Takin’ a Walk.
So I started going to New York for sessions. My very first recording session was GE Smith on guitar and Shawn Pelton was on drums. It was at the Philip Glass Studios. And again, you don’t have any idea at that time that that’s not normal. Later on, I realized it wasn’t necessarily what happens typically. And it was just a golden experience.
Welcome to the Takin’ a Walk Podcast, music history on foot. Join Buzz Knight, your host, on this episode with Shevy Smith. Shevy is a producer, a singer-songwriter, and the co-founder of a unique music discovery app called The Ultimate Playlist. Let’s join Buzz Knight and Shevy Smith now on Takin’ a Walk.
Well, Shevy, it’s so nice to have you on a virtual edition of Takin’ a Walk. I feel like I’m walking the streets of Nashville, even though I’m outside of Boston.
I feel like we’re doing that, too. Thank you so much for having me on, and it’s fun to take a virtual walk with you. And then when you come to town, we’ll have to take an actual walk. It’s kind of magic season here. The autumn in Nashville is very beautiful.
I love it. So tell me about your career background first.
All right, well, I come from the performer, artist, songwriter, producer side of things. So I was quite young when I started. I started piano at four, but more just for discipline. My parents just, I could either be in dance or piano, and I chose dance. And then they were like, “We can’t afford that, so you’re going to play piano.” And that ended up being very fortuitous. Started playing guitar around 10, kind of just had a propensity for it, loved it.
And I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I grew up in a wheat field in Kansas, and so I would ride my horse around by myself. It was very idyllic. And we’d go for a swim in the pond and I’d make up a song. And fortunately, I had the foundation to put music to that. So as early as I was interested in music, it never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t make my own. I mean, I of course was a huge fan of, you know, my mom played a ton of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou and that beautiful Troubadour AM radio situation. So really, really wonderful influences.
But started writing quite early, and it was definitely pre-digital. And so I had two clock radios at home, and we dubbed back and forth. I was trying to do my own four track recorder because I didn’t have one, but I knew I wanted to layer sounds. And that really, I kind of made whatever the wilderness version of a mix tape was. And that found its way to a producer in New York named John DeNicola, who actually ended up being super legitimate, is still a great friend and guiding force in my life today.
He was coming off the success of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. He wrote Time of My Life and Hungry Eyes and was working with a band called Kara’s Flowers at the time, who then became Maroon 5. And so he was just profoundly generous in the fact that he didn’t steamroll over me even though he had all the experience and I was a 14-year-old kid from the middle of Kansas. At first he would record me to a click and then would take it back and build tracks. And that started getting interest because this was still the traditional label world. And actually from that, Rosemary Carroll, who was, still is a big attorney in the rock world, heard that and she called and wanted to help and represent me at the time. And so the songs really were what garnered the attention. And then also you’re just crazy fearless at 14, you don’t know. You’re like, oh, of course this is happening this way.
So I was just incredibly, I look back, just bold in the ways that I, as a kid, you just ask for what you want, and I wanted to do this so bad, I couldn’t think straight. My whole world was just this chyron of songs running above my head that I would reach up and grab and create. And so I started going to New York for sessions. My very first recording session was GE Smith on guitar, and Shawn Pelton was on drums. It was at the Philip Glass Studios. And again, you don’t have any idea at that time that that’s not normal. Later on, I realized it wasn’t necessarily what happens typically. And it was just a golden experience. I learned so much. Everybody was so nice. Shawn Pelton taught me to eat sushi. He was from Missouri, and so he was like, “I bet, you’re from Kansas, have never had sushi.”
So it just was this time of discovery. And I was really also fortunate because obviously I was this kid and there were all, I was working with primarily older men in their thirties and forties, but they really all were very protective and not any of the stories that you hear. That wasn’t my path through it necessarily. I really lucked out and had these incredible educators and kind of protective folks looking out for me.
And we started getting interest. And so that project was passed to Nashville, which was just kind of coming out of this, I mean obviously it’s always been songwriter mecca, but there was still a path of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lucinda Williams and this I guess what would now be Americana was kind of more of a mainstream there for a second. And Universal was interested and they’d had all this success with Shania, and I was bubbly and smiley, and there was a real propensity to want to take it in a real mainstream direction, which now as an adult, I totally get. And it probably was the right, I guess, instinct on their part.
But I was like, I’m brooding. I’m Patty Griffin. I thought that I was so heavy, and wanted to do my own thing. And so this guy, Frank [inaudible 00:07:15], was starting Lost Highway at the time. So we flirted around with doing something with that and ultimately ended up doing an independent record with my publisher at the time. And they let me produce it, and got to go in, and at that time you could hire, I had Dan Dugmore come in and play on all of my sessions. And I would hire him as a leader so that I’d get him for six hours in an overdub session and then just grill him about Heart Like a Wheel, or I was just kind of in heaven as a little audiophile who just wanted to be in a studio.
And so the people that I worked with at the time, Steve Marcantonio had been in on Beatles sessions, and the main engineer producer who really helped me out and let me sit in on so many sessions was this guy Chip Matthews, who’s now having crazy success. He produced all the Luke Combs stuff. So it’s just I’ve really lucked out on my path to really be able to spend time with so many geniuses and people who are very generous with teaching me things.
So I made a couple of records. I toured colleges mostly. I would play over 200 shows a year, which you couldn’t have told me anything was better at the time. I would go play colleges and then I would open shows. My agents at the time would put me on the front of a run of shows of Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney and these country guys. I opened for Shaggy on a number, on a run. It was like, looking back, you’re clear, nobody knew what I was doing, including me. I just was very ambitious and willing and excited about it. So I did that and figured out that I probably wasn’t heading or veering more in the direction of mainstream country at the time, and I really was lit up and fired up about Los Angeles. So I kind of cut ties here and moved out there.
And you look back and you’re like, oh, I was probably a little bit reckless or a little more dramatic than I needed to be, but I was going out there to do the thing. And had some good things happen right off the bat, but then had some injuries that I won’t get into, but had some barriers that really changed things. And so I ended up having to go through a series of surgeries that meant I couldn’t go on the road. And it was a really kind of 180 time for me. I went from really being bold to really not feeling confident or capable or strong to do these things. And so I kind of withdrew.
And I also at that time was 25, and I’ve been working since I was 13 on my own volition. My parents had nothing to do with it. They made me emancipate to sign any contracts, because they’re like, “You’re a kid, you don’t need to work. You just need to play your sports or play your guitar and enjoy school.” But I was the one that really, really pushed it. And by 25, I was kind of burnt. I was just exhausted and a little disillusioned by the whole thing. And I ended up moving up to Topanga Canyon, just north of LA, and it really was this beautiful calmness that I hadn’t had in a long time.
And I started teaching guitar just to make money and just didn’t do any shows, just was trying to figure out what the next, I guess turn would look like. And that ended up turning into this beautiful, kind of inadvertently created this education program that focused on songwriting. And so we had 120 girls across LA in this program writing songs, sometimes based upon poems. And it really was just this really innocent, just beautiful era of life where I was able to reconnect with who I had started out being, wanting to write songs.
But within that time, I started getting contacted to produce because I produced my own stuff. And I think just certain people had kind of earmarked that maybe I had an interest in that. And I started producing stuff for TV promos and trailers and those sorts of things because I could. I just had a little setup like this. And ended up having a fun journey through that. And that really suited me at the time because it was so anonymous. You’d just get a call to create something and create it that afternoon and send it out and see if it worked.
So yeah, so I ended up working with some people that I’d really admired for a long time. There was this producer up there named Jacknife Lee, who he and his family have now become some of my dearest friends. But I ended up being able to have him be a mentor and watch how he worked. And he produced some of my favorite records of all time. Or just across the river was Ryan Ulyate, who did the last five Petty records. And so I would go over there and he was remastering the Wildflowers album, so he had all the stems. So we would just sit in there and he’d just let me listen to just like Ferrone’s just snare on You Don’t Know How it Feels. And for me, nothing could have been better. It was a heavenly, wonderful time.
So I just ended up more behind the scenes and just being a conduit. I love working with younger artists. A lot of times female artists who maybe have been pushed and pulled in a lot of directions somehow end up with me because I think I can relate in a way that you only can if you’ve been there. So yeah, so I’ve just built this. It’s a pretty low key music career so far, but it seems to keep building and going down these little tributaries and it’s fun.
How did the tributary get created of Ultimate Playlist?
Ultimate Playlist was born out of necessity and just curiosity, to be honest. So I’d started an arts development company with my now business partner, a brilliant man named Khalid Jones, who is a Stanford educated lawyer. He was one of the first people to own an eSports team, a really innovative thinker. And he also had a background in hip hop and is an incredible writer himself.
And so we had partnered up because I knew that I wanted kind of a business structure to this artist development that I was doing. And I thought he was just a fantastic resource to offer to the artists that we were working with and just has so many innovative ideas. But as we would finish certain songs and want to put them out, we’d face the same quandary that everybody faces of like, oh wow, at that time there were 40,000 songs a day going to Spotify. Now it’s well over 100,000 songs a day. And just that whole thing of you’re looking at this kid that made their song and it’s really good, and you’re like, well, I’m not sure how we’re going to get this heard. And it was such a different process than even when I’d come out with my indie records.
And so as we looked at the different options of how to try to promote, we came up with there’s playlist pushing and that is kind of a little opaque and can be a little risky, and it’s not something that we wanted to necessarily spend our money on. And I think offhand at one point I was like, I’d feel more comfortable if we went down to Staples Center during a Billie Eilish concert and just ask these girls to listen to 30 seconds of this song. If we could just get them to listen, I think our retention rate would be higher than five percent, and I think we’d get this many actual dedicated fans. And he certainly agreed.
And at the time, he was doing consulting work for the Arizona lottery and knew about some of the pain points that they had in offering online games or mobile games, as well as reaching a younger audience. And so while he and I were working around with gamification and kind of taking that Billie Eilish, hand everybody a dollar bill, we took that the step further and we’re like, why would we hide the ball? If people are paying for a promotion, why would those promotion dollars be stopped at a middleman? What if they just passed through and just we didn’t hide the ball, we didn’t pretend like this wasn’t paid promotion, but really offered that incentive to the end listener? And that was really the utility that we kept coming back to.
And he knew that the lottery would have a need for that utility as well, that for them to gain the users and the younger user base and to be in that mobile space was worth it to them in the same way that it would be advantageous to an artist to have that listener incentivized to give their song a long listen. So in a world of TikTok, of six second listens, this actually incentivizes the player or the listener who is participating on the app, they get rewarded more the longer they listen. So the longer they give that song a chance, the more chances they have to win one of the cash prizes.
So it’s not pretending that there’s not an exchange involved. And I think, I mean certainly your background in radio, we all know there’s always an exchange involved and not even a dishonest one. It’s just like that’s business. And so we really just got excited about the idea because it’s something we would’ve wanted to use. And that was about as simple as it gets.
Do you see applications around what you’re building here that could apply to the traditional radio business?
We actually are, our licensing categorization is streaming internet radio. So we’re just incentivized. We’re the same as, we’re not interactive streaming radio, so we’re the same as Pandora. So it really is just incentivized radio. And we were just issued a patent for the utility. So there is something very novel there, but we also recognize that the tale is as old as time. This is the same as listen to the third song and be the fifth caller. I mean, we’ve always been incentivizing people to listen. It was listened through commercials so that the station gets paid and then that’s passed on through. This is just really a directness that we can offer because of the technological age we live in.
I don’t think that, it just wouldn’t have been practical to run a contest like this without the tokenization and the way that we’re able to offer it within our app. But it certainly builds upon and plays upon it as a nod to traditional radio and what we grew up loving about it, which was I think I taped every favorite song I ever had off of the radio and I was always winning concert tickets or trying to with the caller thing. So this is kind of the same concept.
We’ll be right back with more of the Takin’ a Walk Podcast.
Welcome back to the Takin’ a Walk Podcast.
You know, frankly, the radio business needs to take a look at itself in the mirror and utilize new opportunities of technology and innovation.
Well, I love hearing you say that. That’s one of the, we literally just had our patent published last week. It was actually issued in August. But as we go to build upon that, we certainly see a lot of use cases for the underlying utility, and Ultimate Playlist serves as a use case and an example. But you look at the TV streamers, and market share is all tapped out. As many people who can afford as many subscriptions, everybody has them. There’s no, at least in the US, there’s no people to go get who don’t already have access to Netflix or to Hulu or whoever.
And so as streamers in television and podcasting and music obviously start looking at ways to leverage technology to get more market share, we feel they’re probably going to look to gamification and look to incentivize listening or watching or this attention economy that we hear about. This really puts a format and a payoff structure to that. And so we’re really hopeful that we’re going to be able to take this technology to many other platforms and hopefully have it translate.
So as you think about innovation and think about your process in innovation, what has failure taught you about growing this brand?
Oh man, let me think for a moment. I mean, there’s obviously technology and working, leading a development company now, and I have engineers that I’m talking with all day every day. The lottery doesn’t shut down on weekends. So on a Saturday night at 10:30, I might be working with an artist and I duck out to go talk to my programmers. And so it’s taught me that everything is iterative. We, in the music industry, there’s like once it’s final, it’s final, and you have this kind of endpoint.
With technology, there’s no setting and going. As soon as we get the performance of the app optimized, Apple will change one permission setting and we’ll have to go and iterate around that. And so there’s just so many levels and so many frequencies that have to blend well at the same time. So I think if you’re striving to be a perfectionist or striving for this end point where you’re on top of the mountain and you’re like, I really did it, it’s perfect, you’re going to be very, very disappointed. And I think in life in general, that’s just always a valuable lesson, to know that it’s iterative, we’re improving, we’re trying to make it as great as possible.
I think the other thing, the definition of failure is a very hard thing for me to understand now. It’s almost like I look back at things that I thought were failures at the time and they don’t warrant that label now. It was like, oh no, that was like, that just bumped me into a different lane. Or oh, that’s where I learned about how to do wire frames. That turned out to be really useful. Or oh, that turned, you know, I think already I’m just seeing the beautiful path through it all and just knowing that feeling something as a failure at the time is a really impermanent thing.
Who taught you about resilience and who taught you about leadership?
Oh, wow. Resilience, I think it is as deep in my bones as my marrow. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, was born in a brothel and he never knew his father. He did not have a name until he was eight years old. And was the most joyful, ambitious man there could be. And so I think having so many, and he’s just one of, you know, my family are like, they’re farmers, they’re carpenters, they’re people who build things. They’re people who plant things. And then you wait and you put in the work and you’re steadfast. And nobody, I didn’t come from a showbiz, you better be shiny and that means success sort of background.
I remember the first, like I won some contest and the prize was I got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. And I remember before we walked in, my dad being like, “Now we are not people who are particularly impressed by fame and all of this.” And I remember, because I was kind of a smart aleck, being like, “Well, speak for yourself. I am so impressed by this.” I was dazzled. But that always stuck with me, that my family does not, they want me to be happy, they want to see me win, but there is no achievement or sash I could wear around my body that would make them love me more or less. And they just don’t quantify it as that at all. They are like, go hard in what you believe in at the time, that’s success.
So within that resilience, it’s just like, well, what are my options? If it is not perfect, do you quit? No. I don’t have anything to fall back on in the sense of nobody’s coming to save me because I don’t need to. You don’t need to be saved. You’re fine. Just keep walking, keep going at what it is. And at the end of time, you pass and you didn’t, again, stand on top of that mountain, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans worth a difference. Were you kind? Did you have integrity? That sort of thing. So I think the resilience part is just like, keep going, enjoy your life. Success is the getting back up, the resilience.
As far as leadership, I think it’s all these fantastic people I was able to work with when I was young. I look back, and they were all history makers. My first publisher was Celia Froehlig, who was one of the first women in Nashville to run a major. She ran EMI Publishing and she made so many songwriters careers and did it Dolly Parton style in four inch heels. And she didn’t alter how she conducted herself for the business. The business came to her, and she just was a true individual. Same, I think as far as producing records, Jacknife Lee, I’ve learned a ton from him, and he works with obviously the U2s of the world and these really strong behemoth bands, but knows how to guide them with a grace and how to get the end result they want.
There’s a friend of mine named Troy Vollhoffer, who runs one of the biggest staging companies, like production, in the world. They do all the staging for Metallica or the Chili Peppers and these huge undertakings. And just watching his excitement and the fact that he cares so much about the details and the pulling off the big circus, and seeing how all these people have been true individuals and them being true to themselves and being excited when they’re excited, dressing the way they want, following their own instincts, I think has impacted whatever leadership style I might have.
So where do you see the future of music and technology down the road, and where do you see in that road where Ultimate Playlist fits in?
Okay, well, the future of music and technology, I think it’s exciting because there’s just going to be infinitely more music made, and just for the wellness of the world as a whole, if we all have access to creative tools and outlets, I think that results in a net positive better world. So I think on a macro level, that’s very exciting.
In terms of music, I think it’s just becoming more fragmented. I actually had a discussion with my friend Jay Knowles, who is a brilliant songwriter, and he was down in New Orleans working on this project that I was producing last week, and we were having this discussion about a certain artist. We were like, is she famous or is she not? Do we just know about her, or does the world know about her? And we realized, we were talking about how there’s just such a niche. You can be a huge TikTok star and somebody who listens to radio doesn’t know you exist, but there’s still an economy for you.
And I think that’s what’s really exciting, is where once there were maybe two lanes, now it is a 16 lane freeway and you can kind of mix and match to your strength how you’re going to conduct your career within that. So I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. I think that there’s going to be less superstars. Just inherently, the economy cannot support there being as many as there once was. I think we’re going to have a lot more what would be considered now mid-level stars. And I love that. I mean, I want a middle class of artists again. It’s a great economy to support.
So within that Ultimate Playlist, hopefully we continue to grow and become a resource for growing that sort of career. One of the things that we offer, when an artist chooses to have their song on Ultimate Playlist, they pay a very affordable small fee to have the appearance on the playlist. And again, that money passes through so their potential fans are the ones rewarded by that investment.
In turn, they get a data set back so they’re able to really understand how their song is performing. And some of the streamers are not incentivized to give that information to the artist or to the manager. So knowing that we can provide them with a data set that helps them make smarter decisions or decisions that will advantage them in touring, perhaps. If they see their songs doing really well in the Southeast with men between the ages of 30 and 50, they’re going to plan a tour slightly different with that information. It would be cost prohibitive for them to go just independently commission that study.
So what we’re really able to do is give data and also present them to real live human fans. There is not a bot farm in Scandinavia that is accounting for the promotional streams on our platform. It is US citizens who could potentially buy a hard ticket and come to your show. So we just really want to be the [inaudible 00:33:52] and the Gold Rush and really be a tool that is artist friendly, that really supports the working class artists and gives them access to the same tools that major artists with huge teams would have.
Well, your story and your work is very inspiring.
I could promise you when this publishes, I’ll be hearing from people telling me that, who are either in the business or thinking of the business, I know for a fact I’ll be getting that feedback.
You’re so kind.
And I’m so grateful that you took the time to be on Takin’ a Walk.
Well, thank you. It’s so reciprocated. Thank you for the work that you do. When I’m out taking a walk, I’ve been listening to you, and I think that it’s such a profoundly exciting time that we can get this kind of education and insight in such an easy and beautiful, well curated format. So thank you for including me and for including Ultimate Playlist.
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