The Launch of Saturn 5 Records
Saturn 5 Records is the brainchild of Richard J. Lenz, founder and president of the music enterprise, who decided to bring his long-time involvement and interest in music and business together in a record label for the 21st century.
“Because of my twin loves of music and business – and as an entrepreneur – I was intrigued to see if a new approach could work,” says Lenz. “Many have told me I’m crazy, but my belief is that given the changes to the industry, there might be some new ideas that would be successful.”
Lenz first effort at establishing a record label was Red Eye Gravy Records in 2010, which was created to help with fundraising for a music-based non-profit, Poverty is Real, as well as to promote the artists who were involved. Artists and bands that donated tracks and performances would also appear on the label’s compilation CDs. Over time, seven albums were released, with a diverse group of bands and solo artists, including R.E.M., Five Eight, Widespread Panic, Patterson Hood, Caroline Herring, and Eliot Bronson. Red Eye Gravy Records also released an album and promo EP by Nathan Beaver.
Lenz serves as chairman of the advisory committee of Poverty is Real, which has held multiple fundraising events over several days in Nashville, Asheville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Athens, and Decatur, resulting in over $100,000 in donations to local charities in those cities. Lenz also hosted a popular annual fundraiser called Beatles VS Stones in Atlanta for Poverty is Real, and started a band called Johnny Clash to play at charity events.
With growth, both the record label and the charity’s brands evolved in 2014, with Red Eye Gravy Records becoming Saturn 5 Records, and Poverty Is Real’s public brand becoming Amplify.
Lenz and the Athens Music Scene
Lenz in the 1980s was a journalism, media management, and masters of business student in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia, where he witnessed the burgeoning music and art scene, when R.E.M. and many other bands were born and rose to national critical acclaim.
“I had the great luck to know many of the musicians, artists, writers, and what we called ‘trendies’ who were part of the scene,” he said. “I guess today we would call them hipsters,” he said with a chuckle. “What was interesting back then was that there were two culturally significant things happening at the same time at UGA – college football and music – and each community almost totally ignored each other with equal disdain. Over a few years, Georgia was competing for and winning a national championship with Hershel Walker, and R.E.M. was on the cover of Rolling Stone with its full-length debut Murmur beating out Michael Jackson’s Thriller as best album of the year.”
Lenz had two radio shows on student-run WUOG 90.5 FM. One was a music request show, where he played local bands, and the other a news show, where he interviewed interesting cultural figures that came to the campus, like Allen Ginsburg and Timothy Leary, among others. “I especially remember Hunter Thompson and Andy Kaufman visiting campus. They both were totally unique, creative individuals who shaped their eras.”
Lenz also wrote reviews for the arts section of the student newspaper, The Red and Black, and worked at the Athens Daily News and some times covered arts for that paper. He saw many of the first performances of bands that have became fixtures of the Athens scene as well as alternative acts that put Athens on their radar for tours.
“I reviewed one of Pylon’s records, which was a fantastic honor. They were awesome live and R.E.M. thought they might have been the best band to ever come out of Athens,” says Lenz. “Now, I also reviewed a show by the Commodores, which my editor probably sent me to as a joke. I’m sure this isn’t cool to say, but they put on a very entertaining show and I must say, Lionel Richie is the man.”
Lenz watched college radio become extremely influential on pop music trends. “Basically, post-punk became alt-rock because of R.E.M. and they led the way not only musically but also broke ground in terms of how you approach the music business, with a grass-roots approach to audience building and sticking to your guns. Eventually, they signed the largest record deal ever at the time worth $80 million. To accomplish both is an extremely rare feat and makes them my heroes.”
“I have a lot of ‘I was there at the dawn of time’ stories, which I now can bore my kids with,” he says. “But they added up to a formative experience that has been on simmer in my mind until now. If I had a label, what music would I support, and how would I approach the business?”
Running Newspapers and Starting His Own Company
Lenz left Athens and went on to run write, edit, and help run newspapers in south Georgia, which he says was the best opportunities for personal growth that he could have had. Eventually, he moved to Atlanta and started his own design, PR, traditional and digital advertising and marketing firm, a radio show on WSB 750 AM, a book publishing company, among other efforts. His marketing firm, Lenz, Inc., is one of the dominant marketing, advertising, and PR firms in the Southeast that specializes in the health care marketplace, working with physician practices, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, research firms, and health care nonprofits.
Having studied writing with Allen Ginsburg, Peter Taylor, Coleman Barks, and Robert Dana, he developed a love of words. He’s written two books and co-authored eight others, launched and edited magazines, authored articles for Southern Living, Cooking Light, Blue and Gray Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler, and ghost written for a U.S. President. As a publisher and editor, he has helped produced approximately 50 books. He is a founder of the Decatur Book Festival, which is the largest independent book festival in the country, and serves on the board as Vice President and Director of Communications, and also is a board member for the Georgia Center for the Book. He’s won awards for journalism, photography, design, and advertising.
Another love of his is the protection of the environment. He is frequently consulted for his help for fundraising, design and branding, and promotion of environmental causes. He has worked for the Nature Conservancy, the Georgia Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, the Georgia Wildlife Federation, the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichuaway, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, among many others. A lauded 18-book series that covered the natural history aspects of the U.S. also became a web site, which resources are used by thousands every day, and is among more than 100 his company has built and supports.
Starting the label, he started surveying Atlanta music talent, which he believes is under appreciated nationally by the music business, with hip-hop being the big exception.
“When you think Atlanta music, you think rap and hip-hop, and that’s cool. But that ATL brand has worked against other great talent in this town as well, and I’d like to change some of those perceptions,” says Lenz. “I think Eliot Bronson – and a lot of other talented artists in Atlanta – can help to do that.”
Bronson is the first act signed to the label, and is the first major Saturn 5 release coming out on October 21.
“I saw something in Eliot Bronson that I think is rare … a five-tool musical artist,” says Lenz. “He can write, he can play, he can sing, he has great stage presence, and understands the business. He writes beautiful songs, and performs them in an unforgettable fashion, with great emotion and charisma. He’s the real deal and worth national attention, in my opinion.”
Recording in Nashville
Lenz and Bronson went to Nashville to meet with producer Dave Cobb, to see if might be interested in helping with the new record. Cobb was impressed with Bronson’s song writing and singing, and agreed to help.
“Some told me, don’t go to Nashville, that will ruin Eliot’s music,” said Lenz. “But Dave is a rare talent who actually happens to have grown up in Savannah, lived in Atlanta, played in bands, and he understands the broad music landscape and knows what he likes. He is somewhat tagged with country-oriented acts because of his successful work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Shooter Jennings, but the reality is he’s very versatile … just take a listen to his work with Rival Sons. I’d love to hear what he would have done with Led Zeppelin. Or Frank Sinatra for that matter.”
“For our record, he did a phenomenal job of directing and capturing Eliot’s essence in the sessions. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s also a cool dude with a deep knowledge base of much more than music. We talked about food and wine about as much as we discussed music.”
The album was recorded analog and live, which gives it warmth and an in-the-moment feel that comes across as an instant classic.
Another key to the album were the quality musicians in the session, including Bret Hartley on guitars, Chris Powell on drums, Adam Gardner on bass and piano, Mike Webb on keys, and Kristen Rogers with vocals. Bronson played guitar, harmonica, and piano, and Cobb pitched in with additional guitar and percussion.
“The players knew exactly how to support the feel of the songs,” says Lenz. “It is an amazing accomplishment to create something that sounds and feels timeless, like a classic, but also feel fresh and interesting, not old or anachronistic.”
The recently released album is now earning positive attention from music critics and being added to radio playlists from Europe to the Americas.
“With an emerging artist, in a glut of musicians pursuing their dreams, as the old business model is collapsing, well, we recognize that the odds are against us, but we also believe in what we are doing and who we are doing it with,” Lenz says. “Time will tell.”