Doug Johnson arrived in Music City in 1988. He soon matched Doug Stone with Epic Records and produced the artist’s first album which hit Platinum and highlighted one of my personal favorites, “I’d Be Better Off In A Pine Box.” On a wave of success Johnson was hired as VP A&R for the label. Since then, the Georgia native has been creating hits with a variety of talented artists as a producer and songwriter and worked at Giant and Curb Records.
Especially notable was Johnson’s songwriter success with Randy Travis’s “Three Wooden Crosses” which won both ACM and CMA Song of the Year honors.
In 2011 Black River Entertainment named Johnson VP A&R where he resides today. In addition to A&R, the label utilizes Johnson’s production and songwriting talents. “Black River is not a big corporation,” says Johnson, “but they have tremendous resources. No one can buy success in this business, but it offers us time to build something people will enjoy. I’m very fortunate to be part of that.”
NEKST visited Johnson’s Black River office for an animated conversation about the challenges of A&R, holds, country’s pop influence and streaming in an era of falling sales. Not surprisingly, Johnson’s musical compass still points in the same direction it always has—looking for true hits! READ ON
NEKST: You wear a lot of Black River Ent. hats—A&R, songwriter and producer. How do you balance?
Doug Johnson: I’ve never worked harder in my life, but I love where I am right now. It’s an amazing company and family. I’m also blessed to have my wife, Lisa, who’s in the music business too and understands. I usually write late in the day and don’t sleep as much as I should, but it’s the writing that keeps me sane. It also reminds and humbles me about how hard it is to have an above average song. Everybody has real good songs, but that and a dollar won’t get you a cup of coffee in this town. Right now I’m producing John King. The studio process never gets old. Being part of the magic and breathing that air with the artist and musicians. But the majority of my time is really about content…
NEKST: What’s your A&R roster like?
Doug Johnson: In the case of John King the songs mostly come from within. He’s a great songwriter and co-writing most of his record, but we still keep reaching out and looking for songs. He’s done two showcases for the creative community and is starting to get some cuts. I’m also spending a tremendous amount of time looking for that one magic song for Kellie Pickler—to connect the dots between who she is and what she does. We all believe in her, plus she’s a great writer, too. Then we have Kelsea Ballerini who is 21 and an amazing songwriter who leans pop but loves country and is a star. And soon we’ll be song searching for Craig Morgan’s new project.
NEKST: How do you know if the artist and song will be that perfect match?
Doug Johnson: You have to get to know the artist, who they are, what they want (and don’t want) to say. A great song can come from anywhere. There might be somebody at the Bluebird this week who never had a cut, but in a few years becomes one of the top guys on your Songwriter chart. I attend as many live songwriter nights as possible. And of course, publisher and songwriter relationships are essential. Our format has always been about people relating to great songs. But it’s challenging to find artist-specific songs that can stick out while fitting in at the same time.
NEKST: Do A&R execs still bother with holds?
Doug Johnson: We do, but you have to manage it. I put two songs on hold yesterday for Kellie. I’ll hold them about a week, long enough to get an answer from her. This process needs guidelines because we’ve all heard stories about someone who kept a song for 18 months, but never made a record. So we have to communicate. Mainly it’s about finding a song you love so much you are staying up at night figuring how to cut it right away before anybody else hears it.
NEKST: Can superstars sometimes steal a song even while you have it on hold?
Doug Johnson: It happens. A few weeks ago a major publisher called to say, “A very successful artist is interested in the song you have on hold. Where are you with it?” Within two hours I was able to say, “We aren’t sure enough on this song to hold it in this situation, but if the artist doesn’t end up cutting it we would like to re-hold it and have a little more time.”
NEKST: Publishers are under pressure because revenue streams are all about hit singles.
Doug Johnson: And it takes so long for a single to develop, especially from new artists. It’s about career songs —whatever the evasive little sucker is—and everybody needs them. I still wake up every day and go easter egg hunting. The young guys and gals coming to town are just amazing, especially those that don’t know what you can’t do. They are the ones that will keep this place rockin’.
NEKST: Do shrinking sales impact A&R strategy?
Doug Johnson: Maybe in the ‘90s we sold so many records that we tricked ourselves into believing we were in the record business, but we are in the entertainment business—developing stars and being part of their career. Recording costs have come down in some cases and we do have social media opportunities, but wholesale record prices are way down. Promoting a record also costs more and takes longer than ever. So yes, we are in the middle of some big changes. It probably becomes mainly a streaming business at some point. Therefore how writers, publishers and record companies get paid, is also evolving. In my corner I continue to focus on the one thing I know for sure will still matter—hits.
NEKST: So A&R execs have to pick talent extra carefully?
Doug Johnson: Record companies have a lot of skin in the game so it’s critical to choose an artist you believe has an incredible future. In the ‘90s we were able to take a lot of shots and if only a few of them worked everyone was fine. Now we have to be more careful. Lately there’s a lot of talk asking “Is Top 40 country truly servicing all of the country fans now?” The pendulum has always swung, but it might be nice to have the next Randy Travis remind people how great traditional country music is. The demo for Bro country (I don’t really like that term) is probably aimed at a younger male demo. Is the country consumer really younger or are we just aiming at that segment right now?
NEKST: Have we veered too close to the pop flame?
Doug Johnson: Country fans will tell us based upon what they’re buying. We just have to listen. And that’s not just downloads or albums, it’s tickets and t-shirts. When we offer a broader platform again we’ll see what people respond to and buy. Or perhaps streaming will make sales obsolete because why do you need to own a file when you can hear it on every device you have in your life?
NEKST: Has streaming also blurred the lines between formats?
Doug Johnson: People’s musical tastes are more versatile than ever. When I was growing up we’d have parties and all the girls would bring their 45 rpm singles —anything from the Rolling Stones to a country song. The only difference now is everyone brings their 45s on a cell phone. We finally have a jukebox in the sky and people are using more music than ever. We have challenges about what is fair with regard to how people get paid, but the technology is thrilling. Lisa and I sometimes sit with writers from NY or LA and play them records. You hear some of what they love and then say, “Here’s where that came from” Carole King’s Tapestry is probably the album I most love giving to young female artists. It’s like a book you want everyone to read.
NEKST: Do you listen to pop songs?
Doug Johnson: There’s some darn good country songs on pop radio right now. Our artist Glen Templeton covered the Passenger song “Let Her Go.” It’s getting played on XM—great song and lyric. The record “Bang Bang,” is just insane and so exciting especially from a producer/engineer perspective. Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” is amazing. I pay attention to the subject matter for pop radio females. Are the lyrics strong and empowering or just about a good time? Our formats can be so close musically and people aren’t that different, so how is it that pop females are doing incredibly well and country is challenged with respect to female artists? Women buy a lot of country records and so for a female artist to have a record that a women wants to buy they have to connect in a certain way.
NEKST: What’s the best way to pitch you songs?
Doug Johnson: I love to get CDs because of the amount of traveling I do in the car. But I also love it when a songwriter or publisher sends me an MP3s and says, “I just heard this I think it is great.” Dropbox and links are also fine.
NEKST: So I can drop it off on plastic or email it—you’re flexible. When pluggers visit do they plug a device into your sound system?
Doug Johnson: Often they’ll have music on a laptop. I also enjoy going to the publisher’s office where they have the entire catalog because you never know—you say something and the publisher thinks, “Wow I forgot about this song.” It’s really about the song and not how it arrives.