The Producer’s Chair: Jim Catino

Jim Catino

Jim Catino

By James Rea

Don’t miss Sony Music Nashville’s Vice President A&R, Jim Catino, on The Producer’s Chair, Thursday, Feb. 27 at Douglas Corner at 6 pm. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.

Jim Catino’s passion for great music, great songwriting and great artists rings loud and clear, and it shows in everything he embraces. Catino has been with Sony Music Nashville for about 14 years, but it’s only recently that his producer chops have been significantly recognized— the first artist he produced, Tyler Farr, is currently nominated for ACM New Artist of the Year.

Nashville is no stranger to the Catino name. Jim’s father Bill Catino is one of the guys who shaped radio promotion as we know it. During a successful tenure at Capitol Nashville, Bill Catino was instrumental in breaking Keith Urban, Trace Adkins, Deana Carter, Cyndi Thomson, Chris Cagle and Dierks Bentley, while helping further the careers of established chart-toppers Garth Brooks and Tanya Tucker. The elder Catino’s background also includes Universal Music Group, Stroudavarious Records, CBS/Epic, RCA, MCA Records and Cleveland International, the CBS distributed label responsible for breaking multi-platinum artist Meat Loaf. Bill Catino’s career gave his son a bird’s-eye-view of the music industry.

Jim Catino: I interned for James Stroud the summer before I started at Belmont. I did everything from follow him around the studio to weed his yard. He’s been a big mentor and a big influence. I was a transfer student at Belmont from the University of Cincinnati and my first internship was at MCA Publishing with Jerry Crutchfield. Lynn Gann and Mike Sebastian were the creative heads. I was in the tape room helping out wherever I could. During my two-and-a-half years at Belmont, I stayed at MCA. Staying in one place for internships allowed me to gain the trust of Lynn and Mike as the semesters went by, which led to more opportunity. That was a great time at MCA—every producer, A&R person, artist and big writer was coming in, so I was able to nurture a lot of great relationships, which was vital to my career.

After I graduated, James Stroud hired me for my first full time, paid gig at Giant Records. It was a small company, so I got to wear more hats. Richard Landis was the Head of A&R, Allison Brown-Jones was there as well. Rob Hendon was the head of the publishing company and I kind of floated between those two departments.

Catino was at Giant from 1995-97 until Stroud put together his dream team at DreamWorks, and tapped Allison Jones to head A&R, Scott Borchetta for radio promotion and Jim to run publishing. Jim is married to Jones’s, sister Molly, and they have daughters, Katy (8) and Kelly (6).

At the time, DreamWorks publishing was home to songwriters Chris Lindsey, Steve Dorff, Sharon Vaughn, Troy Seals, Wally Wilson and Rafe Van Hoy. Catino placed songs with Kenny Chesney, Lonestar and Martina McBride. His major success caught the attention of Joe Galante and Renee Bell who recruited him to join the A&R department of what is now Sony Music Nashville. Today he works directly with all artists on Columbia, RCA and Arista. He helps find songs and selects producers, works in the studio, helps artists find their sound and establish their brands, works with other label departments, goes on the road to see crowd reactions at concerts, pairs artists with hit writers, and tons more.

The Producer’s Chair: In another interview, you said, “Working with Joe Galante was like going to graduate school.” How so?
Jim Catino: Joe is a brilliant man and he was a great influence on my career and a mentor and is somebody I’ll always look up to. The greatest thing about Joe is that he was open with his executive staff about how the business ran. He taught us about the numbers and finances. He challenged us in a positive way to grow as executives and to challenge ourselves. That was a big part of my growth period here at Sony, as has been working under Gary Overton. Once Gary took over, he allowed me the room to re-shape the department. We don’t have a point person for each artist, like we used to. Now Taylor Lindsey, sister to songwriter Hillary Lindsey, and I co-A&R everything together.

Does a publisher/plugger have to be a fan of the artist to know what to pitch?
I don’t think that they necessarily need to be a fan. They need to know their job, know the music community and what everyone’s tastes are, and know what they’re looking for. They have to be open-minded about different styles of Country Music. Music is so subjective, but we all have creative rolls and we all have to be open-minded. In my case, it is to help the artist find their vision for their project. I’m here to help them achieve their goals.

What does a new artist need to do to be ready?
There are a lot of things that are expected of an artist, much earlier in their careers, including many that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago, like the social networks. It’s a hefty task for an artist, to make sure that they’re staying on top of everything in their careers and keeping their fans engaged 24/7. So I think to be ‘ready’ as an artist these days, you must understand you’re under a microscope. They’ve got to have a real identity and it has to grow quickly. They have to be prepared to get up on a big stage, prepared to cut hits and be prepared to be active and engaging in all aspects of their career, be ready image-wise and have all of those tools prepared because it’s a shorter ramp-up, than it used to be. 

Should new artists focus on writer’s nights, working in the studio or perfecting their live show?
All three of those things are important. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. All artists are at a different place in their careers and they’re always growing. Even the superstars continue to work very, very hard to grow. The reason why some stay on top is because they’re always trying to make their show better, they’re always looking for their next big hit, they’re recording something that’s a graduation from their last album. It’s really more about getting discovered by a ‘champion’ that has the experience to identify their strengths and correct their weaknesses whether that is guitar playing, vocals or imaging. They need that champion to be the honest voice in their career that they trust, respect and will listen to.

When did you first have thoughts about becoming a producer?
Producing has always been something that I had a passion for and wanted to do at some point. Gary’s been great about allowing me to do that here at Sony. I did a lot more of it when I was in publishing at DreamWorks, helping writers and young artists with their demos. Once I started at Sony, that went away for a while because I was learning about A&R. I was learning from Renee Bell, one of the best in this town. She was a great influence on me. However, I’ve always tried to keep the education process going on the production side of things, with everything from updates in technology to playing and charting music. I wanted to be able to communicate musically in the studio. On my own time, I took classes on Pro Tools. I wanted to be as prepared as possible for the day I got the shot to make a record. I’m blessed that I’ve had time and support from people like Renee, Joe and especially Gary O. to explore this side of my career. I really have to thank Gary O. for giving me the shot, believing I could do it and supporting me.

I’m a young producer and Gary has given me the reins to develop new acts including Tyler Farr or Leah Turner. At Sony our job is to match the act with the right producer who can bring us music that is fresh and has identity, so we are open to any producer that can deliver great music. Some new artists that we’ve signed recently are working with brand new young producers.

How did you meet Tyler Farr and who are some of his influences?
Tyler is a big hunter and outdoorsman. I was at a hunting convention with some songwriters and other friends. Bobby Pinson, Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson had just seen Tyler perform at the event and encouraged me to check him out. They set up a lunch for us and Tyler and I hit it off.

Tyler has a lot of different influences. His step-dad played with George Jones. So he grew up around Country music and he’s a hardcore country guy, but at the same time, he grew up listening to rap, hip-hop, rock and southern and classic rock and you can hear a lot of that in his music. We tried to capture that on the production side.

Tyler was a true development project. We used a lot of relationships and got him out on the road with Colt Ford. Tyler would open and also perform onstage with Colt. Colt would rap the verses and Tyler would sing on the choruses and play acoustic guitar. Tyler rode around on Colt’s bus, learned a lot, built a fan base, they wrote songs together. And Tyler’s single “Redneck Crazy” sold over a million downloads, went No. 1 and the album is selling really well. We’ve got the second single out called “Whisky in my Water” and itss doing close to 15,000 downloads a week, which is great.

Who did you co-produce Tyler with?
Julian King, an amazing producer and engineer. Julian and I have known each other a long time. He’s done a ton of Stroud’s work over the years—he mixed all of Toby Keith’s records and Chris Young. He does a lot of Byron Gallimore’s work as well.

You’re also co-producing Leah Turner with Jesse Frasure and Cary Barlowe. How did that come about?
Leah’s attorney in Los Angeles, Jeff Biederman is a friend of mine. Humberto Gatica and David Foster produced some incredible sides on Leah in California but after a couple of years she realized that what she was doing, was just not who she was. She grew up riding horses on her father’s ranch. Her roots are country. So she took a couple of steps back and had some conversations with David and Humberto and they were very supportive and helped her start making trips to Nashville. We clicked during our first meeting. Her voice had such identity and strength. She had a really strong vocal range and didn’t sound like any other female in the format.

She started writing with Cary Barlowe and Jesse Frasure. Jesse is a great programmer and Cary is a great guitar player and Leah felt like they were doing something really fresh and she wanted my involvement because we shared the original vision. We all brought something different to the table. We cut three sides that were amazing and the staff flipped out. And the rest is history. We’re in the top 30 with the single, “Take the Keys,” she’s on Brad Paisley’s tour and we’ve finished the album. She’s going to be a huge star and I think we chose the right team.  

Is there a sense that Country Music will eventually lose its identity or will it always be Country by virtue of the lyrics and lifestyles of Country artists?
Country is its own stand-alone genre for a reason and no matter how far the production goes, one way or the other. If you look at history, particularly in the last 20 years, things have gotten more contemporary sounding and then it comes back to the Country side. It’s cyclical and I think it will do that again. The core of what is great about our format is its earthiness. The artists and their music is down to earth. Our fans are very passionate about that and they’re very engaged in the artists because they live the same lifestyle. People around the country are buying into our format because we offer some really great things lyrically and content-wise. There’s access to the artists and they’re open to sharing that with the fans.

For artists who are new to town, what is your advice on how to avoid wasting time and money?
I wish one thing would keep them from pitfalls. As I said, there’s no right or wrong way. Find professionals, do your homework, know who the pros are that can really make a difference in your career. You can do that without signing your life away to somebody who may be passionate about what you’re doing and have good intensions, but may not have the means of pulling it off or have their right foot in the right door, to get you there. I’m on the board at Belmont University and I speak to a lot of students and also mentor a student every semester. The first thing I tell a new talent is, “Treat it like it’s a business.” Is this an opportunity in front of you? Do your homework. Is this going to help you take your career to the next step? Financially are you going to grow from this? Is it going to open new doors and new opportunities for you as an artist? Whether it is a manager, an agent, an A&R person or producer, do your homework on who that person or that company is and what they have done in the past. And don’t spend a dime unless you know, you can make that dime back and then some. Don’t go out and spend $30,000 for an EP, if you don’t have the fan base to support it. I don’t need to hear fully-produced music and neither does any pro in this business. Be passionate about the team you’re building around you and know what they’re capable of.

Where do you see yourself in the future?
In the short term, I would like to get more involved on the production side to be more involved in the whole project. Where do I see myself five years from now? I guess my first instinct would be to start my own consulting, publishing, management and production thing, where I find a few artists that I’m passionate about and manage what they do and maybe produce some things and be creative. If I’m not the right manager or producer, I’ll find the right manager and producer. I’m not here because it’s just a job and a paycheck for me. I’m here because I’m passionate about artists and I’m passionate about working at a record label. If I had my own company, I’d want my artists to be taken care of by a major label and create those kinds of opportunities.

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