Brent Bourgeois

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I was born in New Orleans and grew up in New Jersey. I went to high school and started playing music in Dallas. Then I moved out to California.

I guess you could say I'm an American.

What has been your career path through the music business up until now?

I started playing in bands very young. Way before I was allowed to be in bars, I was playing in bars. I ended up moving to California with a band named Uncle Rainbow who were promised stardom, but it never happened. We just became a great bar band in California. But out of that band, the bass player Larry Tagg and I formed Bourgeois Tagg in about 1983. After playing around for awhile, we signed with Island Records. We did two albums for Island and had a fairly large single with "I Don't Mind At All." We toured extensively, and before we made our third record, I left the band to do a solo career. I did two albums on the Charisma label, which was part of Virgin Records. Then I did an album on Reunion Records, which is a Christian label. In the process, I decided to move to Nashville and start producing for Christian labels.

Parallel to that, I've had a publishing deal with Lionel Conway—first at Island Music, and then when he was head of PolyGram Music after they bought Island, and now at Maverick Music. I've been writing for him ever since.

By the way, Lionel told me you had a Martina McBride cut. Congratulations.

Yeah, Michael W. Smith and I. And so that path took me here to Nashville where I started to produce records. I got to know Michael W. Smith and ended up being his music director on his tour last year as kind of a sideline because I had written some songs for his record.

Among the things I've produced in Nashville was a girl named Cindy Morgan on Word Records. Through the association with her, I got to know the people at the company well enough for them to offer me the job that I have now, which is head of A&R at Word.

Michael W. Smith is one of the biggest artists in Christian music. How many records does he sell?

Well, he plateaued out at about 900,000 units on several of his records. He has never gone platinum, but he's always gone gold.

Does he cross over to the secular market?

Yes, he has. There was a song called "Place In This World," which was a #1 AC song when Reunion was associated with Geffen. Just last year he and I had two songs in the AC Top 20, one called "Cry For Love" and the other one called "Straight To The Heart." "Cry For Love" was #11. He sells quite a few records to the mainstream.

Who is the best-selling non-crossover artist in Christian?

I would have to say it is our very own Point of Grace. Their current record has sold close to 600,000.

There is not a huge difference there.

Yes, but they do have different audiences. Michael will get a higher percentage of his sales in the mainstream, whereas Point of Grace might outsell him in the purely Christian market—the Christian bookstore market. He'll sell more records at Tower. Amy Grant has gone way beyond all of that.

What determines whether or not a Christian artist is able to cross over into the mainstream?

The lines are getting a little bit blurrier now, especially in the youth market. It's the authenticity of music. It's got to be the real deal for people. I think for a long time this industry sort of got by on pretending like it was making a rock record. But if you put it next to a mainstream rock record, it really didn't sound as good—either in the sound quality, or the quality of writing or performance. Or if they were making an R&B record, it couldn't match up. It didn't have the same quality. The quality of the product has to be every bit as good.

And then, the message has to be somewhat tempered, although as soon as you say that, something rather blatant might get through. There are no steadfast rules, but in general, the more you say the word "Jesus," the less likely a song is going to be played on mainstream radio. That's a generalization, but it's reasonably true. Although "Butterfly Kisses" by Bob Carlisle—which we all know now—says the word "Jesus" in it and is doing very well.

That's a huge song now. The album I think has gone to #1. He's a longtime Christian singer who was sort of at the end of his rope last year. He got dropped by Sparrow. He is nearing 40, if he's not already 40. He's got a huge Michael Bolton/Bob Seger-type voice and has always done that kind of "large" music. He got picked up by a small, kind of secondary Christian label and made a very low budget record—a "last-chance-Texaco" kind of thing for Bob.

Then "Butterfly Kisses" really struck a nerve—first in the Christian community—and far exceeded anything he had ever done before. He's sold something like 100,000 copies, which is pretty good. That song ended up winning the Dove—which is the Christian Grammy—for "Song of the Year."

This album had been done for a year. When Zomba bought Benson ,which distributes his small label Diadem, (Zomba owner) Clive Calder and his wife heard the song in their car. And, as is happening all over the country, his wife broke down into tears when she heard it. He then realized it would be a great song in the mainstream. The rest is history. They are projecting four million sales for the album. They renamed the album Butterfly Kisses and shot a video, and now he's all over everywhere. They are even putting out a book for Father's Day. His record budget was probably $40,000. I'd say they've recouped (laughs).

In dealing with the Christian labels, we tend to hear about two different kinds of lyrics—"overt" or "vertical" lyrics, and "allegorical" or "positive values." Can you explain the difference between the two, and the rules of each?

Once again, there really are no rules. There are only indications and general things that seem to hold true most of the time.

Overt, or vertical, lyrics are lyrics that are not afraid to say "Jesus" or "God" in them. "Vertical" meaning: I am speaking to God, or God is speaking to me, or this is a prayerful song. The lyrics are out in the open—overt—about the Christian faith, praise and worship or the like.

Allegorical lyrics are the type that could often be love songs, but the You is with a capital "Y." Love might be capital "L." That's why they tend to work better in the mainstream, because for all practical purposes, you could be writing about anybody. It sounds like you could be talking about your loved one or anyone.

And also, allegory is when you use one image to talk about another. That's sort of self-explanatory in that it opens up a whole larger arena to talk about. There are all kinds of things in this world to talk about that don't necessarily have directly to do with our faith. We encourage our artists to write about whatever they want to write about because everybody is in this world and deals with it on a daily basis—whether you're a Christian, or a Muslim, or an Agnostic or anything else.

If you encourage artists to write whatever they want to write about, what about songwriters who are trying to pitch to the Christian market specifically?

That's a good question. You've got to know who you are pitching to. It is very specific.

Right now is open season on the largest pitch in the Christian music industry, and that's Point of Grace. They don't write any of their own songs. They are completely dependent on the songwriting community for their material. They sell a lot of records, so it's the big enchilada of song pitching in our industry. They are very specific about what they lyrically want to hear. They are very insistent on vertical lyrics. They don't particularly care for allegorical songs. They don't like capital "Y" You and capital "L" Love. Their appeal is largely to the Church. They are not trying to cross over. They don't particularly care to cross over. They don't need to because they are doing really well without that. They have a very loyal following, and they know their audience better than anybody I've ever seen. In their case, you've got to know exactly what they are all about.

It's interesting that a lot of pop writers will pitch songs thinking they know how to write that kind of lyric. Most of the time they don't. That is a very specific kind of lyric. That's why a lot of the same writers end up getting those cuts, because they know how to speak that language that Point of Grace likes to speak.

On the other hand, there are many Christian acts who aren't nearly, if at all, that specific and will take a good song as a good song. There are probably moral choices that everybody will make depending upon how they feel. It's more likely that people in this (Christian) industry will probably make relatively more conservative moral choices in the lyric they'll choose.

But with the alternative-type bands—of course most of them write their own songs—the lyrics they are singing these days are almost indistinguishable from mainstream lyrics. I would say in general, the more pitchable artists are probably the more conservative ones because they tend to be the ones who don't write their own music as much. The more one writes his own music, the more likely he is going to be saying things that are less vertical.

It's pretty hard then as a writer to pitch to that world without being in that world?

It's certainly hard to do it without being a Christian. It's interesting to hear myself say that. But as it stands right now with the way this industry is set up, it's difficult—not because anybody is checking. It's not that you have to have a membership card or anything [laughs]. It's just you can tell in the lyric when somebody is sort of guessing their way through what they think it's supposed to be. There is a theological soundness that has to happen in the lyric for most of the type of artists who are looking for that material. Most of the artists who are looking for material tend to be more theologically based and lean more toward the vertical lyrics. When you start getting into that, you'd better know what you're talking about because it's very obvious if you don't.

Do you recommend collaboration between songwriters?

Yeah. Collaboration is the word here, and that goes for the Country industry and everybody. This is a town full of collaborators. It seems to be a lot easier to get a song cut if a couple of people have written it.

And you've got two different publishing companies pitching it, too.

Yeah, that's for starters. I think it goes even beyond that. There is just something about receiving a song with a couple of writers—it's the way it ought to be around here. If you write it by yourself, there is something wrong [laughs]. Really, I mean if you look at the Country charts and see how many songs were written by just one person, it's probably 80% -20% in favor of collaborations.

What are some typical doorways into professional Christian music as a songwriter? If someone you knew was just starting out, and you wanted to point him in the right direction, what would you say?

Maybe work in a recording studio. Intern at a record company or a publishing company or a performing rights organization. This is assuming you're not twelve years old. There is a music college here in Nashville called Belmont University. It is a Christian college, but it has a music industry emphasis. There are many, many, many people who are either artist/songwriters or working in this industry in one way or another who have come out of that school. Because of its proximity to the heartbeat of this industry, they seem to know how to prepare them. That's always a good place.

Interning is a great thing because you can't help but meet people. Intern at a recording studio. You can't help but run into artists being around that environment. You learn a lot through osmosis. Hanging around recording studios, you just learn and meet producers, and you hear a lot of music. You get an idea of what a guy like me, for instance, is rejecting or what a guy like me likes. You learn what not to do. You hear conversations. You pick up on the inside info.

Working at a publishing company, you really pick up on the whole songwriting scene. Then you've got access—if you play your cards right—to publishers, and you slip them a tape every now and then. It all depends on whether you're any good. That works if you're good. If you're bad, then you shouldn't be doing it anyway. This is assuming that you have talent. Your tape somehow, some way will end up in somebody's car. That's really what you need. You need that one opportunity, that one break.

Are you also looking for new artists?

Oh yeah.

Where do you look for new artists? How do you get stuff?

A lot of this industry, it's true, is really who you know. It's not as bad as that sounds, because immediately people assume: "Oh I knew it, if you don't know so-and-so, then you'll never get in."

But what that really means is that everybody can know—and I'm using the Christian industry as an example—the guy that runs the local Christian bookstore. He's not hard to get to know. The promoter of the local Christian concerts is not a particularly hard guy to get to know. The guy that runs the Christian radio station in the area, the program director or a DJ, are not hard to get to know. In fact, they're all "homers." They would all love nothing better than to see something come from their town.

Say you're the local program director in Akron, Ohio, and somebody has got a great tape in Akron and you get hold of it. All of the record company reps see these radio guys all the time. They owe them favors. The Word sales reps owe this DJ or this program director all kinds of favors because they are trying to get them to play their music. So, if the guy in Akron has a hot tape from an artist in Akron, and he's proud of it, he'll give that guy from Word that tape because he can. Then, that sales rep wants to impress the people in the company with something that he's brought to them. So, if I got a tape from a sales rep—and I have—saying "You've got to listen to this," I will. It's really not that hard if you get to know somebody that could help your case. It's not like you've got to know me. You just have to know somebody that can get a tape to me. It's not as hard as it seems.

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