Donna Hilley, a longtime executive in the music publishing business and former Sony/ATV Nashville president and CEO, died Wednesday after an extended illness.
One of the most successful and prominent female executives in country music, she spent 31 years at Sony/ATV Nashville. Hilley was among a group of women, who broke gender barriers in the music business — a group that also included Frances Preston, who died last week.
Hilley was born in Birmingham, Ala., and began her career in the music industry at radio station WKDA, where Jack Stapp, founder of Tree International, was program director. After working at the radio station for eight years, Hilley became the assistant to the president of a Nashville advertising and public relations firm.
In 1978, Hilley was named executive vice president and COO of Tree International. Sony purchased Tree International in 1989, and Hilley, who negotiated the purchase, became president and CEO in 1994. She was instrumental in negotiating more than 60acquisitions including Acuff-Rose, Little Big Town, Maypop, as well as the catalogs of Conway Twitty, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Entertainment Weekly magazine ranked Hilley fourth in its “Ten Most Powerful People in Country Music” in 1992, and Mirabella Magazine named her as one of the “Women We Admire” in 1994. She was named “Woman of the Year” by the Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1978, and in 1984 she was honored as “Lady Executive of the Year” by the National Women’s Executives.
Belmont University’s Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business awarded Hilley with the first Robert E. Mulloy Award of Excellence shortly after her retirement from Sony/ATV Nashville in 2005. She was also a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
“Donna Hilley’s influence on Music Row’s artists and songwriters and on the broader Nashville community could never fully be expressed with words,” said Troy Tomlinson, president and CEO of Sony/ATV Nashville.
“She was an icon in every sense — an inspiring trailblazer for women executives in the music business, a staunch advocate for artists and songwriters and a genuine competitor who was respected, but never underestimated, by her peers. Sony/ATV is forever better because of Donna’s leadership and immeasurable contributions. Our artists, writers and staff grieve today along with her family on the passing of a compassionate leader and great friend.”
Visitation is scheduled for Friday evening at Woodlawn Funeral Home. The funeral service is set for Saturday morning at 11 a.m. at Forrest Hills Baptist Church.