Philosophy of Music
Don’t look for Grammy awards or gold records in Paul Worley’s Music Row office. He has them. Somewhere. Instead, the walls of the music executive’s office overlooking part of Vanderbilt’s campus are covered with guitars.
“That tells you what I think is important,” Worley, BA’72, says. Even though he’s run multimillion-dollar companies, discovered some of country music’s hottest stars, and produced million-selling albums, the former philosophy major thinks of himself as a guitar player.
The Nashville native started playing music in third grade, moving on to guitar at 13. While in the College of Arts and Science in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he played fraternity parties and clubs. After graduating in 1972, he and his bandmates tried to keep the music alive. But the military draft pulled several away, and others went on to regular jobs.
Worley tried that, too, applying for a job selling business machines. The interviewer told him not to waste either of their time and to go back to music.
So he did. He became a session guitarist, playing on albums produced in Nashville. He helped build a studio run by fellow alumnus Richard “Pat” Patrick, BA’69, and continued making music with Marshall Morgan, BA’73, who would go on to become a sound engineer for the Eagles. It took eight years for Worley to get his first job as a producer, for a then-unknown Gary Morris.
During the nearly 30 years since, he’s produced for Reba McEntire, Marie Osmond, Martina McBride, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and more. Producing the Wide Open Spaces and Fly albums for the Dixie Chicks earned him Grammys for best country album. As an executive he worked in the upper echelons of two major record labels, Sony BMG and Warner Bros. At Warner Bros. he signed Big & Rich to their record deal. Most recently, he produced the debut album for Lady Antebellum, a group whose first album hit No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.
Not bad for a guitar player, albeit one who parlayed philosophy and economics into a highly successful career.
Focus on Learning, Not a Career
“For those of us of our generation, getting an education and finding a career were two separate things,” Worley says. “I know that’s changed now, and for the worse. I went to school to get as broad an education as I could. I majored in philosophy to check out as many different ways of thinking about the world as I could.”
His liberal arts background has served him well in business. Philosophy, sociology and psychology have helped him in working with creative artists, and economics has helped with business. “I minored in economics. I’m glad I did,” he says. “Later in my life as a businessman, it’s been good to innately understand macro- and microeconomics and how they work.”
“I majored in philosophy to check out as many different ways of thinking about the world as I could.”
Understanding economics and a world economy is something Worley learned at home as well. His father, James Worley, was an economics professor and director of Vanderbilt’s influential Graduate Program in Economic Development. The program brings officials and educators from developing nations to Nashville to study economic development. During his tenure the senior Worley worked with more than 900 government officials and academics from 92 countries. Former students include a Lebanese ambassador to the United States, a vice president of Micronesia, a vice president of Ecuador, and a governor of the Central Bank in Turkey. Many of these ended up in the Worley home, providing an international perspective that the lifelong Tennessean says enriched his understanding of the world, education and business.
Not Ready to Be Irrelevant
In 2004, world and business changes helped Worley decide to reshape his future—and perhaps that of the music business. The music industry now has seen sales drop by half in four years. “Imagine any business that’s now 50 percent of what it was and what that does to the structure of the business, especially if it’s one that has a long history and a certain way of doing things,” Worley says, explaining that Internet downloads are up but CD sales are down. “People are more interested in buying one song at a time than they are albums. We’ve gone from an 18-dollar model to a 99-cent model.”
The changes in the business brought Worley to a point of questioning his own future. He walked away from his job as chief creative officer at Warner Bros. to launch his own business, Skyline Publishing, which specializes in developing artists.
“I had a good job with a big, fat salary, and all I saw around me was this crumbling of the business. I had three more years available on my contract, but to do what I was doing was a path to irrelevance,” he says. “Am I ready to be irrelevant? The answer was loud and clear: No. I don’t want to live that life. I’ve still got music to make and things to do.”
The music-business model may have crumbled, but consumers clearly still want the content. Worley’s new business develops artists, and then brings the performer, Skyline and the record label into a collaborative profit-sharing arrangement. In the past, record labels made money solely off an artist’s album sales. “Now CD sales are a wallpaper backdrop to the music,” he says. “It’s being able to go in as a business, intersect with other businesses and say, ‘Let’s all win.’ Nobody has to lose. That’s our way of the future.”
photo credit: Daniel Dubois