Mark Bright, one of Nashville’s most successful producers, has credits that stretch back to 1993 when Arista Records head Tim DuBois gave the young talent the break he needed—an opportunity to co-produce BlackHawk. The band sold over 4 million albums earning Bright a solid chunk of musical real estate on the country charts. The Texas-to-Nashville transplant has since helmed musical projects for Reba McEntire, Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina, Rascal Flatts and Idol winner Carrie Underwood. Bright and Underwood have sold over 14 million albums and scored eighteen No. 1s with songs like “Before He Cheats,” “Cowboy Casanova,” “Blown Away,” and “Jesus Take The Wheel.”
Bright arrived in Nashville in 1981 and attended Belmont University. In classic music biz style his career began in the tape room at Screen Gems/EMI Music where he rose to VP over a 12-year period. A few years after EMI, Bright co-formed Teracel as a joint venture with Sony/ATV around 1999. Fortuitously, he signed a kid whose Arista record deal had failed and who had returned to medical school in Oklahoma. The writer, Brett James, scored 44 recordings in the first year of his contract. Teracel was sold in 2005, reportedly with the highest multiple ever paid for a joint venture at that time.
Other Bright successes have included a stint as CEO of Christian record label Word Entertainment from 2008-10 and the formation of My Good Girl Music which in 2011 was renamed Chatterbox, a joint venture/master rights company with Sony/ATV and EMI.
In the following conversation Bright tells NEKST he’s more involved in artist development than ever before and candidly discusses how producers are being affected by shrinking sales. He also confides why he leaves the studio to serve on industry boards like the CMA, plus offers definite opinions about preserving Nashville’s musical history, the Bro country trend and more… read on
NEKST: How do you approach working with a new artist?
Mark Bright: Let’s talk about Ryan Griffin, an artist we signed to RCA and have worked with for about two years. Kirsten Wines (A&R Mark Bright Productions) and I heard the little bit of music that he had, and both loved it. We’ve been partners for years through all these musical adventures and she has a distinctly different viewpoint than I do. But we agreed on Ryan. We started getting him involved in co-writes with people in our world and on stage to see how he would communicate with his audience, how he would cast and how many fans he could catch. Fortunately he had some good basic knowledge about what he wanted to do with his audience. Basically it was A&R artist development. We also added media presence and how to connect and engage fans in a particular way so others could see he is a real artist. He was passed on by several labels, but we felt strongly we had the right music. When we visited with Jim Catino, he immediately got it and then label head Gary Overton got on board, too.
NEKST: So lets zoom in on the music production. How’d that work?
Mark Bright: People can pigeonhole you as a traditional guy who listens to songs, casts a group of musicians and finally adds overdubs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact one of the great things about the culture of Nashville is we still have a group of live players that will interact with each other at some point on most of our records. But we also have a younger generation of musicians, like Ryan, who can program fantastic sounding sonic tidbits. So sometimes we start a song outside of the studio as a pure program piece and then take it into the studio with live players and add the human element while playing to the programed track.
Mark Bright: Exactly. People are creating great sounds, but I know we still have to sell these things and therefore put it in a form that our culture of country music listeners (who are getting younger all the time) are going to be pulled to. Sometimes the programming can sound a bit gooey sonically so we interpret what they are doing musically and add focus.
NEKST: Like lanes on a highway?
Mark Bright: Yes. Putting sounds in their proper sonic space. Like if you have a bass guitar sound that is fundamentally 60 cycles and your kick drum sound is also 60 cycles, they will sort of mask each other and in effect cancel each other out.
NEKST: Sounds like sonic word processing?
Mark Bright: In some cases it means starting over, but often we take what was created in the demo process and use it as a part of the master. I’m not scared to do that.
NEKST: You’ve produced classic songs like “Jesus Take The Wheel.” Is finding a great song still essential?
Mark Bright: Absolutely. Often we find ourselves with a young artist who sings and looks great. Maybe they also have good writing skills, but they don’t have the song. The artist probably has never had anything get into the market and they don’t know what it can feel like to have your song rejected. They don’t understand how much money gets spent promoting these songs and how much they are going to have to recoup from a failed single.
NEKST: What is your song search process?
Mark Bright: We are an open book. One of Kirsten’s jobs is to get songs from those younger writers. She weeds through them carefully. If a song makes it to the point where we play it for the artist, it’s because we think it could be a hit, and those words don’t come out of my mouth very often. Most of the writing community in that next group up or the top group have my email or my phone number. When they feel like they have that next big hit for one of my projects they can send it to me right away. It’s nothing for me to go through 200-250 songs in a week.
NEKST: Do you like links, files or CDs?
Mark Bright: It doesn’t really matter, but it’s easier to keep track of links or files via email than loose CDs.
NEKST: I guess it depends upon how well you organize your digital world?
Mark Bright: Yes. I got behind on that a few years back, but now I have a really good way of organizing those files and moving them so they aren’t stuck on that hard drive.
NEKST: Any special software that you use?
Mark Bright: More and more writers are becoming aware of Dropbox. We’ve used it professionally for our studio files for years because it is easy to manage large files. And it is available on every screen you work on. But I still also carry around an iPod with nothing but Dropbox files on it.
NEKST: You were just elected to the CMA Board.
Mark Bright: I’m so excited about that.
NEKST: Unlike most producers who tend to stay tucked away in the studio, you also served on Boards for Leadership Music and NARAS. Why?
Mark Bright: There’s so much that you don’t pick up stowed away in a room with no windows making records. Obviously I love that, but I’ve always tried to be a good student of the business, learn more about how all the pieces fit together and the new technologies we need to be involved in as an industry. Secondly, it hasn’t been lost on me that there are music producers like myself that are seeing their incomes go down by as much as 80% as a direct result of shrinking physical and digital sales. So I am also interested in helping the CMA Board to understand what is happening to our little piece of the pie. The larger community needs to know that our way of life for producers, what sustains us, is being siphoned away. I don’t want to be in the 360 business, I want to be in the record-making business, but producers may have to embrace new deals in order to survive.
NEKST: What about musically? How do you feel about Bro country and the format attracting a younger crowd?
Mark Bright: I’m delighted by it honestly. Bro country has served a specific and much needed spot. It was just the followers that came around and diluted it. And it’s opened the door to new artists like Sam Hunt who everyone is talking about and is getting traction. I remember when only female artists were selling records and we had to play by a very narrow set of rules about how those records could sound. Before that the neo-traditionalists like George Strait and Randy Travis opened the door for the class of ’89 and then newer sounds like Blackhawk. Sure, I’m keyed up because we haven’t had a legit female artist break probably since Taylor Swift. But if history serves it will happen again and I want to be the one that has it. I am a big fan of anything different that works in this format because it helps expand what the listener base will bear.
NEKST: Is it possible that country has peaked on this cycle?
Mark Bright: Yes. Sometimes when we reach the top of a cycle we enter a vast wasteland. Hopefully some new artists will fill that gap better this time. I don’t see anything wrong with our audience skewing younger, it stretches the confines of what country music sounds like. We traditionally complain about it but it’s good for the format.
NEKST: Studio A, SoundShop and other studio landmarks are being torn down and/or threatened. What’s most important—the building, music makers or both?
Mark Bright: From a business standpoint it is the music, but spiritually the building plays a big part. I love the studios and the people who run them. Working all those years in the basement of EMI publishing, the Rat Hole studio, meant a lot to me. The feeling of knowing how every piece of equipment worked and interacted with the room. I do think it is important to preserve the Sound Emporiums and RCA Studio Bs of the world. Those that were truly a part of the musical history and soul of our industry. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but walking into Starstruck, a room where I’ve recorded 18 #1s gives me a feeling of confidence. There is a unique and real spiritual presence. That wood talks to me. So did we need to preserve the Rat Hole? Maybe not. But the RCA studio A and its building still are exactly the way they were and that is worth saving.