If You’re Big Star Bound, Let Me Warn You It’s a Long, Hard Ride

Published in City Social magazine, 2004

By Susan D. Mustafa

The marbled lobbies of record companies, sculpted in elegance and lined up like beacons along Music Row, can be quite intimidating to artists fortunate enough to be granted an audience with executives who hold their futures in hands weathered from the fight to stay in business. That audience is the culmination of years of practice and patience and sacrifice, of honing skills in bars and other small venues across America. And the goal is to impress the powers that be—the powers who have seen it all and are not so easily impressed or as willing as before to risk their money on unknowns. In a city where mediocrity represents the minority and talent represents the norm, they must be shown something unique, something so special that they cannot afford to say no.

It’s called the “IT” factor—that illusive something that must be present to make it in the music industry today. The problem is that no one can really define IT. IT is a whole package—a combination of raw talent, stage presence, charisma, stamina, persistence, patience, and the list goes on. But only the lucky few who have IT ever make it in on Music Row. There are those like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride who go the distance, and others who persevere, finding their way to modest success. Others turn to song writing or management or producing, while still others return home, their dreams locked in their hearts and despair lingering in their eyes—the result of watching their hopes turn to dust. But in today’s music climate, modest success is no longer good enough, nor is being talented or entertaining. Today, in order to get a record deal, to climb the charts, to succeed, you simply must have IT.

“We can’t afford to sign someone who can succeed a little bitty bit. If we can’t see that person as Artist of the Year, then there’s no deal.” said Tim DuBois, co-owner of Universal South record label. “It costs us about $1 million to play the game, to bring an artist from the signing to the top of the charts, and there’s no guarantee of success. Less than one in 20 acts will ever pay you back.”

Once upon a time, Tim was one of the hopefuls—an accountant who had aspirations to become a songwriter. He, too, packed up his dreams and moved to Nashville. Through hard work, persistence, and a little luck, Tim broke through with three No. 1 songs in the early ’80s, and in 1991 took home Song of the Year honors with a tune that was recorded by Vince Gill, “When I Call Your Name.” He also worked as a producer and manager before being invited to run Arista Nashville for Clive Davis.
Considered by most in Nashville to be a visionary, Tim is the man responsible for bringing Brooks and Dunn together. Alan Jackson, Restless Heart, Lee Roy Parnell, and more recently Joe Nichols are just a few more of the artists whose careers were touched by Tim’s vision. And at a time when record labels are shutting down, consolidating, and otherwise facing hard times, Tim teamed up with Tony Brown and negotiated a deal with Universal Records to open Universal South.

While Tim is among the unique in Nashville, his story has not been without travails of its own.  After much success, Tim moved from Arista to Gaylord Entertainment. “But then the Internet bubble burst and the person that hired me left,” he said. “I was there for seven months. When I left Gaylord, I was going to write or publish. I didn’t want to go to another record label.” But Tim soon found himself at MCA with Tony Brown, who convinced him they should open an artist friendly label where the music comes first. And Universal South was born into a drastically changing industry.

“Everything is changing so quickly, and we are transitioning into uncharted territory. Internet piracy, the emphasis switching from albums to singles, radio demographics, social rites of passage changing—all of these things are drastically affecting the industry,” Tim explained, comfortably wearing the mantle of power and responsibility that comes with his position. “Where before a teenager would collect albums, now a 15-year-old can launch Yahoo and get whatever, whenever. In 2007, it will be different to break a new artist than in 2004. One thing that I’m confident about—it’s gonna change.”

And from the songwriter to the producer to the manager to the artist, the changes are riding the slippery slope. Technologies, ways in which to break up-and-coming artists, and marketing strategies all have to be re-evaluated and revamped. And for those who have been in the business for years, making their livings behind the scenes in second story offices along 16th Avenue, the changes represent challenge, an opportunity to prove that it is still all about the song, about the music that represents the pulse of a country. Take Jeff Silvey, for example, who along with Chip Davis and David Gray recently opened Safehaven Recording, LLC, a recording studio for new writers as well as those already established in the industry. The very name—Safehaven—indicates that writers need a place to go, to learn their craft from the more seasoned, to surround themselves with other talent in an environment where they are encouraged to write and record.

Jeff understands the difficulties of getting a foot in the door. Hailing from a farm in Alexandria, Indiana, Jeff spent his first few years in Nashville working the third shift at a hotel, working construction, doing his laundry next to other song writers. Over his 19 years in the city, he made his mark in the Christian market, writing close to 100 cuts that were recorded by acts like the Gaither Vocal Band and Dectalk. He earned four RIAA certified gold and two platinum albums and in 1996 won the Dove Award for Country Album of the Year for Little Bit of Faith.

As a producer, Jeff’s job is the equivalent of a director of a movie. He picks the songs for a project, decides what instruments are required, and makes sure everything is recorded and mastered properly. “When you’re producing, you have to find out what the artist is about and cater to who the artist is. My job is to enhance who they are,” he said. “Basically, we wrap our arms around the artist and further what they want to say from an artistry standpoint.”

And should an artist possess the IT factor, technology has come a long way toward turning IT into a less time consuming and more marketable product. Engineer at Safehaven, Chris Henning explains: “With our state-of-the-art computer system, we are able to convert an analog signal into a digital representation of that signal. I can see the transient wave form and just by its appearance, I know what to do. Where it used to be a razor blade or tape on an analog, I can now cut and paste. The beauty of this is that if my drummer has no timing, I can cut his performance, scoot it to the appropriate grid, and now my drummer is in time. You can achieve the perfect performance, but you have to be careful because you can overuse the tool.”

While the ways to perfect a song through the recording process have progressed, songwriting essentially remains the same. It still has to come from the heart, and though there are rules and formulas, verses, bridges, and choruses, the song still stems from life and feelings, love and loss. Even through the commercialization that threatens to take away the heart of country music, the well-written song somehow manages to triumph over and over. Dan Tyler, owner of independent label, Intuit Records, is a man who knows all about songwriting. This attorney turned song writer has logged hit after hit from “Bobby Sue” by the Oakridge Boys to “Modern Day Romance” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to “Light in Your Eyes” by LeAnn Rimes. But as Dan can attest, this business is not easy, and change is definitely in the air.

“The record business is going through a transitional stage.  The scope is so large that even the smartest people in the industry don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “There is music everywhere, but not a dollar to be made. We have to get back to making music so compelling that people will want to pay a fair price for it. But after the dust settles, I’m optimistic. I can envision a time when one performance of a song on television will result in a million viewers going to the Internet to purchase it. We’re just not there yet. The record companies are not making money because they haven’t found the paradigm.”

Shane Teeters, veteran Nashville songwriter whose songs once sold 11 million records in a three-year span, is not so optimistic when it comes to the future of song writers in Nashville. “In the ’90s, pitch lists were distributed to artists, pitch lists that were the life lines of songwriters,” he said. “Those lists used to be two-and-a-half pages. Now they are maybe three-quarters of a page. I used to think I won the lottery because writing music is the greatest blessing I’ve ever experienced. Now I’m taking a real long sabbatical. I’m not quitting. I’ve just always had a good instinct about when to step in and out of the dance.”

David Vincent Williams was also ready to step out of the dance, to go back home. He was tired of trying, tired of waiting for that one hit song that can turn it all around. David bought his plane ticket home, then sat down with Phillip White and wrote a song about his feelings called “I’m Moving On”—a song picked up by Rascal Flatts, who took it to No. 1. David stayed in Nashville. “I framed that plane ticket and hung it on my wall,” he laughed.

And while the songwriters are the genesis and the artists the end result, it’s the managers who are charged with spotting the talent, making the deals, creating IT. And now IT has to be something extraordinary. Steve Goetzman, partner to Mike Kinnamon at Music Central Management, has certainly experienced IT in his day. As the long-time drummer of the band, Exile, whose pop smash hit “Kiss You All Over” dominated the charts in 1978, Steve has seen the music business from every angle—from pop to country, from musician to manager. Exile turned to country when economics forced the crossover, and the band racked up 10 No. 1 country hits in a row in the ’80s. Now Steve spends his days searching for and managing those he feels can separate themselves from the crowd. And he’s not doing too badly with Steve Wariner and Eric Heatherly among his credits.

“Any artist we sign has to have a depth of talent. They have to have passion in their soul,” said Steve. “It’s the IT factor—maybe an average voice but a great entertainer. It’s that something that is undeniable. But the music always leads. Even great artists need good songs. There is no magic formula. It’s the songs. It’s always about the songs.”

Yes, change is in the air on Music Row, and it’s affecting everyone and everything—from that first word penned on a page to the future Shanias to heads of labels like Tim DuBois. But as long as there are believers willing to take the ride that is Nashville, stars will be born and songs will continue to flow from Music Row, albeit no one really knows in what format just yet…

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