On Musical Talent And The Music Industry: An Interview With Shay Watson

By: - January 26, 2024

As I stared blankly at the sheet in front of me and fidgeted with my drool-coated recorder, I realized I was in over my head.  I had no idea how to read the music on the sheet.  I had no idea where to place my fingers on the instrument.  None of it made any sense to me.  The next semester, I was switched to Thai language class.  That worked much better.  We were, after all, living in Thailand, I was in sixth grade, and my brain was much better suited to learning foreign languages than learning how to read music.  That’s not to say I am not musical.  Some of my earliest memories are of my dad singing songs from the 1950s through the 1970s to me in his humorous way.  I would say I’ve always had a skill with lyrics and the written word.  I always have music playing at my house, and prefer it to the incessant drone of the television.  But musical instruments and reading notes – no, that was not likely to be my thing.

I have always been fascinated with those who can play musical instruments, and even more, those who can write and read music.  I recently had the pleasure of interviewing composer and songwriter Shay Watson.

Shay Watson is most known for his work in television and film as a composer and songwriter.  His songs have been recorded by platinum selling and Grammy nominated artists and can be heard on hit TV shows and movies. In addition to writing for and producing popular artists and bands, Shay has toured as a solo artist and in various bands. He is unique in that he is a multi-instrumentalist who plays and records both proficiently and quickly.  He rarely hires outside musicians.  He typically plays all the instruments on the tracks he creates.  It is rare to find someone who plays as many instruments as he does, is proficient in all of those instruments, sings, writes in as many genres, and records, mixes and masters in the quick turnaround time periods he is given.

From as early as he can remember, Shay wanted to make music when he grew up.  He loved music and sound.  His older brothers played instruments and his extended family was musical.  There were always instruments around, with his very first instrument being piano.  In college, he majored in music, with his principal instruments being piano and trombone.  He was heavily involved in various instrumental ensembles, musical theatre and the college choir and he studied a variety of instruments including piano, brass, violin, accordion, percussion and wind instruments.  He now has two young children who are both learning piano, with his son also very interested in playing drums.

As my mother-in-law is very musically talented, I sense that my children may be also, so I was thrilled to hear what Shay had to say about introducing children to music, as well as how the music industry has changed with streaming, amongst other topics.  The following is what he shared with me.

What is your best tip for a parent who has no musical talent to get a child to be able to read and write music notes?

 Have a piano in the house and other instruments laying around.  Let them bang on the piano and explore the instruments.  Bad and odd sounds are fine.  Do this before attempting reading.  As humans we learn to make sounds, mumble, grunt and talk before we learn to read and write.  Music should be the same.  Reading music is important, but we often put the cart before the horse and try to teach children to read before they can make sounds on their instruments.  It’s also important for children to audiate.  Audiation is foundational to musicianship. It takes place when we hear and understand music for which the sound is no longer present or may never have been present. If one can learn to first internalize rhythms and tonal intervals, then it’s easier to teach reading and notation.

How did you break into TV and film music composition? How does one do that?

TV and film music wasn’t on my radar until around 2006.  I had a good friend who had moved to L.A. and done well in that area.  It made me take notice and begin to investigate that world, but it was somewhat of a secondary thought.  At the time, I was more interested in writing for albums and possibly touring again.

Around late 2006 or 2007, I’d formed a duo with fellow singer/songwriter, Joe Nash.  The duo was called ‘Watson & Nash.’  We began touring and working on our album ‘Mile Markers.’  We had the idea to write a song that could be used at sporting events, particularly football.  We, along with songwriter, Bill Whyte, wrote a song titled ‘Bring It On.’  The song was picked up by Fox Sports and ESPN. 

‘Bring It On’ became a door opener for me to begin talking to people who were in the TV and film synchronization (Sync) world.  I linked up early on with a lady named Beth Wernick, who began representing me and shopping my songs and compositions, through her company ‘Imaginary Friends Music Partners (IFMP),’ to various music supervisors.   Beth took my music catalog to Emmy Award winning music supervisor, Paul Antonelli, who was working on a show for Nickelodeon called Hollywood Heights.  The show featured a pop song of mine called, ‘Ready To Fall.’  This furthered my confidence in sync in those early days.  Paul, who through Beth, became a friend of mine began including my songs in the catalogue for popular CBS TV show, ‘The Young and The Restless,’ which was another show that he was supervising for.  This really gave a massive push to my career.  The lead composer/supervisor, RC Cates, along with Paul began using my music weekly.  Once everyone found out that I was well versed in different styles of music, particularly pop, jazz, and lounge chill areas and could play a variety of instruments, they began asking me to create for specific scenes.  This was a jump from trying to place previously written songs in scenes.

At this time I was introduced to the company that provides underscore for various shows on Discovery Networks, A&E, and PBS.  This included Investigative Discovery, Animal Planet, History Channel and a variety of others.  Shows on all these networks began using music, particularly the shows ‘Homicide Hunter,’ ‘Snapped: Killer Couples,’ and ‘Wives With Knives.’  I would provide quite a bit of underscore.

I also began traveling to L.A., along with my main production partner and co-songwriter/composer at the time, Klaus Luchs.  We’d meet with Beth and the other workers at Imaginary Friends Music Partners (IFMP), as well as with the various music supervisors. 

After all these successes, IFMP began getting me spots on various other shows and movies.  I wound up writing and producing the opening theme song for the first movie in the ‘Aliens Ate My Homework’ series.  I also wrote a featured track for ‘Cats and Dogs: Paws Unite’, from the Cats & Dogs Franchise.  Soon, Showtime, HBO, MTV, and a variety of others were using me for both songs and underscore on their shows.  I began also having music made for some Netflix series.    

This also fed into me writing for various popular artists, who were looking to get their music beyond radio and internet and on TV.  This then fed into me getting a ton of song cuts, including songs for albums and radio releases with pop artists.

The years 2007 to around 2011 were my resume building years. 2012-2019 were years where my music exploded onto the scene.  I was very busy during this time period.  At one point, I’d traveled back to my hometown and was sitting in my parents’ living room, switching through channels and happened to switch through four or five shows that were using music of mine.  It was one of those weird feelings that hits you when you realize that your music is serving a purpose and being heard by millions of people worldwide.

Tell me the process for composing a score for TV and movies? How do you begin? Where do you get your ideas?

It happens in different forms.  Most times, for network TV and cable TV, I write both songs and underscore.  Oftentimes when I’m writing songs or instrumental background, as opposed to score or underscore, I’ll simply be given a brief which contains a synopsis of the scene.  It will contain the ‘feel’ or ‘vibe’ of the scene.  Sometimes it will contain examples of dialogue and oftentimes the music supervisor will provide a list of ‘references.’  For instance, if the music supervisor wants me to write a song that has the same ‘feel’ as a particular song they’ve previously heard, they will send me that other song to reference, or a list of songs.  The music supervisor will also send me key words or themes that they want to hear in the lyrics.  You have to be careful, though, because the supervisor doesn’t want you ‘writing the scene’ through your song.  You have to write in a manner that seems like you didn’t write the song for the scene but that you wrote a song that ‘happened’ to fit perfectly.  A common phrase you hear is, “don’t write anything too on the nose.”  Meaning, the scene is written, the music is background and should only enhance with slight nods to the scene from a thematically lyrical standpoint. 

For underscore, I may also receive a brief on the scene or the supervisor will send me the scene without any music.  

If I’m sent the visual, it will only have the scene with dialogue and no music.  In those instances, I will pull the video into Pro Tools, which will allow me to write to the visual.  I’ll generally compose, record several options, and send the options to the supervisor for opinions on which option to go with and any changes that need to be made.  At that point, I’ll mix and master what I’ve composed and recorded and send it back to the music supervisor, who will further edit and lock the music to the scene.

I’m often writing and recording simultaneously.  I love layering organic instruments with programmed instruments and merging the two types within sessions.  Also, for any instruments that I don’t play or desire to have an outside player on, I’ll call on other specialized instrumentalists, but for the most part to be cost effective, it’s me playing all or most of the parts within a track. 

I have to always keep in mind that I am background.  Sometimes, I’ll have a song that is a feature in a scene, and carries the scene with the dialogue or I’ll have a composition that intentionally is highlighted, but for the most part, I’m background and not even secondary at times.  That’s the way it should be.  My music is there to accent and enhance the script, the acting, and the other visual elements of the scene.  I often want the music to be mentally ‘felt’ as opposed to mentally ‘heard.’  The listener may be physically hearing the music but if it’s overtly noticeable and distracts from what is happening in moving the plot forward, I have not done my job.  My ego, or some need to be heard, should never factor into the equation.  I will be heard on a portion of the tracks, compositions that I do, but for the most part, I’m only there for support and I must keep that in mind.

How long did it take you to become successful (make money etc.)? 

That is a difficult question to answer because we have to define what constitutes success and even financial success when it comes to songwriting and artistry.  In general, musicians and artists have always struggled and it’s getting tougher, due to streaming and the lack of fans purchasing physical products.  Even the appearance of wealth and having done well financially is sometimes manufactured.  I’ve worked with well-known or multi-platinum selling artists with bad label deals that are barely paying their rent or mortgages.  They are touring and able to make barely enough to pay bills but not that much more.  For some, success is defined as making enough to support yourself or yourself and a family and get to do what you love, even though you aren’t making what, say a tech worker is making.  For others looking at it, if you haven’t made six figures per year you’re not successful.  For some, making $60,000 a year and having your name on a ton of credits is a success.  So success, in general, is subjective.  That said, over this twenty-five year period that I’ve been in the industry, I’ve had great financial years and terrible financial years.  You do have to train yourself to ‘save up for a rainy day,’ because you can easily trick yourself after having a couple of big successes into thinking that the successes will immediately continue and the big money will always be there. 

For me, I had success early on, followed by a huge failure or two, followed by success followed by another deep dark valley, followed by success and a continuing upward slope.  Minus the pandemic, my past decade has been successful from both the financial standpoint and an output notoriety standpoint.

What is your latest project? What are you currently working on?

I’m continually working on music for CBS’, The Young and The Restless.  The company that I write for is one of three that supplies music for the show.  I have a movie that I may be starting very soon.  We’re still working out the details of the deal and I’m not at liberty to give any details or the title away right now but a good friend of mine that is an actress has a major role in the movie and I believe if all goes well with working out the contract, it will be a fun project.

I’m also continually writing and producing songs with the multi-platinum hit band, Blessid Union of Souls.  We began working together a few years ago, through my co-writer and friend Bill DiLuigi, and that’s been a great experience.  It’s very special to me because they were a favorite band of mine during my college days, when they had a string of radio hits.  It’s rare that a songwriter/producer gets to work with essentially their heroes, so that is special to me.  During the pandemic me, Bill, and Blessid’s lead singer, Eliot Sloan wrote their single ‘Smile,’ which was made into a fun video and also their Christmas release, as well as a 4th of July release.  Currently, Eliot is slated to work with me on a solo album of mine that I’m writing and Blessid Union of Souls may be featured on one of the tracks. 

Aside from music I’m developing a pop culture, video podcast with a few friends of mine and an additional true crime podcast with my friend, John Clinebell.    

Tell me a little about the evolution of the music industry since streaming services.

When I first arrived in Nashville, there were rumblings of this thing called Napster.  It was new and had not had a substantial impact on the Nashville community.  This is primarily because, at the time Nashville catered to country music and the country music fan base was still purchasing CDS.  The labels and songwriters were still making good money off album sales.  As more people became aware of Napster in its mp3 file sharing form, it put a dent in some artist’s sales.  Other artists though, said that it actually helped sales by creating hype.  This was in the file sharing stage when iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify and Pandora didn’t exist in their current forms.  So I can see how leaked music files could create an intrigue that upped certain sales.  Overall, and this is over simplifying, as internet speeds got faster and faster, we saw the rise of streaming on the platforms that I mentioned and instead of purchasing albums, many fans were streaming albums and not necessarily purchasing and downloading the songs to their iPods and iPhones.  What incentive is there to purchase music when you can pay a small subscription and listen to any song imaginable, or better yet, sit through a couple commercials and hear music for free?  Because of this many labels were losing on mechanical royalties (royalties on physical sales of albums) and had to find a way to keep their doors open.  They wound up signing artists to what is called 360 deals where the label takes a huge percentage on everything (merch, publishing, tour revenue, etc.).  In the past the labels made money primarily on album sales and didn’t reach into these other areas.  If they did reach into the other areas it was at a smaller percentage.

How did you personally navigate the changes in the music industry once iTunes and Napster came along and how did iTunes/Napster etc. affect music composers/artists – did it hurt them? Does it help? How would you compare it with being on a label, what are the pros and cons?

I was fortunate to have had successes early on as a songwriter in the late 90s/early 2000s and then a healthy artist career, with its ups and downs, until around 2010, when I came off the road to focus primarily on TV/film sync licensing.   I came from a time period when much more money was made and more was on the table.  I have young artists/songwriters in who are receiving little for their performances and despite ok streams, still struggling.  I can’t imagine someone approaching the industry for the first time trying to make it as an artist/songwriter who doesn’t substantially tour or a non-touring songwriter.  I will say that streaming didn’t affect sales of my group Ten Mile Drive.  We sold a ton of albums but we also did not market any of the music to streaming platforms.  It was all physical sales.  So if you wanted to take our music home and listen, you had to buy it in CD form.  There are thousands of our albums still floating around but you still won’t find the album online.  This is primarily because we disbanded before streaming platforms took over, any work we’d done with the label was shelved, as we lost the deal during the developmental time before the big launch, and for us to put the previous album up, which was being recut, might muddy legal waters.

Where I felt the effect most was when I came off the road and was not touring.  As a songwriter, in the old days, you could write ‘B sides’ and still make decent money.  Remember the artist makes their money off concerts, merch, album sales and streaming.  The songwriter, who is not the artist, only makes money off mechanical sales and streaming, unless they are licensing songs constantly to TV and film, ads etc.  So, with mechanical sales drastically down, if you aren’t the sole writer on the hit single you are barely making any money.   Per stream, a songwriter (if you are the only writer on the song) gets paid approximately, $0.00069 from YouTube, $0.00133 from Pandora, $0.00402 from Amazon, $0.00437 from Spotify. Those are your biggest streaming services.  So, the songwriter makes less than 1 cent per stream, actually less than half of a cent per song on most platforms.  Most songs have two to three co-writers, so take that less than half cent, then divide if by two or three and that’s what the songwriter makes off streaming.  Now mechanical sales (purchasing a song, not streaming) the songwriter makes 9.1 cents per song.  So to earn $1,000 the song would need to be purchased 11,000 times.  All of that to say, the songwriter who is non-touring, has to be constantly writing hits, the singles, that are going to be purchased, downloaded, and they must keep co-writers to a minimum to make any money, unless they are exploiting the songs in other ways, such as to TV/film.

 Can musical artists still get on a label, or is it all streaming one song, etc.?

Yes, but it’s not as desirable as it used to be.  Now, an artist can do everything a label can do.  Artists can easily distribute their music directly to the public for sale, they can hire a radio promoter, promote through social media, contract with a manager, booking agents, etc., and build substantial careers without a label.  Labels organize all those pieces and front the money.  The typical independent artist doesn’t have wealthy parents or investors who can front two million dollars for a launch, like a label can.  The more money that’s thrown at promotions the better the artist’s odds.  But keep in mind, it all has to be recouped by the label before the artist sees a dime.  There are a ton of artists, a ton I’ve worked with, that got signed and the label either invested and they failed on their release or signed them and held them in a deal for a year or two with promises of a release and dropped them before an album ever came out. 

So bottom line, artists should build their careers themselves and sign only after they’ve made a splash, and then only sign for a single or for option periods that have specific parameters.

What is the creative community like in Nashville, and do you find it harder to break into the Hollywood world not being located directly in California? Is the Tennessee music scene growing? 

The Nashville music scene and the population in general has been growing rapidly and exploding.  When I arrived on the scene twenty-five years ago, Nashville felt like a ‘Big Small’ Town; big city buildings with a small town community feel.  It was easy for me to get connected.  I love people.  I love conversations and getting to know others and I fell in, fortunately in the right circles.  Also, you somewhat ‘grow up’ or rise through the ranks with friends that you make who arrived around the same time, you encourage each other and help each other out.  If someone gets a deal or an in with the older previous guard, then those in that persons circle does to.  Ironically, I’m finding that we are now the old guard to the younger generation that’s hitting the scene. It’s been a great experience for me.  Despite the ups and downs, I’m been very blessed.  In Hollywood, I’ve also had a fairly easier time than most breaking into the world that I’m in.  Sometimes I think it’s because despite being a fairly educated, quick moving composer songwriter, I have a thick South Alabama accent and people want to hear how backwoods I sound.  I was once writing with a New York Broadway composer and he said, “Despite sounding as dumb as dirt, you’re often the smartest guy in the room.”  Now, I don’t know about the smartest guy in the room part but, I’ll take the statement as a compliment.  I’ve always been able to deliver quality and deliver it quickly with no complaining or ego.  I’m super easy, I listen well and I don’t have a lot of drama surrounding me.  I think the people making decisions appreciate that, and I get work and referrals.  I also have a wonderful person, Beth Wernick, with IFMP that represents my catalogue to supervisors.  My song catalogue is approaching ten thousand songs and compositions that I’ve written and recorded over the years.

How do you juggle your career life with your family and home life and do you have any tips?

 It is very difficult juggling career life and family life.  My wife and I have been married for twenty-four years this coming June.  We dated for four years prior to getting married, so we’ve been together for close to twenty-eight years.  My wife has been very supportive of me pursuing music from the very beginning.     That has made a world of difference.  We both knew that the life of me beginning as a musician would have many ups and downs.  We have very different personalities.  She is a great organizer, loves making lists and family goals.  I’m detail oriented and organized when it comes to music and production, but I easily get consumed and lost in work and would likely never leave the studio if she didn’t set parameters.  She also helps me guard my time because I often want to give all my time and energy to writing and music production.  She reminds me that sometimes I need hard cut offs in order to rest and rejuvenate.  At a number of long periods over the years I would function off only 3 1/2 – 4 hours of sleep per night and that would always catch up with me.  Now, I only pull all-nighters if there is a hard deadline that I have to meet.  

We also intentionally waited until I was off the road to begin having children.  We both wanted to make sure that I was not always touring and rather at home with the family at night. 

I try to keep weekends completely open for family.  Occasionally, I’ll work but typically, 6 pm on Friday until 6 am on Monday is family time.  On Sundays, we do attend a church, where I lead the music portion of our worship service, but other than Sunday mornings, I try to keep the weekend as family time.  Lately Sundays have been a little more difficult because I’ve been meeting with the other hosts on the video podcast that we’re developing, but I’m typically back home in enough time to have substantial family time. 

Do you think social media is important for artists? Do you use it to engage listeners/followers etc.? Do you have any tips for doing so?

It’s very important.  Social media is oftentimes the artist’s primary means for advertising.  The public expects constant engagement and connection to artists.  Fans need to feel as though they have a means of access and artists should be engaging on not only one, but all major social media fronts.  The engagement and advertising should point fans and listeners to listening and music purchase platforms.  Social media platforms should also be monetized by artists as a source of potential income.  There are lots more moving parts these days when it comes to being a successful artist.  Social media and getting followers and engagement numbers up are also a good indicator to labels as to whether you have that built in fan base that you can sell to. 

There are a lot of people out there right now struggling.  What is your secret to happiness?

 As a Christian, my faith in Christ brings me a lot of comfort. 

What do you do to reduce stress?

Prayer, reading, exercising, and I eat pretty healthy.  It is very hard for me to relax and not always feel the need to work. 

Is there anything you want to highlight or talk about specifically? Feel free to talk about anything you would like. 

As both a producer and songwriter, I’m always on the lookout for new, true talent. I love working with both seasoned and new artists/songwriters.  If a person feels as though they have talent, an adaptable spirit and the fortitude to withstand the challenges of an artist’s career, I’m interested in hearing them.  I love finding artists with true talent and the personality to match.  I do tend to avoid ‘high maintenance’ artists.  Quirky is ok, but difficult makes me run the other way.

 

Shay Watson has had quite the interesting journey and I find it inspirational that he has been able to fashion his vast musical talent into a successful artistic career.  As for that sixth grade drool-coated recorder: I still have it, but now my son actually knows how to play it!

 

Artists who are interested in working with Shay can audition by finding him on social media.  He responds best to Instagram at shay_watson_musicproducer, and he’s also on X (formerly Twitter) @shaywatsonmusic.

Shay is also on all music platforms.  His music is very varied and reflective of the different genres he works in.  His Spotify artist page spans the past circa twenty-five years.

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