Michael Blanton on Life Lessons, The Music Business, and Songwriting
March 2020 Issue | Courtesty of Worship Musician
Interview by Alexander MacDougall
Michael Blanton is a legend in the Christian music and mainstream industries. As a label head, manager, and visionary, he has been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, was awarded the “Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award” from Abilene Christian University, is a board member of Lipscomb University, and co-founded the hugely impactful Reunion Records and Publishing. It was my great pleasure to visit with Mike in his Nashville office recently and listen to his wise counsel on the business and creation of, music. [WM] Mike, you have a remarkable story. I remember first meeting you when we were both young and somewhat just “starting out”, and since then, you’ve had many great successes but also some disappointments as well. What have the extremes of these dynamics taught you, and how did a west Texas boy end up in downtown Nashville? [Michael Blanton] (laughs) Number one they’ve taught me to be grateful. I have learned to be more merciful and more patient. Ultimately at the end of the day I am grateful. The good days, the bad days, the miscommunication days, I am very grateful for. Life will teach you that. If you buck it, life will still bring you to your knees. [WM] So many absolutely classic album releases have come out under your direction. Projects by Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, any many more, allowed you to make a huge impact upon our many lives. These were wildly risky yet robust times for Christian music, and far more impactful than church musicians today probably realize. Frank Zappa’s assessment of past recording history taking risks rings so true today. What stories can Christian songwriters craft that are not being told today? [Michael] Well, I think we have to go back. Talking as a Christian listening audience we got our feelings hurt when we started embracing robust CCM music. We thought, “You know, this is going to be fun”. We’ve got our “Madonna”, we’ve got Michael W. Smith. We saw this explosion of Christian artists. What embarrassed us is we found out these people aren’t perfect, either. Whether it’s Amy (Grant) going through a divorce, or you can pick anybody’s story. We have this brokenness. If you haven’t run the wheels off, you are going to run the wheels off. In the world of entertainment you are going so fast. We do get intoxicated by the fan appeal. Somebody likes what I’m doing. If you are selling, or now streaming, selling tickets, you are thinking you are doing something. Back then in those days it was so energizing to feel like we are truly making contact with the real world. But then the real world does what the real world does... it humbles you. You realize by the grace of God, I can’t hold this together, I can’t be perfect. I can’t hold my life together. But then we as a listening group started saying, “We need to get back to scripture and God. Zappa By Alexander MacDougall Forget about the artist. Let’s just worship God. Let’s get in that lane. We don’t need to worry about the imperfect people. We just talk about the perfect lyrics. We can just focus on that. We needed a little bit of a reset.” But now today we are in a culture that is changing so fast that weneed new poets. We need new lyrics that really express honesty, brokenness, redemption, and healing in a different way that we have ever used those terms. I’m on the lookout for those new artists that are going to be able to speak to a different culture setting. Kids today don’t even know if there is a God. How do we even address that? I heard Tim Keller use a term the other day that I loved. People are walking into conversations and the same mental furniture that we used twenty years ago is not in the room. They are walking in to a whole new set. We need to find new ways to sell those lyrics. We don’t call this the “lyric business”, we call it the music business. I still think as Christians we tend to walk away from the power of music, just the power of chord changes and heart coming through chords and music. And then the power of lyrics on top of that is just incredibly important. I’ve been lucky to have lived a few years of watching great music and great lyrics. Obviously, everything you do is not at a “10”. We have to push for that again. We tend to go, “This is a Bible verse”, and then we put a song with it. We don’t put nearly as much as God did into that verse. Part of our creativity is challenging each other to make better music, while we are using great lyrics, either original or from scripture. [WM] Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail from 2006 was incredibly prophetic in foretelling March 2020 Subscribe for Free... 43
what is now the norm in music business. The notion that our music incomes would be derived from many multiple revenue streams and notsimply a couple, could not have been more spot on. What do you advise entrepreneurial songwriters and musicians about what has come to pass over the last 15 years? [Michael] I probably meet with artists at least once a week to have this very conversation. A part of it is at our age. You just have to embrace the world we are in, you cannot and go back and say, “I’m waiting for a label to find me”. It’s time to make music. Post a song, or post two songs. If you get a reaction be realistic with the reaction. If people are passing it along and they are loving it then just go, “Okay, I hit something”. If nobody is reacting to it, and it’s up on Spotify and you have two streams happening, understand that nobody likes your music. No matter how much you love it, nobody else does. You have to learn to embrace that this is our new game. You have to play the game. It doesn’t mean that what you are writing isn’t real or authentic to you. It means you have to be happy with two streams, or read the writing on the wall saying you are not connecting with people. It may be the music. It may be the lyrics, or just the way you tried to put it out there. What are you doing on social media? You need to be posting. Social media and YouTube are the biggest discovery options. People are going to go there to see what you look like. I’m more about just embracing it. My kids and all these kids are just listening on earbuds. I grew up in a time where I had these huge Boston Acoustic speakers where there was a quality of sound. That was hard for me to give up, the sonic beauty of it all. [WM] I’ve always admired you for breaking away from a label (Word Records) at such a young age (Mike laughs), and along with Dan (Harrell), forming Reunion Records and Publishing. It was a gutsy move. Do you think having an academic background at Abilene Christian University helped you in your mature decision-making during this time? What can you tell us about this? [Michael] I tell you what Abilene Christian did for me was teach me how to deal with people and build a network, which is still important. Those artists that come in here to meet with me, I’m telling them to build a network. Mark Maxwell wrote a book recently about Networking Kills. Do not network. His point is you have to learn to serve people. It’s not about building your own network. It’s about building up friendships that you can serve. Take that little piece of it. Abilene taught me how to do that. Not because of my education. Not because I went to every class. Not because I have a degree. It helped me to mature in my early twenties and learn how to connect with people and how to serve people. I think if you are going to do anything in this 44 March 2020 Subscribe for Free...
industry you have to have the heart that wants to know and love people. It’s not about trophies on your lapel. It’s really about connections you get to serve, and hopefully they serve you in some way. [WM] It seems as though many of us were chasing a cause, and not necessarily farsighted enough to consider it all a career. What’s yourperspective on this? [Michael] I’ll back up and tell you when I was in high school, I told my Mom, who just turned ninety, that I wanted to move to Los Angeles and be in the entertainment industry. Music, film, I actually really wanted to be an actor, or something goofy like Pat Sajak running a game show. I wanted to be an entertainer. My Mom looked at me directly as she could and said, “There is no way you can do that”. I said, “Well why?” She said, “Christians can’t do that. It will eat you alive”. I remember walking away, so disheartened. Knowing what I know now, she was certainly speaking wisdom. She also inspired something inside of me to go, “You can still be a person of faith and still beincredibly open and creative to saying let’s go do this”. Even if your desire is being on top of the Grammy’s winning the top awards there is a way to go do it. She inspired me by saying you can’t do it, but that was kind of like throwing gasoline on a fire. By the time I came out of college I thought, “How do we change the world?” I wanted to be a person who was authentic in their faith, but creatively off the charts, and participate in creating many different things. [WM] I was reading Psalm 71 recently and came across verse 18 (CEB), which says, “So, even in my old age with gray hair, don’t abandon me, God! Not until I tell generations about your mighty arm, tell all who are yet to come about your strength”. The Songwriting University website has several great positioning statements including, “Discover the Music in You”, and that you exist to “Discover and Mentor the Next Generation of Songwriters. Mentoring is a wonderful exercise for us older folks, and that’s a great promise that your involvement with Songwriting University in Nashville affords to young and aspiring songwriters. Tell us about this new venture. [Michael] I loved it for two reasons. First, I felt like it was honoring the songwriters of Nashville. Not just of Nashville, but songwriting. It was an opportunity to circle around something so iconic to Nashville. What I loved was the heartbeat of that. The mentoring is a piece of that. With this digital platform you can have Songwriting University Alex MacDougall + Michael Blanton March 2020 Subscribe for Free... 45
Billy Sprague write with someone from Topeka. They can work on a song together. Anytime you collaborate there is life given. There is shared creative heart and spirit. What really got me excited is how SU honors songwriters. Writers used to be able to get a publishing deal with Sony or twenty other places and you’d get a stipend to live off while you wrote. If Keith Urban signed to cut your song - great, but it would be eighteen months before you’d see any money coming in. Meanwhile you are living off that stipend. There used to be 4,500 different writers in Nashville with publishing deals, but today it’s around 350. What has happened is that the publishers can’t sustain paying stipends just off a streaming scenario. When we used to have full album sales that would sustain all of the songwriters when there was a hit, we don’t have that anymore. As we go into this new world, which we have to embrace, then there has to be new creative hearts and 46 spirit. What I love about Songwriting U is their ability to honor those writers and say, instead of Uber driving you can co-write with this writer from Topeka, and you’ll be paid immediately. So, it is an immediate honoring of songwriters on our faculty. It is also a mentoring service for someone that can’t move to Nashville and lives in Topeka because they have a family and needs to support them. It’s a great intersection. [WM] I like how there is a full menu of options including a number of online songwriting sessions, face-to-face meetings, bundled packages, demo recording, publishing assistance, etc. And so much of today’s music is collaborative in nature, which can be a great confidence builder to those just starting out. I know several of your faculty members and they are extremely talented and write for multiple music genres. Tell us more about this? into one genre. I want to help fan the flame for young Christian writers who feel like they might want to write Worship music, or are part of a new wave, a CCM lane writing honest lyrics. The point is that I want to fan that flame. Let’s make sure we are developing something that’sgoing to go beyond location. It’s about all genres, and supporting people who go, “Man, I love EDM music”. If you’re an EDM writer, you can co-write with our faculty. We are adding faculty constantly. [WM] I teach my worship and music business students that they must learn not to simply carry a guitar case, but a briefcase as well, and that it’s easy to become savvy in music business concerns that were once overwhelming in scope for musicians and songwriters. I can point to myself as an example of learning the hard way. What encouragement would you offer towards this perspective? [Michael] The point is let’s not get locked March 2020 Subscribe for Free...
[Michael] In the last three to five years I’ve felt like God is saying, “That’s great you have a two-lane highway (my work with Amy and Michael and as a manager), but how about an eight-lane highway”? What could that look like? Songwriting U is definitely one of those. For me I’m also in the film lane. Whatever it was like in the early 80’s with CCM we are on the brink of that with film, or maybe a little past. Contemporary Christian films are going to have an impact. I’m working with a guy named Terry Benedict who did Hacksaw Ridge, and we’re working on a slate of films. It’s the same creative heart. Taking the same creative idea and bring it to fruition and impact. Think broader then one lane! I had a family talk to me about their son who is just a great guitar player. That’s not broad enough. You’ve to think broader than that. You’ve got to be thinking about music publishing, sync, about social media, YouTube videos to post, feature films. Open up your eight lanes! [WM] Let’s talk about the songwriting contest and collaborative song process that is currently underway with Songwriting University. How are the copyright registration and related publishing and mechanical splits handled with the songs submitted? Is the cash prize an advance against future songwriter royalties? [Michael] No and no. It’s a way to brand us. We are not asking for anything. We are not taking any publishing from the writer. If you post three songs and you win, you get $10,000. Simple, clean and straight ahead! If we were to hear a song in that process that we would want to work with, then we would come back and work that out after the deal. The contest is not based upon you signing that kind of commitment. [WM] The music business and related consumer behavior practices have changed radically over the past two decades. Nashville, America’s “Music City”, has also changed quite a bit during this same timeframe, but it’s still a wonderful place of opportunity and community for musicians, songwriters, videographers and filmmakers. Your Songwriting University allows some of that synergy to be extended via online relationships, and that’s a very good thing. What say you? [Michael] Absolutely. This has been in development for three years. There is a young woman songwriter from Knoxville who has participated in songwriting and what we discovered is that she has an amazing voice. We have her in doing demos, which has led into artist development. No one can promise it can turn into a career, but now the dominoes are in place. The artist development lane is the heart and soul of what I like to do. [WM] As a professional I’m convinced that “soft” skills are not only a critical component towards a successful career or calling, but also form a solid framework for representing Christ in the workplace. Common courtesy and kindness go a long way in building and maintaining relationships and are representations of our character. I know that you could speak to this as a successful Christian and music executive. What are your thoughts on this? [Michael] Wow. I don’t think you can be critical and be thankful at the same time. Get on one side or the other. A lot of people are being trained to be bitter, divisive, antagonistic, if you stay in that lane it causes you to be more caustic to everyone you meet. You have to decide if there anything in your life you can be thankful for. Is there anything you don’t deserve? You got to get on one side or the other. It affects every person and everything you do. It starts with me. If you can’t be caring, kind, generous, and serving, then that’s a miserable ending to the years you are alive. [WM] In closing, I’d like to ask you a serious (lighthearted) question. If you could import a real Texas barbeque joint to Nashville, which one would it be, and would you stand in line every week for brisket? [Michael] (laughs) There is a steak house in Buffalo Gap, Texas, called Perini’s. I happen to be in a men’s group, and we order the beef tenderloin about every other month. It’s the best. It’s phenomenal, and yes, I would go stand in line tonight to go get it! [WM] Thank you Michael for this time. What a pleasure it’s been to spend time with you. I really appreciate it.