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Interview with Music Producer Tony Brown

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On The Music Beat
An Inside Look At Nashville's Country Music Movers & Shakers

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Featuring: Tony Brown
Producer
By Frances and Harry Date - Song Matchmakers Network


Tony was the original pianist and founding member of Southern Gospel group Dixie Melody Boys. He joined J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet in 1965. Brown also played piano for Elvis Presley. He toured with the TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band for much of Presley's final two years and was a part of the 1976 "Jungle Room" recording sessions at Graceland. In 1979, he joined Emmylou Harris's backing band, the Hot Band, taking over for former Presley sideman Glen D. Hardin. Brown stayed with Harris until 1981. Later, he became a session musician in Nashville and toured with acts such as Rosanne Cash.

Brown then became a producer, producing albums for several artists. He was also the president of MCA Nashville in the 1990s. Among these acts were Tracy Byrd, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, The Mavericks, McBride & the Ride, Reba McEntire, Rodney Crowell, and George Strait. In the 1980s, he was also the keyboardist for The Cherry Bombs, Crowell's backing band.

In 2002, Brown exited his position at MCA and co-founded Universal South Records, which merged with Show Dog Music in 2009 to become Show Dog-Universal Music.

He has produced records for Joe Ely, Vince Gill, Jimmy Buffett, Nanci Griffith, Patty Loveless, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Sarah Evans, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna, and others. Brown was named as one of the most powerful people in entertainment by Entertainment Weekly.


1.    SMN: Your career has taken you down quite a path. You were a gospel piano player at age 13, toured as a musician with Stamps Quartet, The Blackwoods, The Oak Ridge Boys, Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris. As part of the Cherry Bombs you played with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell.  You were also in the publishing business, a song plugger, A&R director at RCA, and President of MCA Records and Show Dog-Universal Music .  How has that background helped you to become a producer?

TB: I was a producer For MCA and was there for 18 years. I was hired by Jimmy Bowen to be the head of A&R when he left Warner Brothers and took over MCA.  I think being a musician gave me an insight on how to deal with an artist and the players on a session from the musicians’ point of view as opposed to being, as musicians call it, a “suit.“ They don’t like to deal with the “suits;” they want to deal with other musicians . When I spoke to the musicians on a recording session for an album, I think they looked at me as a musician who had an important job. I could relate to them better than a person who hadn't been a musician because I've been on the road and have seen that side of it. 

I never really made it as a session player, even though I played on a lot of hit records. It was usually with artists that used their own band, like Emmylou Harris, Elvis, and Rosanne. I use session players who do it for a living, and they’re just the best.  And to be able to pull the best out of them, I always felt that I had an edge over a producer who wasn’t a musician because I can tell when a musician is being a diva. They can do that you know.  I think my experience on the road as a  musician helps me as a producer.

2.    SMN: You’ve won Billboard’s top country producer honor seven times. When you’re producing a record, how do you capture the magic?


TB: It’s learning the difference between mediocre and great. Did you see the movie Amadeus?  Remember that speech they had about mediocrity?  You sort of learn when it's happening and when it's not. You could be with the best musicians and a famous artist, and nothing will happen. The chemistry isn’t right between the musicians, the artist, and the engineer. There could be one person who’s throwing the whole thing off . I've known when it wasn't happening and I just shut it down and say, “we’ll try again tomorrow guys.”  In my mind I sort of had pinpointed the one individual, in the rhythm section, the engineer, whoever was bad for the moment, and I’d figure out a way to diplomatically remove that person from the process the next day without embarrassing them.

The other thing is, when you making records and you’re working with musicians, you never want to embarrass someone if they choke on you. It's best not to embarrass them and say, “Get out of here,” because all the other musicians will not like you for that. The art of diplomacy is so important when making records because you can have “nobodies” in the studio and cut a great record, just because it's magic. Then you can have the best players, the best engineers in the best studio with a famous artist, and it just doesn't happen, for whatever reason.  It's an intangible thing. And once you learn that, as Kenny Rogers said, “Know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Know when to walk away and know when to run!” (Laughter)  That's why records cost so much money sometimes, because of a lot of indecision from the artist or the producer. “ I don’t know, I'm not sure.” So you cut the same song for three days and spend all this money on all the studio time, the engineer’s cost, and the musician’s cost.  After the third day the artist decides it was the first cut on the first day that they like, and it was all because of the artist. It really is the artist’s record, not the producer’s record. So if the artist doesn't buy into it, you sort of have to go with the artist until you finally have to say, “We’re running out of money here if we don’t stop.” It's really a challenge to make a record that's good that doesn't cost a fortune, and that's the hardest part about making records: coming in under budget. Many times, for whatever reason, you know you’re going over-budget, and when you do that in the record industry these days, it’s so expensive that you have to go back in and do a re-forecast with business affairs. You can't just spend more money on the record than you’ve got . You can go back in and ask for more money, but that usually involves the artist's business manager and business affairs at the record label, and everybody wants to know why it’s costing more money . And usually when it costs more money, we’re not talking $1,000; we’re talking easily 10’s and 20’s or $30,000. A real mess-up can cause a record to get very, very expensive.

3.    SMN: You were a key figure in the development and signing of Alabama to RCA, the most successful band in the history of country music. What do you look for when choosing an artist to produce?


TB: I didn’t produce Alabama; I wish I had. I signed Alabama to RCA. I resigned two weeks later to go on the road with the Cherry Bombs. Had I stayed I would've gotten the A&R incentive. As an A&R person, when you sign an act you get the participation in the royalties from the records, which is called the A&R incentive.  But I resigned for two years and went on the road. I had no idea they would get so huge, probably the biggest country group in the history of country music.  When I finally decided the road was sort of a dead things for me, I decided to go back to RCA and got rehired because of my signing of Alabama.

You  look for an artist who has that “thing,” that magic thing, that intangible thing.  You could hear someone like Vince, who is one of the greatest singers and greatest guitar players. He was with the Cherry Bombs as the guitar player when I met him.  He made records but had never sold many records. So I signed him to RCA. Then I went to MCA. He stayed and cut records at RCA that never did  that well. Then I signed him to MCA.  The first record we cut was When I Call Your  Name, which won single of the year and song of the year and turned him into a superstar.

You look for someone like that, someone who’s so good that you go, “Why isn’t this guy having big hits”? It’s harder than you think. When you see someone like Lyle Lovett, a great songwriter, a little quirky, a little left of center, you see that when he walks in the room all the heads turn.  He has that charisma that's undeniable. He wasn't mainstream but we did three records together and he still had a gold album that we cut together without lots of radio airplay .So with Lyle it was just the undeniable presence of a real talent that I hoped would get played on radio, but didn't . But with Vince Gill it was, “Why isn't this guy being playing on radio and why isn’t he selling lots of records?,” and we pulled it off . After the first album, we cut many, many hits and sold 30 million records with Vince on 10 albums . So it's both things: a presence and talent. 

Sometimes you go, “This has to be heard,” like Wynonna going solo from the Judds. I was the lucky one who got to produce her first album after she left the Judds. I told a friend of mine who's a songwriter, “Oh, man,  this is really a lot of pressure.”  He said, “You know, Tony, I don’t think even you can screw this up; she’s too good.” (laughter) Our first album sold 6 million records and was a great, great album.  So it's a lot of pressure, but good pressure. A lot of great moments are actually fueled by fear. Fear is a great motivator. If you're around talented people, you just go with it.

4.    SMN: Who hires the producer and who pays him?


TB: The producer gets paid by the artist. When the artist signs a record contract, he gets points, which is called a “percentage point of retail.” A new artist in Nashville usually gets between 13 and 15 points.  When you become a superstar, like George Strait, Reba, or Tim McGraw, you get into the 19 and 20 point range. Twenty points of retail for a big act is about two dollars a record.  So out of those 13 to 20 points, you give the producer anywhere from three to five points. So if you're paying a producer five points and you have a 13 point deal as an artist, subtract five from thirteen and you (the artist) get the rest.

In pop music, it gets even bigger.  They get bigger points. And usually, as a producer, you charge so much per side, meaning if you get four points, you charge $4,000 a side and four points. That $4,000 a side is an advance against the money that you will make when the record sells platinum. So when the record goes platinum and recoups all the money you spent on it, they deduct the $4,000 you got up front per side from your check as a producer on a record that sold platinum . And if you got four points, you’d probably make about $250,000. So you get a check for $210,000 because you got the $40,000 in advance. Most records don’t recoup.  So many times the only money a producer can make is their advance. But if you are producing the kind of records that Buddy Canon, Byron Gallimore, and Mark Bright are doing right now, they’re getting big paychecks.

Recording artists get checks every quarter with their royalty statements. Producers get royalty statements twice a year, first quarter and fourth quarter. A recording artist has to recoup the recording costs of the record, and usually they have to recoup 50% of the video cost.  Sometimes, if they have a tour to support, they have to recoup that before they get paid. So recording artists can be $1 million in the hole even if their album costs $200.000 to record . They have to recoup $1 million before they get paid a dime for the record. That's why everybody in this town thinks a brand new artist with a big hit is getting rich, but they're actually digging out of the hole they got buried in.

The producer gets paid after the recording production costs are recouped. As a producer, after the record recouped $200,000, I get paid. The producer doesn't have to pay or recoup the video cost, or tour support, and all that stuff . That's because the producer is only responsible for the recording costs. That’s why when a record goes over budget, if it’s the artist’s fault, the producer has to try to rein the artist in. But if it’s the producers fault, the artist can actually blame it on the producer and maybe even penalize him for that. But if the artist is causing the overrun, the producer has to do his best, in a very diplomatic way, to reign in the artist. That’s why I always say the reason records cost so much is because of indecision. “What do you  think; I don’t know, what do you think? Oh no, I can’t decide" - as the clock ticks.

The recording studios in town, like Starstruck, all average around $2,000 a day for a lockout. If you get something you can use, you pay $2,000 a day. If you don't get anything, you still pay $2,000 a day. There are a lot of great engineers in this town. A good one makes from $900 to $1,500 a day, and you pay them whether you get anything or not. The second engineer, who does all the busy work for the first engineer, gets paid $200-$300 a day, and you haven't even struck a note yet. Most great musicians are double scale. If the session is three hours, by the time you pay their pension and welfare and stuff, it comes to around $1,500 for three hours. If you go 15 minutes over, you’re okay, but if you go 16 minutes, you're into overtime.

Now the unions are there for the musicians, so as a producer, I honor that, because I'm part owner of a label. I'm responsible to abide by the AF of M rules. But there are those out there who will go 30 minutes overtime and say, “Ah, come on guys, do me a favor.” All it takes is one guy to go to the union and say you were going 30 minutes overtime and they need the money. So he turns in the producer, and the producer has to pay it. So when you go in the studio, the old saying time is money is so true. And if the studio doesn’t have the equipment or software you’re used to using, you have to rent it. And the costs keep adding up. It's the job of a producer to think about that.

So if the artist wants to cut at Criterion in Miami, we have to pay the air fares, rental cars, separate hotel rooms for each musician.  I did a record down in Key West with George Strait. I’ve cut maybe fourteen of his albums, and he’s so fast. He wanted to cut in Key West and take the rhythm section down with us. We had to drive all the gear down there and put that truck driver up in a hotel. So when I looked at the costs, I said, “My God, this record cost twice as much as he’s ever spent. When the label asked me why, I had to say, “George Strait, the biggest artist on your label, deserves to do what he wants to do. He wanted to cut in Key West, and that's the reason.” It wasn't like we were throwing money out the window, because before I did that I went to George Strait’s manager and said, “You know, we can do this, but it's going to cost a lot more than we usually spend.” George and Erv Woolsey said, “Let’s do it; I think it’s worth it.” And they were right. It ended up being a great idea; we cut the best record on George I think we'd cut in 10 years.

They invested in themselves. There are those artists who would do something like that for the cache of it: “Let's go to the Bahamas where all those rock 'n roll bands recorded. Let’s go to Compass Point; Crosby, Stills, and Nash recorded there. Why can’t we record there.” So I have to say, “Well, you can, but it’s going to cost a lot of extra money. Does your budget allow it?” In the case of George Strait, he can afford to do that if he wants to, but for new artists the budgets are much smaller, around $200,000 or maybe $150,000, or maybe even a hundred thousand. So you have to say, “We can’t do that because we can’t afford it.  Sell a few million records and then we can go cut in England or France if you want to.” In rock 'n roll and pop, the  budgets are much bigger and the publicity department will make a big deal about it, but in country music we just don't  use those liberties because it's money wasted, in my opinion.

5.    SMN: There’s a story about a music business veteran advising a new artist. His advice was, “Cut the best songs you can find, even if they were written by your worst enemy.”

TB:
Absolutely!  If the best song you’ve found for your record is written by that person, and  you love the song, you have to swallow your pride and do the best songs you can. As Jimmy Bowen used to say, “You’ve got to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer!”

6.    SMN: How do you look for songs for your artists?

TB
: You know, it depends on the artist. Some artists write the majority of their tunes, but they still do outside tunes. Any songs that they don't write are considered outside tunes. In the case of George Strait, he does look for songs. For the artist that writes, I listen to all the material, and if we’re missing the ballad or that great single or something, you just go looking elsewhere with their blessing. In the case of George Strait, he and I, over a period of a year, will listen to thousands of songs. People are sending songs to his manager and people are sending songs to me. I always tell people that they should always cover the manager and A&R person, as well as the producer. That way your songs will have a better chance of finding their  way to the artist.

7.    SMN: Who listens to songs that are mailed in or dropped off?


TB
: I try to listen to as many as I can, as you can see by the number of CDs on my desk. These are the ones that I've narrowed it down to. My desk is always completely covered with CDs. I always ask writers and publishers who know my taste (and I know their tastes) to send songs to me. What I do is, after going through a thousand songs for George Strait and narrowing it down to 50, I'll make myself a comp set of CDs, spread the fifty over three CDs. I stick them in my car in my six-CD player and live with them on the way to work and back. That's how I decide if I like those songs, if they hold up for me. Sometimes I think, “You know, I don't like this anymore,” and I take it off the comp. It’s sort of a process; everybody has their own little formula.  But being at a record company and dealing with the things you have to deal with, the business part of the job, takes time away from the creative part. I don’t have as much time to listen to songs as an independent producer. His life is only that. But as you see, I do listen to a lot of  songs.

8.    SMN: How much influence does “who wrote the song” have on you?

TB: It doesn't have any influence on me. It may have an influence when someone says, “Do you have time to listen to a song of Craig Wiseman’s.” I’ll say, “Sure, bring it over.“ (laughter) But after I play it, it doesn't make me like it.  I either like it or I don't.

9.    SMN: How many songs are put on hold for an average project?


TB: I don't know. In the case of George, we’re so thankful that people still love having a George Strait cut.  He’s an iconic artist . So over a period of a year, we’ll probably hold 150 to 200 songs. As it gets close to the project, pluggers, songwriters, and publishers want to know, “What's the status of my song that you’ve had for three months.” They’ll tell me that Chesney's cutting next week and so is McGraw. “They heard the song and they like it,  so are you going to cut it, or do you want to keep holding it or not.

For an artist like Strait, you may hold up to 150 to 200 songs during the course of a year.  You try to weed them  out as soon as possible so the writers can have other opportunities to get them cut. There’s a song called Better Rain, one of my favorite songs, that we had on hold, and George never responded to it. So I had to e-mail him and say, “What about this song?” He said, “I don’t remember that; you can let it go if you want to.” I said, “Are you sure?” Then about two weeks later I got a call from George asking about that song; he said that he had just misplaced it and asked if we could still have it, and luckily, we got it back. I never let on to George that we almost lost it.

10.    SMN: Who determines which songs will be singles?


TB
: Usually the biggest votes come from the artist, producer, and the head of A&R.  But in every label there is a committee. There's the person in artist development and all the guys in promotion who heard the record and said,  “You’ve gotta put this one out,” and usually I’ll say, “I'll get to that one eventually, maybe the third single.” They'll say, “No, it should be the first single.”  As an A&R person and an artist, I know George always knows what he wants. He doesn't always get his way, but he sure fights for it. 

11.    SMN: You’ve contributed your production expertise to Hollywood soundtracks in Thelma and Louise, Pure Country, Eight Seconds, The Horse Whisperer, Honeymoon In Vegas, and Indecent Proposal. Are there any other sound track projects on the horizon?


TB: Soundtracks are-not as in vogue as they were ten years ago. You don’t see many soundtracks that sell; there was Titanic and Beverly Hills Cop, but now you don’t see many soundtracks climbing their way up the charts. But I think that cycle may come back.

12.    SMN: Have you accomplished all of the goals you set for yourself, or are there still mountains to climb?

TB: I saw an interview with Gwynth Paltrow where she said, “Everybody says, ‘Why are you having babies when you’re such an iconic big star, and you married this rock 'n roll guy; are you like giving up on your career?’” She then said, “I’ve accomplished everything I set out to accomplish and even more, and right now this is what I want to accomplish, to be a mom.”

I don’t think about giving up on my career; this is the next part of my life, the next journey. Ashley Judd, who’s always been a close friend of mine because of Wynonna and Naomi, she was always so passionate about becoming a movie star. She’d be around when we were cutting records and was always on the phone with agents and stuff, and I’d go, “You know Ashley, I bet you’ll make it, because your so into it.” Of course she did make it. She got huge, and then I noticed in the last couple years that I haven't seen much of Ashley.  I saw in an interview, I think in Vanity Fair this month, where they were talking about the ten “it” people for movies and  TV, and  they picked her as the movie person. They talked about how she fought he way from independent films to those  blockbusters, Double Jeopardy, Someone Like You, De-Lovely, A Time To Kill, and then she drifted off the radar just a bit . She said in this article, “I’ve been on a new journey in my life, one where I lost my ambition, and I don't grieve about it.” She was so ambitious; she’d be at your house for dinner and her phone would ring; she’d be off  in another room, yelling at her agent. And I’d go, “Gosh, she’s obsessed about  becoming a movie star.” But she made it and became one. Everything she wanted to become, she became. That line really stuck with me though, “I lost my ambition and I don't grieve over it.”

But I think about what's next for me, what do I want to do? I know I want to maintain my lifestyle because I have a lifestyle that works, and I have to make a certain amount of money to maintain my house and take the vacations I want to take. So what do I do to maintain my lifestyle without prostituting myself?  I’m at those crossroads in my life .What will fill my soul? I don’t ever want to feel like I’m giving something up or retiring. I just want to move into a different segment, sort of what Gwynth Paltrow did. Although movie stars make so much money, when they decide to pull back for a couple years, they have $200 million in the bank, so they can afford to chill! I'm really thankful for all the things I've done. I feel lucky and I feel thankful for all of the above, and I have maintained a lot a great friendships. So I'm actually still mulling that over, what I want to do next.

SMN: Thanks you so much Tony for sharing your thoughts with us today.


Writers’ Note:    This interview was originally written in July, 2006.
It was updated in May of 2013.


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Frances and Harry Date are Song Matchmakers Network – a boutique one stop music publisher, music licensing, and production company.  Have a question you’d like us to ask or a person you’d like us to interview? Send them to SongMatchmakersquestions@gmail.com
For more information about us, see our website SongMatchmakersNetwork.com.

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