Tom Wilson speech on the Producer’s role in the music business, including observations on the “non-listener” and music industry synergy

The venue for this speech by Wilson is unknown. An untitled, typewritten rough draft was provided by Wilson’s friend John Richo, who described it as “a speech that Tom wrote and presented at an industry convention sometime in the mid-late sixties.” Obvious spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors were corrected. Editorial judgment calls in brackets.

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First let me make it clear, as the best record producer ever developed in Waco Texas, I have not come here to advocate the standard adversary relationship between the so-called creative guys and the functional guys. I believe that everyone involved with the process of producing and purveying records is creative, or should be. This is especially true now that we are entering into an era of complex mixed media where varied information — pictures, sounds, symbols — will become fused into a freely associative entertainment form. In order to adjust to this new age, we will have to forget the old divisions, the ancient antagonisms that divide A&R, sales, promotion, distribution, and dealership people into separate warring clans. We must establish a cohesive, creative flow that begins in the studio and ends at the point of sale. To do this, we must unite to stamp [out?] a common enemy, the one among us who undermines the effectiveness and purpose of our whole enterprise: “The non-listener.”

So, who’s in charge? Is it the producer, the sales manager, the artist, the promotion man, the buyer? No, it’s the non-listener. But who is the non-listener? Well here are a few examples:

The record company president who is too busy making deals to listen to the product turned out by his company. He’s so fascinated with his bottom line that he’s forgotten where it comes from. Does it really matter that all he knows about current tastes and trends is what filters through to him at staff meetings or from the trades? After all, should a record company executive actually involve himself with music?

Another non-listener is the sales manager who has abstracted music so that it has become soulless, soundless, faceless numbers on an order blank. Would it help him to better his sales effort if he really understood from the music itself why a certain record would sell to a particular market segment geographically or demographically? Could he pinpoint his sales pitch more accurately if he listened to every track of every album? Is that too much to ask? Does a salesman really have to know what he’s selling?

And what about my pet peeve, the executive secretary who hates music? She helps set the antiseptic, unenthusiastic, uncreative tone that hangs like a fog over many companies.

Finally, another major culprit is the twit who plans record company conventions. His plans include tri-dimensional Scrabble contests, wienie roasts, donkey baseball, and 165 hours of dull speeches, but only 22 minutes of music. He assumes that we all have the attention span of a Mongoloid flea because each cut of music is faded after the first 30 seconds.

If we look at the history of our business, at such companies as Kapp, Columbia, Audio Fidelity, and Motown, we see that these organizations were led to greatness by great listeners, men who had an ear for music, men who were able to make sound creative as well as financial judgments. I’m talking about men like Sid Frey, David Kapp, Goddard Lieberson, and Berry Gordy. Now as our industry matures, jobs tend to get more and more specialized. No matter how much an executive may love music, he may find himself getting into the non-listening rut. This is a trend which we must fight against, constantly and consciously. We’ve got to put the record back in the record business.

Too many judgments concerning talent are being based on considerations that have nothing to do with music. Many times an artist is signed because of his so-called track record rather than because of what he’s into right now. Again, someone gets one of those gimmick ideas: Say, Lassie died last week. Whyn’t [sic] we do an “I Remember Lassie and Other Great Collies” album, sung by Lyndon Johnson. Or how about the old match ’em game. Look, Acme Records just signed Ye Old Transylvanian Bell Ringers. If we don’t get us a vampire before the January convention we’re really in trouble. Everyone then rushes to Transylvania and bids the price for bell ringers out of sight. I know of one record company that was so anxious to cover an instrumental gap in its catalog, that the album notes described clarinetist Sol Yaged as “a Jewish Benny Goodman.”

Well now that we’ve done a character assassination bit on our common enemy, the non-listener, how do we move to diminish the antagonism between artist, producer, sales people, et. al? How do we establish a creative flow from studio to sales point?

Most importantly, we must respect each other for hard-earned special skills. We must learn to interact in the same smooth, easy manner as a group of medical specialists treating a difficult case. Let’s assign some roles. The producer and the artist will act cooperatively in developing the product in cahoots with an empathetic engineer. The sales manager and the producer will decide cooperatively when and where the product is to be marketed. The producer and the art department will mutually agree on the packaging of the product. Just as a courtesy, mind you, the sales manager will let the producer talk to the promotion man to make sure he understands the product. I think the word is hype. If at all possible the producer will be included on those junkets where he is liable to rub shoulders with important buyers, distributors, super dealers. In all of these highly cooperative, mutual agreement-circumstances the producer will be given the benefit of the doubt, because I hope you didn’t really believe that I don’t think the producer really ought to be in charge.

Transcribed by Bronwyn Bishop

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Comments: Wilson’s final sentence is a tell: he’s not really advocating that all producers be in charge at every stage of project and product development—most are not qualified, many would concede they’re not qualified, and most don’t want the added responsibilities. What Wilson is implying is that if Wilson is the producer, Wilson should be in charge. As a hyper-educated polymath, Wilson felt more qualified than most producers to commandeer a recording project from studio to consumer. (I.C.)