Clint Black Gets Down to Business (Part 2 of 2)

Singer Forms Equity Records as an Artist-Friendly Label

After launching his career on RCA Records in 1989 with “A Better Man,” Clint Black walked away from the major label system to become the first artist at Equity Records. Spend My Time, his first CD for the independent label, was released this week while Black continued a flurry of media activities and retail appearances to promote the project.

In addition to being Equity’s first artist, Black added “record executive” to his resume by founding the company with his manager, Jim Morey, along with former Sony Music Nashville executive Mike Kraski and business manager Charles Sussman.

In the first of a two-part interview, Black discussed the creative process of recording Spend My Time. In this final installment, Black talks about changes in the music industry and the circumstances that led to Equity’s creation.

During the height of the country wave in the ’90s, did you foresee that so many major labels would be consolidating today?

Somebody started asking me when suddenly they went from a 400 percent profit to a 200 percent profit, “Do you see the downward trend? Is this gonna remain?” And I don’t really remember what I said, but when I came to town and got my record deal, there were six major labels. By the height of the boom, there were about 26, and I remember thinking that everything happens in cycles — from lots of mom and pops [companies] to the big consolidation and then back to the mom and pops. And I think the same has to be true with the record business. It can only grow so big. The great thing about Equity is we don’t have any offices in Tokyo or Berlin or Madison Avenue, so it’s starting out with the right business structure, the right size and the right level of ambition.

You have a public image of being like an “aw shucks” kind of guy, but within the industry you’re known as somebody who has kept close watch on every aspect of your career. What was the most important business lesson that you’ve learned in the past 15 years?

That I can’t just be a happy-go-lucky, “aw shucks” artist. I learned the hard way that if I don’t look after my business, then why should somebody else? I went through the litigation with my first manager. From that point on, I was kind of shocked into [realizing] you can’t place all your faith in someone that you don’t really know. … I had to look around and understand there are people with a lifetime of experience that I’m just handing things over to. And what kind of CEO in any thing business would do that? None.

At what point did you start thinking about the concept that eventually evolved into Equity?

When I left RCA, I talked a little bit with my managers about starting a label, but there wasn’t anyone to run it, so that didn’t seem feasible. And then I started back working on the album and Jim Morey was talking to some major labels. He had some deals developing that he was getting pretty happy with, and he told me, “We’re getting pretty close to you needing to make a decision about where you’re going to go.” And that’s when I started to sort of feel this sinking hopeless feeling. (laughing) Which is so weird because what happens when you want to get in this business? You dream of a major label deal, and if there’s any hope of a major label deal, it’s the most exciting time of your life.

And here I am with some really nice major labels and a lot of money on the table and it’s depressing. And so after a lot of soul searching I called up Jim Morey and said, “You know, you’ve done a great job with these, and I can’t sign them — none of them. I cannot go back into the major label system. I don’t know what the alternative is, but we’re going to have to think about that. You can keep working on these deals if you want to, but I really don’t think I’m ever going to sign one of them.” And I said, “I’ll just go back to working on my CD, and when it’s finished, we can talk about what to do with it.”

And in the meantime Mike Kraski became available, so the whole picture changed. Now there is somebody who can run a label and somebody who is of a like mind. He also feels that the major label system is broken and that it needs to evolve, become more artist-friendly. There’s a disconnect. We see it in lawsuits, it’s very apparent there, but there’s another disconnect that just should not exist, and it may be impossible for the major labels to change it. So we sat down and talked about what kind of label would be great for artists, not just for me, but we need to create a system where any and every artist that comes to this label would have it just as good as me, would be happy for life. It was a real simple formula.

Briefly describe Equity’s way of doing business?

I’ll give you four examples that you cannot find in any major record company. Number one, the artist owns their work. Hey, we pay to make it — and we own it. What a great concept. So if an artist becomes discontented with Equity over time, they can leave and take their work with them to [another] record company and try it again. Number two, the songwriter artists — which I are one — get paid full rate, instead of the imposed three-quarter rate forced on artist-writers by the major labels. Number three, you get paid when you sell a record. A lot of fans probably don’t realize how long it takes once they’ve bought a CD for the artist to see any money from that. That’s our bread and butter. Some of us can manage to get rich off of it, but a lot of artists go bankrupt because, maybe, there’s the cost of going on the road … and they can’t support the big entourage and all of the stuff. Maybe they didn’t manage their money quite right, whatever it is. But even when you’ve sold millions of records, it can take years to see any money because there’s a 26-page form that explains how you get paid when you sell CDs. And when two accountants sit down and look at that together, they can’t even agree on what it says. So if you sell 10 CDs or 10 million CDs, when they scan at the record store and it registers as a sale, the artist gets paid [at Equity].

And fourth — and the biggest thing — is that once an artist has sold a half a million records, they become part owner in the company. What a concept! There’s a part of the company that’s set aside just for the artists. And once you’ve sold half a million records, you jump right into that pool and get an even split with all the other artists. And that gives you a sense of security that this isn’t just about this record, it isn’t just about what I can do for the record company, but it’s also what can the record company do for me and my family. And I can tell you there are four artists that about to pull out their pens and sign their deals, and they’re going to be the happiest artists in this business, next to me. I walked away from some nice offers, and I would defy any artist — no matter what level they’re at — to find a better, happier situation.

Equity’s business model should work well for established artists, but will it be beneficial to new artists, too?

Absolutely. I have no doubt. First of all, Mike Kraski’s a great leader. He’s put together a great team. … Number two, Equity believes in creating partnerships with everybody we work with in the industry. It should be really apparent with me right now, because I’m going out and doing things that are born out of partnerships with Wal-Mart, other retailers, with the radio stations. I’m going around doing radio events, helping them with their charity events, showing up in their towns and doing things with them, for them. And I’ll be coming back around doing it again with them in Wal-Mart and whatever else Mike puts together.

I think this is a business that’s about long-term relationships with the companies that help bring you to the fans and then in the long-term relationship with the fans. … Even though we have Fan Fair and even though on average more country artists will stop and sign an autograph and take a picture with somebody, there’s a disconnect there that’s natural because of what happens. Suddenly, when you go from performing in a nightclub to performing for thousands of people, walking around the room like we did in the clubs and saying hi to everyone isn’t going to happen. So I started back in ’92 with my Web site, created the “Black board” message board, and I’ve read every message since 1992 that’s come into my Web site. And that’s the kind of things that we have to do. We have to do that with the people that put our records in the stores, that play them on the radio. It’s a big statement coming from Equity that we do things differently. Our artists can do things that maybe even the major labels can’t do. If a major label does something with one artist, then is it going to be expected of the other artists? And is the other artist going to want to do it? We’re starting out at Equity with a plan of “this is the way we operate.” We’re all about relationships, building partnerships and an “actions speak louder than words” type of program.

As tough as it is for new artists to break through these days, do you envy those who are just now trying to launch their careers?

No, I don’t. I know how hard it is. … It’s tough. But by the same token, there’s an excitement there that you’ll never capture again if you break — that sense of “I’ve got a record deal, I’ve got a shot of making it in this business.” I wouldn’t want to go back and relive that because it’s a lot of work. I put a hundred thousand miles a year on my tour bus in the first year and did a million things. We were doing nine cities a week. So knowing what they face, I don’t envy them.

But I do know that it’s the most exciting time in their life, and there’s no way to match that. I mean, if you’re an astronaut flying to the moon, I don’t think it can be any more exciting than finding yourself up on stage at the Country Music Association awards and saying thanks. There’s nothing like it.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.