Interviewed by
February 2008





Michael Paulo should be a household name in the smooth jazz world. You've probably seen him recently, since he has been a fixture in Peter White's touring band and shared the stage with smooth jazz superstars at festivals all over the world. He joined Al Jarreau's band in the early 80's and established himself as one of the most exciting and charismatic sax players out there. That launched a solo career that kept him on the charts for over a decade. He released a series of solo CDs and had some radio hits but when the format began to get tough to crack he got creative and diversified. Now he is still recording and playing live both on his own and with other artists, but he is also producing concerts and festivals. I caught up with him while he was rehearsing for an upcoming performance at Berks, preparing for the Jakarta Jazz Festival this month, and his own Temecula Wine and Music Festival in May.
SV: We kind of started this feature trying to pigeonhole you. Were you a solo artist, a sideman, an indie label owner, a concert producer?

MP: Just do me as a person, because I do it all!  
SV: You've definitely taken on multiple roles. To start at the place where I first got blown away by your performance, you first caught the attention of music fans as the sax player in Al Jarreau's touring band during the 80's in what was arguably the most high profile point in his career.  You had to be the cream of the crop to land that gig. What were you doing before that? 
MP:  I moved to LA in 1981 and got with Al Jarreau two years later. Prior to that I was playing in Hawaii and toured with pop bands there. I cut my teeth with them and got my studio experience, road experience, and everything that way. When I moved to LA I spent two years doing club gigs and working recording sessions. Things were starting to take off and I got the opportunity to tour with Al and that launched me into a different dimension right away. I toured with him for nine years. It  put me on a world stage. In the process I had the opportunity to sign with MCA and released One Passion. 
SV: How did you end up in Al's band? 
MP: It was being blessed with an opportunity. I was actually performing in a group with some guys from Rufus, Andre Fisher, Tony Maiden and some other guys like that. I hooked up with them right away when I got to LA and we were really taking off and getting a lot of gigs. Al had seen me perform with them so when he was putting together a horn section .and my name popped up he knew who I was and I got hired. I came into rehearsals and there were all these guys like Bobby Lyle that I had only known through liner notes, all these guys I had been listening to when I was cutting my teeth in Hawaii. It was so exciting to be a part of that.  
SV: I still think y'all had the best horn section choreography I've seen. And that's important (laughs).
MP: And you can still see it on YouTube (laughs) and I can still do that stuff. I can still get down on my knees!  
SV: You released One Passion in '89. A lot of the guys on that album were from the touring band. 
I was doing a recording session for Vonda Shepard's first album and I met Robert Kraft, who was producing some of the songs. He helped me get a contract with MCA and produced the album for me. He wrote or co-wrote a lot of the songs too. It was really successful, the title track was a radio hit and "Last Tango In Paris" got a lot of airplay too. 

SV: Every time I played that song the phones would light up, people loved it. That album gave you a good launch for your leap into a solo career.
MP: Al was really supportive. He was encouraging me to go for the solo career and he kept telling me I was good enough to go for it. I stayed on as long as I could because I loved playing with that band but around that time they were phasing out the horn section and it was time for me to focus on my solo work so it worked out well. I still did some sax gigs with him after that too. 

SV: Then you moved to GRP during their heyday in the early 90s and released Fusebox, which still sounds just as hot and current today as it did then..
MP: I think we really were ahead of the times with that one. We incorporated a lot of hip hop beats, we had rappers on it . That was several years before other people started doing that and people raised some eyebrows about that. It didn't do as well as One Passion did and it was a one shot thing for GRP.  
SV: It had some really strong songs on it that sounded like hits. I was in radio at the time and it didn't really get promoted. GRP had about a zillion artists on their roster at the time and it seemed to get lost in the shuffle, which was tough because as that movie that was a hit back then would say,  "It was Worthy." Your next album came out on your own label. A lot of artists are starting their own labels now but in the early 90s it was pretty much unprecedented. How did you get the idea to do that?

MP: I learn quick. I was learning how record companies treat you and what happens to you as an artist. The opportunity to start the label came about when a friend started talking about why go through that whole process with yet another record company. You don't have control of what you're doing and then you don't make any money anyway. He was up for us doing it on our own, so he put up the money and we had a nice little run with Noteworthy records. Save The Children and My Heart And Soul did really well. Then I put out Midnight Passion and it hardly got any airplay. That was when I decided to just pull the plug on the label. Like I said. I learn fast.  

SV: It was such a fabulous CD but the playlists were really being cut by then and it was a tough time for independent releases. Noteworthy put out excellent CDs from Kerry Moy and Boy Katindig, who has been touring with Paul Taylor and doing solo gigs recently. They couldn't crack the airplay code, even though to this day I hear people mentioning those CDs on their "best of" lists. It had to be a drain financially and artistically.
MP: It was. It takes a lot of money to market an album. Look at it this way - if you spend just $ 1,000 per state marketing your record that's $ 50,000. That's a minimal amount to break a record. That's under the old model but that model was still in effect. Getting stocked and displayed at retail and getting heard just costs. You can't compete with a big label that has the budget to do that. Even now there are artists starting their own labels and trying to work their music that way and they are getting beaten up. Retail even got tough because they started charging money for you to get in their ads and get your CD on listening stations where people could see and hear it. Then the record companies were trapped because they had supported the process and paid willingly at first, then the cost kept going up and they couldn't budget it even for all their priority releases. They started complaining about these programs when they were the ones who fed the fire. And it all came back to the artists not getting a fair shake on exposure in the process. 
SV: Did this kind of fuel your move toward backing off on your solo work and being a sideman.
MP: I just wanted to keep playing. I can go out and play with other people and make a living. Then I got into promoting and booking. My feeling was that if I can't get a stage with these guys I'll just create my own stage. I'm just surviving like that. I miss being out there as a mainstream artist and hopefully I'll get back into it.  
SV: You recorded a CD called Beautiful which seemed to be on the back burner for a while then it finally became available around a year ago but there was no fanfare or promotion for it..  
MP I competed the project and I shopped it around to several labels and got lukewarm response. Being on the scene as long as I have been I looked at the changes in radio and retail and decided it wasn't worth the effort to do a national release if I couldn't get label support and distribution. Would it be worth the thousands of dollars it would cost to promote it when it is such an upstream battle with getting airplay and getting it into the stores? I ended up putting it out so it would be available for people who know me and people who come to the shows but I was so involved with other things and knowing the intensity and time it takes I decided to keep it at that level. I've been selling it steadily at gigs and on the Internet. It's out there. You can get it! 

SV: With all that is going on in the business right now would you think about recording another solo project? 
: Actually  I'm working on a symphonic project. I just cut six songs with a 40 piece orchestra. I rearranged "One Passion", "Last Tango In Paris", "My Heart And Soul", and some new compositions. The idea for the project came about when I was working with David Benoit. He had hired me to play with the Asian-American Symphony during their concert series. I was one of their featured artists. We started talking about arrangements for that concert and a promoter in Jakarta wanted me to perform with an orchestra too. One thing led to another and David ended up writing the arrangements for this appearance and we got the idea to record it.  
SV: Isn't going from owning a record company to being a promoter in a soft concert industry kind of jumping out of one frying pan into another hotter one? 
MP: Yeah (laughs). I think as far as promoting events the saving grace is you have control. You're in charge, you do the marketing, you can set a game plan and stick to it. When you own a label there are so many factors that you can't control as far as getting distribution, getting airplay, finding ways to get the music sold and generally supporting your artists. And if it doesn't all come together you're screwed. You could get the airplay then have something go wrong with distribution and not have it in the stores, You could end up putting out the single the week several major names put theirs out. Just all these factors. When you are promoting a concert you have a lot more control over what happens during the event. For us it's not just based on getting an act and getting bodies in to see them. The audience comes first and we want them to have a really good overall experience. I'm an artist so I treat the artists the best I can and I want to treat the audience the same way. Entertainment is a people business. If you look at it from the top down and do everything to please your audience you should be successful. Even little things like how do I keep the food lines from getting too long, making sure the sound quality is right, that seating is comfortable and accessible and they can see the stage. If I achieve that I'm happy. If people know they are going to be treated well they will be happy and they will come back. 

SV: Which is why going to a concert that is promoted by a human being is a much better experience than the corporate promoters' concerts are. One of the really popular events you promote is the Temecula Wine and Music Festival, which is coming up in May.
MP: I started the event five years ago. We raise money for a charity. Over the last three years I think we've raised $100.000 through the event. This year it is benefiting All From The Heart, which is a non-profit based in Temecula that helps military families. I invite these great musicians I know and they are willing to keep their fee low because it's a charity event. It's gotten bigger every year. It was staged at a winery but we outgrew the space so we are moving it to a resort this year. There will be plenty of parking and RV space and we will be able to offer wines from a lot of different wineries.  It should add value to the event too because people who want to visit the wineries can come out for the festival and do the tourist thing and visit the wineries while they are here.  
SV: Who is playing?
MP: We've got Average White Band, Paul Brown with Phillipe Saisse and Jessy J., Marc Antoine, Chieli Minucci, Brian Simpson, Jody Watley, and several more artists to be announced.  

SV: Then in June you do Dolphin Days in Hawaii, don't you? 
MP: We've been doing that for 14 years. It's a food, wine, and entertainment experience that covers several days. The music festival is one of the big events and there is a lot more going on too.  

SV: And you have been taking a contingent of musicians from the US to the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta.  
I do that every year. It's one of the biggest festivals in the world, they have over 100 solo artists and groups from all over the world. This year I'm taking Everette Harp, Gregg Karukas and Greg Adams.  
SV: And you'll be at Berks with what could best be called the underground Supergroup. The LA Chillharmonic with Richard Smith and Greg Adams, Gregg Karukas, Brian Bromberg and Phillipe Saisse. That's a pretty stunning group to put on one stage.  
MP: Richard Smith put it together and we will all be doing a few of our songs and some group stuff. I've been rehearsing with them this week, it's going to be fun.  
SV: You've been around since smooth jazz as a genre started to take hold. We are in a situation now where the radio format is largely a national network that is focusing more on pop vocals and not playing many instrumentals that aren't covers. You've survived by diversifying and by promoting concerts you are giving musicians a chance to get some exposure and sell their music. What is your take on surviving in the post-radio/post-retail era.  
MP: When the Telcom Act passed and big companies started buying up all the stations and standardizing the formats, I saw the writing on the wall and I got out of being a label owner. The business model has shifted, The traditional route of getting radio behind you then having a retail story develop isn't there anymore. That, and the CD is on its way out. We are shifting to a track by track business model where people don't have to buy CDs anymore. The business model has to change. You have to rely on digital sales and getting revenue from selling single songs. So you don't really have to take on the expense of underwriting a whole CD project. If you have a few strong songs put everything you've got into those and just put out those songs. I think that's the way it needs to go. Then the artists aren't under pressure to do so much and record so much. When you're under the pressure from a label to come up with an album every year it's a lot of pressure. People don't realize all the time and production that goes into it. It's hard to come up with 12 hit songs every year. It's rare that you have a record  that deep. Musicians end up putting all their creative talents into just a few of the songs, then they start throwing in fillers because of the pressure to deliver a whole CD and stay in budget. I think we need to get away from that and get to quality over quantity.  
SV: How can an artist make enough money off tracks to support themselves and their families, and go on tour, which is going to be necessary because your profile is going to be based more on live performances than it has been before. 
MP: Most artists don't make that much money from record sales. They get the exposure from the records getting airplay and selling, then promoters will book them and they can tour and sell more product at live dates, but the actual album sales have never been the biggest source of revenue. Now, the Internet has become the way to get your music out and reach your audience. The positive thing is that as an artist you can put your music out there and get it on sites like iTunes. There is a lot less cost involved because recording technology has made the process less expensive and Internet distribution isn't as costly. Before the Internet if you couldn't access the mainstream channels like radio and good product placement at retail you were shut out. Now it's about how you market yourself so you can get performances.  It's got to reach a point where promoters start taking more interest in Internet activity as far as sales and the buzz being created around an artist. It's not that way yet and the saving grace of smooth jazz radio has been that if you get airplay that will hopefully drive CD sales and give you a profile so promoters will take a risk and book you.  

SV: Only thing is that there are a lot of CDs that get a lot of airplay and don't sell well at all. Going back to what you said about Beautiful being basically for your fans that show up to see you live,  I'd be willing to bet you've sold more of that one at your gigs than a lot of charting CDs are selling.  
: That could be true because in a live situation you have an audience that gets to see you play your music, they get excited about it and they want to buy it. The question is how do you get to the point where you can get in front of a live audience? Unfortunately the promoters still use radio airplay and sound scan so those numbers start diminishing. They have to start looking at other avenues to gauge the popularity of an artist. That might be the artist being able to show that they sold  a lot of units through download sites, onsite at concerts, that their video is getting a lot of hits on YouTube or a site like that. The artist has to work on it, their management has to work on it. Everyone involved has to take a more active role in trying to sell the artist and find new ways to do it. The promoters are losing the tools they are used to, airplay and sales, and they have to start looking at other things.  

SV: As working musician you need to be practicing , playing, writing, and rehearsing and spending time with your family and friends. Those are the things that it takes to create the best music you can. That is time consuming and working your music on the Internet is equally time consuming because there is no concrete system yet, it's still a matter of throwing it at a lot of walls and seeing where it will stick.

MP: It is time consuming. It is moving toward more avenues and more technology and it always comes down to one factor. How do you market yourself? People hear good music and they will buy it but with the changing business the issue is how do you get heard? How do you gain exposure and build your fan base? That's the dilemma. As far as survival it's going to get to the point where more people will accept these aspects of the new business model and it will get easier for us to get exposure.  
SV: Those are the big questions!

MP: Here's what I'm hoping will happen. At the Temecula Festival I try to go beyond the big name format artists and bring people who are great performers and do so well when they can get in front of an audience. They are playing live so they don't have to edit themselves into a format. They play really exciting music. The audiences love it and they come back every year.  Artists are starting to say "I'm going to just make music that makes me happy and is what my audience wants to hear from me." As more artists start getting away from just releasing music that fits into a format and start making the music that they want to make, and that their audience wants to hear, the audience will hear it on the Internet and in concerts and at the same time get more tired of hearing such a limited range of music on the radio and start to drift away. Then radio will be forced to  look at all this new music that people are getting excited about and take notice.  
SV: Either that or some type of new technology will create what essentially will be the new "underground radio" which will mainstream itself pretty fast because of the way things get viral now. It may not be on a traditional broadcast medium but people love music and they love to share it so it will happen somewhere.

MP: Everybody has to step it up a notch and be open to change and new business models. That's the way we are going to survive. 
SV: And people like you who are aware of that and have so much experience in so many aspects of the business are going to be catalysts for that change. Thank you so much for the conversation and we all look forward to seeing you play somewhere with someone (laughs) soon!

Michael's most recent CD, Beautiful, is available at
For more information on the Temecula Wine and Music Festival go to

The website for Dolphin Days in Hawaii is 
Learn more about the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta at