How To Make A Hit Record

That was the name of the NAMM panel I was on this morning.

I thought it was referencing how to make a record a hit. But everybody else thought it was about creating a hit. And they all had.

I ran into Jack Douglas outside. He told me he’d been working with Joe Perry. Great to see people still excited about music. Hell, that’s the thing about NAMM itself, it’s an alternative universe. Ostensibly an insider merchandiser meeting, everybody can get a pass if they want one, and they get one, and they make the pilgrimage. Even at 9 AM you could see the throngs marching towards the Convention Center. You can tell by the look. Musicians and music fans just appear a bit different. They’re scruffy. Longer hair. Not completely put together. It’s what inside that counts.

So then Bob Clearmountain arrives and this foreign guy starts pitching gear. Everybody’s into the gear, Jack testified this was good stuff. I don’t know who’s buying and who’s being comped, but you get to check it out on their dime first. Can I say I’m into gear, I LOVE IT!

And then when we’re ascending the stage, Tony Brown gets my ear.

What everybody forgets about Nashville is it’s the south. These people have an accent. For someone brought up in New England and living in Los Angeles it’s still a shock, even though I lived for years with a woman from Tallahassee, which is more like Georgia than Miami in case you didn’t know, she had an accent. And the truth is we northerners judge the southerners, it’s in our roots. And the culture is different and they do speak differently. They’re not direct like New Yorkers, while riding in the car with you they don’t say to roll up the window, but that they’re a little bit cold, you have to interpret, they don’t want to offend you, took me years to catch on.

So Tony’s whispering to me that the last panel he was on they didn’t let him speak. And I’ve been on panels like this, someone hogs the mic, and is oftentimes boring to boot, so I make a mental note to let him get his turn.

Meanwhile, he’s got a look.

It’s 10:15 in the morning and Tony’s got the full-on rooster hairdo and the jewelry and the leather wrap around his wrist and I’m both cracking up and smiling. I don’t know whether the bear ate him or he ate the bear. Whether he was a unique guy to begin with or whether the success and the fame made him this way.

So the first question is what record you’re most proud of. Jack Douglas says “Walk This Way” and “Starting Over.” Then he tells the inspiration for the former. They were hung up in the studio and the band took a break and went to see “Young Frankenstein” and when they heard those words in the movie, Marty Feldman imploring Gene Wilder to WALK THIS WAY, they were inspired and VOILA!

Tony talked about Reba. And then Vince Gill and George Strait and the funniest thing was for a guy who was worried about getting a word in edgewise, you couldn’t shut him up! I heard later that he was all fired up for the panel the night before, he certainly behaved like it.

And Clearmountain’s going on about the Stones and to tell you the truth I’m a bit intimidated, everybody’s got one helluva CV, including Nashville songwriter Dale Dodson.

But it’s Tony that’s cracking me up.

He and Dale start laying out the Nashville system. They rail on about radio and gatekeepers and streaming and Tony says he loves Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” but there’s no room for women on country radio and Dale doubles down and that’s when I drop the nuclear bomb, how that’s the past and streaming is the future. That we must follow the hip-hop paradigm. It’s all about reaction, whether you get one or not, and radio is last. Every format is migrating to streaming, radio means less and less, and we’ve got winners and losers and the data will tell you which one you are right away.

But then it became about music you’d worked on that you never thought would become a hit and…

Clearmountain mentions “Avalon,” he mixed it. I about swooned. You know when someone touches your heart… Clearmountain says he still plays the album today, so do I, so do so many people, that’s a true hit.

And then Tony gets on a rant and I can’t stop listening to him, I’m eating it up, he’s talking about what defines a hit and then I ask him…IS THE NEW JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE/CHRIS STAPLETON SONG A HIT?

And Tony says NO!

Whew! That’s what’s valuable about the aged and experienced, they KNOW! And that’s worth something. I’m watching the video last night thinking whether I’m the only guy who thinks this track isn’t good enough. Isn’t it obvious? Didn’t we learn this with Taylor Swift? Can’t anybody say no? Is this the best they can do?

Maybe. U2’s been trying to have a hit for eons and has been unsuccessful, maybe they just can’t do it anymore.

And then Jack changes the conversation to hobbyism, saying that every song can’t hit and you’ve got to own who you are and have fun.

Which is when Tony starts testifying about Americana music. Going on how these acts gross $10 million without any hits.

So I interrupt him, which ain’t easy, he’s into his flow…


And Tony says NO!

Thank god! That’s what I like about professionals, they know the score.

He lauded Isbell for selling seven nights at the Ryman, for having a passionate fan base, for writing good songs, BUT THEY’RE NOT HITS!

And then, of course, during the Q&A we got statements instead of questions, which drives me nuts.

But after it was all over, I had to talk to Tony, to make nice, to connect.

Turns out he’s 71. He looks nearly a decade younger, I’ll let you decide why.

And he starts telling me about working with Elvis. How he’s playing keyboards for the opening act and Elvis’s piano player moves on to Emmylou and Tony steps up and says I CAN DO THIS! And they give him the job and it’s all groovy until Elvis dies and he’s out of luck, but the same dude he replaced with Elvis leaves Emmylou and he gets that gig and ultimately becomes a producer. Not that anybody wants to give him that job, he’s got to fight for it, but he delivers and…

Every word coming from his mouth is gold. How some of his greatest productions were never even RELEASED!

How he’s putting out a coffee table book of country star photos because nobody would want to buy his autobiography. How he paid five hundred bucks to see Van Morrison at the Ryman and the Man didn’t play a single song he knew, although he dug it, even though the three friends with him were pissed.

And he reminded me he cut Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache,” and the hook was the intro.

And Tony’s so old school. Talking about sales. But if every one of his words didn’t ring true, the stories, the presence…

Once upon a time that was the goal, to get inside, the club, the studio, and everybody on the panel had been there. It got the blood flowing in a jaded jerk like me. Not in some basement room, some home studio, but in the big space where the time is tripping by in triple dollar digits and it’s all important and you’re there to make money and change the world.

That’s what it’s all about, changing the world.


How to Make a Hit Record

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