January 8, 2013
Describing Skip Bishop purely in business terms is about as satisfying as watching a kaleidoscope on a black-and-white TV. For the record, Bishop, a label veteran of both the Pop and Country worlds, has launched SongStash.com with Jane Crossman. For starters. But as you are about to read, there's a lot more to Skip Bishop's universe that's certainly worth exploring.
A year ago you left Sony after a historic seven-year #1 streak. What were the reasons for that?
It was very much like playing the last two minutes of the Super Bowl over and over. Similar to "Groundhog Day" on steroids! Awesome fun with the most-gifted artists and talented teams. When you get off a ride at DisneyWorld, you think "Wow, that was fun, what are we gonna ride next"!
So I wouldn't say that I miss it. It's the drive of moving to the next level that people naturally do! It is similar in mystery to the time that, after 16 years, Diane and I left Manhattan and moved to Lookout Mountain, TN, population 1,000. No theater, no gas stations, no grocery store. We were there two months and a real-to-life wild turkey walked across the front yard and down the driveway. We watched it until it disappeared in the woods ... then we packed up, moved to Nashville. Very mysterious.
Do you keep up with your Sony folks?
I do. Butch Waugh and I talk every day. I can't imagine my life without his friendship. Joe Galante is busier than ever, and we see each other. He is a walking search engine of information and he shares his brilliance freely throughout the community. There are some wonderful folks there and some remarkable talent. I frequently keep up with the artists and their management.
What sort of things have you been doing or considered doing, since then?
It's been the most diverse, purposeful year ever. I can highly recommend to anyone to allow yourself to become untethered from your key professional focus. It's not easy. You have to let go of years of self-discipline and conditioning. Once you retrain yourself to see beyond your "area of expertise," you'll realize that it's only a sliver, a tiny speck of intellectual real estate. It starts with a sacrifice of your imagined self-importance and purpose. That is quickly replaced with a vision of like a 4-D spectrum of opportunities and interest. It's a remarkable experience.
So how do you do that?
Mostly just study other things. I spent a tremendous amount of time cooking with my family. We traveled our brains out. We spent an extended amount of time in Viet Nam this summer. It was life-changing. I became fascinated with a relatively modern religion called Cao Dai. Google it up and take a spiritual wander. I wrote some songs ... redesigned my office ... rode motorcycles with my family ... visited with old friends ... started some little companies.
Did lots of what I guess is called consulting. Worked of lots of great projects with Eric Murphy and his company, Pop2Life ... which led me to a wonderful dude named Shannon McNeven, who created the Canadian Boots and Hearts Festival; I worked with them. And those Pop2Life connections got me involved with AMC Television and reconnected with marketing guru Theresa Beyer from the Z100 days and a charity project for the Seattle Symphony, to being on the ground floor of SongStash, to partnering up with one of the world's smartest people, Ken Levitan, on some incredibly wild and diverse projects, which led me to consulting Blaster Records which spun into creating Studio1Bee, and on and on ... so much fun, so many great people ... it's been like a Fast Pass at the Epcot Center of rock and roll. Untether yourself. Try it. Loosen up. Look around....let go.
The most important thing we did was tons of research. And then more research. I hung with a young brilliant group and we really looked closely at the ever-changing habits of music fans and consumers. What kept surfacing was not just how much the discovery process has changed, but how quickly it continues to change. The shifting of habits continues to accelerate.
Some young brainiac used the term, "muscle memory discovery." What she meant is there is an entire generation beginning to search new ways to find music as second nature. It's fascinating and it's ushering in the most vibrant and exciting time the music business has ever known. The old model is a boat anchor on a leaky rusty tub. The consumers have moved way on.
How did you come up with the idea of SongStash?
I didn't. It's entirely the brainchild of Jane Crossman. She is a creative and technical genius. She brought in Studio1Bee on the marketing/promotion/management side. She is the all-powerful woman behind the curtain. Again, we studied the playing field for undiscovered music and found this tremendous backlog of songs that remain uncut. Phenomenal songs by amazing writers. It's a simple online idea of exposure for published and unpublished writers. The site goes live in January. We've been deluged with submissions that we've hired a staff to accommodate all the submissions. Songwriters are the genesis of the business. SongStash is the first opportunity of its kind to serve the community of those artists.
Having been in Nashville for so many years, how has the country music biz evolved ... for better or worse?
It certainly has evolved for the better, for many of the same reasons as we discussed before. The fans, or consumers, or listeners, or whatever we call them, are digging deeper. And they've found easy ways to discover more. The typical Country music fan is still very radio-driven -- but what happens next is newer. Listeners go to YouTube and Vevo to get more. It's not that scientific. Just ask them. They simply want to know what the act looks like. It makes video more important then ever; that leads them to more CMT and GAC ... other sites. And now with multiple device usage, this all accelerates.
But this isn't any groundbreaking discovery. What matters is how important it is to see how fast these habits change. What seems to be consistent in the Country radio P1 fan is that radio sends them to four or five other places to embrace these new artists quickly -like ...quickly quickly!
Back in the '90s, Nashvillle seemed to be a very insular community (ie: wary of outside, pop influence). How has it changed?
There are a few idiosyncratic tendencies floating inside these wooden walls! But much of the perception of Nashville's qualities comes from outsiders barely peeking in. The singular major difference between New York, Los Angeles and Nashville's music industry is the prominent presence of community. Keep in mind this comes from a guy who spent most of his career in Top 40 and Rock radio and records. Here in Nashville, you have the CMA, ACM, CRB, CRS, Leadership Music and many other extremely active organizations that work constantly for the proliferation and protection of the art form.
Once you land here, you immediately are asked to participate in one or more committees where you will sit next to the biggest of stars, smallest of market radio execs, label Presidents and CEOs, major broadcasting executives, songwriters, overnight jocks, major publishers and so on.
Absence from work due to committee and board meetings aren't just openly excused, but in some cases required. Everyone puts in their time ... and for what? For the continued strength and well-being of the music community. That is the difference in the culture here. From the outside it can be perceived as a "cult like" insulated dominion. But it's really quite the opposite. We're just a little busy.
But with all your years in New York and Los Angeles, did you ever feel like an outsider?
Oh yeah, but only because I was. A common term is "carpet bagging." I was accused of some of that -- and rightfully so, I suppose. Several pop techniques for any campaign remain in my bag of tricks and many of those strategies have worked well here. Very well. The perception all changes with time and relationships ... doesn't it always? And the Nashville music community has changed, widened, shifted, broadened. I don't look as funny as I did seven years ago now that Jack White built an empire here. Kings of Leon, Robert Plant and Peter Frampton are mainstays in our restaurants and grocery stores. There's always been a rich pop history living comfortably between the strings.
How has Country radio's evolution over the years, in terms of the type of Country music it plays and its use of outside songs, impacted the songs you want and the songs you pitch?
I'm not sure what you mean by "outside songs." If you mean outside the city limits, well, all are welcome and the seats are comfortable. But you are going to be sitting next to laser-focused professional art-wielding, paintball samurai lyrical arsonists. And if you mean outside the Nashville format, well, there is no such thing. A great song is a great song is a great song. It depends how you dress it up.
There are amazing songwriters all over the world, but Nashville is an exquisite diamond mine of poetic genius. It's part of the soil and culture. Songwriting literally vibrates the streets and twists its way through this town like platinum wire. You can actually see it. Everywhere folks are sitting, creating, observing, taking notes, turning life into verse and chorus. You can taste it in the coffee and you can smell it on the breeze. People work at it. Perfect it. Study it. Break it. Fix it. Experiment with it. It's very big here. It's beautiful and magical. This is the epicenter.
Some Country observers believe that Country radio has gotten very teen/youth appeal-heavy at the expense of its older, heritage/experienced. Agree?
I wouldn't call it heavy teen/youth appeal. I would call it more aggressive and open to younger artists. But that simply is a function of radio reacting to the shifting tastes and demographics of the listener and consumer. You know and I know that radio knows this: To the younger listener, radio has been redefined. My two younger kids' morning show of choice is Elvis Duran. Now we know that says little for my parenting skills, but the point being they listen to Z100 on SiriusXM. And they also hear new music on Pandora and iHeartradio, which to them is radio. Which sends them to YouTube. And then iTunes ... all of which is a part of the radio experience to them.
Country radio has historically been an adult format, but has indeed shifted to a wider range of programming to appeal to the multi-device using, button pushing, online surfing, site searching, station fickle-fingered, my-credit-card-using little angels named Miles and Bernadette Bishop! I see this happening. Look around. You will, too. But to your point, an hourly format clock is a finite pie. And the more younger-leaning music added in has to impact the other slots. Luckily, astute Country programmers know hits. And our "experienced artists didn't earn their parking slots with stiffs." So be it.
Past Country Power Players have told me that while Nashville used to be very wary of their artists crossing over to mainstream pop formats, that's not the case any more. Agree? Is it a good thing? And how has that impacting the songs reaching SongStash?
The crossover rules and regulations have clearly changed. There was a time that Country artists could be in peril if they walked the path. But many things have changed. Carrie Underwood, Hunter Hayes and Taylor Swift all have huge hit records. Big songs, big performances, Big sales, big research ... simply massive hit records that will find their way with or without radio support ... through television, online, touring, etc.
Great programmers realized that several years ago and opened the doors. Plus, there are so many situations where the decision-maker is overseeing multiple formats and knows that a hit is a hit is a hit. And there are very few silos when it comes to musical tastes. With all that said, there is still a potential problem with trying to force an artist or single into another format before it's ready to come out of the oven.
Will SongStash pitch its songs to non-Country artists? Accept non-Country songs? And how does that impact what you do?
Since SongsStash is an online discovery site, there are no restrictions to who can come in and look around at all the fantastic art. We are open to all, no limits. All people are welcomed. Love all, be all. Twenty-four-hour access, no key card needed. You can bring your friends and neighbors. Through this portal passes the loveliest people on Earth. We're considering adding virtual pony rides for the kids. Seriously, it's the most absolutely convenient no-brainer way to find songs for yourself and artists ... explore unheard tracks by your favorite writers and just have a tremendous musical experience.
What's the measure of success for you -- getting your songs on records? Having them become hits? Or something else?
The "measure of success" question! The proverbial yardstick of happiness? You can ask a million people and get a million answers. So many companies rate their happiness by the numerical abacus, but frankly I also believe that they have that bass-ackwards! Success is finding pure joy and spending your time doing what makes your heart leap. And if you do that well, the finances will never be a problem. Steve Jobs didn't change our lives because he was driven by a bank statement. He studied people's needs and desires, then matched that with artistic technology.
John Lennon supposedly never knew where he banked or even cared. I have this friend who has been obsessed his entire life with dirt. Seriously, as kids we were in his backyard digging stuff up, planting things, putting oatmeal four inches deep to attract earthworms to fertilize and enrich the soil. He had jars of dirt in his room. Some dark, some sandy, some with weeds, some without. Oh man, he loved that stuff. He never stopped playing in the dirt! Ever. Now he travels the world at the expense of different governments and lecture to universities and committees on "how to upgrade their biological output"...! God, he's happy, stress-free, joyous and successful.....
All great organizations must grow in financial strength to flourish! But commerce follows art, and you have to keep creating the most compelling art to have the numbers follow. Watch your P and L sheet closely and march bravely into areas where the unimaginative and weak will not go!
I'm betting that if someone is reading this online beacon of journalism, they are music-driven. So yes, getting songs on the radio is success. Having them become hits? Yes, yes, and yes. It still makes my heart leap as much as it ever did. Hearing a song in its infancy and helping it grow up to be a massive hit? Quadruple yes. Hearing a song from some kid with a piano or guitar that will bring you to tears ... what's more alive than that? It's the art that matters; it's the music that matters; it's the joy that matters. Do you know those viral videos that show someone dancing all over the world, or singing? By the time they get to you, they have a gazillion views. When was the last time someone sent you the one with a fat guy sitting at a desk with a spreadsheet trying to cut corners? Nada, bubby, nada.
Has your future plans changed? If so, how?
The immediate future is about continuing to assemble smart, innovative, driven, creative people. We are going to build something new and different. We're polishing up a new music model that travels along with music fans and their new lives. We have an underground laboratory that is creating a fantastic vehicle to expose new talent and existing talent. Hopefully, we can make the world a better place by having fun, helping people and creating a successful business model to grow the entity quickly. Coming.....
I remember you telling me that you played your first record on the radio in 1969. That's over 40 years in the music world. Any advice?
Yes ... Love one another, open your mind and heart to new ideas, show up on time, embrace your family and friends ... study, study, study ... listen closely to folks younger than yourself, listen even closer to folks older than yourself ... beware of fibbing opportunists ... praise God always ... explore what you don't understand; go onto iTunes and click on the genre on which you never click then follow the path to discovery ... master modesty, sing a lot, read more, consider adopting a child, be fearless, listen some more, open your home, count your blessings, always move forward, work hard for beliefs that you have found true, fish, turn it up a little, give more than you take, and above all, be brave an un-tether yourself from who you think you are.