Frances W. Preston, a Nashville native who went to work for Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) at the age of twenty-one, serves now as that enterprise’s worldwide president and CEO. While still a teenager Preston joined WSM as a receptionist, and within five years she had landed an informal arrangement with BMI. By 1958 she had earned the title of southern area manager for BMI and office space in Life and Casualty Tower.
Founded by a group of leading radio executives in 1940, BMI is a music performing rights organization that collects and distributes license fees on behalf of more than 120,000 songwriters and more than 60,000 music publishers with a repertoire of over three million works in all areas of music. Preston’s endeavors on behalf of country music songwriters and publishers brought their work protection for the first time, and with it came an emerging awareness and acknowledgment of legitimacy on the part of the larger music world of the 1950s and 1960s. Preston’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 indicates the country music industry’s view of her important role in its success over the previous thirty-five years.
While Preston is known to musicians, songwriters, and publishers as their champion, she has also provided a role model for women who would enter the business end of the music industry. In the twenty years following her elevation to vice-president at BMI (a promotion that in 1965 made her Tennessee’s first female corporate executive), she served in the capacity of president of the boards of the Country Music Association, the Country Music Foundation, and the Gospel Music Association. In 1985 Preston became senior vice-president and then president of BMI the next year. She had already been labeled by Esquire in 1982 as “the most influential and powerful person in the country music business,” and in 1987 Fortune included her in that year’s “50 most fascinating business people.” In 1990 Ladies Home Journal ranked her among America’s 50 most powerful women.
Now in her second decade as BMI’s CEO and headquartered in New York, Preston remains energetic and unflagging, both in business and in service projects. She has been instrumental in the establishment and ongoing funding of the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories, a division of the T. J. Martell Foundation that provides monies for research in AIDS, cancer, and leukemia. In 1996 she became the first recipient of the Distinguished Service Award of New York’s Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center.
At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Preston received a National Trustees Award–the highest honor given to nonperformers by the recording academy. In November 1999 she was inducted in the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.
Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (1993)