Interview - Jun 2, 2003
“Artists should have a clear sense of why they're doing what they're doing long before they ask for record labels’ attention.”Based in Nashville, Johnny Dorris Jr. manages the country duo Montgomery Gentry (US platinum). Here he talks about what aspiring artists need to consider before trying to get a record deal and why the current country format excludes some artists from a successful career.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?
I'm a second-generation manager. My father has been in the music business for thirty-five years, but I never anticipated being in the business. I was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and I subsequently served in the army as an aide to a general. After that I worked in a local bank and completed my finance and accounting education. At that point my father's management business, Hallmark Direction Company, had grown to have multiple artists and needed more workers, so I made the transition from banking to artist management. I was initially the road manager and the day-to-day contact for several baby acts, from which I gained experience. I did that for four years and then we developed an act called Montgomery Gentry, for which I became the full-time manager in 1998.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as a manager?
My understanding of finance and business, coupled with my military experience in helping people accomplish their objectives while maintaining schedules. Also, having grown up in the business, I was familiar with the environment and the accompanying lifestyle.
This is a business and everything has to be weighed from a cost-benefit standpoint, not just from what somebody's wishes are. It’s about dealing with those realities and especially the realities record labels present to us. My understanding of how corporate America works helps me explain things to my clients and advise them on how they should respond to this business climate.
In the army, I worked for a highly volatile personality who had very high expectations, which I learned to meet. I also learned to maintain a calm demeanor and not become emotional when things aren't going smoothly. For the artist, this is their career, this is what's most important in their life, so they have high expectations and run on an emotional roller coaster at times. My steadiness helps them to deal with the ups and downs of their career.
What do you think of the current country scene?
I think we're in a great period. The hit-makers of the early nineties are kind of going off into the sunset and it's a great opportunity for new artists to emerge. There's a broader tolerance for more than just pleasant pop country sounds and the door is open to artists who innovate a little bit, maybe not in an extreme fashion, but certainly there is a broader scope now than in the late nineties when things were pretty uniformed and homogeneous. Record companies are starting to come out of that tentative shell and are taking more creative risks with their signings.
What are the pros and cons of the fact that such a large part of the country music industry is located in Nashville?
It is customary for country music songs to be written by professional songwriters and we have a great core of professional songwriters that choose to live and write here. Some country artists are also writers, but most rely on outside compositions to complete their albums. The fact that this writing community exists here is very important. We also have great producers and label A&R folks who work hard to find the right matches to meet the style and ability of the artists. Nashville studio musicians are also highly respected in musician circles.
How important is it for an aspiring country artist to be based in Nashville?
It's important. Nashville isn't just a bridge to getting your songs recorded, it's a real community that you need to come and be a part of. All my clients are Nashville-based. None of them are Nashville-born, but they have all come here to pursue their dreams.
Who do you currently manage?
Montgomery Gentry (Columbia), Jeff Bates (RCA), Susan Ashton (Capitol) and Brad Wolf (Warner Bros.).
How did you first learn about Montgomery Gentry?
Eddie Montgomery is brother to John Michael Montgomery, a former client of Hallmark Direction Company. Troy Lee Gentry was a musician who played in bands with Eddie and John Michael. We knew of their ability from shows with John Michael. At one point, Eddie earned a degree of notoriety among talent buyers by singing at sound checks in John Michael’s place.
What did you see in them that made you want to work with them?
This was 1997-98, and the male country scene was getting a bit wimpy. Eddie and Troy came in like a cyclone, they were energetic on stage, really in your face, and I liked their energy. I had grown up being a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels, kind of southern rock bands, and these guys were reminiscent of that with their energy and enthusiasm and twin guitars. I liked that aspect of their performing and the fact that they just weren't politically correct. Nashville had become so politically correct it needed refreshing. I knew that uniqueness and freshness would make a difference.
What happened after you had signed them?
Once we had agreed to work together, a four-song demo was recorded at our small recording studio. The songs were forgettable, but they captured their vocal style and prowess. The demo was pitched to Sony Music Nashville President, Allen Butler, by a former Hallmark Direction Co. associate, Estill Sowards. John Dorris Sr. also pitched the demo to the head of Sony A&R, Blake Chancey. Blake agreed to go to Lexington, KY to watch the boys perform at a local bar. He then had them come to Nashville to showcase for the Sony staff. After that, Anthony Martin, Director of A&R at Sony Nashville, was instrumental in fine-tuning the band and creating an extremely tight unit.
What were the most important factors in the breaking of Montgomery Gentry?
Montgomery Gentry offered a raw, masculine sound that had been absent from the radio for some time and the attitude of the music also carried over to their live performance. They received immediate attention from the industry because of their music and once people learnt that the guys were legitimate, they embraced their fun approach to the business. Their honesty was refreshing; they were unpredictable and entertaining. Promoters, headliners, and CMT all wanted them on their stage.
Montgomery Gentry finally got signed when they were in their early thirties. At that point, they already had fifteen years club experience. That in-your-face bravado and good-time attitude was their nature, and it was just a matter of timing before Nashville was willing to be untidy again. As much as they were doing their thing, they probably weren't expecting that a sound like theirs would ever become popular in Nashville again, but it did. They did it less by plan and more by default.
When they came to Nashville for photo shoots, they were quick to say no to things that didn't feel right, and when it came to media training it was pretty brief for them because the label was content to say, "OK, you're unconventional, just be yourself." They didn't try to clean up the rough edges, because that was their beauty.
How do you find new talent?
I worked with Montgomery Gentry exclusively for four years, giving them my undivided attention and getting them to this level of success, where they're platinum artists and a well-known touring act. I was asked along the way to work with other people but I wasn't interested. However, in 2002, Jeff Bates' producer, Kenny Beard, who's also a songwriter and whom I've known for a number of years, came to me and said, "I got Jeff a deal at RCA, and I'd like you to meet him with a view to managing him." It was that friendship with Kenny Beard that led me to Jeff.
I met Brad Wolf courtesy of Karen L. Karan, my co-manager for both Brad and Susan Ashton. A songwriter with whom Karen worked suggested that she go see Brad perform.
Susan Ashton was interested in talking to new management candidates, and her business manager also represents Montgomery Gentry. In all three cases, it was because of relationships.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
What do you look for in an artist?
Originality, believability, strength of character, and a heartfelt connection.
What are the most important factors of a demo?
Firstly, the lyrics must be credible. Everything has to be consistent with the artist's style and image, and the story, theme or message has to make sense coming out of the artist’s mouth. Secondly, is it something that has been said before? Or is it a fresh approach to an old idea? If it's already been done before, we're not going to break new ground. Musically, the melody has got to be pleasing. The fan of country music likes sing-along choruses and the audience likes to get in there and be part of it.
How important is it that your artists also write their own material?
I don't have a preference. Jeff Bates and Brad Wolf have co-written their entire albums, while Montgomery Gentry have only written a couple of songs on their three albums. You can find great outside material and artists don't necessarily have to co-write, although the artists who do write and use their own experiences and stories have an advantage because they're singing about their own emotions, so it's very authentic.
How common is it to put artists through media training classes and vocal coaching?
Media training is quite common, even if it's just advice on how to present yourself, not just to the media but to the public. It's not artificial; it's just a case of learning how to put your best foot forward when speaking in public. Vocal lessons are much less common.
How can artists increase their chances of building a successful career?
They should have a very clear sense of who they are and what they want to convey artistically. They should not come to Nashville or to any music center and hope to be molded into something, because they have a much greater chance of success if they know who they are at the core. Then they need to make consistent choices when it comes to their repertoire, their appearance, how they carry themselves, and how they're photographed and filmed. All of it has to be consistent with their message because each and every artist has to answer the question, "Why do you matter?"
Do you support newly signed artists financially so that they can focus on the music?
If the record label is committed to the artist that they've signed, then they will take care of the basics, which means helping with tour support, equipment, wardrobe and other things that are part of artist development. Artists also often have publishing deals, which provide them with some income to live on. In general, we don't invest significant amounts of money in the development of an artist. We're fortunate enough to work with artists who are already signed, so we have not had to get them exposure and a record deal, but if we were the primary backers of somebody's early development, we would spend some dollars. I would encourage artists in development to keep working at their day job, whether it’s steady or temporary. It's not a good habit to try and get a free ride.
How much input do you usually have on the songs?
In the cases of Jeff and Brad, who co-wrote their albums, I only had a limited amount of input. In the case of Montgomery Gentry, where they take in outside material, I'm very involved in the song selection by looking for songs for them and helping them to narrow down the choices. Because I've worked for them for five years, I know very well what shoe fits them.
How involved are you with the production?
We advise and counsel the artists about every aspect of their business, and the most important thing they do is record music. I try to be heavily involved in what kind of music they're going to record, and I help to ensure that they do their best work while recording, particularly the vocals. I also make sure that the albums they record are representative of who they are, that they're consistent with their image and are as entertaining as possible. I'm not a songwriter or a producer, so there is only so much advice I can give, but I share my impressions as a fan and I try to envisage how fans might respond.
If you record the wrong album, you might be the greatest singer in the world but you're dead in the water. And what you record becomes the basis for your live show, so you need to record music that is consistent with your performing ability and that might be entertaining live. You’ve got to make sure that you can reproduce that sound at a concert so that the fans aren't disappointed. It all needs to fit together.
What is your view on the current rise of new independent record labels in Nashville?
Dual Tone, for example, who were successful with David Ball (formerly signed to Warner – Ed.), took a familiar voice, recorded a great song and the song created a demand for the product. In the case of Craig Morgan, who was on Atlantic Records, he had been introduced to radio and had had little success. When he moved to Broken Bow Records, he had a Top 15 hit, which is unusual for an independent label, but then they've done it with a great country song.
The key is the right talent with a great song. There's a great deal of pressure: success is hard to maintain because great songs are hard to come by, and independent labels have to prove themselves to a higher degree than major labels, who have lots of money to back their promotions, advertising and so forth. The challenge is great, but Kenny Rogers met that challenge on his return a couple of years ago. Of course, he's a legendary voice and person, but his return to radio was made possible by a great song, and it was the song that overcame the odds.
Do independent labels offer artists a genuine alternative to major labels?
They do, especially in more eclectic circles, because major labels might not want to take a chance on something that's seen as a little bit different, and independent labels provide good opportunities for unique talent. If your goal is to be Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, or just mainstream success in general, an independent label is not going to have the resources to promote and advertise you to enable you to reach that degree of familiarity.
However, if you're just interested in making your own brand of music and you need the label to act as a distribution channel or you need support for touring, alternative airplay, or any other kind of exposure, then an independent label is a good option.
Are record labels demanding that artists be much more developed than they used to be?
Yes, wannabe artists have to refine themselves to a higher degree now. I'm not in favor of people starting too young. Nashville tends to favor young, good-looking artists, but twenty-two-year-olds have limited life experience. I don't think there's any rush: aspiring artists should experience life and happiness and hurt, which are the things they'll be singing about, so that they're emotionally and mentally prepared.
Artists should have a clear sense of why they're doing what they're doing and what their message is long before they go to a record label and ask for attention. Take the Capitol artist Cyndi Thomson: she had immediate success, but she wasn't prepared for what she encountered. And the question is how could a twenty-four-year-old, thrown to the lions, possibly be ready? Artist development is not only about how or what you sing, it's also about why you're singing it.
What do you think of US radio?
In Nashville, we still believe that great music will push through. It is hard though, because radio stations have been explicit about the fact that they're programming for a thirty-five to fifty-four-year-old female audience. So what is Nashville doing? It's trying to provide artists for that segment. There's an incentive for labels to sign things that will work on radio, which is our primary promotion tool, so things that don't necessarily sell to that demographic sector might not be successful or might not even get signed, because record companies are in this business to sell records.
The general situation is that radio conglomerates have decided to cater to males with talk and classic radio, to take care of young people with pop and AC radio, etc. They have neatly divided up all the demographic sectors according to genre, and country radio has been designated to thirty-five to fifty-four-year-old female listeners. As long as a chain has listeners in each demographic, they're fine with that. They don't have any incentive to make their country station more male-friendly, because they already have men listening to their talk or classic rock station. They're not interested in trying to move that male listener from one place to another because it would disrupt their advertising. Radio is very segmented and it's not going to change.
Should record labels recoup the costs of making videos and albums from artists’ royalties?
It’s fair, because artists also benefit from tools like videos and radio promotion when they become more popular and there is an increase in demand for their live performances, which record labels don't benefit from. Although recoupable costs are frequently so high that artists don't make a significant amount of money from their record company contract, they ultimately benefit by virtue of their popularity and their ability to attract people to their concerts. Also, if they write their own material they benefit from the income that publishing generates.
Should artists also share ownership of the masters?
That would be ideal. But the reality is that the record company takes a risk on a commodity that has not yet proven to be profitable. When Sony signed the Dixie Chicks, they had been in town for eight years and other people had passed on them. There was no guarantee, but the record company took the risk and invested the money, and they were rewarded with great success. We can now say that it was because they were talented, but had the record company not invested literally millions of dollars, would we care what Natalie (band member – Ed.) has to say today?
Should Kenny Rogers own his masters with Dreamcatcher? Sure, because he's not relying on a record company to create him from the ground up and make a significant investment in setting up the infrastructure to support him. Should more senior artists, when they re-negotiate deals, have co-ownership of masters? Probably so, but early on the reality is that we're asking a record company to be lend us money for something that has not yet proven to be profitable.
What aspect of the music industry would you most like to change?
I would diversify radio formatting. Within rock and pop, there are a number of charts and channels that cater for different types of music, but country music has one. One size fits all, which means that everything has to go through a certain portal, leaving a lot of stuff by the wayside because it's too eclectic or too this or that. It gets lost in the surge of people trying to penetrate radio. I wish we had other channels, whether Americana, alternative country, or even traditional, and I wish we had a greater tolerance for a broader type of music and for a broader array of artists.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
There have been two. One was Montgomery Gentry winning the 2000 CMA Duo of the Year award. That was a fulfillment of the vision and effort on everybody's part, not just mine. The second was recently, when Montgomery Gentry played in their hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, for the first time since they had become a national act. Eddie and Troy's journey came full circle, from playing in the clubs around the university to playing the Rupp Arena to over 19,000 wildly-screaming fans. Also, because they were older than usual when they were signed, they had almost been written off. Nobody could ever have predicted that they would reach the heights that they did that night of their homecoming, and it was very gratifying that they experienced that validation at home.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
I hope to continue gaining experience, and in the future I want to have a hand in all aspects of an artist's career. Given that record labels are the central point in the partnership, I would probably like to become involved in record company management.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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