Horse Sense: “Lay a Little Heavy on the Business Side”

Conductor Zubin Mehta laughs with singers Dolly Parton and William "Smokey" Robinson during a reception for the Kennedy Center honorees in the East Room Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006. Photo Credit: Eric Draper. Caption Credit: The White House.

Would you have said no to Elvis Presley?

Imagine Elvis calling you back in the day.

He loves a song you’ve written, wants to record it—and even invites you down to the recording session.

You’re excited and start telling your friends the news—and then (and this is a big AND THEN), a few days before the session, Colonel Tom Parker (a.k.a. Elvis’ manager) calls you up and says:

“Now, you do know that Elvis is recordin’ your song. And you do know that Elvis don’t record anything that he don’t publish or at least get half the publishin’ on.”

Would you give him at least half the rights? It’s Elvis after all and working with him would be a good thing, right?

If you were Dolly Parton and the song was I Will Always Love You, you would have replied:

“I can’t do that. This song’s already been a hit with me. And this is in my publishing company. And obviously this is gonna be one of my most important copyrights. And I can’t give you half the publishing, ’cause that’s stuff that I’m leavin’ for my family.”

And then decades later, you’d still be receiving payment for that song, right on through Whitney Houston’s recording of it becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time.

* * *

I’ve heard the Parton-Presley-Parker story dozens of times–but not as many times as I’ve heard of other artists who made the opposite decision, and do give away the rights to their work. When I caught an interview Dolly did with Dan Rather (from which the quotes above were pulled), I tuned in for another telling of it. This time I also caught her telling another story I know well—of artists who only focus on the art and not on the business—as well as a decision I wish every artist would make: to “lay a little heavy on the business side.”

“My daddy could not read nor write. Never had a chance to go to school. But my daddy was so smart. . . . I watched him maneuver, I watched how he would—he could trade and barter. And, you know, it’s like he would . . . What do they call it, good horse sense or horse tradin’? They call it street smarts if you’re from the city, but good old country horse sense. My daddy was so smart. And I just watched him through the years. And my daddy was also one of those people that was really willin’ to work. He was up all the time, up early, havin’ to farm before he went to work on construction or doin’ whatever he had to do to, to keep food on the table. But he always just managed to make some of the best deals and some of the best choices. And I . . . I was very influenced by that.

“Now, I got my music from my mother’s side of the family. And most musical people, musicians don’t wanna work at anything else. So, I got my work ethic from my dad. I got my music from my momma. And I tried, in the early days when, when I would think about it and I started seein’ that I could make money at this, I thought, “Well, they do call this the music business. So, why don’t I kinda lay a little heavy on the business side of things?” So, I got to thinkin’, you know, what I should do to make it really profitable, not just to sing and just let the money roll in and let it be gone before you think about it. So, I started thinkin’ about . . . keepin’ my publishing to myself . . . you know, publishin’ my own songs, startin’ my own publishin’ company and just different things like that that I thought would be, you know, smart business. So, through the years, I have been lucky and made some really good choices. But I’ve got a lotta good people that’s helped me a lot, too. I owe a lot of my success to a lot of smart people.”

Wrapped into fewer words: Dolly knew that many musicians only focused on the music, but she also knew the power of solid horse-sense infused business decisions. That’s the difference between artists with long-time successful careers and those who never break through. Yes, talent plays a huge role, too, but business is a major factor. How many artists can you name who broke through on talent and then went bankrupt and faded fast?

We don’t all have daddy’s like Dolly’s, imparting horse sense wisdom on us, but we need it just the same. We need it to get us toward our “all-for-love” projects.

Steve has talked about doing “one for love and one for money” in the past—taking on those gigs that are just for pay, so that you can pay the bills and fund time to develop your craft. But what if all you did was your craft? What if your craft generated enough for you to live off of it?

In surfboard artist Drew Brophy’s case, “painting 10-15 surfboards a day helped him to get really good and to develop a very strong style of his own,” said his wife Maria. “If Drew had been working in another field and only painting in his spare time, he would have been wasting his talent.”

His craft advanced because he put in the time. He had the time because he focused on the business and sold his work.

There’s another piece to this, too. If you value your work and make those hard decisions, others will value you, too. (Look toward the beginning of Maria Brophy’s article “Why Artists Should (Not) Be Paid for Their Artwork” for an example, and read on down to the end). For all those people who thought Dolly was crazy for turning down Elvis at the time, I’m betting her decision garnered her an even greater respect from an even larger group of people.

While some artists have broken through on talent alone, the ones with the long-time successful careers are most often the ones who took time to “lay a little heavy on the business side.”

Twenty years ago this summer, a contract commercial producer for Mattel Toys offered me this advice when I was a summer intern in Mattel’s El Segundo, CA, corporate offices: “It’s called show business, not show art.” I never forgot that line—and set about thinking about the business side.

Laying heavy on the business side is a force multiplier when paired with hard work and natural gifts.

If you don’t have that horse sense that Dolly spoke about, get some. It’ll take you a long way.

(One more reason you need horse sense, via John Scalzi. Read it)

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  1. Nik on July 4, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Could you imagine that call nowadays? You’d have to tell Elvis that you can’t give him an answer until you consult with five lawyers, the RIAA, the publishing company, the record company, the ad agency that uses the song in a commercial, and on and on.

    That’s a big reason why groups like the Avalanches are dead in the water and so many hip hop albums go unreleased. They can’t clear the samples.

    Well, I’d say it’s great to have business sense, and it certainly could never hurt, but there’s nothing wrong with delegating that sort of thing to a professional if you’re numerically challenged. (I include myself in that category.)

    Happy 4th, Callie and Steve

  2. Maddi on July 5, 2014 at 1:22 am

    Great post Callie. In the great scheme of things we are all equal, but very few artists believe in their own worth when they are starting out in a professional mode. How many new writers understand copyright laws and royalties? How many would know what a good contract is?
    I recently came across a couple of publishing companies who offer writers 10% royalties. The titles were only being published through Amazon on print on demand and for that the writers forfeit their copyright. There was no PR, print runs or support,and the writer was expected to buy 50 copies of their own book as a show of ‘faith’. All the publisher merely does is format and upload the book, that same publisher would get 90% of the net royalties. Yet I bet there are writers who would think that this is a good deal in an effort to find their footing on the publishing ladder.

  3. byHIsgrace on July 5, 2014 at 6:35 am

    What a wealth of info, Callie. This applies to others not just artists, writers, publishers…business is business.

    I offered to try and get some of my brother in laws art into some local shops where they feature artist…when he said he would give my a certain percentage (not what I expect, it would be a labor of love for him and my sis),she objected.He replied it was less than what galleries take…

    A sales guru’s advice was to not fallen love with your company…

    Love the column…

  4. byHIsgrace on July 5, 2014 at 6:36 am


  5. Barry on July 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Love this. I’ve found that I can “get lost” in the creative from time to time. The title of this post is going on my desk in a frame. Thank you!

  6. Joe Jansen on July 5, 2014 at 6:49 am

    Good article Callie. I hadn’t read John Scalzi before. But as he does, I also like pie.

  7. Mary Doyle on July 5, 2014 at 7:13 am

    Great post Callie! I’m going to keep this one because horse sense is always something I’ve been a little short on…great to see you back here! Happy belated 4th!

  8. Marcy McKay on July 5, 2014 at 7:23 am

    Loved this, Callie. I’d never heard about Dolly Parton turning down Elvis, but what a SMART decision for her in the long run. Great things to think about. Thanks.

  9. Jeremy on July 5, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Callie, thanks for this timely and timeless advice, and for the link to Mr. Scalzi. A large part of turning pro is taking responsibility for my own success and not waiting for it to align with someone else’s goals.

  10. Garry on July 5, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Brilliant post Callie – thanks brother.

  11. Sibella Giorello on July 5, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Callie, you found the good burr under Dolly’s saddle. Long before Dave Matthews, Dolly figured out how to ride her pony into the winner’s circle: hard work, “horse sense,” and never being ashamed to make a buck off creative output.

    My sense is you (and Steve, and Black Irish) are run the same way. Thanks to you all for teaching along the way.

    Great post, and great links. Keep ’em coming!

  12. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on July 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    I’m hoping to publish my first book in the Fall.

    The biggest investment I’ve made in myself and my future career is to LISTEN to the people who talk about who owns the right, and for how long, and for what price.

    The direct comparison is how hard it was to get any information (a big sign the rewards are meager) in the 1990s when I first sent a novel out to agents (thank God none of them took it on).

    And how willing self-pubbing authors are now to talk about finances, rights, reversions, and even post their earnings. A real eye-opener: one group is ashamed of its earnings, the other proud.

    Guess which group I’ll be joining?


  13. David Y.B. Kaufmann on July 5, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Another cautionary tale: The Beatles had publishing rights problems several times: Northern Songs, Allan Klein, Michael Jackson. One of the reasons they broke up was over money management. They had so much talent, though, the money was still there despite the lawyers. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, had to stay together because their money mismanagement (Allan Klein again) made them broke.

    What are those without business sense or experience to do? What we (they) do about editing, etc.: network and find someone to help manage it.

    Perhaps those doling out writing advice should include the business side. It used to be, when we submitted via typewritten pages (I’m showing my age), knowing the format brought with it, as a consequence, some business sense. (You had to know what “First North American Serial Rights” were, because that had to be included with the header. Double space, one-inch margins and all that.)

    Thanks for a great post!

  14. Brian on July 6, 2014 at 6:45 am

    Great to see your thoughts again Callie! Good stuff. While not about my ‘art’, in my transition from the military I feel similar. Many of my peers look for work that combined with their pension, maintains their current income/lifestyle.

    I do not know why I should be expected to take a 25-50% cut in income because I’ve secured a 20th century phenomenon called a pension. Would an employer ever say, “Well, I see your net worth is $2 million, so you really only need entertainment money..”

    My intention is to leave at my market value. While 10 years ago it would have been ego that demanded this, now it is a fuller understanding of my unique value.

    It feels great to have someone offer you a job, or maybe publish your work. But does the offer respect who you are? What you have completed? Does it validate you?

    Happy 4th to you and yours.

  15. Mike Byrnes on July 6, 2014 at 10:30 am


    Great post. I have been a business mentor to many very creative people over the years and have always made the same point. “You can use your talent to “generate economic well-being for yourself” or “just for fun”.

    If you want the former, I’ll be happy to help. If you want the latter you already know how to have fun.

  16. Mike Byrnes on July 6, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Oh yeah. One more thought.

    I believe that there is a trend in developed economies toward “just-in-time” labor. (i.e. freelancers, etc.) So mastering the required technical skills is not enough. You also have to master business skills or you won’t be “in the business” very long.

  17. Valerie on July 6, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks for the topic. Never heard the story but know people who gave away the farm to get a record made and are still hurting from it.
    Someone once said that ‘a vision without solvency is insanity.’
    Thought of that as I read the posts. Gotta say, I am a far better writer since earning a living at something I love that is not writing. Yes, I use words and I use them creatively and get paid for it…
    There is a tremendous freedom in supporting ones art. In Hollywood we used to call it f–k you money because it meant you could write what you wanted because you didn’t need the big studios’ money.
    Years ago, I found an ‘anonymous’ program that helps entrepreneurs gain clarity around earning. I can only say that I have watched hundreds of creative people succeed with the business sense they learned from other creatives. If you are curious, you may email me privately though my website.

  18. Maureen Anderson on July 7, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I’ve been waiting for this one, Callie, and I love it!


  19. Chip Polk on July 8, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    A great topic and the links were terrific as well. It’s really good to have you back!

    As I write this, I am actually printing the first draft of my first book! I have 21 plays under my belt, but nothing has felt quite like this. It’s a story that’s been nudging me for thirty years. Thanks to The War Of Art, Do The Work, and the collective posts on this website, my printer is churning out 98,993 words today.

    Of course, I’m sitting here watching it, thinking, “Oh my gosh! What do I do with this now?”

    Thank you all.

  20. Alec Smith on July 12, 2014 at 2:29 am

    WOW just WOW.

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