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Dan Workman
President of SugarHill Recording Studios

Dan Workman, producer, audio engineer and president of SugarHill Recording Studios, is not a person defined by his celebrity success. Rather, he is comfortable letting his signature sound – his music – speak for him. Leading behind the soundboard is a role Dan says represents what he values most in being a creative person and entrepreneur. While you may not recognize him by appearance alone, you know his work. Dan has collaborated with a score of famous Texas musicians, including ZZ Top, Clay Walker, Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, and local talent such as The Wheel Workers. In the contemporary arts world, he is the business manager and a co-creator of the internationally acclaimed painter and visual artist Mark Flood. As President of SugarHill, the oldest continuously operating production studio in the US (October 1941-present), Dan is at the helm of a major music institution in Houston. SugarHill is a legacy recording facility where more than 126 ‘Top 100’ albums were made, including over 20 No. 1 hits, and where legendary musicians such as Lightnin' Hopkins, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Clifton Chenier, Freddy Fender, the Big Bopper, the 13th Floor Elevators, Doug Sahm and many more have recorded. Building on this legacy, Dan’s vision is that the studio will continue to evolve, staying relevant with the times.

 

How did music become your vocation?

I was already playing in bands in high school, and when I went to college I never really thought that music would be my vocation. I always thought that it would be an avocation. By that time I had shifted my course from oral surgeon to psychologist. I was in the Honors program at the University of Houston, which is really cool, and my concentration was in Psychology. I was still playing in bands, and I never for one moment thought that I would make my living in the music business. First of all, the style of music that I liked was punk rock and industrial music, things that were not normal and didn’t seem to be the Beatles. Like the Sex Pistols…while I had some idea that they made a lot of money, it seemed like they had to go through a lot of trouble to make it. So, I just felt like I would enjoy music as this thing that was going to enrich my life, but I was not planning on making a career out of it. It was not until I got out of graduate school that I found the thing that I evidently do best, which is to be an engineer and producer.

How do you manage your many creative partnerships?

There’s two different layers of partnerships for me. One is business partnerships. These are my business relationships with my partners at SugarHill, sort of on a metabusiness level, not necessarily music or creative related. I have other roles as a producer where I have to put together teams of people in a creative realm, but still there’s business behind it. Underneath that is the pure pleasure of putting together a creative partnership where I’m playing, or I’m one of the composers, or I’m one of the creative people and have to put together those kinds of partnerships. Probably having a degree in Psychology helps—a lot. I remember when I decided I was not going to complete my graduate study in Clinical Psych, which was kind of anathema, nobody stops but I did, and I remember thinking, “this is going to come in handy someday.” I didn’t realize quite how, but it was very much to my advantage that I had that training because in the recording studio people are nervous, they’re not able to run their filters as much, there’s creative tension, there’s business tension. The art and business collide, so you have to be able to manage all of that. I feel like I was well suited to do that because I had a degree in Psychology.

Can you talk about identifying as a performance artist and balancing this arts identity with your leadership roles?

In my band Culturcide [in the 1980s], we participated in and provided music for some performance art shows by William Steen, who was a Houston artist who worked at the Menil. It was the first time I ever saw anything called performance art. And it was like this weird thing where he had this elaborate script and he was acting this stuff out, and the band played some of our songs and then some of this impressionistic noise that he conducted us through. We rehearsed it and we did it, and I was shocked that people showed up for it. I vaguely was aware of what performance art was, but that was the first time I had my first taste of it and I absolutely loved it. I liked the lack of rules. I liked the fact that it was rather cerebral. You had to really drop your pretenses to allow it to happen. For me, the way I approached that was sort of intellectually. The way a lot of people approach performance art is with this open heart. So that’s how I got introduced to it.

I’ve never been able to keep business and my art separate ever since I had that moment when I realized this is what I want to do. The two go hand in hand. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve concentrated on one more than the other. My very first performance art piece that I did myself was a piece called “Enemy Body” in 1986 at Lawndale Art Annex, and I got a Texas Composers Forum Grant to do it, so my very first one made money, or at least didn’t cost me money. So, if that’s the deepest sort of manifestation of what it is that I do as an artist, I’m happy about that, but it is important to recognize what the business component is. Now I’ve done other performance art projects where it’s cost me money, and I’ve been totally OK with that because I knew going into it that it was worth it to me as an artist to go ahead and make that investment in myself. Frequently that investment has actually paid off in an angular way where I was the guy who was known for doing this and I got other work in areas like mixing and producing where I do make money.

You’ve worked with a number of empowering female artists. Can you talk about this experience?

OK, let’s name some: I’ve worked with Mydolls in Houston, definitely badass women. I also did vocals on the first two Destiny’s Child albums and then the first solo Beyoncé record. So, I was working with Beyoncé since she was 15 years old. Definitely a badass woman. I seem attracted to badass women and I like those collaborations. I resonate to the female voice. There’s something about both the sound of a female voice and the feminine perspective that’s just a rich and fertile territory for me to work. I enjoy my relationships with my women friends, and I enjoy being a co-creator with strong women. I like walking on to an equal playing field with a strong creative partner, and in my life that’s over and over been women.

What are your thoughts on Houston’s music scene and culture? 

I think that Houston has a great cultural scene. It has a wonderful scene in the performing arts with the ballet, the symphony and the opera. We also have the static arts, if you will, with a great museum district. The Houston local music scene has always been, I’ve thought, incredible. I’ve watched periods of time where people feel like it’s not as good or really rising now. But from my altitude, it seems like it’s always remained rather consistent. What we have here in Houston is a big problem of how our space is laid out. We’re the largest unzoned major metropolitan area in the country, so there’s lots of little downtowns, there’s lots of little entertainment districts. And we’re a driving culture here, you have to drive everywhere and park. So, there’s not one area to go that’s walkable where you can see a ton of music. We’re not San Francisco. We’re not like the Strip in L.A. We’re certainly not New York where you can walk over vast swaths of Manhattan or Brooklyn and find all kinds of music. You have to know where to look and you have to go. It makes it really hard. What I see is that we have these blooms in different areas and they’re normally localized around certain bars, certain places in town, where a lot of creative music is going on. And then they go away. Maybe it’s with a venue, maybe it’s just with the interest. Maybe it has to do with other sorts of population issues that I can’t put my finger on. But I’ve seen it happen over, and over and over again.

I’m very pro-Houston. I think Houston’s had a great creative culture. I think that it’s hard to know what’s going on right outside your bubble in Houston, your drivable bubble. No one person has ever been able to appreciate all that’s going on in the city, no matter what sort of zines or newspapers or blog or vlogs are out there, about what’s going on in the city of Houston from a music perspective. I don’t think anybody begins to cover all of it.

Has SugarHill remained a creative hub for all these different types of music?

Yes, I do agree that SugarHill is a kind of point of power that draws people to a somewhat unlikely neighborhood tucked between the University of Houston and Produce Row. It is the oldest operating recording studio in the U.S., therefore it has cultural weight behind it. Musicians are pretty superstitious people, they’re drawn to places where success has happened. We’re really fortunate in that respect and are out in front with that identity. Just today in the building, we have Christmas songs being recorded in one studio and a film being shot in another. And then there are five other private studios, who knows what’s going on in those, but they’re all busy. So, the music scene does seem to coalesce around SugarHill but I don’t make the mistake of thinking that we even see a fraction of it. We’re just fortunate to see a constant roll of it.

What’s your vision for the future of SugarHill?

How do I make myself relevant in a culture which does not value, monetarily, recording the way that it was before? My vision for the future is that production is moving out of these big monolithic churches of recording studios like this one is and going into smaller, private studios. So what we’ve done is we’ve built spaces out and leased them to smaller players where music is done in a smaller way. We’ve collapsed our needs and our revenue streams down to where we can service being a landlord to production spaces, along with leasing our two big studios. So far that’s worked out pretty good, but there’s going to be more upheaval because copyright law and the underlying revenue that comes from streaming and licensing music is not going to be changed anytime soon, and I think it’s going to get a little worse before it gets better. That said, music is music is music—there’s always going to be music. Even if it’s people like me playing the ukulele with their dad, there’s going to be music, and there’s going to be people wanting to listen to music in their car, while they work, while they work out, just for fun, at parties, or people are going to want to go see live music, so there’s going to be recorded music consumed. I think we’ll find a way to be part of that or find a way to facilitate that. So, I think that SugarHill will continue. I think that the way that we look and operate will continue to change with the times.

What maxim do you follow in life and at work?

Always speak from the heart. It’s the only way not to mess up. Be honest. Just speak from the heart. That may include being a little foolish every once in a while, for me personally. That’s the only way to maintain integrity with yourself and the world around you.

What are a few career successes or moments you’re proud of?

When the song “Bootylicious” (by Destiny’s Child) was written and then recording it. The beginning of Beyoncé starting to write her female empowerment songs, like the more overt ones. With the previous album, The Writing’s on the Wall, there was the song, “Bills, Bills, Bills,” like I can pay my own bills type of thing. It was moving in that direction, and at the time she wrote that, she’s 16 years old. So, she was tapping into this thing about strong, independent women, and of course she wrote “Independent Women.” But “Bootylicious” was the first one that was like funny but not. “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.” I didn’t even get what that was talking about when it was first rolling out of her mouth, then it was like, “Ohhhh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” In other words, my body can be whatever it’s going to be, and I’m going to be proud of it. And sure enough it was the gigantic hit record. I was very, very proud of that.

I was very proud of knowing when to lie, actually, in the music business. Before I started any of this, I met Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who was one of my big heroes. He asked me to do some jobs for him, which included wiring some stuff and teaching him how to use a guitar synthesizer. He showed me a packed garage filled to the top with studio equipment and he asked, “What can you do with this?” It was like instantly I knew that the honest answer was, “I have no idea,” or “Nothing,” and the right answer was, “I know exactly what to do with this.” Which was a lie. I’d never done anything nearly that big before. I chose option 2, and I told him I knew exactly what to do with it, and it launched my career building studios and becoming an engineer for a major rock star. I was proud of that moment—and actually, it wasn’t lying so much as doing what every young person has to do at some point. You’re asked, “Can you do this,” and the real answer is “Maybe I don’t have enough experience,” “I don’t know,” “I’m scared”…but you have to say “yes.” So, I was smart enough to say yes.

Paying it forward is one of the many positive impacts you have had in Houston. You’ve been an important mentor in my life and for many others. What does mentorship mean to you?

I’m a firm believer that once you get to a certain place in your career, you cannot go any further unless you help young people. In doing so, first of all, you get to surround yourself with awesome young people who are motivated and who are trying to do something like what you’re doing. That in and of itself is like a gift. I’m not constantly in a peer group that’s growing old at the same rate. I get a chance to invest myself in knowing what they value, knowing what a younger generation is interested in, so that’s a great help to me as an artist and as a human being. And as a person who wants to grow old as an interesting older person. I want to be hard charging and I want to have younger friends and younger colleagues. So mentorship gives me that back. Also, I get a chance to rehearse and give myself the verbal on what it is I do. If we’re discussing entrepreneurship, or business, or art, by my verbalizing it, I’m actually rehearsing what it is I believe in and what I’m doing at the time. It’s beneficial to stand outside of yourself and talk about what it is you do that’s informative to yourself and others. With mentorship I’m in it selfishly, but I also love being of service. I think in general you’re supposed to help young people who are trying to get where you are, and that’s the only way I’m going to move forward.

 

What I have learned from Dan is to lead without ego, to keep expectations low and gratitude high. I will never forget my experiences working with Dan, one of the first supporters of Wild Dog Archives, and I hope to continue collaborating and learning from one of the best arts leaders in Houston. This city is fortunate to have someone like Dan Workman advocating for local music, a confident yet humble leader who makes himself accessible to students and who is shaping our creative landscape by making such a positive impact in our arts community. As Dan would say, “Namaste.”