With the Grammy Awards freshly in mind, the state of the music world in general is also worth considering. The show presented that recent Sunday was quite the entertaining event — especially if you like the very narrow band of music genres and styles that was heard and seen. But obviously there are more sounds than what was there on the screen. Some genres are served by the various country and urban music events, but that’s hardly all that’s out there.
Nevertheless, the Grammys themselves support diversity through its many unseen award categories — 86 and counting — but those genres don’t make it on broadcast TV. Still, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which administers the Grammys, tries to make adjustments from time to time.
With all that in mind, music industry master Chris Keaton is a perfect subject with whom to disucss the state of music from the Grammys on.
An award-winning music publisher, artist management consultant and entertainment industry executive, Keaton resides in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family.
Call him a song plugger, promoter, even pusher, his career in music includes many years as a touring performer, a recording artist, songwriter and record producer. He’s a member of the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and is also a 25 year-long voting member of The Recording Academy (The Grammys). He’s also served as a judge in the Miss America Organization.
He co-authored the book, “The Seven Stupid Mistakes People Make Trying To Get Into The Music Business,” and is working on his next project.
As a big believer in giving back, the 60-something has served on many boards including the Nashville Ballet, the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the Advisory Council of Nashville’s W.O. Smith Community Music School. And he’s done his share of volunteering as a mentor for Lipscomb University’s Joshua Project.
Right after the awards night, his answers to questions about the business, his role in it and what it takes to make it nowadays seemed particularly insightful. Here is that Q&A.
Q: What about the various country music awards -- and others such as the Grammys -- are they still relevant?
CK: Relevant? I don't know anything relevant but I can tell you this. Many of my peers love to complain about them. It makes me want to puke. Why? I'm glad you asked! Because being in the live audience of award shows is the most fabulous thing ever and anyone who complains about it should stop, take a deep breath and, for one moment, remember how fortunate they are to be there. One hundred or one thousand or even more people would gladly take their seat, if offered!
Award shows are the direct intersection of art and commerce. The decision ultimately is, "Will this make a television show worth viewing?" Sometimes it works and sometimes, not so much. The relevancy question, in my opinion, is with the viewers. Personally, I enjoy most but not all of the shows.
Q: With the Grammys, I wonder whether they’re irrelevant since so many categories are overlooked.
CK: I am sorry to hear that. I am a proud member of the Recording Academy and have been for 30 years. The professionals in the academy are some of the most creative game changers on the planet. Is the award system perfect? Far from it. Are we making changes to address that? Absolutely. The awards are peer-nominated and peer-voted. The show has struggled and stumbled but it has also offered up some of the most memorable once-in-a-lifetime performances ever.
Q: What do you think of the term “Americana?”
CK Not sure there could be a better label for the styles of music the genre encompasses. Then again, none of the styles of any music are "American" except for jazz. I don't know, what should we call it?
Q: What services does your company Keaton Music Ventures include?
CK: My business includes consulting services for emerging artists and their managers, creative planning for artists and songwriters as well as song plugging, critiquing and offering (mostly) valuable advice. Or as I like to tell everyone, "I’m an intergalactic tidal wave of love, creativity and magic for whom all the elements bow." OK, maybe that's a bit much! LOL!
Q: What does it mean to be Macy's Celebration Consultant -- tell me more about it?
CK: It's another one of the amazing blessings this life has bestowed upon me. I am proud to be a member of this team and it is one more creative outlet for me. The late Virgil Abloh expressed it best when he said, "If you look at why people become wack as they get older, it's because they stop doing the things they did that were formative to their work. You can't mentally stay still. You can't not challenge yourself." Style has always been important to me and I am always in search of a challenge. Macy's allows me the luxury to follow both muses.
Q: What did it feel like to be an Inductee in 2016’s North Carolina Music Hall of Fame?
CK: One of the greatest surprises in my life. I never saw it coming. In the 1980s I toured with a band in the southeastern US called the Band of Oz. In that region there is a very popular form of music referred to as "beach music.” The fans of this music are absolutely fanatic, bordering on the religious, in their love and affection for it. Being named the Band of Oz, I asked the leader, "Why don't we play "Somewhere Over The Rainbow?" His responses ranged from a yawn to suggesting that I "drop dead."
About the thousandth time I asked, he curtly responded, "I tell you what. If you want us to do that damn song so badly, go create an arrangement, record a demo and maybe, just maybe, we'll learn and record it. I accepted the challenge.
When I presented the demo they loved it. We recorded it and it became their biggest selling single. To this day it remains their signature song with which they close their show every night. When the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame offered to induct the band in 2016, they asked me to join them because of the impact of that recording. What a marvelous blessing!
Q: Yes, you’ve made music yourself — what about your own music?
CK: I live and breathe music. I play piano, saxophone and sing. There are several songs on Apple Music and Spotify which I wrote, recorded and performed over 30 years ago but I just rediscovered the tapes in 2020. I am about to release more music I have uncovered, too.
I have had a grand piano in my home for 40 years and, quite honestly, for the past 15 years have walked right past and ignored it nearly every single day. But last summer the piano called my name as I walked by and I have been playing and assembling songs daily ever since. I am absolutely in love with playing and am now writing my next album which I laughingly intend to title "Mindless Noodling," since that's what I do at the piano.
Q: How has song pitching changed, or not, over the years?
CK: It has changed dramatically. When I started as a song plugger you could literally walk into nearly anyone's office on Music Row at any time of day and meet with producers, managers and record executives and pitch songs. The space was much more open but as the city grew the doors started getting locked. Security guards were hired and a lot of the innocence went away.
Also, in the CD and cassette tape era there were typically 10 songs on an album. If you got a song and the record, and the record sold a million units, the writer and the publisher of any one of the songs would split nearly $100,000. If the song got radio airplay, even more.
Today we no longer have that avenue; if it's not a single, the song doesn't earn much. That and the streaming rates have narrowed the playing field. It made a lot of pluggers quit which to me is the bright side. I'm still here and making money.
Recently with the pandemic there has been a seismic shift to pitching online via Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype with person meetings nowadays being nearly nonexistent.
Q: Has the digital revolution and the internet affected your job?
CK: Income has dropped for sure but as I stated, with Zoom, FaceTime and Skype meetings are once again on the uptick. The opportunity for writers to find me is so much easier now. With search engines, writers from around the globe can connect with me and hire me to pitch their songs.
Q: You and Nashville seem intertwined — could you live anywhere else and do what you do?
CK: As a matter of fact, right now I could. To a certain degree. Let me explain. Since COVID shut in person meetings down, almost all of our business has been online: songwriting via Zoom, FaceTime; meetings the same, except the occasional meetings on a patio at a coffee shop or bistro. But the fact remains that someone pitching songs absolutely, positively has to have the connections, a network of industry insiders, producers, artists, managers who will answer my calls or emails.
Otherwise it's spam. Face it, the old joke has always been that most entertainment executives are abysmal about returning calls or emails from people they don't know. (In fact, it's not even a joke, it's the truth!)
The value I bring to artists and creatives truly is my network. I have rebranded myself as The Connector because I truly am the embodiment of Malclom Gladwell's definition of connectors in his book, “The Tipping Point:” Connectors are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions.”
Q: How is what you do enhanced by being there — please share an anecdote or two?
CK: Because I randomly meet people, the proximity effect certainly plays a big part in my life. I am very social and not afraid to approach someone and strike up a conversation.
The late Buddy Killen was an icon, the embodiment of the American Dream in the music industry and became a mentor to me. When we moved to Nashville 29 years ago, my wife responded to a classified ad (remember those?!) for an accounting support position at a music publishing company.
When I asked how it had gone, she said, "Fine. I met the owner, Buddy Killen and he seemed to like me." I nearly passed out! I recovered and quickly asked, "Did you take the job?" She said, "They said they would call me." I implored her to call them back right away. She did. Got the job and two months after landing in Music City I was invited into Buddy's office for the first of many meetings. Through Buddy I met countless other industry giants with whom I have maintained relationships.
I have pitched songs to producers and managers at my daughter's soccer games (when she was that age). In kindergarten, my daughter was invited to ride from school to a friend’s birthday party on Vince Gill's tour bus. (The party was for his and Amy Grant's daughter. I "chaperoned " her and was able to meet and speak with Amy during the ride, beginning a friendship with her).
Q: What are some of your pitching benchmarks?
CK Meeting Buddy Killen, Waylon Jennings, Garth Brooks, Rick Derringer, Bill Aucoin (Kiss), Desmond Child ... the list really is a mile long.
My first big cut was with Sir Cliff Richard (“Climbing Up Mount Everest”). [Then came] George Strait (“Roundabout Way,” “Stars on The Water”), Brooks and Dunn (“Building Bridges”), Mike Greenly (the Contemporary State Song for the Commonwealth of Virginia), among others. Working for Barbara Orbison (Roy's widow) was pretty fabulous! My life has been and continues to be wonderful!
Q: Do you have any memories of Roy that you can share?
Unfortunately, I never met him. He passed away years before I worked for Barbara. But I did get to hold several of his guitars, see his suits and drive his vintage Mercedes Benz convertible while I was in LA on business for the company!
Q: What is the future of music and its marketing?
CK: Don't I wish I had that crystal ball! In my opinion we have to meet the fans where they are and currently they are online and on mobile devices. Those devices are the new venues and delivery systems for music. The business has changed dramatically in the past 100 years and will continue to evolve. Let's just hope the powers that be don't forget the creators and pay them their due.