Houchins Busts Out Of The Box With Average Joes Biz Model (Part 1)

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• May 1, 2012

Shannon Houchins quietly moved Average Joes Entertainment into the Music Row neighborhood a few years ago. 

But unlike most newcomers, Houchins (pronounced How-chins) had already achieved a lot, especially for someone in his early 40s. He arrived with a portfolio of hits, fresh ideas and a track record of success. There was only one problem, he didn’t exactly know how it all worked on the Nashville side of the tracks.

(L-R) Shannon Houchins, AJE's Rachel Atcheson and Colt Ford

This multi-talented executive’s first music business experience was working for Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Productions where he produced and mixed songs for multi-platinum acts such as T.L.C., Usher and Jagged Edge. His next move was to form 11th Hour Entertainment with partner Doug Kaye which spawned success with record and marketing deals.

In 2006 Houchins formed Average Joes Entertainment Group with partner Colt Ford and a third “silent” partner who is happy now to be “cashing checks, instead of writing them,” says Houchins. The company, whose staff numbers almost 100 employees, has been in Nashville about three years and also has Atlanta offices.

Despite the company’s moniker there is nothing average about Average Joes Entertainment’s flow chart or its “within the four walls” strategy. Maintaining control of all career aspects has led to the creation of label, publishing, management, touring, concert, merchandise and promotion divisions, plus marketing and most recently a film division that is working on its first feature film and several TV pilots. Management clients include musicians and sports figures such as Rob Bironas. For staff and client listings see the sidebar.

“Bottom line we have a great brain trust of people going non-stop,” smiles Houchins. “Real hustlers. Everybody is working 150%. There’s about 40 or so in Nashville, plus the Atlanta group. We also have a number of people working on the road without offices, like a West Coast rep and road managers. Considering we’re only three years old, we’ve created lots of jobs.”

MR: What moved you to expand from production and writing into running a full service company?
Shannon: When I first started producing I’d just lock myself away in the studio and work on the music. We’d turn in a record, get paid and move to the next project. It became frustrating because I’d envision the marketing side and think, “This should be the single or I see the video like that.” But often times it went a completely different way. When it works you can say, “Wow, maybe that was a better plan.” But it’s super frustrating when it doesn’t work. If the project’s going to fail I’d rather it be wrong my way, not someone else’s plan. That was part of why I wanted a label—to create and see how people respond. Creating was the easy part, but having a label meant assembling a team to market the music and connect the sound to the people. It just happened that the first thing we did was Colt Ford.

MR: How did Colt become AJE’s flagship artist?
Shannon: Colt Ford was an artist/writer with Jermaine Dupri and my first So So Def project. That’s how we met, back in ’93, so we’ve been friends for almost 20 years. My first experience involving country elements within hip-hop was on a Bubba Sparxxx record in 2000. But it had no country business connection. People familiar with both Bubba and Colt often compare their similarities and differences. To me, Bubba Sparxxx is a rapper from the country, and Colt Ford is a country artist that raps. So there is an overlap between the two despite the fact they’ve gone in completely different directions. It comes down to a vocal thing more than anything. When I finished the first Colt record for Average Joes I remember sitting at my desk thinking, “We are going to have to come to Nashville.” But I didn’t know one person there. We had to start from scratch.

MR: Did moving from Atlanta to Nashville cause any culture shock?
Shannon: We had to learn to adapt. For example, in Nashville if you put three songwriters in a room they split the song ownership evenly. In Atlanta, the producer normally makes 20 or 30 tracks and plays them for people who pick one to add lyrics to it. For that the producer gets 50% of the song. Whoever writes the chorus or hook gets 25% because it is so important. The other 25% is split up among whoever wrote the verses. Sometimes a guy walks in, writes just half a line and you just have to work something out. It’s a lot easier to just divide it up by the number of people in the room. We had to adapt to the new system and explain it to some of my Atlanta guys when they were involved. Nashville is also so radio driven. I knew it would be a street viral build with Colt, but also wanted to establish it within Nashville because it was a country record. We began with one artist and one title and knew we had to get that off the ground before anything else mattered.

MR: Average Joes Entertainment has a modern 360-style flow chart which includes records, touring, publishing, management divisions plus merchandise and more. How does it work?
Shannon: Our model is old school from the standpoint we feel like touring is key. People respond better to our artists when they see them live. At the same time our Internet use is new school. So we started leveraging databases and finding ways to bring people to the music. When Myspace was alive and well we used that as a tool. Next came the touring and putting out a record. People responded and we kept building and sharing the databases in creative ways as we brought in new artists. We don’t cross things unless there’s a tie-in and it makes sense. With respect to 360 deals, we don’t have any requirements. For example, we don’t have to manage you to be on the label and if we do manage you, you don’t have to be on our label. A 360 deal says, “Give me a percentage of your touring on top of everything,” but you still need a manager and agent. We actually service these things. In the next few years music may become more like music video— something you give away to get people to come to the shows. That’s why we are in the concert promotion business and have full touring and management companies. We’re never thinking in terms of how just many records we can sell, we focus on the touring numbers. Record sales to us is just data for finding touring markets.

MR: Does that mean you will be handling my touring if I sign with Average Joes?
Shannon: At this point in our evolution probably yes. We love outside promoters, but we don’t wait on them. For the Colt Ford Declaration of Independence tour I have a staff of guys to find and lock down the venues. We obtain the sponsors, do the alcohol, manage the inside and outside merch, everything. Our circus of five buses and a semi-truck can go anywhere and set up like a field of dreams. We’ll build it if they’ll come. This approach also gives us control over how we market. We can take a bigger act plus two or three of our baby bands and build a story right there. I want to be able to run the business within the four walls of the business whenever possible. That allows us to execute our ideas to the fullest. When we started the label the whole point was to be able to operate regardless of what radio does. That’s why we have artists who will never see the light of day on radio, but regardless are making over $2 million a year. These guys have full-on careers and don’t need radio. Yes, they’d love to have it, it’s the career accelerator, but the last thing we want to do is spend a million dollars running a record up the charts to find that nobody cares, which happens every single day in the music business. We want to find out if they care, first.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of David Ross’ exclusive interview.

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Journalist, entrepreneur, tech-a-phile, MusicRow magazine founder, lives in Nashville, TN. Twitter him @davidmross or read his non-music industry musings at Secrets Of The List

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