The Producer’s Chair: Paul Worley

Paul Worley.

Paul Worley.

Paul Worley made his second appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, April 30, 2015 at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m.

Paul Worley’s career his earned five Grammys, a plethora of CMA & ACM trophies and multiple Producer of the Year Awards, including one from MusicRow magazine.

His career first took hold when he became part of Jim Ed Norman’s rhythm section. Jim Ed moved to Nashville from L.A. to head up Warner Bros., hiring Paul because he loved the vibe and sound of Worley’s rhythm section. After logging all those hours in the studio, Paul got “the producer bug.” His production career began with Gospel artist Cynthia Clawson, Riders In The Sky, Burl Ives and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

“The studio bug” followed. As his production discography blossomed, Paul partnered with famed drummer Eddie Bayers and built The Money Pit studio in 1984. It was where Martina McBride and Paul’s 20-year collaboration started, which eventually yielded 13 albums. It’s where Worley first met Clarke Schleicher, who has been on his desk for more than 25-plus years. Among those who recorded there are Sara Evans, Big and Rich, Pam Tillis, Bruce Hornsby and Kid Rock.

Along the way, he worked at Tree Publishing Company with songwriters Harlan Howard, Curly Putman, Don Cook and Kix Brooks. CBS bought Tree, and then Sony bought CBS. So Worley went on to become a Vice President at Sony BMG from 1989-1997. Five years later (2002), Paul took on his second major label position as Chief Creative Officer at Warner Bros. Records.

In 2004 Worley teamed with producer/publisher/hit songwriter/artist manager Wally Wilson and two other partners, to found Skyline Music Publishing. They have earned countless BMI and ASCAP Awards, and today the catalog boasts the works of Hugh Prestwood, Jimmy Yeary, The Henningsens, Jon Stone,Kelleigh Bannen, Tay Barton, Lisa Brokop, Adam Browder, Don Cook, Michael Davey, George Ducas, Jeremy Easley, Jen Foster, James Harrison, Sara Haze, Randy Houser, Tammy Hyler, Brandon Kinney, Jacob Lyda, Kelsey Mathews, Kim McLean, Hudson Moore, Paul Nelson, Terry Radigan, Chick Rains, Kevin Welch, Emma White, and Skylar Wilson.

A partial list of Worley’s production clients includes Lady Antebellum, Dixie Chicks, The Band Perry, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Collin Raye, Blake Shelton, Highway 101, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Cyndi Thomson, John Anderson, Gary Morris, Marie Osmond, Neil Diamond, Eddy Raven, Lisa Brokop, Desert Rose, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson.

Collectively, Worley has achieved well over $1 billion in retail record sales during his career, so far. But discovering and developing new talent is the core of what he instinctively loves. And judging by the overwhelming response, it looks like Worley and Wilson’s latest venture, the live streaming online concert series Skyville Live is a perfect launch-pad.

The Producer’s Chair: How did Skyville Live originate?

Paul Worley: Skyville Live is something that Wallystarted dreaming of about a year and a half ago. The first show we had Gladys Knight, Martina McBride, and Estell. But ultimately, the real reason we want to develop Skyville Live as a brand is not just to serve up icons and stars, but to do artist development—to be a lens by which people discover new talent.

Wally is developing Skyville Live because we see that it’s something that people are hungry for. They’re hungry for really good quality audio and video performances on the internet. We all sit there and mess around with YouTube and 90 percent of it is crap. It’s just stuff to laugh at. But, Skyville Live will be really great music being really well performed with great audio. It is not designed to be listened to on your iPhone or computer. You can if you want to, but if you pull it up on your smart TV and listen on your stereo, you will be watching a concert that has that level of quality. Turns out that people love it. We’ve had real smooth sailing launching. So there may be an icon series and then we might develop Skyville II that’s all about new artists, and not necessarily artists we’re working with, just artists that we like.

We have a lot of big platforms and major organizations that are coming to us saying, “We want you.” It’s nice. Then there are all the questions, like “Will we have to change?” We are having those conversations.

PC: How was the second Skyville Live show with Kris Kristofferson, Lady Antebellum and Jason Isbell?

Worley: The show honored Kris Kristofferson. All of these great artists sang his songs, but the most incredible moment was him singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Just getting up there and croaking it out, sort of singing, but sort of not. Sort of reciting the poetry of the song. You realize that great songwriting is also poetry. It’s a literary endeavor as well as a musical one. Of course, that’s how the music business began—as a song publishing business before there was recording. It was all about songs and sheet music.

PC: From what I understand, someone can log on and watch the show live for free. So is it sponsor driven?

Worley: That could all change. We’ll continue to have sponsors and attract revenue that way, but we could also graduate to where there are different levels, the way Spotify does it, with basic but maybe with the premium you could view six different camera feeds and enjoy the show according to your own perspective. So, that would be a way of monetizing that. It can really grow. The danger is not outgrowing the quality of the experience.

PC: What’s in it for the artists, other than the experience and the exposure?

Worley: The artists are invested in the show that they’re in. They have an ongoing equity position. So, you know, every intention is that once we collect this content and find a partner on a platform that wants to do something bigger with it, we can package it differently and offer it up as a menu.

PC: What else is going on at Skyville?

Worley: We’ve tried a lot of stuff over the years but, including being a record company, but that failed. What we are now is an artist development company.

Our studio, which used to just be a rehearsal room, is a really good studio. So, I’ve got a whole new sound thanks to some of my friends that made me go and cut over here. It’s more like Motown or Memphis sound or Stax. It’s a small room. Everybody’s bleeding into everybody. You’ve got to get it right. But it sounds awesome, and the playing is fantastic because you’re just that close together.

PC: Are you developing artists for other labels?

Worley: Yeah. Honestly it’s anybody that will have me. I’m just open and grateful to be making music. Generally, if I’m not making music I’m not a very happy person. So, I spent a whole lot of the last two and a half years working for free. Like 90 percent of it. But I’ve been here before. This is where you retool and reinvent yourself, hopefully.

PC: Who are you working with right now?

Worley: I’m currently working with Chris Issak. Chris is an icon and I’ve always admired him. The last two days with Chris have been fantastic. It’s great when you get in the studio with someone who has had a long career, has experience making records and knowledge of himself as an artist.

I’m also going to be working with Ryan Kinder. Ryan is a new artist at Warner. The others are Fiona Culley, Taylor Watson, they’re unsigned, and Shelley Skidmore. We made music, and now they’re looking to either get signed or do it the indie way.

PC: How do producers make a living today?

Worley: I didn’t get into it because it was profitable. I starved for eight years like everyone else, and then got by for another 10. I did it because I love it. It’s all I ever wanted to do. All I can say is, you just have to do that and be happy with the life that you’re given. The new guys—if you’re not a hit songwriter you may never make the kind of money that I made as a standalone producer, but if you water down your music because you decide for business reasons that you have to be a writer, you’re going to produce a lot of crap. I don’t want to know how that feels.

If I was starting out now I would recognize that I have to be a writer and I have to be a publisher in order to be a producer. In fact, I’m trying to create an artist development company that does those things as part of the recipe of developing artists. Unfortunately, I am not a songwriter.

Who knew five years ago that streaming was going to be the thing? And because there’s no negotiation about royalties relative to streaming, the producers are just cut out. So, even if I have a hit, people will probably stream it or buy the one song. The days of creating an album with ten songs and people buying that big chunk of music and taking time to sit down and listen are—I hope just temporarily—behind us.

So, I’m thankful that I made my bones and my living in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. But anyway, I think it’s temporary. I still wake up hopeful every day.

But unfortunately for us, we’ve lost a whole generation of country listeners. We’ll have to gain them back. That’s going to show itself over the next five years.

PC: Have we lost them because the artists they love don’t get enough airplay?

Worley: What’s getting airplay is a narrow slice of music that’s attractive to a small slice of the people overall that would listen to country music. So, we’ve left a lot on the table. Music has a way of fighting its way out.

The good thing about streaming is that you can create your own playlists. You can go in and graze and discover new music. Or maybe you say, “I’d like to spend today listening to Steely Dan.” And bam it happens! So, there’s a lot of good. It’s just that it hasn’t been figured out, and nobody’s anxious to hurry up and pay us for our art. But they will eventually.

PC: What is the most important lesson you learned about running a label?

Worley: Don’t. And I had to do it twice to learn it. Creative people should be creative. You get mired inside the business structure and it can contaminate your mind, heart and soul. It’s marketing, and it’s relevant. Because without a hit at radio, careers don’t happen. But it shouldn’t have anything to do with the creative process.

PC: What concerns you about our music community, long-term?

Worley: I think the really great writers will always be. I’m more worried about the musicians in the community, they are really suffering. They’re getting paid shit.

Back in the day there was a musician’s special payments trust fund created by the record labels. It was a pool of money. Today, the labels are demanding that they get paid less and less. They’re getting no royalties, no job security, no benefits.

It is sick, but nobody is talking about paying the musicians—these wonderful, gifted, dedicated people.

What do you tell artists about song selection and songwriting?

Artists that don’t write get signed all the time, but that doesn’t stop them from writing.

I tell artists until I’m blue in the face: Don’t be concerned about where your songs come from. It doesn’t matter to anybody but you, whether you wrote the song or not. The main thing is that you should always do great songs. If you’re in a down cycle as a writer and you’re not writing great songs, be smart enough to realize that and go refresh yourself with some great songs. That will feed you. You’ll get back into your game as a writer, if you get out of the rut you’re in, but you’re going to have to get some external information in your soul, in order to do that.

PC: What are the keys to songwriter development?

Worley: Well, you’ve got to look for somebody that has their own spark, to start with. That’s got something more than, “I want to be a songwriter.” It’s got to be somebody who has their own melodies and their own points of view. You can’t teach genius. The guys and gals that have been around for a while just sit and listen to songs and go, “The second verse ought to be the first verse. Throw away the first verse. Now you’ve got to write a second verse. It’s going to be hard. You’ve got to amplify the story. If you’re going to write a bridge, it better be a song unto itself. If it’s not, then you don’t need a bridge. Just throw a solo in there, and get the hell out.” Go back and listen to songs. Go back for decades. Listen to Tin Pan Alley songs. Listen to every kind. Understand what it is in these timeless songs that makes them timeless.

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