Interview with AUTUMN HOUSE-TALLANT, VP of A&R at Capitol Nashville for Eric Church, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker - Oct 3, 2011
“[Eric Church] is a real anomaly, particularly for country. Normally you would need a massive #1 single to have an album do so well, but instead he’s just worked his ass off for the last five years.”
Suitably for an “outlaw” country artist, Eric Church (US No.1, CAN Top 10) achieved major breakthrough success while rebelling against country music conventions – and even prevailing trends in mainstream music. As a rule country artists break through with the aid of enthusiastic radio support and a big hit song, but Church took his third album ‘Chief’ to the top of the Top Country Albums and Billboard 200 charts without the benefit of either. We ask Autumn House-Tallant, VP of A&R at his label Capitol Nashville, how the singer-songwriter accomplished such a coup.
The experienced A&R and one time song plugger also talks about the song pitching process, recounting how recent hits by Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton had originally been turned down by now rueful artists.
What does your a job as vice president of A&R at Capitol Nashville involve?
Signing artists and then helping those artists make their records, which involves songwriting, finding songs, working with the producers, scheduling sessions …
You’re currently enjoying major success with Eric Church. What have been the factors behind his recent triumph?
He is a real anomaly, particularly for country. Traditionally artists are broken on the radio with a hit song - there are a few other avenues, but radio is still our driving force in breaking an artist - but Eric has never really had huge radio success. It was only with his last record ‘Carolina’ that he finally found some minor radio success. Normally you would need a massive #1 single to have an album do so well, but instead he’s just worked his ass off for the last five years.
He has been on the road non-stop and it’s through that he’s built up his fan base. When you buy into Eric Church, you’re buying into that whole lifestyle - you go to every show, you tell your friends etc. It’s a culture he’s bred. His fans are just crazy about him and his music.
In this day and age, artists are pursuing all manner of promo avenues but he’s said that he’s not even using social media. So all of his success has just come just through the live shows and word of mouth?
Yeah, absolutely. He didn't do a big media blitz like most artists do. The single he has right now, although not the highest reaching single, had really decent airplay exposure. He has die-hard fans out there and they bought the record in the first week and told their friends to buy it.
Do you have things in place like pre-order?
We'd done a few of those but we actually did very few campaigns. Other artists are far more participatory in those rollout plans, but Eric doesn't do many.
So what’s important in marketing a country artist like Eric Church?
A lot of it is that he just sold a ton on Target, and of course a ton on iTunes, and still as an album placement. They did Target advertisements and the usual one stop advertising.
He may not be tweeting when he is playing but we still use our own social media here in our department to put information out. We have a huge database and a department of four people that focuses solely on social media. His album entered number one in the Billboard country and pop album charts. He sold 145,000 CDs in the first week.
You’ve said that your role involves assisting with the songwriting process. What involvement did you have with Eric Church’s record?
Eric does all his own songwriting. He is probably the only artist on the label that does not listen to outside songs. He works with his producer Jay Joyce and executive producer Arturo Buenahora Jr. The three of them are the architects of his music. Eric is the only artist that goes in, records his music and then turns in an album. The main involvement I had was in the signing process.
So how did you find and then sign him?
Arturo Buenahora was at Sony and signed him to a production deal. Eric went to a few different producers before he found his sound. We saw Eric perform a few times - we didn't pass on him, we just didn't sign him. In the beginning we didn't think the music was interesting enough. It was only when he teamed up with Jay Joyce and they came up with a direction and sound and went to showcase that we thought, ‘this is it - he's ready!’ Then we signed him.
How long was the process from when you first saw him to when you signed him?
I think at least a year. Half the songs that he played that night and that he brought and produced by Jay Joyce were songs that ended up on that first record.
What was your own way into the music industry?
I started in management and quickly discovered that it wasn’t my thing. Soon after I joined a publishing company in an administrative position and learned all the nuts and bolts: songwriting and copyright laws, administration, all about unions, the demo process … Then I was promoted to a song plugging position where I was taking songs the writers produced and pitching them to people in A&R positions, like myself now. I was a song plugger for about eight years. I worked for a Reba McEntire, for Madonna for a short period, Barbara Orbison and I've been here now for 11 years.
Having experienced the business from both sides, has that make a difference in how you work with song pluggers now?
Yes, very much so. I'm pretty friendly with most of the A&R people in town. Everybody has a different way of getting into their jobs. One other person had been a plugger too and I think we both share the same love of the song itself. Obviously my role here is to give the song to an artist but I just love the creative songwriter world.
Who are you looking for songs for at the moment and how does that process work together with the song pluggers?
I'm looking for songs for Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town and Darius Rucker. I have four or five meetings every day with publishers and pluggers. They bring about five to six songs each. I filter through the songs and hopefully know what the artist is looking for. We keep going through this process until we get enough songs and then we go in and record them.
If you like a song then can you ask the plugger to put it on hold for you?
As long as I don't abuse it, they are very generous with putting a song on hold. There are publishers in town that issue paperwork if you put a song on hold. You get a 30-day hold and then after that you have to revalidate. They want some sort of information that the artist has heard it, if it's going to be recorded and when the recording dates are. I certainly don't want to hold up a song but things don't happen overnight. Most likely you need more then 30 days. Our artists are really responsive and so if you sent them a song and they pass I will not hold it any longer.
What are you actually listening for in the submitted songs?
The publishers that I see are coming from major companies that have great writers with good reputations and have a great catalogue. So I'm always hearing great music, but then it becomes more about what the artist wants for the next record - a certain direction. Sometimes they don't want love songs or songs that don't say anything about trucks [laughs]. They might, for example, want a feel-good summer song or an up-tempo song. If I hear something along those lines that I think is really great then I send it to them.
Do you rely on your judgment the first time you hear a song or do you collect some songs and say, I need to listen to them couple of more times?
Sometimes I need to listen again, but I've been doing this for a really long time and work closely with our A&R manager Melissa Spillman. We bounce ideas off each other all the time. At this stage I'm not scared to play something, and if they think I'm crazy, they think I'm crazy [laughs].
How important is it that it fits a certain format and that the song is radio friendly etc.?
All our artists here write and we give them a lot of free space to make the album they want. We never force them to record a song they don't want to record. It's harder here to get a song cut than in other places. I have relationships with the artist here, I know what they're looking for and I play the songs I love. No one is afraid of getting their feelings hurt.
If you really love a song but the artist doesn't want to record it, do you keep it in a database and in the back of your mind for other artists down the line?
Between the manager [Melissa Spillman] and myself we have an enormous catalogue of songs. Our iTunes is filled with folders. And we’re constantly bringing up songs we still love. They might be songs we pitched to Keith Urban two years ago that we never cut. Sometimes they end up getting recorded by other artists in town, and sometimes we have to let them go because our artists would strangle us if we played them again [laughs].
Do you have any examples of where an artist passed on a song you’d found and then it was recorded successfully by someone else?
‘What Hurts The Most’ was a huge single for Rascal Flatts that I had originally pitched to an artist here and they’d passed on it. Blake Shelton's #1 ‘Who Are You When I'm Not Looking’ I’d previously pitched to Luke Bryan. We’d talked about it, he’d memorised it, but in the end he just didn't record it. Right after it went #1 he called me up said, in a very country accent, “Autumn, if that ever happens again you have to kick me in the nuts!” [laughs].
How often do you have co-writing sessions with your artists?
That is far more part of my job now than it has ever been. I quite enjoy doing that because I was doing that in my publishing days a lot.
How does that work? How do you find the right people to work together?
We are hearing songs all the time and the artists may not be aware of the up and coming songwriters. We're usually working with staff writers that I know are really great just based on their personality and style.
Are a lot of these relations coming up through the publishers that you meet?
How much do you listen to unsolicited material?
It's so much that it's overwhelming - certainly with MP3s, it's never ending. You feel bad but there are only so many hours during the day.
As I sit here there are two boxes on my floor filled with CDs. We go through the boxes at the end of every year. We rarely hear much we can do with but we do our best to listen to it all.
For a songwriter, the best way is always to go through a publisher or your performing rights organisation. They have writer relations people that have relationships with publishers.
If you had to name a song where you think the songwriting is perfect then what immediately springs to mind?
‘Broken Wing’ - a top song from top to bottom, or ‘Where Have You Been’ by Kathy Mattea.
When you listen to a new song are you ticking off boxes in your head like the words being memorable, there being a great build to the chorus? What are the most important things for you?
A cool, interesting melody and lyrics that say something but in a different way. That's a home run.
How many of the songs you get have a finished production and how many are just guitar/vocals?
People don't demo as much as they used to and I hear a lot more guitar/vocals now - which I actually prefer - but it's still about 80% demos. Nothing is ever finished, although to anyone else it probably sounds like a finished record.
If I'm a publisher and I want to set up a meeting with you how do I do that?
You email or call. If I know you it's easy to get in and if I don't, I need to figure out what kind of songs you have and then take a look at your catalogue.
How do you react to people following up things over and over. If I don't hear from you does that mean a “no”?
If I don't have a relationship and you turn in a song and don't hear from me then chances are I heard it but didn't fit it to anybody.
There are agencies in town that do seminars for songwriters and they must put out something like ‘How to talk to A&R people’ because sometimes I have people come in and it feels like they're reading from transcript.
Country music sector has always been more traditional in its approach. So was Myspace not as significant in connecting new artists with labels and representation in the country music market?
It was never that important for us here. The best way is still to come in and sing for us or going to a show and see the person perform live.
With regards to the people you’ve signed recently, what’s been the x-factor that convinced you?
Great music, they sing great, look great they have a style to themselves. We have a lot of male artists here so you have go, Okay, do they compete with anybody here? Do they fill a niche that is missing on our roster?
Do they have an interesting direction? Do they have something to say? Does it sound good? Can they back it up and perform live? Can they sing live? Can they own a stage and entertain?
So you go to a lot of shows then?
Lots and lots of shows.
How important is it that the artist has already things in place for you to sign them, like press a booking agent etc.?
In the end it's all about the music. We found this girl that’s on a popular kids TV show and she came with this enormous fan base. That’s great but we’d never sign anyone just because of that. She actually had the goods to back it up. In that case it's a win-win, but you don't really need to have all that stuff to get a record deal.
How much space is there to actually sign new artists?
We are human so there is only so much manpower and there is always one eye on the roster, but at the same time you don't want to miss out on talent. We always want to stay lean and mean, but there's no certain amount of people we can or can’t have.
For two years we didn't sign anything new and then we had a run and signed three in the last 10 months.
The country music scene seems to be dominated by male singers at the moment. Do you have any theories behind that?
I'm not certain of what the reason is. There is some sort of disinterest. I don't know if it’s because the music’s not been good enough. The audience of country music is primarily women in their 30s and 40s, so I guess we’re just not reaching them.
We have a female solo artist right now, Kelleigh Bannen, and she has cut seven songs with Paul Worley and Jerry Smith. So we're hoping to change that trend with her.
How did you find her?
She was brought in by Paul and Jerry. They found her, brought her in and she sang for us. Just really cool music. She is a great singer and a great songwriter.
If you compare the country market to the mainstream, what do you see as the main differences?
On the creative side it's very different. In the mainstream it's more like the record is made with five guys building tracks and writing songs way as opposed to other people writing songs that they try to fit to the artist. Lyrically, sonically and visually a lot of different things are possible in popular music. The country niche only accepts a little bit outside the box. We kind of stick with what we have been working with.
How does the country market compare in terms of format sales. Are country consumers embracing downloads are enthusiastically as pop fans?
It’s been said that country audiences still buy their music in retailers like Target or Best Buy or the equivalent while urban music audience buy their music mostly online. I think that this will change in the country music scene and people will be buying music more online as well.
Is there an international market for country?
It's still national American music, with the south still buying a lot more of it - we have very little presence in Europe unless you count megastar like Taylor Swift.
You've been working in the country scene for quite a long time. What’s been the most notable changes that you’ve seen in that time?
Like everywhere else, less album sales. When I started in the early 90s it was a heyday and there was just a sea of publishing companies. That changed dramatically in the early 2000s. Now there are fewer people in town, fewer songwriters.
Has that affected the quality of the songs in any way?
No I don't think so. It's just people are not making that much money out of it anymore.
Has there been a notable change in the live scene?
Sure yeah. The live business has been damaged and all the artists in the country world now tour heavily.
When it comes to breaking an artist do you have to use other channels now, is radio more or less important?
It's always the same, it's as important as it has been. We have new media and online stuff now, which brings another personality exposure. They can reach out to their friends in more ways. But still a lot of success comes from country radio.
Are there more radio stations or is the program different? What changed in that perspective?
There is less music, more talk, more commercials. You're not getting the same amount of rotations that you may have had 10 years ago. New York City doesn't even have a country station! 10 million people in the city and you can't get a country station. So there are a few hurdles.
How did you see Nashville developing as the songwriting capital of the world?
A lot of people move here and famous bands now come out of here that aren’t necessarily country. There is a huge Christian market and then bigger bands like Kings of Leon and Paramore are from here. Jack White lives here and a lot of other musicians have moved to town. If you want to be a songwriter, especially in country music, Nashville is still the best place to be.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* Lyric Street A&R Doug Howard on discovering Rascal Flatts
* Songwriter Steve McEwan on writing for Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood
* Publisher Natalie Harker on how artists are increasingly claiming their publishing share
* Songwriter Dave Berg on how he broke through in Nashville
* 'Still all About the Song? – The Changing Sounds of Music City USA'