Musicforce Feature (Part One)

(This article originally appeared on Musicforce.com)

Inside the Industry: The Breaking of an Artist - Heather Miller

Part One - The Label

If you were looking for a place to invest your money, you'd probably be taking less risk putting it into Internet stocks than financing the making of an album. If done properly, recording and marketing a record can result in a nice paycheck for the label, the artist, and all involved in the project. If done improperly...well, that's another story.

Over the course of several installments, we'll discuss the thinking behind signing an artist, talk about song selection and the recording process, and how to gain the artist maximum exposure. Our test case? Heather Miller, recording artist for KMG Records.

The "Suits"

Frank Chimento, Executive Vice President, Killen Music Group and Brad Ford, A&R Assistant, KMG Records.

Chimento has a background in advertising and marketing, and was formerly publisher of 7ball Magazine, the Christian alternative music publication. As such, Frank always has one eye cast toward the innovative and the other toward the commercial.

Ford's resume includes a stint as guitarist and songwriter for the modern rock band Bleach. His role at KMG, says Brad, is "to take an artist and make sure the 10 or 12 songs they record are hits (hence the "A&R" title, artist and repertoire--what the artist performs). I have a hand in other areas, such as picking producers, studios, budgeting, etc. But my specific goal is to make sure the songs we start with are great songs."

The Debut Disc

Heather first came to Nashville more than three years ago, as part of an all-girl band under development by another record company. Former Whiteheart leader Billy Smiley heard the band's demo, and although he didn't care for the group, he liked Heather's voice. So he inked a production deal with her. The result was an album titled Once Upon A Time, which Smiley leased to the then fledgling KMG label. Chimento says that disc, released in 1998, has just about "recouped," meaning the sales revenues have covered all the expenses involved in making the album.

"I was just looking over Fourth Quarter 1999 statements the other day, and I was surprised to learn that the album had sold about 20,000 copies. She has a lot more fans out there than we realized, and we still get calls about that album. Problem is, that record really doesn't represent Heather as an artist. It's 'bubble gum' pop. Heather has a background of singing very soulful music, but there really wasn't anything soulful about that album."

In fact, Chimento says candidly, "We were going to drop her. The first album had run its course, and I admit I had pretty much written Heather off. But she was living in Nashville. I would see her play from time to time, and I enjoyed getting to know her as a person. That's when it clicked with me that the person I was getting to know was not the person who made that album. It wasn't until after her debut release that KMG began to take shape as a label. And we realized that album is not the caliber of product we were striving for as a label. Heather has come an incredible distance as a songwriter--she didn't write any songs on the first album--and she's become a pretty good guitarist as well. I was convinced if we were going to be a developmental label, we needed to stick with her. She was a true 'diamond in the rough.'"

Don't Call It a "Comeback"

Rising to the challenge of learning how to express herself lyrically and musically, Heather came back to KMG with nine new songs in August 1999. "She blew me away," admits Chimento. "Not only as a writer, but with how far she'd progressed with her guitar playing in a relatively short period of time. When I listened to her and saw her standing in front of me playing her guitar, the first thing I thought of was Sheryl Crow, because the music had a vibe to it, some grit and blue-eyed soul really down deep. There are also elements of her music that compare to Patty Griffin...and in her more soulful moments, to someone like Lauryn Hill. That's pretty good company to be in."

It's All about the Songs

KMG Records founder Buddy Killen is a regarded by many as legend in the music business. Much of the genius attributed to Killen owes to his skill as a publisher, of instinctively knowing a great song. Chimento confesses, "When KMG got started, we had to fill a distribution pipeline, and we didn't take the care we should have as far as song quality goes. You don't develop a solid reputation and win over fans putting out sub-par product--the market is too competitive today. We've gotten our share of rightfully deserved criticism. As a result, we've now got to be the most critical label you can imagine when it comes to the quality of songs. I can tell you this about Heather's writing--of the 14 total songs she has demoed for us, seven are on the record. That's better odds than we get with a lot of artists."

"When I got hired last year," Ford says, "Frank handed me the demo and asked me if I remembered Heather. He still wasn't sure at that point that KMG was going to commit to a new record. I started listening to the demo and right away I knew we needed to do another album. For me, the decision to go forward was all about the songs. Heather has a natural ability to express herself through a lyric and through a melody. There are a lot of writers who understand the craft of creating a song, but they're weak on the intuitive, imagination side. Heather had all these things inside her she wanted to express; she just didn't know the mechanics of writing."

Moving Forward

Ford says that KMG was ready to begin Heather's sophomore project almost immediately after that initial meeting last summer. "But we needed to deal with the logistics of finding a producer that she was comfortable with and that she felt clicked with what she wanted to do. We needed to find someone who would say, 'These songs are great, let's make them greater.' And we needed someone who would push her as a writer. Sometimes you're so close to your songs that you need an objective ear to help you stretch your abilities. She just needed a team of people around her that fell in love with her music."

The Mentors

Enter former Grammatrain member Pete Stewart and dc Talk's Michael Tait, who last year launched a production house called Breaking Productions. "I always loved Pete's writing with Grammatrain," says Chimento. "And it's been great to see the way that Michael has developed as a writer in the past few years with dc Talk. And as a vocal producer, you've got a golden voice in Tait. I can't imagine anyone better suited to produce Heather's vocals."

"The first time I played her demo for Pete and Michael, we were sitting in my car," recalls Ford. "They were absolutely blown away by her voice. Before we even got through one of the songs, they were singing harmonies along with the disc. I knew they were sold on her as an artist. I don't think they would be part of something they didn't believe in."

Ford says Stewart and Tait's excitement yielded another unprecedented result. "I made a CD of the demos for Pete and Michael. Of course, she and I had copies. Over Christmas, I told everyone to pick their tops five choices for the album and put them in order. Heather and I were already in complete agreement, and Michael and Pete, without discussing it, picked the same five songs in the same order. That's the first time in my experience that I've seen the artist, the producers and the record company totally agree on the songs an artist should record."

Chimento admits, "There's no question that KMG can certainly benefit right now from the credibility that Pete Stewart and Michael Tait bring to the table, and their ability to open some doors for us. They're new producers, so it's somewhat of a risk on our part. But it's a risk that makes sense."

Show Me the Money

So, how strong is KMG's belief in the commercial viability of Heather Miller?

"We're putting about $70,000 into making the album," says Chimento. "That's not marketing or advertising--just the production. For an independent label, that's a big commitment. Heather's songs convinced me we should commit to that kind of budget. Of course, marketing is a key, but no matter how much you spend on that, people are going to know whether or not they're good songs."

(In subsequent installments, we'll talk with Heather, Pete Stewart, Michael Tait, and give you a closer look at the recording and marketing of Heather Miller's sophomore album, Send Me An Angel.

Click here to read Part Two.

-- Bruce A. Brown