Skyville Live is fast becoming one of Nashville’s hottest tickets. The brainchild of Wally Wilson, the online music series features iconic collaborations between artists from all generations and genres. Produced live in an intimate Berry Hill sound stage with seating for only about 250 industry insiders, the last few shows have been packed with people and with musical emotion.
Wilson got his start playing piano in Texas Honky Tonks in the ‘70s and migrated to Nashville with band member and friend Gary Nicholson. In classic form he began pushing a broom at Tree Publishing, joined a hip blues band known as the King Snakes (which featured James Stroud, Kenny Greenberg, Glen Worf) and began trying on a variety of creative hats. Over the ensuing years he found success as a producer, songwriter and publisher. Artist development also became a passion. “While still at Tree,” says Wilson, “Don Cook and I started to develop acts and I found it fascinating. In the middle ‘90s everything was selling and the record labels were on top of the world.”
Wilson moved on from Tree and eventually formed Skyville, a publishing, artist development partnership with producer Paul Worley and Texas attorney, Glen Morgan. But as the music industry began shrinking and people stopped buying records, the process of artist development changed. “It’s become a medium on Music Row for younger folks and kind of passed me up,” he notes. “The bar is a lot higher now and there’s a lot more fear. Labels don’t take chances and embrace new talent like they once did.”
Enter Skyville Live LLC, a new spinoff which builds on Wilson’s music industry foundation and moves into new cutting edge online distribution territory. The following interviews feature Wilson and Skyville Live’s Bryan Lee who runs the business side of the new venture. Wilson discusses the show’s birth, booking concepts, future plans and how they manage to “take the entertainers and players out of their normal comfort zones and put them in a new live comfort zone with a bit more edge.” Lee discusses why, for this show, “Distribution is the tail and the product is the dog.” Read On
NEKST: How did the idea for Skyville Live take root?
Wally Wilson: Every so often we’d bring 4 or 5 new acts to play at the Basement, but the club is so small most of the audience were the other acts that were playing. I thought, why not stream our talents from our own back room? Then I realized that if we got someone a little more famous to join them maybe we could attract 500 or a 1,000 people to watch online instead of 50 at the Basement. We set up some cameras and I got the Mavericks to come play and a few other acts. We had a great time, and 12,000 people from around the world tuned in. I thought wow, this could be something.
NEKST: How did it move to the next level?
Wally Wilson: Blake McDaniel, my agent at CAA, is tremendous. We talked and eventually the idea emerged that an iconic act, might attract a mainstream act to do a bucket list experience with them and then we could add a few baby acts and build a great show presented in a loose online atmosphere. Our first show featured Gladys Knight, Martina McBride and Estelle. The second was with Kris Kristofferson, Lady Antebellum, Jason Isbell and Brandy Clark. Then Gregg Allman, Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton. When I asked Chris to perform he wasn’t nearly as big a deal as later on after his CMA performance. So we’ve also been very lucky with the baby acts. Blake connected us with LA-based Tisha Fein who books the talent. She knows everybody and has a great personality. Building the talent for each show is based upon a loose formula, but we’re also open to new ideas. For example, I’m in discussion already about a comedy show, Skyville Laughs.
NEKST: I guess it’s no accident this concept is built around all your core talents?
Wally Wilson: It’s kind of become my art. I also know about teamwork and we’ve built a tremendous team. I’m that head guy, but really my job is just to put people together. Kenny Greenberg is my band leader and I’ll put our band up against any in the world. Ever since the King Snakes days, Kenny and I have produced records, written songs and schemed together. He’s an integral part of the show. Blake McDaniel has contributed so many great ideas and many others.
NEKST: What’s the staging like?
Wally Wilson: I wanted the show to have a relaxed vibe with no MC, but we’re continually upgrading the presentation to keep it flowing. Currently we’re using teleprompters, ten HD cameras and have a crew of 50 people, mostly outsourced, who work on this show and its many elements.What you see in front of the small stage are tables where the artists and their friends sit comfortably and share relationships back and forth with the other performers. Each artist can walk up to the mic to perform and back in a few steps. Like Jason Isbell said to Kris from the stage, “I didn’t realize I’d be standing right in front of you singing your song.” We take the entertainers and players out of their normal comfort zones and put them in a new live comfort zone with a bit more edge. It’s intimidating in a positive way. A little like working without a net. When you mix great singers, entertainers and musicians, sparks fly and you get some classic and timeless moments. And that’s what we are all about.
NEKST: Could this be a PBS series for example at some point?
Wally Wilson: Probably, as an afterthought, but when we think of TV as the end game, we must remember that for young folks the end game is the internet. So our goal is to be like ESPN across every medium. On TV? Yes, because all the 60-year olds are watching, but I’m more interested in being on Apple TV. We are also exploring what Bryan calls 4-8 minute snackables.
NEKST: Talk about the business model and Bryan?
Wally Wilson: We want to make lots of money, but we are just now getting up and running. We’ve been lucky to have great investors because these shows get expensive to put on. And there have been some days we just white knuckled along. We’ve assembled a group of internet savvy investors from the Northwest. On the sponsor side we’ve worked with Gannett and now with Verizon’s Go90 venture and AOL. We have some other opportunities coming up that I can’t discuss yet. Bryan Lee leads the business side of Skyville. He was CFO for ten years at Columbia pictures in LA and then for eight years ran the entertainment division at Microsoft and helped develop xbox and more. His lane now is startups and it frees me to do the creative. Bryan is very involved with the distribution.
NEKST: Bryan, what attracted you to Skyville Live?
Bryan Lee: I’ve been in entertainment for about 30 years. First in film at Columbia Pictures, then at Microsoft. I’m no longer doing the corporate thing, I prefer entrepreneurial projects. Some mutual friends suggested that Skyville, Wally and I might be a good fit. I was immediately impressed because it’s really cool product. In a world where distribution models are changing you have to anchor yourself with great quality. Then if you can hold your breath for a while to figure out where the business needs to go as opposed to forcing it, I believe you can figure it out. Right now we are somewhere in that holding your breath stage.
NEKST: How do you and Wally divide duties?
Bryan Lee: Wally and I are the classic peanut butter and jelly in that he is the creative guy and and I’m the business guy.
NEKST: How are distribution channels changing?
Bryan Lee: I love to see disruption in distribution patterns. First it scares everyone and opens a world no one conceives as possible. Then a few years later it becomes a world no one can imagine living without. For example, when cable first came into being, a 24-hour news channel was incomprehensible. Today it’s indispensable. When barriers break between those producing products and consumers, business models go haywire. Some people hate it, but eventually it creates more efficiency, more opportunity and everyone gets more access and a better quality of life. Old distribution models would block you from creating something that didn’t fit that mainstream lane. But today the definition of TV has evolved—it doesn’t have to be a big monitor anymore, it is now Hulu, Netflix or Amazon. Everyone is pushing the envelope by creating phenomenal content. Definitions change when technology overtakes them and new ideas surface.
NEKST: What’s your strategy for reaching a larger audience?
Bryan Lee: For us distribution is the tail and the product is the dog. There are so many brands trying to reach consumers and they all need interesting content to become that channel. Perhaps they want to sell advertising or create upsell opportunities. Whatever the plan, there are companies playing for multi-billion dollar stakes which puts us in a nice place. I’ve been in situations where you fix the business model first and then try to wedge product into it. Those aren’t fun and you usually don’t succeed. Skyville is a bit like an old fashioned TV variety show in some ways. How will it work exactly? I don’t know. But I do know if it is interesting enough then we can experiment with partners who will provide the right home in a way that creates a virtuous cycle. I’m not in any way comparing us to Steve Jobs, but it’s more along those lines of ‘let’s build a great product,’ and then see where it goes.
NEKST: Is there a time constraint for this to find its niche?
Bryan Lee: Runway is the classic description for what I think you are asking. And yes, we are fine in that regard. Other than spending on the production we don’t have a lot of overhead. We are keeping it a small shop. Working with people like Go90 gives us enough revenue to offset most of the costs, so we aren’t having to go to our own pockets too much. So if we can tread water, learn how to do this efficiently and keep doing it, we’ll build a brand and catch momentum.