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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: JED HILLY

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: JED HILLY

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

When I met with Jed Hilly, his office at The Factory in Franklin was not at all what I expected. There were no plush carpets, ornate credenzas or leather couches anywhere. Jed was wearing frayed blue jeans and he was hunkered down at the computer in his work-cave, like Custer, up to his ears in post-it notes and paperwork putting the final touches on the 15th Annual Americana Music Festival, which kicks off today and runs until Sept 21st.

Since Hilly accepted the position as Executive Director in 2007, the expansion of the organization as well as the genre, has been remarkable. In 2010 the Recording Academy added the Americana Category to its list of Grammy Awards, in 2011, Merriam-Webster added the word Americana, as a musical term, to its prestigious Collegiate Dictionary, the attendance totals have gone through the roof at their annual Festival and in 7 short years, he significantly, raised the profile of the genre with Rolling Stone magazine printing the Americana Music Airplay Chart, the creation of the Americana Landing Page at amazon.com and numerous feature stories about the genre and the organization in Billboard, the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal and hundreds of other periodicals worldwide.

Jed Hilly
Jed Hilly

Hilly is also the Executive Producer of the annual Americana Honors & Awards show at the Historic Ryman Auditorium, which is broadcast around the world on PBS and AXS TV along with BBC Radio 2, XM/Sirius Satellite Radio, WSM, Voice of America and NPR.org.

Artists like Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earl and Levon Helm (with whom Hilly produced the GRAMMY and EMMY Award winning PBS special Levon Helm: (Ramble at the Ryman) and the recent inclusion of new and emerging artists like the Avett Brothers, the Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, Tift Merritt, the Lumineers and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is only the beginning.

Hilly moved to Nashville after 9/11 when he left his 'storybook' stint at Sony, New York where in 11 yrs, he was promoted from part-time inventory clerk to the mailroom, to Director of Merchandising, where he was responsible for design, production, and distribution for various artists including Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan, to a key executive roll responsible for Creed's international marketing campaign, to designing business strategies for Sony's Digital Asset Management Initiative.

But that was only the beginning. Jed's passion earned him stripes on the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) merchandising committees, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, American Music Masters Advisory board and the Nashville Mayors Music Council. And he's currently an active member of NARM, the Recording Academy (NARAS) and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Not bad for a bar band bass player who grew up on a farm in Vermont.

The Producer's Chair: What kind of farm was it?

Jed Hilly: "It was a gentleman's farm. I went to school in New York but we had a farm in Vermont, where we spent most of our time. We had horses and geese and chickens, and rabbits and goats and 50 acres, on the edge of, the Green Mountain National Park. The farm was an important part of my life. It was a great community; a music loving community, it was very rural, more cows than people."

Jed's love for all things music was inherent. His dad played a little guitar, his great grandfather was a concert pianist, his uncle played drums for Johnny Mathis and Peter Duchin and his aunt was a jazz singer with Jimmy Smith and a bunch of other hot-shots in Greenwich Village. Back then, Jed took guitar, drums and banjo lessons at 10 or 11 which led him to playing bass in the 80s. And the Hilly family made a ritual out of going to the Craftsbury Common fiddle and banjo contests every year.

The Producer's Chair: How did you get your first gig, playing bass?

Hilly: I was working in a restaurant in Manhattan that employed a lot of creative people and 2 days before New Year's Eve, the band cancelled. So 5 of the restaurant staff got together and we each took an instrument that we sort-of felt we could play and 'we' played. We got a lot of good critical feedback so I started managing the band. I was 30 yrs old. I got all the gigs and I did promotion. We entered the Brooklyn Lager battle of the bands and ended up playing in the park at the band shell to thousands of people and came in 2nd place over a two month competition. We never got a record deal but I still have my rejection letter from Irving Azoff.

The Producer's Chair: How did you wind up at Sony?

Hilly: I knew somebody at Sony and he found out the band had broken up (he was a regular customer) and I was bartending and he came in and said; What are you going to do and I said; Maybe the music industry is where I want to be and he said; You have a job. It's not a great job. It's a part-time inventory clerk position but it's yours if you want it, so I took it the following week. I got promoted quickly, twice in 6 months before I became a part of Sony's national staff. It was an awesome experience; I held 7 different positions there. It was like graduate school in the music business for 11 years.

The Producer's Chair: How did your vision for Sony's Digital Asset Management Initiative originate?

Hilly: Sony had the first B2B (asset sharing) website. Sony was the first on line. We were on Lotus notes, early email, nobody was using it and this art director sent me an email, with the cover of Pearl Jam's VITALOGY in it and said; Can you use this? He actually came in and said; did you get my email? And I said; No … because nobody used email back then. I said; I'm not on that thing.

Well, I went on that thing, opened the email and when I saw, the digital image of Pearl Jam's VITALOGY pop up and I realized that this was going to be groundbreaking… part of what I oversaw was making sure that, all of the marketing managers in Cleveland and Los Angeles and San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Boston, had artwork, so they could put ads in newspapers at local levels, to sell the record. My department that I was looking after at the time in retail marketing was collecting digital slides for reproduction and we would mail them to our offices around the country. They were like negatives and they cost like $10 to $20 bucks each depending on the size. And then we'd fed-ex it to Chicago, Atlanta, everywhere. We'd fed-ex it because we were always late because, we're in the music business. And when I saw this, I sent it to my marketing manager in Dallas. They called them minis and they'd use them for newspaper ads. And I said; tell me if this works. A few days later he called me up and said; that was awesome! So the first thing I did was eliminate the minis, which was a stat sheet of album images for newspaper ads, I eliminated the shipping, and in 6 months Sony saved $ 600,000, in producing negatives and promotional materials. It was cool. I appreciate you saying I had vision, but it was also my job to be cost effective.

Then by 2000 when we were grappling with Napster, as a business, I had gone from Director of Marketing for Sony US to Vice president of International marketing, Sony worldwide, they came back to me and said; can you do what you did for the US Company globally? And that's when we created the Media and Music Exchange, the MMX and I think they still use it. Everything is so readily accessible today but back then, the MMX was pretty fantastic.

When Jed relocated his family (3 kids) to Nashville, he didn't have a job waiting for him. But soon started taking consulting jobs and wound up working with Donna Hilly and Phil May at Sony Publishing, commissioned by Paul Russell, head of Sony Publishing at the time.

The Producer's Chair: How did you wind up working for Barbara Orbison?

Jed Hilly: Barbara and I met through a mutual acquaintance. I had a strong international background, having worked at Sony International for 5 years. I also happened to work at Sony Music for over a decade and left on great terms, with many people there. Mrs. Orbison had a catalog, half of which for all intensive purposes was owned by Sony and Monument and there were always publishing issues. Roy sold more records oversees than in the US and she said; what would you do? I said; I'd pick up the phone and call Donny Ienner and make a deal to merge your two catalogs because, you'll go further if you're not constantly competing with them. And she would win a lot because, she was so dang smart. So she ended up making a great deal with Sony, she hired me and we then funneled all the product through them and she basically had somebody running her label, who knew everybody involved. So there was no learning curve required. She loved the fact that I could pick up the phone and call the head of Sony Music India and arrange lunch. In 2004 when I started we sold 110,000 units. In 2006, my last year there, we sold 390,000 units. But more than anything, she loved that I was born on the same day as Roy's Dad, Orby, who she adored. Barbara was very spiritual.

As Vice President for Orbison Records, Hilly steered numerous initiatives to remind the public of the legendary artist. He coordinated museum exhibits and helped to produce the American Music Master Series at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; oversaw the campaign to encourage the US Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp to honor Roy Orbison; and initiated numerous other projects and re-releases of the Orbison catalog that resulted in tripling sales over previous years.

The Producer's Chair: How did your position with the Americana Music Association come about?

Jed Hilly: The members of the board had seen what I had been doing with Barbara and they came to me and they had this 'not for profit' and I loved what they were all about. I loved the organization. It was such a challenge. It was such a fantastic pallet. Who doesn't love these artists? They're making art. They're not writing songs to get a #1 radio hit. They're writing songs that tell stories through music in the best way they can. That's inspiring shit.

The Producer's Chair: What was your first order of business?

Jed Hilly: I took the job and found out the association was deep in the red and the accountant said; you've got about 3 months until the organization is over. My Dad didn't want me to take the job so I gave him a list of artists that might be termed Americana in 2007 and he said; would any of these people be willing to stand up and say, I'm an Americana artist? And I said; I don't know. And then he asked me about Levon Helm and of course Levon was still in recovery from radiation treatments and throat cancer and had been holed-up in Woodstock for a decade and never made a trip outside of New York. So I went up to meet him and we hit it off, one weekend in April, and in the kitchen I said; How about we do a Ramble at The Ryman and we shook hands on it. Six weeks later, we we're at The Ryman and it was the first time we'd ever had an artist go out and do a concert under the Americana Music Association banner. We split the money and it became a legendary, historic night for everyone who knows anything about that man's career.

I promised to deliver some record label people so I invited six different labels and I watched Vanguard's attorney's talk to Levon's attorney and the contract was done 20 minutes after that show. He got out of it, what I was hoping he would and then about a week later he called me at the farm in Vermont and he said; Kid, the lawyers said we have to sign a contract and I said; For What? And he said; for that concert we did last week. So I said; I thought we shook hands on that and he just laughed. He goes; fuck the lawyers LOL. Your hand shakes good for me too. And we never signed. It was all trust. That changed the tide for the Americana Music Association.

In 2007 there were 56 artists who were sanctioned to perform at our Americana Festival and this year there's 180. Our membership has gone from 1100 to over 2000. Our conference registrants have gone from 1100 business conference attendees to approaching 1800 this year. We had 1500 last year, we had 1300 the year before and 1100 the year before that. This thing is growing exponentially. Six weeks ago, we were asked to curate a week's worth of events, at the Lincoln Center. Time management is important and we have to be really selective on the projects we get into because when this office gets into them, we are fully on. In 2007, we had 2 full time employees. Today we have 5 employees and an army of volunteers.

The Producer's Chair: What's the lay of the land for Americana music at radio?

Jed Hilly: Americana is played everywhere but on formats that aren't so rigid. That's why you hear a lot of Americana on Triple A stations. As an art form, radio today is by in large a commercial vehicle. So how do you merge a creative art form, with a commercial vehicle? T-Bone Burnette says; if it's good enough, it will sell. And he's right. But it's not that easy because radio is driven by so many other things. You can't put a square peg into a round hole and to suggest that the Americana format should happen overnight, that is not my interest.

The Producer's Chair: What's the key to your success?

Jed Hilly: Part of why we're successful is because we have done this organically. We apply smart growth based on honest genuine interest. You can spend bazillion dollars on branding something and you will drive it into the vernacular of society. But then Adele comes along and makes an unbelievable record and sells 10s of millions, in the last five years? Holly mackerel … you can't force those things. But, you can create an environment that allows those things to live in and breath.

It's more and more difficult for an artist to make a living from their craft, at all levels. Diana Ross is still having, to do concerts to make money and so is Aretha Franklin. She didn't write RESPECT, so she's never gotten a performance royalty for the billions of times she's sung that song.

The Producer's Chair: What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Jed Hilly: I love being inspired. I love discovery. These artists move me. It's truly a humbling experience to have their trust.

The Producer's Chair: What do you for-see yourself doing after you've passed the AMA gauntlet to someone else?

Jed Hilly: Oh boy, I am still learning. My dad told me that, it was time to move on when the learning curve flat lines. I think I will be somewhere; I can be awed by artistic creation.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

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