Music rights organization BMI has been a part of SXSW since its inception, becoming the first national music entity to sponsor the conference. The face – and personality – of BMI at SXSW has been Jody Williams, 59, who said BMI reps “started taking up South by Southwest to their music industry colleagues” after that first year. “We also helped get the word out to bands to submit to play.”
BMI, which currently represents 650,000 songwriters and publishers, had actually been sponsoring a yearly A&R/publishing panel in Austin for singer-songwriters before SXSW. But after ’87 they stopped doing their own event and put their resources into SXSW. “Jody deserves a lot of credit for getting us some traction in the music business,” says Roland Swenson of SXSW.
Williams has watched the conference evolve from a regional showcase of roots bands and singer-songwriters, coming from as far away as Nashville, to the international tour de force it’s become in recent years.
“Probably the first great act I saw at South by Southwest was the Wagoneers,” says Williams, who was born and raised in Nashville. “Their first set [at SXSW ‘88] was pure magic.” That band never achieved the heights predicted, but singer Monte Warden went on to pen several hits as a BMI writer.
Williams has been at BMI Nashville since 1976 when, as a 20-year-old college dropout, he stood in the office of the legendary BMI head Frances Preston and asked for a job. It wasn’t like Williams just showed up out of nowhere, though. His father, uncle and grandfather owned flour company Martha White Foods, a longtime sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry and immortalized by a theme song performed by Flatt & Scruggs. Williams had a Shaq-sized foot in the door. But that will get you only so far. Williams discovered that he had a passion for representing songwriters and quickly moved up the ranks at the company.
In 2006, almost 30 years to the day since Jody interviewed for that entry level position, he got Preston’s old job, vice-president BMI Nashville. His office used to be hers, so he sits on the other side of the desk from where he once nervously shuffled.
But Williams wasn’t always at BMI. There was about a 12-year stretch when he set out on his own in the publishing business, reorganizing MCA Music Publishing in the mid-‘90s before forming Jody Williams Music, a joint publishing house with Sony Tree in ‘99. Williams’ catalogue became especially valuable when his writer Liz Rose landed 10 co-writes on the first two Taylor Swift albums. “They’d come to the office and write together,” Williams recalls. “Taylor Swift was 15 years old and you could already see she was something special.” Williams sold his publishing business to Ole Music Publishing in 2008.
Jody and Karen, his wife of 36 years (they met when she was a receptionist at BMI), have two sons who are also in the music business. Driver, 33, plays guitar in Eric Church’s band and Ed, 29, is creative manager at Sony ATV Music Publishing. “When Driver said he wanted to be a musician, my response was ‘Go for it!’” says Williams, who played Vox organ in fifth grade garage band The Feudal System, and then became enamored with bluegrass in high school. “I have a desk job, one I love,” Williams continues. “But when I was young all I ever wanted to do was go on the road with a band.”
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Jody Williams photo courtesy of BMI