Music industry insider
Lyrics and luck: How Tim Dubois became one of the most powerful men in countrymusic
This week, a group of Austin songwriters got to hear it from the horse's mouth (so to speak). Twice named as one of the 101 most powerful people in the entertainment industry by Entertainment Weekly, Tim Dubois has a long list of accomplishments and accolades. Though he began his career as a certified public accountant decades ago, he has left his mark on the music business since moving to Nashville in 1977. Besides having five number one songs to his songwriting credit—and being awarded the 1991 Country Music Association’s Song of the Year, for When I Call Your Name with Vince Gill—he helped establish Arista Records in Nashville, a label that helped launch the careers of Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn and Diamond Rio.
Thursday night, Tim Dubois faced an extreme round of 20 questions, with Austin Songwriters Group (ASG) members eager to learn from his years of experience and his "insider" knowledge of a business that is often mysterious.
Dubois says he owes his career in the music business to his dad, who gave him the most uncool car imaginable when he was young. He says he knew with a 1960 Dodge Seneca in the driveway, he’d have to have something else going for him to be able to attract a "quality woman"—so he picked up the guitar.
“I was never a great player but I always loved lyrics. To this day that’s the thing that motivates me. That ability to write a lyric and make somebody play that movie in their mind.”
He got an accounting degree from Oklahoma State University and married, in his words, “a chick singer.” He had two kids in his first three years of college and quit playing and writing for a few years. After getting a Master's degree in accounting, he moved to Dallas to work for Arthur Anderson.
The man who became a huge influence in the country music business didn’t grow up listening to country. He says it was his time in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that turned him on to country music—Texas country music in particular.
“I just fell in love with it because it wasn’t twangy country and it wasn’t rock and roll, it was something I could identify with the lyrics. So when I did pick up the guitar again, who I was trying to emulate was those guys.”
He said it was also around that time he fell in love with the songwriting genius of Kris Kristofferson and started playing out again.
As an accountant, Dubois was not just interested in the creative side of the music industry. He also wanted to learn how the music business worked and how people actually made money off songwriting, so he learned everything he could about the music business. After going back to Oklahoma and getting some demos down, he made his first trip to Nashville in 1975. Before the trip, he got his hands on a list of publishers from a copy of the Nashville Yellow Pages.
“There were probably 40 different publishers listed under publishers and I just wrote every one of them a letter. A handwritten letter on yellow legal pad and I just said hey, I’m a songwriter, I’m coming to Nashville in January and I would love to be able to come by and play you some songs. “
He got about a dozen responses from people willing to meet him. Out of that trip, he made some good contacts and felt validated after signing his first single song contract with Famous Music, with a song he wrote with his brother that he says was never recorded.
He admits things were much different back then and it was easier to just knock on doors. He says doing his homework before heading to Music City USA was key. He went back home and continued to write. In 1977, after landing a teaching job at Vanderbilt University, Dubois packed up a U-Haul truck and his Vega station wagon and he and his family set out for Nashville.
“I taught night school accounting and during the day, I beat the streets trying to get my songs heard.”
He got a few more cuts but didn’t have enough success to be able to write full time. He thought about moving back to Oklahoma to finish his PhD, until a friend who believed in him talked him out of it.
He’s glad he listened, because that next year he got his first writer’s deal and in a twelve-month time frame, he had three #1 songs including Love in the First Degree recorded by Alabama.
“It was so much just about how much I had grown to that point in time. It wasn’t like one day all of the sudden I was writing stuff that was better. It just got better and better as it went along.”
Tim Dubois will tell you the music business is about talent and perseverance but sometimes the most valuable thing is luck. Take his biggest hit song for example. Country super-group Alabama released Love in the First Degree in 1981 and it became a crossover hit. Dubois had all but forgotten about the song he’d recorded as a demo about nine months earlier, when he found out Alabama had recorded it. He was working in the yard when a recording engineer who worked on the demo called, holding up the phone to the Alabama recording.
"Honestly, that song was so far away from my mind, I didn't recognize it," Dubois says. The recording engineer liked the song and had been carrying it around on a cassette for months, when he played it for Alabama.
Love in the First Degree is the biggest song Dubois has ever had as a songwriter and he says it has been more lucrative than his whole catalog combined. Besides being a #1 country song, it went to #15 on the pop chart and #5 on the adult contemporary chart.
“That would have never happened if it wasn’t for just pure unadulterated luck,” he says. “This business will really truly humble you cause you’ll stand by a lot of people as you go through your life that you’ll know are good enough. And in my case, I stood by a lot of people who I think were better than me. But for whatever reason I got the chance and I got the shot. I always tried to make the best of it when I got it but I figured out a long time ago it’s not a business that’s about justice and it’s not enough just to be good enough. It takes that little bit of luck and things just lining up just right to have the right chance.”
Things lined up right for Dubois on a number of other occasions in his career. He made a name for himself managing artists and during the country music heyday of the early 1990s; so much that legendary music producer and executive Clive Davis asked for a meeting with Dubois because he was looking for someone to run the Nashville office of Arista Records. Dubois says he wasn’t interested in the job but took the meeting just so that he could meet Davis.
Two weeks later, Davis offered Dubois the job and he decided to take it. He says he thinks his time in the trenches as a songwriter, producer and manager helped him take a different approach to running a record label and unlike some music executives, he had empathy.
While at Arista, Dubois signed acts including Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis and Diamond Rio. He also put Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn together, forming the biggest selling country music duo of all time, Brooks and Dunn.
“I knew the Judds were retiring, so I wanted a duo,” he says. “That was a magical time.”
He left Arista in 2000 to work with another management company and, in 2002, formed another record label, Universal South, with Tony Brown. They sold it five years later and Dubois said it was at that time he decided what he was doing wasn’t fun anymore and he never wanted to run another record label.
Nowadays, he is the Vice President and Managing Executive of ASCAP in Nashville and back teaching at Vanderbilt. He owns a piece of a publishing company and says he still hopes to get his doctorate. He’s considering writing a book about the Arista years. He also hopes to get back to what first got him involved in the music business: songwriting.
He had lots of good advice for Austin Songwriters Group members, including telling them to write because they love it.
“Love the ones you write… Every song to me is a stepping stone and it’s a part of just growing and building. And when you get that great one, somebody that can make a difference is gonna admit it’s a great one. ”
He adds, “If you want to go to that next level and you really want to get paid for it and have a chance of hearing your song on the radio, you gotta realize the bar is really, really high.”
He says of out of a bucket of thousands of songs, you can probably count the great ones on two hands.
“It’s one thing for [publishers] to say that’s good, you’re making good progress that’s a good song. It’s another thing for them to say, ‘Holy shit, I gotta go play this for somebody. I need to go get this cut.’ Until you get that kind of response, you’re not quite there yet. That’s harsh but that’s just the reality of it….until you get there go back and write another one. “
Tim Dubois says he believes a great song will somehow “find a way”.
“If you write a great song, it’s almost undeniable.”
The Austin Songwriters Group is a non-profit group with more than 400 active members. Throughout the year, it hosts events and contests to help songwriters improve their craft and to keep them motivated to create. For more on the Austin Songwriters Group, log onto austinsongwritersgroup.com