You might have heard White Heart, a popular Christian rock band from the '90s (if you haven't, your parents will know). White Heart was founded by musician Billy Smiley. The band broke up in the late '90s, but Billy is still in the music industry. Today, he produces music and helps new artists get started in music.
I got to chat with him about his new endeavor, Music City Collective, the old days of Christian music, and more.
You recently launched the Music City Collective, a project that helps artists get started in music. Why did you decide to create this service?
I've been helping artists with music production since the early years of Christian contemporary music with Geoff Moore, Margaret Becker, Gaither Vocal Band, and White Heart, of course. A lot of my passion has been helping artists try to find themselves, and I've continually done that over the years. Starting Music City Collective was just putting it more on a professional level. It was putting something together that shares the vision of helping artists.
Over the last 10 or 15 years, my passion has been to produce music for upcoming artists. But, some of them don't work with a record label. So, it comes down to the artist finding ways to discover how to create music themselves, how to do it well, and still be part of a team. That's really what Music City Collective does–help artists kickstart their music career.
Music City Collective is a bunch of like-minded people all over the United States. From Nashville to Boston, to San Diego. If artists need help in a specific area of the country, I can plug them into someone from Music City Collective.
You work with record labels like Southern Skye Records, Devotion Music, and others. What do those collaborations look like?
These labels were founded under the Music City Collective umbrella. I've produced music for artists of all different genres: from rock, to worship, to Americana, world music, pop, R&B, and soul. These labels are a reflection of that.
We have four music labels. We have Devotion Music, our faith-based label, Southern Skye, our Americana and country label, and Shadowlands, our pop and world music label. We also have our rock music label Cul De Sac Records. It's fun to have a rock label, because there's a lot of people that still love that form of music, and there's a lot of new artists coming up in the rock world. It's an exciting time right now.
Music City Collective also has music programs for junior high, high school, and college students. Why is it important to inspire the younger generations?
One of my artists writes books and educationally-formatted materials for schools. We haven't implemented the music program for youth yet (we do have a page for it on our website). But, we see the need for it. Schools are losing the emphasis on music and creativity.
This program is a wonderful way–without being political–to bring youth together. Especially in this time, which is so divided. It gives us an outlet. If we can grow this program in the right way, I would be very excited to speak into some schools that need help with players, engineers, or people to support the students and tell them, "This is something that you do really well." This is our goal for the music program.
How have you seen Music City Collective be effective for artists?
We wanted to create a home base where artists feel like they're part of something meaningful. I grew up when music labels really meant something, and we've lost that. They've become business models. They crunch numbers and look at Spotify.
There's not really a sense of looking at the heart of the artist, who they are, and what kind of music they grew up responding to.
Music City Collective is trying to do the business side of things, but operating in a way it was done in the '70s. Where the job of the label was to market and promote what the artists gave them, versus the labels telling the artists what they should sound like. There's a big difference in this process–and the pressure is huge.
When you listen to Christian music today, it's all very similar. There's not a lot of differences in the types of music that's on the radio. It's all sounding the same. And a lot of it is worship music, which really sounds the same. We want to find artists, singers, and songwriters that want to do music differently.
Now that we know about Music City Collective, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in this industry.
I got started way back with the Gaither Vocal Band. I joined The Gaither Trio as a flugelhorn player. When I was with them, they asked me to produce the first four or five of the Gaither Vocal Band albums. I was a young kid, and I had energy for creating something new.
Later, I started White Heart with Dann Huff, who was a guitar player. White Heart went on for a good 20 years of my life. But, Dann left after two-and-a-half years because he wanted to be in the studio. We had some great players in White Heart, and out of that, I met, developed, and produced music for a lot of artists of different music styles.
From BeBe & CeCe Winans to Geoff Moore, to Margaret Becker. My passion is just helping artists find themselves, record music, and write great songs. I eagerly endeavor to let artists know that they're good because a lot of people don't feel good enough or accepted.
After White Heart disbanded, John Schlitt, who is the lead singer of Petra, and I started a new group that we do as a side thing. We have three members of White Heart and John Schlitt of Petra, and we go out as The Union of Sinners & Saints. We've released 15 songs in the last two years. It's been a great thing. We get to travel and have a great time. We poke fun at each other's groups because we were competitors back in the day. It's amazing that we can get together, and see the happy faces of people who listened to early Christian music. Fans who loved White Heart and Petra.
It's an exciting time right now, in addition to producing music and developing artists in Nashville.
You went from rocking it out with White Heart to producing music. What was that transition like for you?
It was pretty smooth. Even with White Heart, I produced or co-produced most of the albums. Dann and I started producing our self-titled debut album. Dann went from playing guitar to producing music. He produces music for Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, and a lot of country artists. I stayed in Christian music for 20 years. But, once the Christian industry went over to worship music, I didn't do as much of the Christian stuff. I found myself producing rock, country, pop, R&B, and soul.
Finally, how can we be praying for you as you continue to help artists?
Pray that I'll be able to stay consistent. The struggle is always a financial one. Usually, artists that come from hard places don't have the finances to do music well. It takes money to not only do music right but also to promote it right. That's where the struggle is for a lot of independent artists. To use an analogy: if you built this great restaurant of music, how do you let the world know that the food is good? People like you at NRT are a big part of telling the world that the food is good.
Grace Chaves is a fan of all things Christian music, and is one of NRT's youngest writers. She's homeschooled, and loves concerts, Jesus, and songwriting.
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