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Interview with JOHN DOTSON, manager for Confederate Railroad (US Platinum), Steve Earle, Ricky Van Shelton - Sep 20, 2002

“One of the most important things that you can do as a manager is to bring hits to the project”

picture John Dotson owns Nashville-based 422 Management and currently manages Confederate Railroad (US platinum). He has previously managed Ricky Van Shelton (US platinum), Steve Earle (US gold), Carlene Carter, Joy Lynn White, and Jamie Hartford.

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

My dad was a recording artist and had a deal with Warner Brothers in the mid-70s and because of this, my family moved to Nashville when I was fourteen. It didn't work out for him, but I became immersed in the music business.

Clarence Selman was my dad’s manager, and I was really intrigued by what he did for a living. Over the years, he and I talked about what it took to be a manager, and the most valuable advice he gave me was this: “If you want to be a manager, it will be your job to direct the function of all those people that are part of the career support team. If you've walked in their shoes, they’re going to be a lot more willing to follow you.”

So I consciously set about putting his advice into practice, in order to become a manager. In the interim, I worked as a tour manager, as an agent for the William Morris Agency, and for record companies CBS, RCA, and Arista, until 1989, when I went into the management business, with Carlene Carter as my first client.

What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a manager?

Having had hands-on experience in a variety of areas. I was a tour and national publicist at CBS Records, and then I went to RCA where, in addition to being a publicist, I did product management. At Arista Nashville, I worked with promotion, publicity, retail and artist relations, which was very valuable.

My time as a tour manager was very important. A tour manager lives the artist’s life every day and understands what the artist goes through. The music business is a wheel and artists are the hubs of that wheel. To understand what their life is about, what's important to them, and how to communicate with them is incredibly valuable.

Who are you managing now?

Confederate Railroad. I also have a couple of artists in development, and one of them is close to signing a deal.

How do you find new talent?

I’m pretty proactive in terms of getting out and about and there are lots of showcases in Nashville. I also have a number of people who bring artists to me, including lawyers, producers, agents and record labels.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

In order to discover somebody’s potential as an artist, you have to. If you don’t you shut yourself out. But I have to be careful about the avenue through which it comes and build in safeguards. If it’s from a source I know, then I know they understand how the process works. Unfortunately, the scariest part can be receiving material directly from a writer. What constitutes copyright infringement is a much more subjective judgement than it may appear on the surface, and it may not be as clear cut to somebody who has written a song that has something, whether it be the title, some of the lyrics or a melodic section that is similar to those in a hit song.

Nevertheless, there are weeks when I go through just five or ten new songs, and then there are weeks when I go through a hundred, usually when I’m in the process of helping make a record.

I’m very involved in the A&R process, because I think that one of the most important things that you can do as a manager is to bring hits to projects. If you haven't got any hits, it doesn’t matter how good the plan or the team is - it isn't going to happen. I’ve seen artists with not-so-great managers and no plan whatsoever have huge hits and become successful, and then I’ve seen the opposite, where brilliant people with great plans went nowhere because they didn’t have any hit songs.

What do you look for in an artist?

A look in their eyes that tells me they see the world in an entirely different manner. That they create mirrors that they hold up to society, which reflect back what they see in their own way. Originality in their sound, music, and their point of view. Tenacity, persistence, and commitment. Whether they have a clear vision of themselves and an idea of who and what they are, and whether they are sufficiently committed to that vision to hold onto it when everybody is telling them that they’re nuts and that none of it is going to work.

It's also very important that they do what they say they'll do. If I call a president of a record company and tell him to get out here and sign an artist before somebody else does, and then, on the day of the gig, the act either doesn’t show up or does a bad job, it costs me what I call political capital. The next time I call this guy and say, “Hey, I’ve got something I believe in”, he’ll say, “Yeah, you believed in the last thing too.”

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

To get your career going, it’s absolutely crucial that you’re based here. This is a publisher/songwriter-driven community and whether you’re Shannon Brown or Garth Brooks, there’s this one collective, creative river that you drink from, which is the publishing community. Garth Brooks writes very few of the songs he records, and he depends on the same professional songwriting core that everybody else does.

If you're not here, you don't get familiar with that community and that community doesn’t get familiar with you. You might not meet those people who you could write with and who might help you become a better artist, and you don’t run into A&R people in informal settings and have a conversation over a beer that you would never have in their office.

The second part is being aware of the level of competition, and what the record labels and the publishing companies are looking for. If you’re outside Nashville and just read the press and listen to the radio, you get a very distilled and narrow view of what Nashville is really about. There’s a lot of breadth to the community, but you don’t realize that if you aren’t here and part of it.

Having said that, there are some benefits to not living here once you’ve reached a certain point. I think it can help you stay focused and balanced once you have heat and a bunch of people telling you what they think you should do.

Do you work with the artist’s image?

Yes, I do. When I was at CBS in the late 70’s, we were among the first to hire media coaches for artists. I continue to believe in the core idea behind that move: that if somebody has something to say, then they’re going to serve everybody better if they are trained in how to get their point of view across most effectively, depending on the media they’re dealing with.

But it has since been used as a means of manipulation, primarily by record companies who want to keep the message nice, happy and antiseptic. What happens is that the artist says, “I think this and this and this”, and the media coach says, “You don’t want to say that, and here’s why.” But maybe that is their reality. At the same time, I know how much a one-sentence quote can obscure a much bigger point. There may be a way to say the same thing so it stands out without totally obscuring the Big Picture. Then another point to make with the artist is; “You can say that if you like but be prepared for the fallout. You may be answering to it for a long time to come.”

As an example, when I managed Steve Earle, at one point in an interview a writer asked him what he thought of Shania Twain, and he said, “I think she’s the world‘s highest paid lap dancer.” We all laughed, but three years later, when she won the CMA Entertainer of the Year, she said something to the effect of; “I guess I’m more than a highly paid dancer.” It had really gotten under her skin. Plus you wouldn’t believe the number of times after that that the media didn’t want to talk about Steve’s new album, but only about why he hated Shania Twain.

It can suck, but at the same time, if you use it right, it can make you stand out.

Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?

No, I don’t think they are nearly knowledgeable enough, and I think it’s unfortunate. There are three major delusions:

1. Money and fame are not going to solve any problems you’ve got, but, as a matter of fact, they’re going to make them ten times worse and create a hundred new problems you couldn’t even have imagined.

2. There’s an inverse relationship between success and happiness.

3. You may be an incredible artist, but that’s only 40% of it. The other 60% is going to be the amount of energy that you put into it. It is mostly hard work, persistence, and tenacity.

As a manager, do you work on development strategies for your artists?

Absolutely. I’m a big believer in a plan, not just; “Let’s see what happens and groove on the vibes”, so to speak. I write down the plan and it’s a map. You’re moving towards an objective proactively and you’re not just reacting to what’s coming to you. It starts with answering the big questions, like who the artist is and what he/she stands for. If you answer the big questions at the beginning, it answers the thousand little questions that will arise later, and thus makes many decisions much easier.

When you've done that, you design a plan that has steps, and even if an opportunity comes along much earlier than expected, you think, “This is what we were hoping for, but we’re not ready for it. What makes us ready for it is to work through the ten steps we’ve got here. We’re at step 5 now, this is step 9, and we need to do this and this beforehand, so that, when we reach step 9, we have a firm foundation.”

If you take a step too soon, you could very well blow the chance and not be able to step up to the platform you were shooting for. You might later come back and actually have all those things in place that would have made it possible, but then it’s much harder to get on that platform and in many cases you don’t get a second chance.

A focused plan galvanizes a sense of purpose and unites people in a mission, which is really important, because as artists become successful, they’ll have what a former boss of mine used to call "a lot of wet tongues in their ears.” There are lots of people; agents, publicists, attorneys, etc, telling the artists what they should do, and it can get very confusing for them.

Once signed to you, do you support an artist financially so that he or she can focus on the music?

It depends on the artist and on my financial circumstances at a given time, but there’s a danger in doing that. The predominant mentality is that once you get into the music business, you stop your day-to-day work, but I think it’s important to stay in touch with the reality of having to work. You can also become the one that gets them into a situation where they're so deep in debt that either they don’t see a way out and give up, or by the time it happens the only way you can survive with them is by saying, “You know, all that money you owe me? Never mind.”

Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break (or get dropped) decreased in recent decades?

I would say as a matter of fact it has increased, and it’s driven by two things. The first part is that, and this is unique to the country music business in the US, the time that singles last at radio has doubled. Up until three years ago it was conceivable that the release cycle could accommodate 3-4 singles in a year, but now you’re lucky to get two out. So, if you’re going to have four singles off an album, instead of dealing with the album for 12 or 18 months, labels are now dealing with them from 24 to 30 months.

The other thing is that labels are now spending more time with the artist in order to get the publishing and writer community familiar with the artist. They're devoting more time to finding the right songs and developing the artist as a writer too. So the increase in time has come on the front end before a record is released.

How do you explain the current rise of new independent record labels in Nashville?

There’s a level of frustration here that is palpable. It takes so long for anything to reach the light of day, and it costs so much now to go to market with a new artist. The average cost for a label to make an album and deliver the first single to the market is $1 million, and if anything happens it’s easily going to be $2 million.

Major labels only commit to the artists that they feel have a chance to recover that amount of money, which, by that definition, are pretty mainstream artists. They miss out on the chance to experiment with an artist who, at this moment in time, does not appear to be that mainstream, but, if given an opportunity, might find an audience and redefine mainstream.

The independent labels offer artists who are not candidates for Pepsodent commercials an outlet and an opportunity to find their audience, in a way that doesn’t cost a million dollars.

Do these independent labels offer artists a real alternative to major labels?

Yes, they do. Some focus on unknown singer/songwriters, others on really unique artists who aren’t unknown, but who haven’t found a place in the mainstream world. Then there are a group of labels who focus on artists that are probably past their prime at radio and retail, but still have strong name recognition and an audience who wants to buy their product, even if it’s not as big as it used to be. Major labels cannot afford to be interested in any of those artists in a meaningful way.

How involved with the repertoire and production are you?

I’m very involved, but the focus of my involvement does depend on whether the artist is on a major or an indie label. A smaller, independent label will need me to be deeply involved, almost to the point of directing the A&R process, because, generally, the understanding is that you will be able to put your record together without a lot of hand-holding and structure from the label.

Major labels, on the other hand, have a strong desire to direct and control the process, but if they perceive you as somebody with the ability to find hit songs, then you have a place at the table in the A&R process. With my background, having found hits for artists in the past and having spent three years running a publishing company, I’ve got credibility and a profile in the creative community that earns me my place at the table.

What do you think about the radio situation in the US?

It’s the single largest challenge we face. When they deregulated the radio industry and allowed for this level of consolidation to happen, they placed the decisions of many stations in very few hands. I think consumers are just beginning to realize that they are the losers in terms of their access to entertainment, diversity, and value. I’ve been to panels where programmers from the Clear Channel chain have said; “Music is somewhere about 7th or 8th on my list. Keeping my job is No.1, producing more revenue is No.2, 3 and 4.”

Congress should re-examine what the effects of the 1996 de-regulation act were. I don’t believe that they couldn’t envision that deregulation would lead to corporate consolidations, but I don’t think that anybody envisioned a Clear Channel, that anybody would go out and acquire as many stations as quickly as they did.

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

I do think it’s fair, but what I don’t agree with is that, after the artist has “paid” for them, they end up with no ownership of the masters and the videos. They become a royalty participant in them but not an equity stakeholder, which goes against traditional American economic philosophies.

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

There’s not a blanket answer to that. Having been on both sides of the fence, I’m really clear about the fact that, in a good year, only 10% of all released albums recoup, and only 3 to 5% are successful. Record companies have to have a profit source and the amount of money they make from that source just to survive has to be on the unfair side, given the enormous failure rate.

Beyond the question of royalties from successful acts funding artist development for breaking acts, is the use of the label’s political capital from those successful acts. I constantly remind artists I work with that, in the beginning, they’re riding the coat tails of other artists. You’re going to get to sing at Wal-Mart because the record label said to them, “If you don’t take him, you won’t get this other guy.” Down the road, the same thing will be done to you. When you go into Wal-Mart, they’ll say to you, “O, man, they wouldn’t let us have you unless we took these three other turkeys we’ve never heard of, ” and it will piss you off. But just remember the same thing was done for you when you needed it.

Having said that, there’s a point at which it’s enough. If you have a triple platinum record, you’ve paid your dues. One of the things that deserves further examination is the number of records that can be contractually obligated from the start. Something in the range of 3-4 albums is fairer. One of the things I always laugh about is when a new artist gets a deal and says, “I just got a seven-album deal!” Then I say, “No, you haven't, you've got a one-record deal. They have you for seven records.” It would be good if record companies committed to something more equitable.

I also think that when artists first negotiate their deal, if they sell a million records the royalties should increase significantly and not just by half a point every half million units.

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

If I were a record company, I would start offering singles deals with the understanding that the Internet would basically drive the whole thing. We’d put up four or five tracks on our site, we’d put money into getting media attention, and the whole thing would be designed to drive people to the web site where they could hear more of the artist’s music and learn more about them. If they like what they hear, they can buy it, but here’s the deal: we give away the first single for free but in such a way that they can’t burn it to a disk. Hopefully, instead, they will tell their friends, “If you want this, go to this web site.” When they buy the next two things, we’re going to give them the third one free. So, of the first four things they get from you, we’re going to give away two.

In this type of process, things are done incrementally and it lets the success drive it, as opposed to investing all the money upfront. What you might find is that you have four tracks, of which three are pretty similar to each other but one is really different, and 80% of your downloads come from that one really different thing, so that’s where you need to go musically with the subsequent tracks.

In this way, you find out so much more quickly what the market is really interested in. If you have invested 75% in stuff nobody in the audience cares about, but you still have resources available to give life to something they do care about, you still have energy, and you feel like you’ve discovered something which is going to be a very powerful emotional motivator for you and the people you work with.

Many times you believe strongly in a particular direction and invest everything you’ve got in it only to see it go down in flames. Then you have no more chances - you’re done and depressed. If you could put a little variety out there in a way that held resources in reserve to capitalize on what ends up really working, if it isn’t what you thought was going to work, then you live to fight a fight that can be won instead of going down with a ship that really never had a chance.

You’d be surprised how many times the pro’s sure fire pick hit is a dud and the last thing anyone expected to work is a career record. This structure gives you a chance to experiment and still have resources to chase the actual hit.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

“Trashy Women” becoming a hit for Confederate Railroad. That song was only on the album as a consolation prize to Danny Shirley (lead vocalist/guitarist). There was another song that the label had really twisted his arm to record, that he didn’t like, but he was a real trooper about it, sang it really well and didn’t complain. So, when Danny and I asked if “Trashy Women” could be on the record, the head of the label said, “OK, because you were so good about this other track, but I want a promise from you two guys that you won’t ever come into my office and ask for it to be a single.”

We never did. I talked him into doing a dance mix, and I talked him into servicing the dance mix a little more broadly than he would normally do to the dance clubs. I knew there were a lot of radio DJs working the dance sets, although I didn’t know at the time how many there were. The DJs took it back to their stations and started playing it. There’s no feeling in this business like the first four or five weeks you start something and it turns into something incredibly successful! Talk about a magic carpet ride, it took 72 weeks for the album to go from 0 to 500,000 units, but it only took seven weeks to go from 500,000 to a million. It’s now over 3 million units and “Trashy Women” was the fourth most performed country song on the radio of the 90’s.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

I believe that, at the end of the day, whilst everything changes, what will never change is that there are artists that people are interested in, and those artists are creative assets who need deals made for them, need attention, need money collected, need to be looked out for, and that’s where all this diverse experience I have will come in handy.

The record business has created a very homogeneous corporate culture. People tend to spend their whole career at a record company, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for them to change their process. It’s hard for them to break out and see another way of doing things when that’s all they’ve ever done. That’s one of the things that will be forced upon us all by the Internet; the need to think in a more geometric fashion, and if you’re able to do that, there will be a lot of opportunities to create new models.

If you communicate with, understand and appreciate the artist, can help them achieve their dream and end up with a lot of money and respect for what they’ve achieved, then you’ve done a tremendous service to them. And that’s my mission.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman