 3 Ring Circus made the prescient decision to purchase a small house on a side street in trendy Melrose, about 8 minutes off Music Row. Of course that was about 12 years ago, before the new apartment buildings sprung up nearby and Gruhn Guitar moved into the neighborhood. Today the area is booming with activity and so is 3 Ring Circus.
Steele’s accolades include being inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (2013), he was named BMI Songwriter of the Year (2003, 2007) and MusicRow magazine Songwriter of the Year in 2006. The songwriter won CMA Triple Play Awards (2007, 2010) and has logged over ten No. 1 singles. According to BMI, his works have received over 63 million airplays!
Darrell Franklin joined 3 Ring Circus at the end of 2013 and now serves as GM. Previously he handled A&R duties for producer Dann Huff and together they formed Crosstown Songs. Crosstown was acquired by BMG Chrysalis in 2009 and Franklin joined BMG as Executive VP. In March 2013 Franklin launched Franklin Publishing as a joint venture with BMG Chrysalis and subsequently brought some of those writers with him on his journey to join the Circus.
Jeffrey Steele & Darrell Franklin have been quietly assembling a full service company founded on what they call “old school” publisher values. The following interview with the two leaders was like publisher fireworks, with Steele laughing at one point, “You’re pushing all my buttons.” Being a long-time fan of both these talented professionals it was no surprise to me we never lacked for lively discussion and perceptive viewpoints. Content included a full pallet of topics including mentoring today’s writers, developing writer/artists, revenue streams, sync, admin, the digital economy and so much more.
NEKST: How did you get into publishing?
Darrell Franklin: I wanted to be a musician, but after about two years of guitar lessons my dad said, “I hate to tell you, but you don’t have the love you need for it. You’re only practicing a hour a day.” It sort of broke my heart, but he quickly added, “But you love music and should figure out something you can do with the songs.” Dad didn’t know much about how the business worked, but he knew David Conrad, so I went to Belmont and got my first internship with Conrad at Almo Irving. It was a great place to learn because Conrad didn’t care what your position was, if you could get a song somewhere you could run with it. Much later when I went to BMG and we started buying catalogs I got to see firsthand what a mess some of them are. And that made me appreciate Conrad’s meticulous approach even more.
NEKST: Do you prefer working at a small or large company?
Darrell Franklin: Dann Huff and I had our publishing company that was starting to rock when BMG bought our parent company and asked us to come on over. Their plan was to stay small, but of course it didn’t. My four years there was a great learning experience, for example I’d never been involved in catalog acquisitions. Unfortunately, it got me away from being creative which has always been my bread and butter and I slowly realized I needed a change. We discussed different scenarios, but finally BMG decided to give me a JV to do what I love most— develop writers. While at BMG I had been trying to buy Jeffrey’s 3 Ring Circus catalog, but all the while he was saying, “You need to get back into creative, why don’t you just come over here and let’s do our thing together.” So it was a tug of war and fortunately his side won.
NEKST: What is the history behind 3 Ring Circus?
Darrell Franklin: The company was formed 12 years ago as a co-venture with Windswept, but today it’s totally independent. It went through a dormant period a few years back, but Jeffrey wanted to get it running again with a partner to bounce ideas and songs off of, kind of like Steve Markland had been in those Windswept days.
NEKST: Jeffrey, how did you get to Nashville?
Jeffrey Steele: I was floating around L.A. by myself during the early ’80s and then met the Boy Howdy guys around ’86. We started playing clubs and it all morphed from there. I wrote a song about the Gulf War in ’91 which we played at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Santa Ana, near a Marine base. For the next 2 weeks it was like Garth Brooks was playing there. Then Dick Whitehouse came out to see us and we got a deal with Curb. My first Nashville songwriter trip was in ’88.
NEKST: Darrell calls the 3 Ring Circus philosophy “old school.” Your views?
Jeffrey Steele: When I first arrived there was such a smallness and camaraderie to Nashville publishing. Walking over to Patrick Joseph Music in the early ’90s I’d find an old, cool house full of songwriters plotting to change the world. And there were publishers like Pat Higdon, David Conrad and Jody Williams that really knew how to pick songs apart and give criticism that could push you up instead of knock you down. So the basic 3 Ring premise is let’s build this in the way we remembered was so much fun and created such successful companies. We aren’t chasing what’s out there, we’re telling our writers, “Man it’s your generation, your time. Find what it is you need to say.” I had my moment, now I want to help develop these younger writers in the same way the older guys taught us.
NEKST: How would you describe today’s music?
Jeffrey Steele: Country is becoming a lifestyle genre like a pair of Levi’s, Wranglers or the cooking channel. When I came to town with my rock n roll-influenced, country stories (with way too many words), everybody laughed. But I met guys like Anthony Smith, Craig Wiseman, Al Anderson and Tony Mullins. We were all on the same page and just did what we did. My stew was the rock n roll music I listened to in the ’70s and ’80s mixed with the stories I got from Haggard, Cash and Kristofferson. I had been playing all these songs in bars and it stirred up the mix of what I would write when I got here. For a while I tried chasing what was on the radio and even got a few songs cut. But eventually I realized I needed to see just how far I could stretch it.
NEKST: Does “old school” apply to writer demos?
Jeffrey Steele: We are picking up guitars and strumming G chords just like the old days but we’re also programming tracks, writing on the spot and cutting the whole track live. It’s whatever the song needs. If we are strumming along and think, “Man let’s get a beat going to inspire us for the next verse,” then it comes to life. It’s cool to see the younger guys find their own solutions and adapt.
NEKST: What is your 2Min With JS video series?
Jeffrey Steele: I’ve spoken at songwriter festivals for years which evolved into a four-day boot camp where we brought in 12 writers. They’d go with me to whatever I had booked. If I was in the studio, going to a No. 1 party or a writing session, they’d see it all. It was awesome at first, but became difficult to keep doing. My daughter Casey, Dir. of A&R, got the idea to upload short videos to YouTube where I talk about the biz. The response has been good. We just filmed about 20 new ones.
NEKST: Is this a good time to start a small publishing company?
Jeffrey Steele: It’s never not a good time. In a world where everything is getting pinched, copyright still has value. Yes, it’s harder to get a song cut, sales are down and people say, “There’s no money in the music business anymore.” They say, “You have to give everything away for free.” But that money is still out there. Craig Wiseman figured out where it was. He signed a couple of writers that he believed in and stuck with them and his idea of what he was trying to do. Writers like Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins have just blown up and taken over. And then he found Florida Georgia Line and stuck with them. When I arrived in Nashville I had 4 or 5 hit songs, but to the writing community it was like, go to the back of the line ‘bro and work your way through, show us what you’ve got. Today some writers get here and after two years they’re complaining, “Nobody likes my stuff.” Listen, you may have to stay here for 5 or 7 years before anybody turns their head and looks at you. Two years??? Do you understand the kind of talent sitting here in this town. They are just waiting for you to leave. So leave if you don’t believe.
NEKST: What about film and sync strategies?
Darrell Franklin: We’re building those departments as we speak and adding our own in-house admin.
Jeffrey Steele: When we talked to people about partnering up, their sales pitch often was, “We have film and TV wrapped up.” But they rarely defined anything, it was almost like a catchphrase. I’ve developed lots of sync contacts on the power of a few hit songs so why not explore and expand those contacts ourselves?
Darrell Franklin: Carla Wallace at Big Yellow Dog is an example of a small publishing company with a massive presence in that world. You have to be on the scene and form relationships, just like pitching songs in Nashville.
NEKST: Will you hire someone to run your new admin division?
Jeffrey Steele: It’s in the works. We have seven writers now so it makes sense to bring admin in house. Plus we’ll be able to have eye contact with the computer to see what does and doesn’t have activity. We can also offer the service to indie labels and writers who aren’t with major publishing companies, but mostly it’s about doing it ourselves to have control over it.
NEKST: Record labels are perspiring in the new digital economy causing publishers to take artist development in house. Are you involved in this?
Jeffrey Steele: We are producing two writer artists. The plan is to create the buzz ourselves and let the labels come in on the back end instead of the more traditional model.
Darrell Franklin: Publishers are taking a more aggressive A&R role to give labels more confidence before signing an artist.
Jeffrey Steele: The traditional label deal doesn’t always give you a chance to experiment, but building a fan base first often allows more creative space. Labels are about matching demographics with tempo driven, positive lyrics that radio will embrace. But every so often an act arrives and says, “We are going to figure it out ourselves and we might fail.” But you love people who aren’t afraid to fall on their face cause often that’s where you find success.
NEKST: How has the new economy changed writer prospects?
Darrell Franklin: It’s almost wiped out the middle class. You are either the beginner guy, writing songs and still working a job, or you are at the top.
Jeffrey Steele: Those mid-level guys sometimes had only five or six career hits or one huge song that broke the bank, but they often influenced everyone else and were crucial to the health of the industry. I worry that our uniquely Nashville writing community is starting to adopt more of a factory attitude where one guy does the beat, another the chorus and they all get a paycheck, while one guy owns the tune. Thankfully, we’re aren’t there yet.
NEKST: What about getting the single?
Jeffrey Steele: I came at the most blessed time of this industry. It was the beginning of the end of days as we knew it, but we still had a system and you could do very well. You could get a song on an album–not a single–and make a big chunk of money on a big record. Recoup your writer advance. Today everyone needs the single. So what does that mean? The overview is it dumbs down the music because people keep pushing themselves to write something more clever than the last single. Everything is getting squished down to where you almost need a hook right in the first bar. So there’s less opportunity for creative evolvement of songs that maybe would never be a single, but were cool nonetheless.