10 Questions with ... Jennifer Shaffer
October 16, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Jennifer Shaffer is a 24-year veteran of record promotion, who started in the biz as a Coordinator for Columbia Nashville. During her time in promotion, Shaffer has worked every region in the Country, and her last two positions - Streamsound and now Wheelhouse - she's been in a management role, handling Dir./National responsibilities. Her industry relations are truly nationwide. In addition to knowing every region, Shaffer has perspective on the major and independent label cultures in Nashville, having spent time with Columbia, MCA, Warner Bros., Lyric Street, Category 5, Rodeowave, Sidewalk Records, Streamsound and now Wheelhouse, which is part of the Broken Bow Records Music Group.
1. Jennifer - thanks for taking the time for 10 Questions. I just spent the last 20 minutes scouring the All Access archives and confirmed: this is your first-ever appearance in 10 Questions. With a long and successful career in promotion, tell me how this is possible?
I don't know. I swear I gave answers to [former All Access Nashville Editor] Jim Asker at some point. Tell me it's been 10 years - or more?
Well, the archives only go back to 2005, so it had to be before that. Where were you in 2005?
I don't remember! Haha! I seriously have to pull up my resume. Let' see -- I left the West coast in 2002 and went to MCA - I was there for a year. So in 2003 I went to Lyric Street. I was at Lyric Street from 2002 to 2006, and then I went to Columbia. It had to be before 2005!
2. Well, now that we're finally doing it - no pressure! So, in your current position at Wheelhouse, as well as your last job with Streamsound, you're the Dir./National Promotion. This job description can vary based on the label structure, but tell us your responsibilities at Wheelhouse.
My number one responsibility is airplay. I have a region as the national. Back in the day, nationals didn't have regions, but now they do because everybody is consolidating. I remember when I first started at Sony we had seven regionals, plus a national, and a VP. Now [at Wheelhouse] we have four regionals, and one of those regionals is the national, which is me. And then the VP, which is Teddi [Bonadies]and even she has a list of stations.
I don't think I would ever want to stop calling stations on a regular basis, because I really think you lose touch with what's going on, and what the climate is out there if you don't. At this point in my career, I've worked every region in the country, so I have a lot of relationships, and there are a lot of people out there I can call to back up the regionals. I check in with them two or three times a week. I usually check in to see if there's anyone I can call for them or if I can back them up. And I help them build their relationships, because there are some people that just don't want to deal with new people. Recently, I had to fly to a station with a regional just to get a programmer to talk to her - just so that they could meet each other. I had the same thing with another programmer, because he doesn't return anyone's phone calls, but I've known him for 20 years. So my long-term relationships really do benefit.
Additionally, every Monday. I do reports that are basically an analysis of both charts. I share that with the whole company. Every Tuesday morning I do the Wheelhouse headlines, and I send those out our promotion staff as well as marketing, syndication, publicity, digital, etc., the departments that work with the Wheelhouse roster.
3. You have a new team member at Wheelhouse who's fresh from radio - Byron Kennedy, former PD at KNCI/Sacramento. Can you share what he and other former PDs and MDs bring to the table in promotion that gives them an edge - and, what they have to learn in order to succeed in this side of the business?
I think it's a real eye opening experience for guys that come from radio to this side of the business. I don't think some of them realize how difficult the job is, because it's hard to get a hold of people. It's hard to build relationships, especially since programmers are being spread so thin now. They just don't have the time to spend 30 minutes on the phone talking about your records. I've talked to programmers that are now in records that have said, "if I ever go back in to radio, I will answer every email and every call." Plus all the behind the scenes work that goes into it: analyzing the chart, the pressure that's put on the regionals for getting airplay, the spin policing, the "we have to keep this record top 40" pressure, etc. I think that's all something they don't see behind the scenes. They only see the emails that come across; they only see us at concerts and meet and greets; and they don't see what happens at record labels and all the planning that goes into releasing new music and launching a new artist. And not only that, but the travel and the planning that goes into traveling with an artist; being cognizant that these artists need down time where you yourself may not need it, but they need it to make the best impression possible. They have to do the singing - if they're tired or get sick or sing too much, they could lose their voice. So you have to be very aware of what they're capable of. And all artists are different. Granger Smith is a work horse. Even when I worked with Kristian Bush, he said, "My job is to say yes." That was his mantra. "I have to say yes and I have to figure out how to say yes." Granger Smith doesn't say that, but he lives it. We very rarely get a "no" from Granger, or from Runaway June for that matter. I also think that the travel for somebody that is new to the job is a big eye opening experience. It wears you out. You go on the road for a week or two at a time, and if you don't give yourself any down time, you can very quickly exhaust yourself and get behind on the paperwork that's expected of you.
What are a couple of things you've noticed that radio people bring to the table that is an innate edge?
They know exactly what that person's job is. They've walked in that person's shoes and can communicate with them differently than someone who has never done that job. They understand the constraints they have on their time, and they understand what it really means to have to deal with ratings. I understand that because I've been in the business a while, but I have never actually done it. Somebody that has actually done it has an advantage over me, because they know what goes in to that. They might be able to offer insight without sounding condescending. They can offer help and say, "Hey this worked for me," where I can't really do that. I can share stories where I can say, "Hey I saw this work for this station," but they can do it with a firsthand perspective. I think that makes them valuable. They also understand how to analyze and utilize research from a firsthand perspective. Another advantage they have is that they've all taken music calls from different reps with varying promotion styles. Byron has taken music calls for years on the Pop side and the Country side. From firsthand experience, he knows what to say and what not to say. There was a time he asked me for some advice on a touchy situation and I shot it back to him and said, "If this happened, and it was you that someone had to tell, how would you want to hear it?"
4. What about younger people who want to do radio promotion - who don't have radio programming experience but want to become a regional. What is your advice for how they break into "the dark side?"
In my opinion there are two ways to go about it. I got into it because I was an intern. That got me an administrative job, and then I went from that to a promotion coordinator. I think getting your feet wet and learning how the business works from the ground level is the best way, because then you can talk from experience. It's a good training ground to learn how we track spins, how we track sales, and what research means. That takes a lot of time. It also takes a lot of time to learn all of the stations and learn the names of the PDs. I remember having a conversation with [Average Joes VP] Tony Morreal once when we worked together at Sony Nashville. I was trying to remember all of the stations and the markets when I was a coordinator and I asked him to quiz me on it, and he said, "Jen, it will come. I promise. You're going to be dealing with these stations day in and day out. Don't force it; it will come. You'll know every station in the country by the end of the year." And he was right. I think that's beneficial. I've also seen a lot of people come in from the radio side. If you're in an MD or PD role or even in a promotions role at a radio station, you're used to putting on events and dealing with record reps from the other side, but you get a good idea of what reps do. It's not the complete picture, but it gives you an awareness and an "in" to the record side.
5. Let's talk about female mentors, that you worked for and around, that had an influence on your style and your career.
Debi Fleischer-Robin was my first boss in promotion. She was the one that hired me as the coordinator for Columbia. She was tough and expected a lot out of all of us. I learned a lot of the numbers stuff - the research, the analyzing - from her. She would have me do lots of different reports for her and I learned how to do analysis and comparisons from putting those reports together. She would say, "Let's compare this to this and see what we get." It taught me a lot about finding an argument or a story. I also learned a lot just about being a woman in the business from Jeri Cooper. She taught me how to present myself and be taken seriously as a woman. That was the beginning of my career and there have been so many women that I learned from over the years. Today, Teddi Bonadies is teaching me how to manage people. I'm still new at that and she guides me along and corrects me as I go.
6. What radio tells me all the time right now is the overpowering amount of songs they have on their desk for consideration. And you work in a label group with three other imprints fighting for some of the same slots. How do you cut through an environment like that?
I think getting face time with programmers is the most valuable thing. I find that with Runaway June, just getting face time with programmers to see them perform and hear their harmonies live has made a big difference. With Granger, a lot of people didn't really know who he was, even though he'd been around for a while, so seeing his live show and watching his fans react has made the biggest impact for him, in my opinion. It's harder than it's ever been to get an hour of a programmer's day, but I still think getting them in front of a PD makes all the difference. Then it's up to the artist to bring it. They have to show what they're made of and impress the decision makers.
7. Country radio and the labels have a pretty good relationship overall. I'd score it on the positive side. For anybody that's going to read this, what would you say that your radio partners could improve on to make that partnership even stronger? In other words, what do you need from them that you're not getting consistently now - beside all the adds?
The first word that comes to my mind is commitment. Granted, some stations are better at it than others. I wish that they could understand what it takes, not just financially, but also the time and effort that is involved in doing a show for them or doing any kind of promotion that involves an artist. I wish more of them would commit and not just check a box. Some stations are just like, "Okay got that covered," but there's not a lot of support. I think they think it's just, "Oh Granger came in and did a show; it's nothing off of his back." Well yes it is. He burned the market, so he can't play in the market for at least six months. He had to pay his own band and pay for his own travel and his own hotel. And then there's the time involved, where he could've maybe done something and made money that day... I would want them to value the artists' time and make a commitment to reciprocate.
8. Wheelhouse has three layers of artists - as I see it. Established and experienced in Trace Adkins; Newer, up and coming, but strong foundation with Granger Smith; and starting from scratch, completely unknown Runaway June. You've seen all three movies before in your career - so, what's going to be the hardest? What will be the most fun?
Honestly, the hardest are the Trace Adkins's of the world. You spend a lot of time reminding decision makers that he has a ton of fans that still want to hear him on the radio and fighting the question of relevance. The most fun is Granger. To me, going to a show, hearing his fans sing "Backroad Song" back to him while he's singing and watching his fans go nuts when he comes back as Earl Dibbles, Jr. - that's fun! It's fun because Granger is at a point where people know his music, they sing along, they dance, and it's just a fun show. As the promotion person you're a little more nervous with a brand new act like Runaway June, to see if they're going to be accepted and what the crowd's going to do - to see if they're responsive to someone they've never seen before.
A follow up: let's say we're on a radio call and I'm a radio programmer; give me your elevator pitch on Trace Adkins.
Trace's voice is amazing!! He's at a point in his life where he's singing about more mature subject matter, but you don't have to be 50 to identify with that more mature subject matter. He still has fans out there that love him, both young and old. I've seen them at shows! They still listen to the radio and they still want to hear new stuff from Trace because he still has something to say.
9. You've worked a lot of different artists at different imprints. Can you share one or two success stories that have been most fulfilling for you?
I remember being by the sound board when Rascal Flatts did their first headlining tour and I got choked up when I heard the audience singing "These Days" so loudly that you could barely hear Gary LeVox sing it. I felt the same way the first time I heard the audience sing "Backroad Song" back to Granger. When an audience sings the songs that I worked back to the artist...it's the most gratifying feeling. And then there was getting Miranda Lambert her first #1. That was pretty special. And recently, we got a debut artist on a debut label with a debut single to #1 with Granger Smith and "Backroad Song". That was probably the most fulfilling experience of my career.
10. You're a working mom. You have a 12 year old son, Oakley. Your job requires a ton of travel. How are you balancing these two difficult and essential responsibilities?
I have a team of people that help me tremendously. I don't usually travel on Mondays or Tuesdays, so I have Oakley on those two days. But if I ever need to swap, I'm lucky because his dad works with me and my schedule very well. I have friends and neighbors here in Atlanta, and I couldn't do it without them. I can and do rely on them for a lot of things. I wouldn't be able to do this job without the people that I surround myself with. I am extremely blessed.
You fly all the time! Aisle or window?
Window, so I can sleep. I can rest my head against the window, versus the aisle where I have nothing to rest on, unless the person next to me doesn't mind - I'm kidding! And I hate people crawling over me when I'm on the aisle. Definitely window!
I feel like I have friends all over the country, not just people I work with, and that's what I love about this job. I feel like I've made a lot of friends at radio - true friends - and If I get to go somewhere, I'm getting to hang out with a friend; that's why I like it. That's why I do it. I enjoy the friendships that I've made over these almost-24 years. I'm a very lucky girl.