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
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
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.
MP: 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
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
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?
MP: 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
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
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.
MP: 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
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
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
MP: 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.
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 CDBaby.com:
For more information on the Temecula Wine and Music Festival
go to www.temeculawineandmusicfestival.com
The website for Dolphin Days in Hawaii is www.dolphindays.com
Learn more about the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta at www.javajazzfestival.com