By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com
Is there anything that Michael Knox can’t do? Since Knox helped to propel Jason Aldean to Super-Stardom, he has become one of the most sought-after producers in Country Music. His body of production work also includes Trace Adkins, Thomas Rhett, Big SMO, Kelly Clarkson, Ludacris, Luke Bryan & Eric Church, Montgomery Gentry, Bush Hawg, Rachel Farley, Randy Owen, Josh Thompson, Frankie Ballard, Danni Leigh, Hank Williams Jr., Brother Trouble, Chuck Wicks and music production on the Hit TV series NASHVILLE.
Some of Michael’s more recent accomplishments include the 2011 CMA Album of the Year “My Kinda Party” Jason Aldean, the 2012 ACM Single Record of the Year – Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay”, the 2012 ACM Vocal Event of the Year – Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay” and the 2013 ACM Vocal Event of the Year “The Only Way I Know” Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Eric Church.
Now add to that Michael’s current Grammy Nomination for Best Country Album (Jason Aldean’s NIGHT TRAIN).
Jason Aldean’s “Night Train” was Knox’s 12th No 1 single and Thomas Rhett’s latest single, “It Goes Like This,” marks Knox’s 13th No.1 on the country charts.
As Senior Creative Director at Peer Music, for the past 3 years, Michael’s stats have also gone through the roof.
“We just won ‘Song of the Year’ with “How Country Feels” by Randy Houser. We’ve had a lot of cuts and a lot of big singles over the past two years. Neil Thrasher and Vicky McGehee are our writers on that song. I signed both of them. Peer brought me on to run the creative department here. We started with a clean slate with no writers and brought in Vicky and Neil, then I brought in Michael Tyler, then we got Jaron Boyer. I hired Kim Wiggins upstairs to help do the song-plugging and run the creative department up there, then I signed Rachel Farley and Shaun Ames of Bush Hawg.”
And now, with Senior Creative Director Shalacy Griffin, Knox has launched his new production/management company MUSIC KNOX, with the signing of Rachel Farley (Red Bow), whose single “Ain’t Easy” was the #1 most added song its debut week (both Billboard and Mediabase country radio charts), Bush Hawg, who was featured in the March issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, as well as being showcased on over 400,000 bottles of Evan Williams Bourbon, and Knox’s latest discovery Michael Tyler.
Michael is currently doing his second term on the CMA Board, he serves on Grammy Special Committees and he was just recently appointed to the ACM Board, where he joins other notable ‘Nashville’ ACM Affiliate Board Members, Tony Brown, Buddy Cannon, Tim DuBois and Neal Speilberg.
Talk about ‘The hardest working guy in Show Business‘.
The Producer’s Chair: Other than ‘Time’, what is your biggest challenge? Michael Knox: It is time because my kids are at a certain age. I’ve got one daughter 17 and one 13 and I’ve been with my wife for 27 yrs. So it’s tough because I feel as if I’m in my prime and I want to give 150% to my job. That’s the toughest juggle. The business struggle is, knowing I’m in my prime and not being able to exercise what I do. I still gotta go through somebody else, in order to achieve something. I can find Elvis Presley today but, I can’t get him to be Elvis without going through other channels. If those guys don’t have the knowledge or experience that they need to have, to see what we’re bringing em’, or if they don’t like what we’re doin’, it’s tough, or if they just straight up don’t get it.
Who has been your mentor, when it comes to producing? The guy that I’ve learned the most from is Peter Coleman. I met Peter in the early 90s, when I started cutting demos. When I decided I wanted to be a producer, I wanted to find an engineer that heard things like I heard it because at the time I wasn’t an engineer. I engineered a lot in college but I got away from it and started realizing that I didn’t want to limit the artist’s abilities to my abilities. Sometimes they want something that I can’t do. Some engineers and producers that can’t do that will talk them out of it and then they don’t get to go down that route. My goal was to find a team of people where we can accomplish different things. Peter has been one of my biggest mentors about recording. He did The Knack’s “My Sharona”, Blondie, Pat Benatar and he was Mike Chapman’s engineer back in the early days on “I’m Gonna Kiss You All Over”, all the way to, “Hot Child in the City”. That’s what I wanted my country to sound like. Then when I bumped into Peter in the early 90s, I thought, imagine what his alternative rock sounds could do with my commercial ears. I was looking for an arena-rock situation, at that time because we didn’t have it. Peter taught me how ‘less is more’. If you find yourself using a lot of tricks, you might want to examine the artist you’re working with.
What is the most important aspect of producing records, in to-days climate, that all producers, in all genres are realizing? If you don’t have a ‘real’ artist, your work’s cut out for you. The challenge is to find an artist that you’re intrigued by and want to know more about it. As long as we’re cutting singles and not cutting records, we’re going to have that problem finding artists. An artist can take you on a journey through those 12 songs, where a great singer, who sounds amazing, who is probably a better singer than the artist, doesn’t intrigue people. We’re selling millions of singles, but we’re not selling millions of records and that requires people who can tell the difference between a great singer and a great artist.
How instrumental are you in directing the artist’s vocal performance, in the studio? That’s what they pay me to do. It’s my job to know who they are by watching them perform live and making sure that I capture that, in the studio, so I’m very involved. Their live performance is what get’s them signed. If they go on David Letterman and sound different than their recordings, we’re screwed.
Although all of the producers in Nashville are basically in competition with one-another, what have you found to be, the biggest benefit derived from nurturing relationships with other producers?
It’s competition, when you don’t know each other. Now that I’m on the CMA & ACM boards and on the Grammy’s Special Committees and I’m hanging with these guys on a day-to-day basis, I know we’re not in each other’s space. Once you get to know them, you understand that you all do very unique things. The only times we’re competing with each other is when A&R people are putting three or four producers on a record. When we get together, we’re like a bunch of kids. We’re always cutting-up and having’ fun because, we know the inside humor of everything.
What is the most important aspect of artist development that, you have realized, over the years? The main thing that I see in artist development is trying not to make the artist, something they’re not. I’ve had that work against me a few times where, I saw them as something else and I really drove them that way because it sounded better, but it never lasted because, once ‘go time’ happens, they can’t sell it, and I learned that early on. The main job that I have is, instead of telling them what I think they should do, it is listening to what they want to do and help them get there. They all need help it’s just ‘how’ we help.
Not every relationship is the right relationship. Have you ever headed down that road with an artist and decided to put the brakes on? When I was at Warner Chappell, there were a couple of acts and I loved their voices and I signed them and once we got to know each other, we were so off pace with what each other wanted to do, we had to part ways. I’ll take all the blame for things like that because I should have paid attention a little longer, before I invested the money.
Developing artists costs money. Who pays the tab? With my acts, I’m usually putting that money up. That’s why I don’t work with a lot of acts. Once I start spending my own money, then I believe in it. Your ultimate goal is to go and get a label to partner with you, or sign em’ at a publishing company and get a budget from them, which is what we’re doing here at Peer.
Why did you get into management? The main reason why I got into management was to keep control of the creativity of where the artist is going. I’ve developed a lot of talent and I’ve been a part of a lot of things that have gotten screwed-up. It always gets screwed up when we get out of the creative process. Our main objective every day is, to make sure the artist knows where they’re going and what they’re doing, whether they’re on a radio tour or sittin’ around the house. You have to make sure that all elements are on the same path. It’s hard being the bad guy, who goes in there to shake it up and that’s the toughest part for me but, a lot of managers are business-focused and we’re trying to keep things focused creatively.
Is being an artist a preferred pre-requisite for a publishing deal, these days? They tend to lean that way right now. I’ve shown them that, you don’t have to write to sell 10 million records. Jason has only written five or six songs that we cut. A lot of people are looking for those because they feel that they can control the copyright more but, I still believe that Nashville is the ‘home of the songwriter’ so that’s not a deal-breaker for me at all.
We’ve talked about your interest in running a label, in the past. Would you prefer to run an existing label, or start your own label? I would prefer to be in charge of the creative departments of the label. I don’t know if I’m the Business Affairs guy, but I know I’m a great creative guy. I’d rather be the guy in charge of A&R or head of creative, where they pick the songs, pick the singles and sign the artists. That’s my strength and that’s where I enjoy myself. Look at MCA back in the 90s. The Tony Brown/Bruce Hinton thing, ‘to me’, was probably, one of the better models, you’ll ever see. You had a true creative guy and a true business guy and they never got in each other’s way. That’s what I would love to fall into, where I can be the creative guy that I am. I feel like starting my own company in 1990 and having my own little song-plugging thing, then my experience running Warner Chappell, being head of their artist development program for 10 years, then busting Jason Aldean out and then coming here to Peer, I’ve got a lot of experience working with artists and knowing how to accomplish what they’re wanting to accomplish. I’ll probably always end up in publishing but I’ve got to go to a label to experience that one more piece of the pie, of knowledge, that I don’t have. I’ve been in publishing, I’ve been in artist development, I’ve taken artists into rehearsal halls and got the best out of them and I’ve taken songwriters who never had hits and made em’ millionaires. But I haven’t done the label thing yet and I feel that, if I don’t experience that, then I can’t be full circle with, what I want to get out of this business.
Would you prefer an Indie label or a major? It would all depend on the circumstance. Who are the independents, what kind of money do they have backing the label and who your promotion guys are? If a major label would hire me and say; “Break some acts” and I don’t have to follow some format that they’re used to having, that would be the most amazing thing.
Which hat do you enjoy wearing the most? It’s finding the artist and developing them into what they can be. I’ve been working with Michael Tyler since he was 14 and have watched him grow. He’s 20 now. Rachel Farley was 13 and now she’s 18. I’ve spent 6 years with Bush Hawg and I’m now at 16 yrs with Jason (five years, before he got his deal with Broken Bow). I get a big kick out of them getting to where we’re trying to go because I know they busted their butt to get there. To watch that aspect is amazing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a songwriter or an artist. I love developing the talent and watching them grow.