The president of the music licensing organization for 18 years — and a mainstay in the group’s championing the rights of songwriters for over six decades — was also a pioneering female business executive whose work in Nashville led to the city’s rise in prominence in the music industry.
Music industry pioneer Frances Williams Preston died today of congestive heart failure at her home in Nashville. She was 83. Preston served as president-CEO of Broadcast Music Inc. from 1986 until 2004.
A commanding executive with a peerless combination of business savvy and steadying grace, Preston had a great influence on many facets of the music industry. The Nashville native nurtured the careers of thousands of songwriters, performers and publishers in all musical genres during her career at BMI, which spanned six decades.
Hired in 1958 to open a Southern regional office for BMI in Nashville, Preston was appointed vice president in 1964 — reportedly, the first woman corporate executive in Tennessee, and the first fulltime performing rights organization representative in the South. She elevated the region’s abundant creative culture and helped build an economic infrastructure to support and connect art and industry.
As a result, BMI’s vital base of operations in Nashville helped pave the way for the city’s future as the most important center for professional songwriting in the world. In 1985, she rose to senior vice president, performing rights, then was named president-CEO the following year.
During her tenure as New York-based president-CEO, Preston successfully led the efforts to build BMI’s repertoire into the most popular and diverse music catalog in the world. Royalty payments increased steadily to BMI’s writer and publisher members, with revenues ultimately tripling under her leadership. Recognized around the world as a vigilant defender of the rights of music creators, for three years upon retiring she consulted BMI on the company’s international relationships and its public policy agenda.
NAB Joint Board Chairman Paul Karpowicz said of Preston: “Frances Preston was a great friend to the broadcast community during her nearly two decades as president and CEO of BMI. She was a person of substance, grace and humanity, and her unwavering support for songwriters will be her legacy. We join our music industry friends in mourning the loss of this truly one-of-a-kind woman.”
Kris Kristofferson dubbed Preston the “songwriter’s guardian angel” and Fortune magazine called her “one of the true powerhouses of the pop music business,” descriptions earned through her tireless advocacy for creators’ rights. She became a powerful force in Washington, D.C., where she testified on the behalf of songwriters and played an instrumental role in several key initiatives, including the Copyright Amendments Act of 1992, which extended copyright protection to older compositions. She was also a leading supporter of the decision to extend the copyright term to life of the composer plus 70 years.
Preston served as a member of the Panama Canal Study Committee as well as on the commission for the White House Record Library during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, and in 1995 and 1996, served as a member of Vice President Al Gore’s National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council.
The digital age dawned during Preston’s time as BMI chief, ushering in dramatic changes in the music industry. Preston struck a balance between boldly embracing new technology and recognizing the threats posed to creators, diligently fighting to protect the rights of songwriters and music publishers. She oversaw the development and launch of BMI.com in 1994 — one of the music’s industry’s first websites — and led BMI into a new era.
Born in Nashville on Aug. 27, 1928, Frances Williams began her career as a receptionist at WSM, Nashville’s iconic radio station. She rose quickly through the station’s ranks, eventually hosting her own fashion show on air.
Over the years, Preston has received top awards from both the creative and business communities, including broadcasters, reflecting her role as a bridge between music and the diverse businesses that use it. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and later became a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.
In 1998, she received a National Trustees Award from the Recording Academy (the highest Grammy prize for a non-performer), MIDEM’s Person of the Year accolade in 1999 (the highest international award accorded to a music industry executive), the National Association of Broadcasters’ Education Foundation Guardian Award in 2005, Leadership Music’s Dale Franklin Award in 2007, and the Nashville Songwriter Foundation’s Mentor Award in 2010.
Last year, the Library of American Broadcasting named her to its Giants of Broadcasting honoree ranks, and BMI rechristened the BMI Country Song of the Year the BMI Frances W. Preston Award.
Preston was the first non-performing woman invited to join New York’s Friar’s Club and in 1993, she became the first woman appointed to its board of directors. That same year, she received the Friar’s Applause Award for Lifetime Achievement.
A humanitarian and longtime community volunteer, Preston championed many causes, and became especially active in her role as president of the T. J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research, the music industry’s largest charity. She is the namesake of the Frances Williams Preston Research Laboratories at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.
She has twice received a Humanitarian Award from the International Achievement in Arts Awards in New York, in 1995 and 1997. In 1996, she received the first Distinguished Service Award from New York’s Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center, and the Lester Sill Humanitarian Award presented at the Retinitis Pigmentosa International Awards in Beverly Hills. Preston was also honored in 1996 by the Entertainment and Music Industries Division of the UJA-Federation with a gala “Toast to Frances” luncheon held in New York.
Preston is survived by her three sons, Kirk, David and Donald, as well as six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Funeral arrangements are pending.