North Dakota’s Newest Grammy Winner

By news@grandforksherald.comĀ 

Successful Nashville music producer and engineer Mike Clute has always been proud of his Tolna, N.D., roots. But since Feb. 13, he can claim to be part of a much more exclusive list: North Dakotans who have won Grammy awards.

Clute’s Grammy was for his role as producer and engineer for Diamond Rio’s “The Reason,” which was named Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album. That makes Clute part of a Grammy-award winning group from North Dakota that includes the late, great songstress Peggy Lee; blues artist Jonny Lang; and Greg Nelson, another Nashville producer who was born in Bismarck.

A month after claiming the golden gramophone statuette, Clute was thrilled, amused, philosophical and looking to the future during a telephone interview from his home in Nashville.

“Winning a Grammy is a nice ego boost and everything like that. But like any recognition you receive, you kind of think, ‘Am I done now?’ It’s kind of like what do you do when you’re the ex-president,” Clute said, laughing. “What do you do next? I guess the thing is to get another one now.”

Clute was not at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to accept his Grammy on Feb. 13. He’d been nominated 24 times, and the thought of “putting on the monkey suit” again was just too daunting, he said. So, he found out he’d won while watching the Grammy webcast at home.

Even if Clute had been in L.A., you wouldn’t have seen him on television. More than 100 Grammys are awarded each year in 30 categories, and the vast majority of them (including the one Clute won) are presented during the afternoon Grammys, which are not on TV.

Clute said his past work has garnered nearly 100 CMA, ACM, Dove, Juno and Grammy nominations and awards. But this was his first Grammy win.

It came at a time when Clute has announced he’s starting a company called Clutopia that will bring together his production company and his concepts for a successful record label in the new music business.

North Dakota ties

Clute’s parents, the late Charles and Delores Clute, were teachers in Egland, N.D., and Adams, N.D., but each summer they would return to Tolna, where his parents owned a home. (He and his brother still own their grandfather’s North Dakota farm on Stump Lake.) Mike Clute graduated from Adams High School where his father was superintendent and his mother a music teacher and elementary principal.

Clute played in rock bands from the time he was 12, including with his friends in a group called Prism that performed in every little place in Adams, Edmore, Lankin and Park River where they could rent a hall, he said.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s he performed with rock bands in Fargo/Moorhead (Kaptin, Heroes, Dexter, Chances R), mixed live sound and owned Rainbow Recording Studio, where he made jingles for Hornbacher’s grocery stores among other things. He also managed to graduate from North Dakota State University with a degree in university studies with emphasis in engineering, psychology and music. He didn’t know then, of course, that he would have a career making records, but in retrospect, he ended up doing pretty much what his degree describes, he said.

“The psychology part especially comes in handy,” Clute said.

In 1985, he and his wife Laurie moved to Nashville, where he already knew a couple of people and where Clute began building an extensive network of contacts and customers in the music business. Recording studio work and live concert mixing have taken him to every state in the U.S. and around the world, he said. His discography has more than 90 major label albums with acts including Diamond Rio, Restless Heart, BlackHawk, Faith Hill, Ronnie Milsap, John Michael Montgomery, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and Poco. For the past two years when Clute’s been on the road it’s been to mix live shows for Diamond Rio.

“I’ve always been really blessed in meeting some great people, which led to the next thing, whether it was the next record or a new position or a new challenge,” Clute said. “It’s been a great thing. The hard part about the thing I do is it’s not the most stable business in the world. You’re always a few weeks from being unemployed — and going from one project to the next — and that’s a little unnerving for the weak of heart. But it’s also kind of the excitement for me too.”

Secrets of success

As wonderful as it is to win a Grammy, Clute said, awards aren’t always the true measure of success.

“The success (of winning) is not a measurement of how well you did. I’ve done some of the best mixes and projects I’ve worked on that have gone nowhere,” Clute said. “The weird thing about music, probably about everything in life, is you have to get out of thinking of the end results as being your measurement. It’s about doing the work.”

If you really love music and are excited about creating it, you can’t do anything else, he said.

“But the results of it are really out of your hands. So, you try to do your best, sing your best, you try to be around good people, people who challenge you, who give amazing performances,” he said. “That’s the nice thing about Nashville. It’s an amazing talent pool that is attracted here. All kinds of people you have never heard of — and probably never will — are some of the greatest musicians in the world here in Nashville.”

Clute said he learned the value of seeking a talented peer group when he was a young man playing in a rock band.

“Always find a band where you are the worst player,” he said. “If you’re the best guy in it, you’re not going to get any better.”

A changing business

Like television, like the movie business, like book publishing and newspapers for that matter, the music business has and is going through major changes. Clute said his new company, Clutopia, will combine what he knows about the music business with changes in technology, especially those that affect how artists get noticed and how they market the music.

Technology has knocked out some of the core pillars of the music business. CD sales are dropping like a rock because customers now buy or share their music on the Internet. Fewer CD sales means fewer record stores. Even the big box stores like Wal-Mart are talking about discontinuing CDs sales in the next couple of years.

Switching from purchasing CDs to downloading music also makes stealing music much easier and more likely, which again has eaten away at profits.

Listening to music used to be one of the main ways people relaxed and entertained themselves. Now, there are videos, DVDs and especially video games to compete for people’s amusement time and for their money.

“Between all that, we’ve lost a lot of space that music kind of took up. Technology has changed what is going on. People love music just as much. Everyone likes it and wants to be around it, but everything from CDs to concert ticket prices is going up.”

Then there’s radio, which once was the way new music and artists were introduced to the public, and where most people (especially country music fans) listened to the music they enjoyed.

“That’s changing because kids don’t listen to radio the way we did,” Clute said. “The younger demographic is on the computer, and they’re on the smart phone. There’s a lot of different ways they’re listening to music. My sons come to me with songs they like from the video games they play. That’s where they pick up the music.”

Music’s new business model has to recognize these changes. For artists, it used to be that nothing happened until they had a hit radio song. It certainly doesn’t hurt artists to have a radio hit, but it doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

“If I have the No. 1 record and I’m selling 26,000 records, that used to be more like 200,000 records five to 10 years before,” he said. Artists like Taylor Swift now own part of their record label, merchandising rights and other business spin-offs from the recordings they make.

Music is moving from being a performance-based business to an event-based business. Sometimes, it seems more about creating celebrities than creating music, he said.

“When we started out, when an artist had a chain of hits, you could make that person into a celebrity. Your celebrity was created because of the hits he had,” Clute said. “Now, everything from YouTube to ‘American Idol,’ we need to create celebrities first, and once you create celebrities, celebrities have hits. Success comes from that status.”

Tobin at ptobin@gfherald.com.