Carla Wallace, co-owner and GM of Big Yellow Dog Music (BYDM) might seem like another music industry “overnight success,” but she and partner Kerry O’Neil actually began building this scrappy independent publishing company over 16 years ago. And those years of hard work and dedication make the firm’s current triumphs all the sweeter.
Last week (1/31/15), for example, BYDM placed six songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from writers such as Josh Kear, Adam Sanders and current sensation Meghan Trainor. Trainor has in fact, been burning up the charts with massive hits such as “All About That Bass,” and “Lips Are Movin’.” However, BYDM is no newcomer to the charts having previously scored with songs like “Need You Now,” and over 18 No. 1s.
O’Neil recently described his partner in an interview after she was awarded Belmont University’s Music City Milestone Award in Feb. 2014 saying, “Carla’s success is a great example of what can happen when you put songs and songwriters first, are willing to follow your instincts, and mix in a healthy dose of tenacity and passion.”
The following interview may not be what you expect. Carla talks about being a publisher from a very personal perspective. She explains which parts of the job she likes best and why working with new writers sometimes gives her nightmares as well as great enjoyment…
Nekst: Big Yellow Dog is now about 16 years old. Describe the journey that got you here.
Carla Wallace: Bluewater Music was my first publishing home where I learned that talent doesn’t have to just fit a certain mold or sound. Also the Nashville community really taught me a lot. You get into this business with these incredible songwriters, musicians, artists and you learn so much from them about what is a good song and what it takes to write one…
Nekst: What happened next?
Carla Wallace: I had graduated from Belmont and worked as an intern and then an employee at Bluewater. Little Big Town became the first transition where somebody else said we want you to work for us. It played a huge role because that’s where I met my current business partner Kerry O’Neil around 1998. LBT was an amazing catalog with John Scott Sherrill, Steve Seskin, Bob DiPiero, but I was really there only two months before they were sold to Sony. After experiencing such great catalogs and writers with Bluewater and LBT it was tough to find the right fit. And I didn’t get a job for several months, until Kerry decided to start Big Yellow Dog.
Nekst: How did it happen?
Carla Wallace: We got together at a restaurant and Kerry was asking me lots of questions about what kind of music I liked and truthfully I had no idea what he was really talking to me about. We went to see Phil Lee and Kerry asked, “What do you think about that guy’s music? I said, ‘I love it.’ Kerry is such a good music person, such a visionary guy, he must have thought I was capable of creating a vision that was also appealing to him.
Nekst: Absolutely, but it sounds like you’ve played an integral role as well.
Carla Wallace: Thank you.
Nekst: Many Nashville publishers simply follow the money trail to the country charts, but you seem to have a larger vision?
Carla Wallace: I like letting the music lead instead of trying to lead the music. I try to find talent. For example Mindy Smith. She deserved to be heard. Where or how? Well you find that out later. So yes, that’s led us down some different paths. But Nashville is home to the best songwriters in the world and a great place to create.
Nekst: How do you know when you’ve found someone you want to sign?
Carla Wallace: It’s that gut feeling when you’re listening and can’t get away from someone’s music. It’s addictive. Meghan Trainor, for example, gave me a CD when she was 17. She had an album of songs she had written that were a mix of Pop and that ‘50s vibe. Her talent was a deep well of creativity that needed to be allowed to bloom.
Nekst: You’re like a riverboat gambler betting on talent… but do you worry about business models changing?
Carla Wallace: Honestly, I can’t even look at those things. I don’t want to know how bad it can be with mechanicals shrinking, for example, or worrying about how the money is coming in. That thinking could keep me from being a believer in someone’s talent. So many people worry about those kinds of things that it stops them from saying, “Yes, I love that.” To me the challenge is not financial, it’s how can we make that the biggest thing ever. I just want to find great talents and try to succeed with them. I never got into this for the money, only to go to the Grammies and/or make a contribution to music. So I probably suck at discussing what people are challenged with other than trying to get a song cut and the challenges facing publishers on that level. But we’re in the music business, and really it is so much fun.
Nekst: So you are the left brain partner?
Carla Wallace: Exactly. I get to focus on the parts I like and let Kerry worry about the business admin.
Nekst: What about film, TV and advertising outlets?
Carla Wallace: We started reaching out to supervisors and others at the very beginning and we’ve had a lot of placements in Nashville, Greys Anatomy and several films. Recently we hired Devon DeVries as VP, Creative-Film & TV/A&R. We’ve developed a lot of core friendships with supervisors and it is definitely as important as getting cuts.
Nekst: Are you embracing strategy from the new publisher toolbox like records, management and touring?
Carla Wallace: I fought it for a long time, but you find yourself capable of doing all those things. We manage writers every day so why can’t we manage an artist? But our goal is to just help them grow until they can get a full time manager. Being a small independent gives us the opportunity to run low to the ground, grab these new ideas and get everybody to pitch in to help manage this guy, get him some gigs or find the right producer. Kerry, Brad Kennard our VP of Creative and Danni O’Neill, A&R Director [no relation] have been incredible at getting everyone here working together to create new avenues for these artists. We signed Logan Mize about five years ago. He was out touring and so we started a record label to create a way for him to be able to sell some music. He got signed to Sony last year.
Nekst: Didn’t Logan’s record on your label get played on Sirius XM and sell over 100k downloads?
Carla Wallace: Yes. We’ve depended a lot upon Sirius XM and I’m just so glad that John Marks is here in Nashville. He loves songwriters and music. He helped us plant a flag for Logan. He fell in love with the song. His support helped us show people how great Logan is and get his record deal.
Nekst: You earned MusicRow’s Rising Women of the Row Award in 2012. What’s it like being a women in this business?
Carla Wallace: I remember getting to have dinner with Frances Preston at a Music Hall of Fame event in Georgia. I asked her, “What was it like to be a woman back when you started? It must have been crazy with all those gnarly men yelling ‘Get me some coffee.’” And she said calmly, “I didn’t mind it at all and if they asked me I’d go get them some coffee.” Her answer surprised me at first, but maybe she was saying every generation has it’s difficulties. She just rolled with it and when it was her shot she took it and then proved herself. Maybe she meant it’s about merit.
Nekst: Do you hang with other industry executive women?
Carla Wallace: There aren’t a lot of women in this industry which is kind of crazy, so we’re always pulling for each other and banding together. We are connected because of the experiences we’ve had. It’s like, “Well then what did you do?” or “How did you deal with that?” That’s what girls do, we dig in to the ‘what’ and the ‘how come?’ It’s great to find a network of really great women in this industry and also be able to help the up and coming girls and guys who are entering our business.
Nekst: ASCAP’s LeAnn Phelan called you a, “passionate, fearless publisher—committed to songwriters.” How would you describe yourself?
Carla Wallace: I fall in love with my songwriters. Sometimes it gives me nightmares because I hear their songs all night long and can’t rest until I’ve found that somewhere they need to belong. They could be married or have kids or be a young 17-year old that needs guidance and support. They are all depending on me. But my enjoyment comes from these songs and songwriters. Watching writers succeed like Meghan Trainor, Josh Kear and others has been such an incredible experience. When you feel so strongly it can be torture trying to find others that “get it,” but you just keep going until you get an answer you like. I’m so fortunate to have so many great people at BYD I can turn to and say “right,” “right?” and they are like “YEAH.”