Column 38 by James Rea
Noah Gordon appeared on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, June 25, 2015 at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m.
In 1993 Noah Gordon signed his first artist deal at Capitol/EMI/Patriot via exec Jimmy Bowen, and also signed publishing and management deals. Back then I doubt even Noah could have predicted that following a second record deal with Warner Bros. and 100-plus songwriting cuts, he would switch from artist to executive. Today he is head of A&R and VP of Publishing for Average Joes Entertainment, one of the hottest labels in town.
Noah’s songwriting discography includes cuts by Charlie Daniels, Blackhawk, Doug Stone, Craig Morgan, Emerson Drive, John Michael Montgomery, Clay Walker, John Berry, Lee Greenwood, Randy Travis, Buddy Jewel, Joe Nichols, Ricochet, Carolina Rain, Colt Ford, Luke Bryan, Jake Owen, Kix Brooks, Lee Brice, Bubba Sparxxx, Rodney Atkins and The Lacs.
Gordon’s production discography has also been growing exponentially. He started by co-producing his own album with Chuck Howard, and went on to produce 3 No. 1 albums for Colt Ford, as well as songs or projects by Montgomery Gentry, Bubba Sparxxx, LoCash Cowboys, Daniel Lee, Lenny Cooper, Lucy Angel, Demun Jones, Daniel Boone, Mud Digger compilations, JR Vautour, The Lacs, and his family’s band The Gordons.
The Producer’s Chair: When did you start playing music?
Noah Gordon: When I was growing up the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had released the Will The Circle Be Unbroken album, and they were really, really hot. In a way it brought back bluegrass and folk music to all the college kids.
My folks were hippies and were totally into rock ‘n’ roll, but by the time I came along they had flip-flopped over to bluegrass. So, I got my start playing bluegrass music and mandolin, and singing with the family band. I picked up the drums when I was 8 or 9 years old, when my folks’ band shifted into more country music. I played with them until I moved to Nashville in ’92.
TPC: How did you get signed to a record deal, a publishing deal and a management deal?
NG: I met Anthony Smith, who introduced me to Margie Hunt who, at the time, was at CBS. She introduced me to Roy Wunsch who sent me to see Steve Buckingham. I went and played for him and they wanted to do a deal, but I needed an attorney. A friend of a friend connected me with Scott Siman. He recommended against me signing that particular deal because he knew that Roy Wunsch was probably going to be vacating the president’s chair and the ensuing changes that happened. So Scott ended up getting me signed to a publishing deal at Kicking Bird Music, and Charlie Daniels’ manager Dave Corlew became my manager. Then, Jimmy Bowen signed me at Capitol/EMI. I was 22 when I signed with EMI and 24 when my record came out.
TPC: Who was your producer?
NG: I actually cut two records. I cut a record with Chuck Howard but Jimmy Bowen didn’t want to release it, and asked me to cut another record. So, my record I Need a Break, was produced by Steve Gibson. I worked with Renee Bell on it. She was the head A&R in those days. It was an exciting time. When you come to town and Jimmy Bowen signs you—it kicks the doors off the hinges. I was instantly accepted by the songwriters and the publishers and the musicians—but I don’t even think I realized at the time what an awesome opportunity that was.
I didn’t know that most artists have a publisher or producer or some combination of people who champion their cause and groom them for getting a deal and making a record. Artists are rarely ready for that, no matter how many shows they do on the road and no matter how good of an entertainer they are—there’s a whole other set of skills you need to make records.
TPC: How did you feel when you lost your deal?
NG: That’s a good question. I have Crohn’s Disease. It wasn’t severe until I was out on the radio tour, only getting three to four hours of sleep a night, eating crummy food and traveling. So part of me was relieved in some ways, because it was a grueling year. And so full of disappointments no matter how hard I worked. There were so many things that were out of my control.
If you have some significant success as an artist, you tend to be gone from town. You’re busy on the road playing dates, supporting your record, interacting with fans—the loop that makes the music world go round.
I was fortunate, I feel like I got to do just about everything you could do short of becoming famous. I had a couple of videos that were in high rotation and I had the fun of getting to do that. Yet I didn’t have the kind of career where it warranted me staying gone for the next ten years on the road. If I had more success as an artist perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten to become a working songwriter and learn the craft of producing.
TPC: After you left Capitol, your band Phoenix signed to Warner Bros. How did that transpire?
NG: Brad Allen was trying to build a band around a singer named Darin Anthony Pavone. So Bryan Austin and I joined on. It started as co-writing. The three of us blended well vocally. So, the harmonies turned out really cool. We had recorded some things and when Paige Levy and Bill Mayne over at Warner Bros. heard it, they loved it and signed us to a deal for a brief moment. Didn’t work out in the end.
TPC: Did I read somewhere that you owned a studio, after Phoenix?
NG: Yes. That was Big Studios with engineer T.W. Cargile who had been a buddy of mine forever, along with Gary Kraen and Lester Turner of Lightning 100. Two Jamey Johnson records were mostly recorded at Big Studios. I think maybe all of it was mixed there. It wasn’t his first record, but it was his first really successful record with Song of the Year “In Color.” That’s how I met the people at Average Joes, because Jamey told them if they were working on a country record that they needed to come to our studio. It was a very organic way of meeting.
TPC: When you started with Average Joes, were you named head of A&R and VP of publishing right away?
NG: It was a gradual process. I had the studio. I owned a small publishing and production company and was diving head first into producing. Average Joes had me producing one new artist, and I had a pretty good run producing Canadian artists. I put together a proposal for Shannon Houchins (Average Joes CEO) and Colt Ford (one of the main artists and business parters). I said, “you’re growing fast, and I believe you can be really successful. I feel like I can help.”
At that time I’d been in Nashville about 18 years. I didn’t know everybody, but I knew a lot of people. And if I didn’t know them, I knew somebody that did. I had learned a lot about publishing, studios, production and licensing. I felt like I could bring something valuable to them—not only as a writer or producer, but also by helping them put pieces in places that they needed in Nashville.
When I handed them my proposal, I put my taxes as the last chapter. That’s as transparent as I can be. This is how much money I earned last year. This is what I paid Uncle Sam, and if we do business together, this is how much money I’ll be able to bring in.
TPC: Who was the first artist that you produced on Average Joes?
NG: The very first project I produced was Lauren Bryant who had been on the label for about a year or a year and a half. She was part of the early-on roster. We made a good record, but it was just bad timing, the label wasn’t really tooled up yet.
We were finishing up that project as I began work on the Colt Declaration of Independence record. So that was the second record I worked on here. I was up to my elbows in it from the writing to the recording—everything from top to bottom. The neatest thing about that is it was also the company’s first No. 1 Billboard album.
Colt had already made several albums, that was his fourth. Colt and everyone at Average Joes had really worked hard to build his career. Tom Baldrica came to work for us about the same time I joined the party. So, it certainly wasn’t that I showed up and helped make a Colt Ford record, and that’s the reason it was a No. 1 album. It was the culmination of so much hard work, great shows, blood, sweat, and tears. I was really fortunate to be a part of it!
TPC: What is your job description, as head of A&R for three labels and 18 artists?
NG: The reality of it is that I’m not in charge of all of it. One person can’t do all of those things. I look for songs. I listen to songs. I set up co-writes. I produce, or write, or master, or some combination of those things, for almost all of the album projects we release.
One of the things I’m trying to push forward is for the artist managers to take on A&R responsibilities. There are only so many hours in the day. I want there to be more opportunity for songwriters and publishers to get material heard by these individual artists. Also, I’m one person with one set of likes and dislikes, I’m going to like certain things and not like certain things. That doesn’t need to be the only gate.
When I moved to town, there were 25 record labels with A&R staffs. They were an entity in themselves. So, there was an enormous amount of opportunity to have music heard, curated, and delivered to artists.
If all I did was listen to songs from eight in the morning until ten at night I still probably couldn’t get through all of the music that’s delivered. Plus, you’ve got to take into account, what did the artist write? Who did they collaborate with?
Now, the flipside of it is this: For the longest time there wasn’t a lot of material out there for our unique hybrid music. Now you can’t find a country record that doesn’t have rap or some sort of hybrid song on it.
TPC: What does your job as VP of Publishing entail?
NG: We have “Dirt Road Anthem,” “Country Must Be Countrywide,” “I Love You This Big” along with probably 60 to 70 percent of all the Colt records, The Lacs records, and most of the compilation records that we do. Two days ago I was licensing “Dirt Road Anthem” for the next season of America Idol. We get a lot of requests to license the songs in our catalog, but I’m able to handle about 90 percent of it. These days it’s almost all email.
Tomorrow I leave for Bakersfield, California. While I’m in the air I’ll probably do two or three licenses. I used to do all of the internal licensing—like all of the Colt records—but sometimes that’s 200 or 300 agreements for one album. If you think about a mechanical, a digital, a streaming, video license, for each song times multiple writers, times sometimes multiple publishers. Then we enlisted Dave Evans, who is a wonderful admin fella out of New York, who actually worked early-on for Average Joes. Now I send him all of the licensing for albums that we record and distribute.
I still handle most of the licensing on outside uses or TV uses. I think another one of the reasons I work here is because I’ve negotiated publishing deals, artist deals, licensing deals and been on both sides of the table. The numbers can change in deals, but the overall contracts are pretty similar. That’s helpful from day-to-day.
The only staff songwriters that we have are myself, Shannon Houchins, Colt Ford, Lenny Cooper and the Lacs (Brian King and Clay Sharpe). But it’s hard to consider us staff writers because we don’t show up with a guitar at 10 a.m. to write songs.
TPC: Do you still have time to write?
NG: I used to write 50 to 60 songs a year, depending on the year. Now I only write about 10 to 15 songs a year—maybe. But it’s super rare that I write and complete a song that’s not on an album. The hybrid type of music that we do here involves a lot is target writing.
TPC: How many publishing deals have you had?
NG: I originally wrote for Kicking Bird music, then I went over to a new company called C&P Nashville (that was Brad Allen’s company). And then I wrote for a company called Encore Entertainment, for six years. Keith Follese’ ran that company along with Brad Allen. Then, started my own company called New Millennium Music.
TPC: Does Average Joes offer artist management as well?
NG: Shannon manages Colt and The Lacs, personally. We previously had a large management roster that had outside artists on other labels and things like that, but managing is a 24/7 job.
I’m co-managing the group Lucy Angel. As any new group does, they need a lot of help. That’s why I’m going to Bakersfield, CA tomorrow for their show at the Crystal Palace. But it makes it difficult for me because I’ve got little kids and I’ve got to get back.
TPC: Is your radio promotion team in-house or outsourced?
NG: We’ve had a large full tilled P1 radio staff. But we have pulled back from doing that all the time. Now, we have Tony Morreale. He’s been at Sony, New Revolution. He’s a great guy and the head of promotions here. We have Wix Wichmann who was also at Sony. We’ve been really fortunate to have things like Sirius XM Radio. John Marks is a big supporter. He’s played a lot of our records and continues to support and champion many of our artists.
We have a digital team in-house. About a year and a half ago we really made a conscious effort to swing our resources in a new direction. With the amount of money and effort that it takes to get one song up the traditional flag pole, the amount we can accomplish in other areas is phenomenal.
Helping the artists with their touring and branding and trying to co-op it with club owners. And doing things where the boots hit the ground. What’s great about that is you can see what’s working instantly. You can do internet campaigns and watch the metric change. With traditional radio, you get added to a station and the first spins are at 2 in the morning. It’s expensive and it takes a long time.
But we are walking the traditional radio path with a group I produced and Average Joes distributes for G-Force Entertainment and New Revolution… the Lucy Angel girls. And we’re fortunate to be making headway.
Radio is still a wonderful way to reach millions of people… if you can crack it, you get in front of a lot of people.
TPC: Has Colt’s success opened doors for the other artists on the label?
NG: Absolutely, when you have success with one artist, that gives you a chance to talk about your other artists. When you’ve got that influential person sitting in front of you and you’re talking about Colt—they inevitably say, “What else do you have coming down the pipe?” That gives you a great opportunity, and it’s not to take away from Colt. The great thing for Colt is that he’s a partner within the label —a lot of people don’t know that. So, if the label as a whole grows and acts sell records and grow their business—it’s still good for him. That’s a great place to be.