NEW YORK — Frances W. Preston, who worked her way up from a radio-station mailroom to become one of the most influential figures in the music business, died June 13 at her home in Nashville. She was 83.
Her death, from congestive heart failure, was announced by BMI, the music licensing organization of which she was a past president and chief executive.
BMI, whose formal name is Broadcast Music Inc., is one of the country’s three principal performing-rights organizations (the others are its chief rival, ASCAP, and the smaller SESAC). Such organizations secure royalties for composers, lyricists, and music publishers.
Ms. Preston, who was BMI’s president and chief executive from 1986 to 2004, helped usher performing rights across the electronic threshold. Although groups like BMI have long licensed their artists’ work to radio stations and television shows, and to the makers of films and commercials, they must now also concern themselves with downloads, streaming, and other electronic delivery systems.
‘‘New technology should be exciting for the songwriter, because it’s a tremendous amount of exposure in so many different ways,’’ Ms. Preston told the Associated Press in 2002. ‘‘But it’s been very frustrating because their rights are being diluted.’’
Ms. Preston, who spent nearly half a century with BMI, saw her mission as impressing on Congress, consumers, and the diverse array of enterprises that offer music — including bars, funeral parlors, and the purveyors of ring tones — the idea that a song is a piece of intellectual property for which money must be paid.
Her testimony before Congress was widely credited with helping ensure the passage of the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992, which extended protection for many works originally copyrighted in the 1960s and ’70s.
On Ms. Preston’s retirement in 2004, Variety called her ‘‘the highest-ranking woman in the music industry.’’
During Ms. Preston’s years at the helm of BMI, the stable of artists and publishers whose work it handled grew to more than 300,000, from 84,000, and the number of musical compositions it represented grew to more than 4.5 million, from 1.5 million.
Today, BMI represents more than half a million composers, lyricists, and publishers — including Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez — and more than 7.5 million works.
Frances Loree Williams was born in Nashville in 1928. She graduated from the George Peabody College for Teachers there and planned to embark on a teaching career.
Needing a summer job to tide her over, she wound up in the mailroom of the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. The company owned WSM in Nashville, the AM radio station that broadcast the Grand Ole Opry.
At the station, her duties included answering fan mail for Hank Williams. Before long, she was spending her lunch hour as the host of a daily show about fashion that was broadcast on WSM-TV.
In 1958, BMI hired Ms. Preston to establish its Nashville office. There, with her bristling Rolodex, she helped foster the careers of many artists who became marquee names. Among them were country musicians like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash and — because her purview extended well beyond Nashville — those in other genres, including Barry Manilow and Isaac Hayes.
‘‘She was really the conduit into the machinery for so many of these people,’’ Del Bryant, BMI’s president and chief executive, said Monday.
‘‘Whoever they needed to know — whether it was a publisher, a producer, a banker, someone who was good at dressing stars — she always was there to help them make the next step in any direction.’’
In 1985, on being named BMI’s senior vice president for performing rights, Ms. Preston moved to its headquarters in New York.
Ms. Preston’s marriage to E.J. Preston ended in divorce. She leaves three sons, Kirk, David, and Donald; six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In the Internet age, consumers’ ability to distill free music from the ether expanded exponentially, and Ms. Preston, mindful of protecting her artists’ copyrights, was keenly aware of that.
‘‘Music is the killer app of the Web,’’ she told Variety in 2000. ‘‘College students who wouldn’t dream of stealing a CD from a store are busy downloading in their dorm rooms.’’