When listening to Frank Liddell talk about music, it doesn’t take long to recognize how deeply passionate he is about musicians, artists, songs and songwriters. Liddell is the co-founder and Creative Head of Carnival Music an independent publishing company which has helped writers such as Bruce Robison, Scooter Carusoe, Natalie Hemby, Troy Jones and David Nail each achieve their first No. 1 hit. The Houston-born publisher is also at home in the studio and has produced all of Miranda Lambert’s albums, the Pistol Annies plus projects for David Nail, Stoney LaRue’s Texas Music Association Album of the Year Velvet and more. “Producing is a vague term,” smiles Liddell. “I can’t really take credit for the things that I do, but I’ll assume responsibility.”
Liddell is a member of the CMA and serves on the Board of Directors for the ACM and the National Academy Of Recording Arts and Sciences, where he is also a member of the Producers & Engineers Wing. In 2012 he was honored by the Academy of Country Music with its Producer of the Year trophy.
NEKST: Are these are tough times for publishers?
Frank Liddell: Absolutely. We struggle like everybody else. Carnival, started with one great songwriter that nobody else in this town wanted—Bruce Robison. He’s written No. 1s like “Angry All The Time,” “Traveling Soldier,” and “Wrapped.” I guess we’re independent-minded spirits. From the day Carnival opened I’ve always said, “If you open a store on the same block as Wal-Mart you better have something they don’t.” As Carnival started to have success and become a real publishing company our competitors became Warner/Chappell, Sony, etc. The Wal-Marts of music publishing. What I personally want to do with Carnival is amass a catalog of unique songs that continues to grow in value and importance. To do that we need to figure out new ways to pay for it. It used to be a new songwriter would come to town and get a $30-$40k draw and maybe even co-pub. But there were lots of artists out there and everyone was making a record a year and songs climbed the charts faster. It was easier to get out of trouble. Now it’s a lot harder to figure out how to stay with a person for a long time. Bruce Robison’s “Angry All The Time” was nine years old and “Travelin’ Soldier” was 12 years old when they became No. 1 songs. So the question is, “How do you find people you really believe in and stick with them?” You can’t afford to get $300k in the hole on a writer any more, cause you can’t recoup in your typical deal. The financial business model for independents like us is evolving, but needs to be improved. Meanwhile, the most important thing for Carnival is to make sure we remain the home of the Bruce Robisons of the world and showcase great, unique songs. We won’t get on every record, but when we do, it’s special.
Nekst: What about mechanicals?
Frank Liddell: Look at the country sales charts this week. The No. 2 record wouldn’t have made it into the Top 50, twenty years ago. Also I worry because people have been getting music for free for so long. Will that ever change? But water has been mostly free for thousands of years and we figured a way to get people to pay for that. I just have faith something will get worked out in the next ten years. In the meantime, all we can do is try to make this a more creative company, get our songs recorded, develop talent and turn them into successful artists.
NEKST: Are 360 deals a solution?
Frank Liddell: One of my problems with the way 360 deals get discussed is people say, “We want a piece of your publishing.” But if you are a real publisher you know that “publish” is a verb not a noun. Everybody wants a piece of the publishing, but nobody wants to be a publisher.
Nekst: Are producers like musical tailors tasked with finding songs that are a great fit for the artist?
Frank Liddell: Kind of. You have to ask yourself if the artist is comfortable in the clothes you are picking out? Are they making the record that he or she wants to make? Sometimes the artist says, “I’ve been wearing Wranglers my whole life. That is who I am and you aren’t going to change it.” My job is to translate that artist’s heart and desire faithfully in this process. But sometimes that means saying, “You’ve been wearing the same Wranglers for 20 years. Try these new pants on.” Sometimes an artist needs to grow and be pushed. I’m making a record with my wife, Lee Ann Womack. Before starting she said, “I’ve always just wanted to make a record where there’s not much on it, just me right in the middle.” She’s already worn a lot of different “clothes” in her career and had success and knew exactly what she wanted.
Nekst: What are your thoughts about Nashville’s musical trajectory?
Frank Liddell: I sit on boards and meet with businessmen that have been here as long or longer than me. I’m very respectful of their acumen for bringing success to their company and/or artists. But I’m also a bit bored as well. I came here because I love music. I don’t care what anybody looks like, I love records. You get in a room with a hundred executives and you hear everybody saying the future is this or that. The most compelling thing about Nashville is its name—Music City. The two people I have the most respect for in our business are writers and musicians. If I left town tomorrow somebody would fill my shoes (if they haven’t already,) I’m just another guy. But there simply isn’t another Brent Mason. There’s not another “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” I guarantee the powers that be walk around saying, “I’m the one that got that thing promoted and made it No. 1.” Yes, what they do is really important, but more important to me are the people who create the music—the musicians and songwriters.
NEKST: What about the economics of the business?
Frank Liddell: I’m pissed because if I have a song on a record it’s not making as much money as it did ten years ago. I’m depressed about my bottom line and the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a solution. I’ve talked to some of the most powerful people in our industry and each one gives me a different answer about what is going to happen, meaning nobody knows. And yet there are kids going to school in Levelland, Texas and all they want to do is play the guitar. And guess where they are moving? Nashville. More people are moving here to make music than ever. If I tell them the value of a copyright has diminished do you think they care? If someone will pay them $50 to play on a demo or sit in at a club they’re thrilled. I don’t know everything about the state of the music business, but I know that what feeds this town and keeps it Music City is alive and well and that makes me happy.