The Entrepreneur and the Rocker
by Julie Senger
An interview with Brian Johnson and Heber Pampillon, co-founders of Alpharetta, GA-based Highway 9 Records, conducted in March 2013 in Alpharetta’s Lucky Dog Studios.
Senger: So fill me in, Brian. How does a successful, conservative-looking businessman team up with a tattooed, guitar-shredding rocker to create Highway 9 Records? What’s your story?
Brian Johnson: Heber has been a good sounding board ever since I bought Peggy Still School of Music in the summer of 2011. In addition to owning a successful small business himself, Heber is a great and experienced musician who shares my passion for music, and for working with young artists in particular.
Business partnerships have been extremely important and valuable to me through my life. I owe a lot of the success I had in the corporate world to other people, in particular a gentlemen named Rob Karam who became a really great friend and mentor to me over the years. I think Heber and I have similar overall philosophies but different and complementary skill sets. We are off to a good start.
Senger: Not an obvious leap to go from private equity-backed management executive to small business music school owner.
Johnson: Well, when I was doing all of that stuff with consulting and private equity, it was all really good for a long time on both the professional and personal levels. But I was traveling all of the time, everywhere. In consulting, I was gone five days on most weeks. The last company we ran, by the time we sold it, had annual revenues of $140 million, with 1200 employees in twenty states and Canada. It was a lot of “stuff,” right?
I got tired and frustrated of working so hard and in so many places with people to buy things just so that we could sell them to someone else a couple of years later. And when I knew that we were selling the last company that we started, I knew that I wanted to try something different.
Peggy Still has been a great philosophical and operational platform for expanding out into other areas of music performance and education like Lucky Dog Studios and now Highway 9 Records.
Senger: And tell me a little about the things you have done and how you ended up working with Brian on this project, Heber.
Heber Pampillon: I was lucky to be able to play, open and share the stage with bands and artist such as Tongue & Groove, Tuff, Cinderella, Riot, Ace and Kix just to name a few. We played in great music venues everywhere, lots of good people and good times, some that were more interesting than good as well…but it wouldn’t be rock and roll without those, right? (laughs).
Senger: So where does producing other artists come in? What is your background in that?
Pampillon: Well, that comes from being in a lot of different recording studios and doing a lot of different types of music as a session player and also learning from producers and working musicians I have worked with like Henrik Ostergaard, Star & Leah, Lorenzo C.
Then I produced some stuff for a lot of different up and coming bands and single artist. My main strength as a producer is that I’m a good listener, and try to get in the head of the artist, as opposed to fighting it, so that we can end up where we are both happy.
Senger: How do you think that you and Brian complement each other with regard to this venture, in terms of what you bring to the table and what he brings to the table?
Pampillon: Well, he is a suit and I am the creative genius (laughs). But I think we are both very level-headed people, and we share the same goal, which is to maximize the talent and vision of the artist. That is one reason why we started HWY 9. But I’d like to get it on record, that he IS a better rapper than me, (laughs). (Johnson recently sent some ridiculous rhymes to Pampillon challenging him to an epic rap battle. Elton John’s Tiny Dancer was sampled. Pampillon conceded meekly.)
Senger: Good to know (laughs). As the Director of Artist Development, what are your main responsibilities?
Pampillon: Well, I start by evaluating the talent. Actually Brian and I both do that, but as far as “hands-on” working with the artist on the music itself, developing the music, making them better songwriters, better performers, and try to coax the best out of them.
Senger: And Brian, as Executive Producer?
Johnson: I’m responsible for getting the resources in place to have a successful project. So, if we need session players, I’ll work to get them myself, or work with Heber to get them. If we need gear and equipment and time, or whatever, then I’ll do that. In terms of the social media and branding framework, I’m working on that right now as well.
Senger: Obviously you have done your research and you know that many industry experts are saying that record companies are becoming obsolete due to the internet and abundant self-promotion outlets. Why did you decide to start Highway 9 Records?
Johnson: Well, those self-promotion tools all sound good until (an artist), actually gets down to doing something meaningful and, God forbid, profitable with them, right?
Just because the tools are there, doesn’t mean that everybody knows how to use them, and just because they are there doesn’t mean that every person interested in using them will necessarily become an expert at (using) them.
For all of the people who are satisfied by posting videos to YouTube and, based on that alone, calling themselves musicians and recording artists, there are still lots of people who believe that there is value in working with professionals, with professional gear and in a professional environment to create and work with music.
If all of that is true, and I firmly believe that it is, that means that the record label business model may be deeply changed but it is not obsolete.
Senger: Music, what’s good and what’s not so good, is such a subjective thing, and obviously it’s important to you to make it as best as it can be while keeping with the integrity of their original intent. How do you propose that you do that? I’m sure there’s a fine line—
Pampillon: There is a fine line, absolutely. As an artist, or anyone, when you spend a lot of time and spill some blood on something you care about you obviously you think that everything that you write is great, right? Because you’re so attached to it and because I wrote it, oh my God! It must be fantastic!
And of course, it’s not always true. But the idea is that when you tell someone, “no, um that’s not that good,” you have to show them some sort of example as to why. So you have to be up on music, and also go to them with what they like, their styles and who their influences are. You can get the point across if you’re teaching rather than preaching.
Senger: What will HWY 9 be able to do for an artist that they can’t do for themselves?
Johnson: We work as a team of experts. We have Joe (Kay, Lucky Dog Studios’ excellent lead engineer), on a family trip to Michigan but still Drop Boxing us quantized drum tracks and using his twenty years of acoustic engineering experience. We have Heber working here in the studio as a producer using his twenty years of experience to coax and shift and arrange great sounding songs with Beth (Ballinger), who is using her twenty years as a musician to (write) and get the (music) down tight from a performance perspective. And I’m using my twenty years of experience in business to make sure that we have all of the resources and a plan for making the project work on time and on budget.
A single artist or band might be able to do all of those things themselves if they had the time, the inclination, the discipline, the drive and everything else. But it would be tough. We can’t make it easy. Nothing worthwhile is easy. But we can definitely make it less tough and more effective.
Senger: Okay, fair enough, (laughs). You also said, “We want to help new artists understand and take full advantage of the current and ever-changing DIY (do it yourself) toolset, but to do so in the context of a comprehensive, disciplined and proven artist development framework.” That sounds awesome! But what does that “comprehensive, disciplined, and proven artist development framework” consist of?
Johnson: Beth (Ballinger) has literally been studying music for twenty years, starting as a little girl at PSSM, and she’s learning new stuff even now (as she records her album). And that’s not to mention songwriting, arrangement, the studio environment, performing, booking gigs, marketing and the rest. Taking the artist from a personal, private context to a public performing artist context is part of what we consider total artist development.
Of course, there is nothing earth shattering or new in that idea. But I think we have the tools, talent and mindset to help artists get born. We’re serious about the musicianship, and we’re serious about the production capabilities and the craftsmanship that goes into the engineering, too. We’re serious about the artistic and collaborative environment.
Senger: So when you were looking to sign someone, you are primarily just looking for good musicians and good writers and that’s really the biggest consideration?
Johnson: That, and musicians that we can work with, that feel like they can work with us, and that feel like they are in a spot where they can really dig in and be disciplined and really give the priority to taking the next steps as artists. Beth absolutely fits the mold on those points.
Senger: And are you not looking for any specific genre of music to sign? Just all genres are welcome as long as the musicianship and commitment is there?
Johnson: Pretty much. Our personal tastes would certainly factor into that. We are definitely interested in the pop/rock/alt rock direction, for sure. But The Best of Roswell Tap mini-album we are doing right now is pretty straight up alt-country. So, yeah, we’re pretty open to a variety of genres.
Senger: What would an artist who was interested in being signed by HWY 9 need to do? How would they get your attention? Do they submit audio/video of original material?
Johnson: I’m happy to talk to anybody, but I really want to see them perform live. I think you got to be able to sell it live before you can sell it on iTunes. I am not completely opposed to audio submissions but I’d much rather go see somebody perform live.
Senger: Do you go with them to their different performance venues?
Pampillon: Absolutely! Since they are our artists, we are going to support them, introduce them and help them make connections, and teach them how to interact with bookers and sound guys and most of all, fans. Brian and I being actual fans who come and see them play and clap and cheer for them is a big part of it.
Senger: You have said that you don’t want to get involved in management, but you’re obviously very heavily involved in the recording side of it, and the production side of it, so once the album is produced from the artist, CD’s are made and distributed, how do you promote it?
Johnson: We work with distributers, and people who do a good job of promoting. Certainly at a grass roots level, we are very involved, but that’s not our primary function. I mean there are things that are available to you, and you can have your own online store with just a little work on your own, right? We certainly want to do that for the artists that we work with, but not for other people to send us stuff so that we become sort of a clearinghouse or publishing house.
Senger: So then from the artist development side of it, then do you take the artist and try to get them gigs and—
Pampillon: We talk about building a core audience. Whether that’s five hundred people or five thousand people is probably a different answer for every artist. But it’s trying to find places where those recordings can find a home, and working with people to take them on to the next phase of their lives.
Senger: You’ve mentioned certain things that are not the goal of Highway 9 Records. If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the goal for this record company?
Johnson: Overall, it’s about helping people take that next step toward becoming professional musicians, and certainly some of the aspects of becoming commercial viable musician. But really, we want to just help them take steps forward as people, as business people, and to help them understand how music can play a role in helping them not only be artistically fulfilled, but also to support themselves financially.
Let’s go back to our recording agreements. We’re not looking for perpetual world-wide, lifetime fifty year copyright sort of royalty agreements or anything like that. In fact, we just want a couple few years of cooperation with artists and their music, just enough to where there’s the opportunity for us to recoup our expenses and maybe make a little bit of money, and reinvest that in the business and the next artist who is looking to take that next step.
Senger: It’s incredibly non-traditional in terms of record companies of the past. I think that it’s confusing in some ways, to sort of call it that, because it’s really So. Not. That.
Johnson: (Laughs) I don’t know if it will work for us or not, calling ourselves a label, because some people will automatically have a certain connotation associated with it. But hopefully it doesn’t take more than a five-minute conversation to understand that we’re not, “on the prowl” (laughs).
Obviously, we hope and will work hard to see that the projects we work on are tremendously successful. But our benchmark will be the way that we put them together and whether or not we’re happy with what we created in the end. Whether it is successful on a commercial level or not, if we are happy that the next step was taken by the artist, and if we feel like it was a good collaborative effort, that’s the spirit of Highway 9.
About the Author
Julie Senger is a writer and adjunct professor of English composition at Kennesaw State University and lead singer of Atlanta-based bands Sinking to Swim and Secret Sauce.
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