The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Ben Vaughn is President & CEO of Warner Chappell Music Nashville, where he has spent the last decade overseeing all creative and commercial activities across A&R, administration, business development, finance, and human resources. Vaughn also works with staff songwriters, while actively engaging in songwriter advocacy and rights protection initiatives. The company has been named Country Publisher of the Year at ASCAP eight times, BMI four times and SESAC twice. In 2019, Warner Chappell won the coveted Triple Crown for the first time, sweeping the ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC Awards.
Vaughn was the youngest executive to ever head a major publisher in Nashville when he became EVP and GM of EMI Music Publishing. During his career, he has worked with songwriters who have been honored by the CMA, ACM, Grammy and PROs, collectively winning Songwriter of the Year 19 times and Song of the Year 32 times. His industry honors include being named Billboard‘s 2020 Nashville Executive of the Year, multiple times listed in 40 under 40, Country Aircheck‘s Power 31, and receiving Belmont University’s Music Milestone Award.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a map dot town in Kentucky called Sullivan. It’s about 500 people. It was an awesome place to grow up. My father was a coal miner and a mechanic. My family is very blue collar.
How did you get into music?
When I was 16, I wanted to get a job. I liked country music, so I just went to the local radio station. They played country music, ran all of the high school football and basketball games, and played the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball games. It was called WMSK.
That’s where I got my love and deep knowledge of country music. That place was like a library. At the time, CDs would come in every couple of weeks from Nashville on a service called CDX. I would just devour that. I would look at who wrote the songs, who published the songs, the record label names, the producers… I was fascinated by all of it.
How did you end up moving to Nashville?
I was a good student in high school. I was at the top of my class, the newspaper editor and the school bank president. Most of my friends knew where they wanted to go to college and what they wanted to do, but I didn’t. One night when I was working at the radio station, I was driving home really late because of a late St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. I remember this stretch of road in the back woods in Kentucky. I’m driving and have the windows down, blasting ’90s country music. All of a sudden I just thought, “I want to do this. I love country music and I want to do something around country music.” It wasn’t more evolved than that, but that was my light bulb moment. I found out about Belmont University, which was also a light bulb moment. I was like, “Wow, you can actually go to college to study the music industry?” I had gotten some scholarship offers from some other schools, but I didn’t even visit any other places. I was like, “I want to work in the music business and this is what I need to do. I’m going to go figure it out.” So I moved to Nashville.
I didn’t really know anybody when I moved to Nashville. I was in school for about two weeks and I was told by a professor, Bob Malloy, to look to your left and look to your right. He said, “You will end up working with some of your classmates,” and he was completely right.
How did you get your career started while at Belmont?
There was a paper that you had to do at Belmont where you had to interview someone in the music industry. I found out that I had a middle school computer teacher who had moved to Nashville and had gotten a job as a staff songwriter at Warner Chappell. I called her out of the blue and asked her to help me find someone to interview. She said, “Let me bring you to my publisher.” So she walked me around the Warner Chappell building—the same building we just re-opened this year. I remember meeting Josh Leo, who produced Alabama, and Jeff Stevens. I was totally fan-girling. I had an interview with Kurt Denny, who was one of the publishers there. I walked into the tape room and I just asked, “Can I intern here?” They were like, “Sure!” (Laughs) You’re not supposed to intern as a freshman, so I had to get special permission from Bob, but I got an internship within two weeks of being in town.
Did you know from that point on that you wanted to be a publisher?
I just wanted to work in country music. I didn’t know what that would mean at all. I feel like I got really lucky that my first experience was in music publishing, because what I’ve learned about myself is that I’m one of those left brain and right brain people. I equally love the creative part of publishing as I do the administrative and licensing side of it. They both are fascinating to me—the business side and the creative side. Publishing is where you can marry the two together, so it’s always been really suited for my personality type because I can click in either and be really happy.
What followed your Warner Chappell internship?
I got this opportunity to go to a partner company of Warner Chappell’s called Big Tractor Music. They asked me to come over and intern for them. I was getting ready to start my junior year and they were going to pay me $5.50 an hour. It was a small office of just myself, another person that ran the office, and three writers. The person that was running the company ended up leaving. I had been there about six months and I’d been hustling. I had been pitching songs for the writers, I was driving around trying to find Garth Brooks‘ truck and put cassette tapes on the windshield—I got a cut out of that. (Laughs) I was doing anything possible to try to make something happen for those songwriters. [When the person running the company left], Warner Chappell was trying to figure out who they were going to hire for that position.
The writers were like, “Why don’t you get Ben a shot?” I had just turned 21, which is crazy. Scott Hendricks owned that company at the time and at that point in his career, he was running Capitol Records. He was a really successful producer and was busy, so he called me in his office and basically said, “Listen, the writers really like you. We’ll give you six months to take a shot at this, but if you quit school, I’ll fire you.” I was a junior in college at that moment, and it took me about six and a half years to finish college, but I did it.
Big Tractor was amazing. We became a really successful small publishing company. It afforded me the ability to learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of music publishing, not necessarily just on the creative side, but also on the deal making side, the administration side, and just how it all fits together.
Did you have people doubt you because you were so young?
All the time. I’m 46 now and I’ve had the opportunity to run major publishing companies for almost 14 years, which is crazy. For so long I was always the kid just trying to prove that I could actually be in a room and be heard, compete and contribute. Now it’s flipped where I’m viewed as the mentor, so that’s an interesting feeling.
Age is just a number. It’s really about how much heart and effort you put in it. No matter what it is. I was thrown into the lake and told to swim. I think it’s an awesome way to do it, personally. You can see pretty quickly if someone us going to be able to figure it out or not.
After your work at Big Tractor, you went to EMI Music Publishing where you eventually became the youngest executive to head a major publishing company in Nashville. Tell me about that transition.
I was at Big Tractor for about six years and we had a lot of success. I try to make a lot of my decisions based on education and what I can learn. I was definitely a self-taught publisher at that point. At the time, EMI was losing a couple of their vice presidents. Gary Overton ran EMI for a number of years very successfully. He was a very smart executive, and knew everything about the publishing business. They approached me about joining the company, so I decided to leave Big Tractor based on what I could learn and the platform of the company.
Gary was a wonderful mentor. He was very open and willing to share his knowledge of the business. For me at the time, it was absolutely perfect. I was there for 10 years and ran the creative department for seven of those years. When I was 34, I got the chance to run the company. I was the youngest person to do that, which is nuts. The executives at EMI gave me a lot of trust and I worked really hard to earn that. It was a great experience to be at that company. We helped a lot of songwriters break through that have gone on to become some of the biggest writers and artists in the format.
How did you wind up back at Warner Chappell, all those years later?
There was a big acquisition with all of the EMI companies. The record labels when to Universal and the publishing company went to Sony. I learned a lot during that transition. You could argue that was the biggest seismic shift that has ever happened in this town, in terms of affecting the most amount of people. My part of that story was I wasn’t able to stay with the EMI company. It was not a possibility. I had about six months of a sabbatical and was doing lunches, talking to people, and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I had a few really good opportunities and options, but this Warner Chappell opportunity came up. [Working at Warner Chappell] has really been one of the best things I’ve ever gotten to do in my life. I got to go back to a company where I started as an intern. How cool is that? Some of our administrative folks were there when I was an intern. This year is my tenth year. We’ve grown a lot in 10 years. We’ve been able to be a part of so many people’s stories.
What are some of the best qualities about our industry?
The community, first and foremost. The real celebration of songwriting. That’s so special and it’s, in some ways, very unique to Nashville. I see it getting a little better in some places, but the songwriters here are really celebrated in so many ways and that’s so wonderful.
If someone were to ask you how to be successful in this business, what would you say?
Do well in the little things. Always follow through. I feel like that is a skill that has gotten in short supply in so many ways. Be somebody that does what you say you’re going to do and follow through.