By: James Rea
James Rea of The Producer’s Chair conversation series checked in with Johnson about his new gig. Don’t miss their one-on-one interview Thurs., Nov. 17, 6 p.m. at Douglas Corner.
Tony Brown was right on the money when his recommendation to Irving Azoff ultimately landed Doug Johnson the presidency at Giant Records. After 30 successful years, Johnson’s latest role is VP, A&R at Black River Entertainment.
To date, he’s had significant production credits, and over 100 cuts including seven No. 1s and 10 Top 10s. His career includes time as Sr. VP of Epic Records Nashville and a recent tenure at Curb. Talk about bridging the gap between business and creative—just put an executive/hit songwriter in charge. But Johnson has no delusions about what’s behind all of his success.
Johnson: It’s all about the song. It’s the only thing that solves every problem that we have here on The Row. Every other job I’ve had means absolutely nothing without a GREAT song.
Q: Are you still doing a lot of writing?
Johnson: I’m gonna be. And that was part of the deal with Black River. I’m as much an A&R guy as a writer, so that is a way in with other writers. We have mutual respect.
Q: Are you often surprised by a song on the radio?
Johnson: We can all get confused if we look at radio and look for songs that we don’t love that have done well. But I’m not going to spend too much energy on that. We tend to take our favorite songs and put them in a group. And then we expect radio to always be as good as that group.
At the NSAI Songwriter Hall of Fame dinner you had Garth, Alan, Wynonna and Taylor there. They have phenomenal sales in our format. Over 250 million records, and as hard and as frustrating as it is today, in country music, we need to remind ourselves of that.
Q: Can you tell when a writer has had their heyday?
Johnson: We often see that. It’s human nature in sports, or anything else. I don’t know if their hunger to create or their perspective changes, or they take their eye off the ball, or maybe the format subtlety changes. But then you’ve got Bill Anderson who has been up for Song of the Year a couple of times over the last few years, and six decades of Harlan Howard. So I don’t think it has to happen.
Instead of getting frustrated about not having as many hits this year as last year, it needs to be about the love of the song. There are going to be times when writers get on a roll and then it seems to slows down.
Q: Is there a publishing arm at Black River?
Johnson: Yes, Celia Froehlig runs it, one of the great publishers in this town. She is amazing and she’s the writer’s best friend. A big part of Black River is going to be artist/writer development. I love that. I was doing quite a bit of that at Curb with four or five brand new acts. It was hard walking away from them, but I knew they were in good hands. I’m looking forward to doing that here.
Q: There’s a lot of bitchin’ about how much more difficult it is to get cuts these days, for a number of reasons like labels signing more artist/writers, not to mention producers and others close to the artist, who write and who have publishing interests.
Johnson: We as songwriters need to have the best song that the artist and record company can find, outside, to get on a project. Take “The House that Built Me,” Blake Shelton was going to cut it, and he was not connected to it, and he gave it to Miranda, who was also not connected to it. It’s just a great song.
Now it seems that new artists have to have an up-tempo record. I’d love to get MusicRow’s David Ross or somebody to go back and look from 1990 until now to see every artist’s first hit. Alan Jackson’s second record was “Here in the Real World.” His first record was a tempo, and I don’t even know if it went top 40. So I would call his first impact record a ballad.
Also, how many hits that aren’t associated through publishing and writing happened last year? I think it would be healthy to see that it happens. People find songs inside simply because they’re aware of it.
Last year I had two hits at Curb as a writer. One was “She Won’t be Lonely Long” with Clay Walker. Kelly Lynn pitched that song to him. The other, “Love Like Crazy,” I sent to Lee Brice myself.
The only reason why somebody is going to cut my song or an outside song is because they think it’s a career song, or such a special album song that they need it on their project and in their live show. It’s Garth 101. He found about half of them and co-wrote about half. And he was one of the greatest artist/co-writers who ever lived in this town. That’s something to strive for.
Q: Are we making albums the way we used to?
Johnson: I think most of us are trying to load up ten shots at a career single on an album, which does not make for a great album. We should strive to make sure we’ve got three or four songs that sound like radio hits. Maybe we are in the singles business.
Q: If that’s the case then why are we still putting 10-12 songs on an album?
Johnson: Because it’s still 70% of our sales. That’s the last number I heard. Digital hasn’t replaced that yet. Hopefully we develop artists that somebody wants to take the complete package home and own it. We have to earn their trust that if they buy ten or twelve songs by a particular artist that it’s worth their money.
Q: What is the biggest challenge our industry is facing?
Johnson: Math. How much we’re spending on records to get played on the radio and what the potential sales are. And yet, radio needs us promoting like we do.
As a co-writer and co-publisher of the Lee Brice song, I was very blessed to have the longest-lasting Billboard song and single ever on the Country charts. But as a record label, it sucked, because we had to promote a single for 56 weeks. We used to promote one for 13 or 14 weeks and we could have four singles on a new artist in one year. The math is a real challenge and yet we don’t see the sales equating the difference.
Q: Is there a special project that you’ve always wanted to produce?
Johnson: I’m a huge fan of so many people, but I love helping a young artist find him or herself and have the nerve to be honest. So many artists are afraid to say the wrong thing. I want them to come show us how to do it, to come bend the rules. It’s an insane dream, but we’re in a business where that can happen.