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Interview with CLARENCE SPALDING, manager for Brooks & Dunn (US multi-platinum) - Nov 28, 2002

“There's a difference between a good singer and an artist who brings something extra to the picture”

picture Clarence Spalding and his partner, Bob Titley, manage multi-platinum act Brooks & Dunn, platinum acts Terri Clark and Clay Walker, and gold acts Chely Wright and Kathy Mattea, among others. Clarence Spalding is based in Nashville.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

I'm from a small town in Kentucky and there was lots of music there. I don't play an instrument, but I was drawn to the business of music. I booked bands and managed small acts, but I never realised that you could make a living in the music business.

I booked bands all through college and ended up working for Delta Airlines for a short period of time. Then some friends asked me to run their nightclub and I started booking lots of national acts to play there.

I met people, learned more about the business, and ended up being the tour manager for the group Exile for four years. They were managed by Jim Morey, who took me under his wing and introduced me to lots of people. It was through Jim that I met Stan Moress in Nashville, and Stan gave me a shot at management.

What experiences have helped develop your skills as a manager?

Tour managing really helped me. Working for a great manager, Jim Morey, while on the road, was a fantastic learning experience. When you manage five guys on tour, you also learn a lot about different personalities and how to deal with them, and that's a large part of the management business.

What styles of music do you work with?

I work with all different styles of country music. I enjoy it all and I don't have a particular preference.

How has the country scene developed in recent years?

We had a run from 1991 to 1997/1998 when we were very successful and we saw lots of growth in our format, probably too much growth because it grew too quickly. Every record company in town decided they could have three labels. To expand, you have to have talent not only on the music side, but also on the business side, but it all grew so quickly that we outran our resources. We didn't have enough truly talented acts to fill those slots and we didn’t have enough talented people to choose who was going to fill the slots.

What artists do you manage at the moment?

We manage Brooks & Dunn, Terri Clark, Chely Wright, Clay Walker and Aaron Lines, a new artist on RCA. We have two baby acts on Lyric Street: The Ragsdales, a sister/brother duo, and a young female artist called Nikki Horner. My partner, Bob Titley, and I also manage Kathy Mattea.

How do you find new talent?

I get calls from friends at radio and from publishers and labels here in town, and a great thing about Nashville is that there are lots of showcases. For me to sign something I really have to be passionate about it and I don't care what others think. If I believe in it, then I hope we can sell it.

But even if I’m not passionate about it, it could still be great. I've passed on acts that are multi-platinum, because when I heard them I just didn't get it.

How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?

I get tips on acts on the Internet and via e-mails, but as far as me tapping into a site and listening to somebody's music, I haven't done that yet.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Yes, I do. It's like mining for gold and I don't want to miss an opportunity. I put the CDs in a box and then on the weekend I load up my car's CD-changer and I go. Every now and then I find something I really like; I found a killer writer through a demo, who now has a publishing deal here in town.

As far as signing acts on the basis of a demo, that's exactly how we found The Ragsdales. And I found Nikki Horner, an 18-year-old kid from a small town in Texas, at a club in Texas when she was 13. But I tell you, that was just her mom and dad being persistent, because I had no interest in signing a 13-year-old kid. They kept sending me demos; a pink, a green and a yellow cassette, and I would listen and think, "Gosh, she's really good!" but I just kept thinking I didn’t want to get involved with a kid.

But then she sent me a CD with 6 songs, I listened to it and then asked her to come over. I told her that I would manage her, and if I couldn't get her a deal within three months, she could fire me. So I went to Lyric Street and got her a deal; that was two years ago.

What do you look for in an artist or a band?

I try not to find something that I already have; I'm not interested in another Brooks & Dunn or another Chely Wright. I'm looking for something unique and something I feel I can passionately sell. Then it’s a matter of personalities, whether I'm going to click with them and whether we're going to be on the same road. Do I want to represent them and do they want me to represent them? It's almost like getting married: you really have to look at each other and say, "Is this somebody I truly want to live with for the next five to ten years?"

What do you most frequently find lacking in artists that you hear but do not sign?

They're not being true to themselves. They want to be like someone else or they just don’t have the talent. There's a difference between a good singer and an artist who brings something extra to the picture. There are great singers here in town waiting tables who don't have that little extra, they don't write great songs, they don't have the ear to find great songs, and they don't have that quality that says, “I'm going to do it my way.” They're always thinking, “I want to do it like Garth Brooks”, which is not going to happen.

How important is it for an aspiring country artist to be based in Nashville?

It doesn't really matter. The industry is here, but you can do it from the outside and there are lots of artists who are based in other places. But I think you've got to come here simply to see what the competition is. Many people are big fishes in small ponds, very big in their region, but once they come down here they find that there are 800 others just like them and that they're not as unique as they thought.

What advice would you give to unsigned songwriters?

Just work on your songwriting and don't be afraid. Songwriting is such a personal thing for everybody. It’s not any different from most things you do; the more you do it, the better you get at it. Write with people who have more experience than you do and learn.

Some people say, "I don't write with anybody else", but they come in here and their songs aren't great. I don't know what advice to give to such a person other than for them to go back, continue to write and get somebody to offer some constructive criticism of their songs. It could be a publisher, another songwriter, or an artist. But as an independent you need somebody to offer criticism of your songs.

I also tell everybody not to spend a lot of money on demos. Just make it simple: guitar/vocal, piano/vocal. People in the business who know what they're doing can hear through relatively poor sound quality, but artists still feel they've got to spend $50,000 and they do—on terrible songs. The production might be OK, but they still go in the trash.

Once signed to you, do you support an act financially so that they are able to focus on the music?

To a certain extent, but we work off percentage and 15% of nothing is nothing.

If you agree that major label A&Rs seem to spend less and less time developing artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, how do you think this affects unsigned artists and management companies?

The effect on management companies is that, if we’re passionate about an act, we may sign them to a label and then stub our toe on the first single. Then, in many cases, it’s very hard to get the label to focus on them again. We still believe in the act but it gets harder and harder to sell it to the label. They want to move on. Most labels have acts lined up, ready to go.

All acts are put into a release pattern based on the corporation's quarterly financial reports. Once you stub your toe, you don't get another chance until June and it's really hard to develop an act that way. And also, when the labels are so big and are releasing baby act on top of baby act, they're really not given as good a shot as they used to be.

I don't want to say that we have completely taken over the job of developing artists, but we’ve taken on much more of a bigger role than we used to, and our partners (record labels – Ed.) are not as good as they used to be. There are many great people working at labels here in town, but they're overwhelmed by the amount of acts they have to deal with. Therein lies corporate America.

What are the most important tools when attempting to break a new country artist?

Radio, and I wish it weren't so. You can try to break them on the Internet, to break them grass roots, to break them on the road, but will it work? Every now and then, yes. But most of the money and time you're putting into an act is geared towards getting radio airplay. Radio airplay hopefully drives record sales and drives the artist’s stardom, which translates into live performances. Right now, that’s the deal.

Do the new independent labels offer artists a real alternative to major labels?

I think so. It's an interesting dynamic; some artists come to town and are ready to sell their soul to the devil to get a major record deal. But it's often the worst thing that can happen to an artist, because once they get a deal, it's a matter of what they do with it. If you can find the right independent, it'll help you develop as an act. It slows the pace down a bit and for some artists that’s a great thing, because they need that time.

What do you think about the radio situation when it comes to country music?

It's less about music and more about money. The days of programmer directors being music guys are over. I think these guys got into it for all the right reasons, and now they're caught up in a culture that says, "Not only are you going to provide us with a playlist of only 20 songs, but you're also going to generate money." How do you sit down and figure out the best music for your fan? They depend on consultants who tell them what they should be playing.

When a major label releases a new artist, do you think commercial radio stations are under pressure to play them so as not to jeopardise their relationships with the record label?

I don't think radio stations are really worried about risking their relationships with labels. On the contrary, labels are more worried about risking their relationships with radio. There are lots of artists who just don’t make it. They get one shot, the song enters the chart, hangs around the forties, goes away and you never hear from that artist again. So I don't think radio is under pressure to play anything, except for big artists because the fanbase expects it. But with a new act, the fans don't even know who they are, so there's no pressure coming from the population.

Do you think it's fair that artists pay for promotional costs like videos and the making of the album?

It's all a negotiation. When you first come to town the labels take a huge risk. Do I think they do it right all the time? No, I don't. Is it a fair negotiation? I don't know. You have an artist who really, really wants something and the labels know that. But once you negotiate a deal with a new artist, labels put huge amounts of money into it. $200-250.000 to make the record and then they've got to market and promote it. A lot of this stuff is recoupable, but if you compared the ones who didn't recoup versus the ones who did, there would be more that didn't. As soon as you have a hit record, what's the first thing we want to do? Renegotiate. We've got to get a better deal.

Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?

Probably not, but it all goes back to the risk reward. Most artists start off at 13-14 points, but as soon as they start selling records, we renegotiate. With Brooks & Dunn, as soon as they started selling, we went in and renegotiated, and when we became even more successful, we renegotiated again. In an artist's career, as you're more successful, you renegotiate. So are the royalties adequate? That’s up to each artist to say.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

Two things: I would love labels to sign fewer acts and focus more on those acts, to truly believe in those acts and get back to artist development. And I would love radio to go back to the day when it was about the music, although I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. We're in a big-business, corporate world where it’s all about money, and I don't know if we can ever get away from that. And people who aren't even into the business of music own the companies, like Sony, etc.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

The ten years I’ve had with Brooks & Dunn, two guys whom I consider my best friends in the world. I feel they've made some wonderful music and they've been out there and played great shows for the fans, of which I am one. I don't think there's any greater joy for a manager than to be a huge fan of the act he or she manages. It's hard work, but it's fun.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years' time?

I'll probably still be doing this, because I don't know anything else. I get to come to work every day and be in the business of music and I don't think I could be having any more fun; I just love it! It makes people happy and it makes me happy, so what better job can you have?

interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman