10 Questions with ... Kevin Powell
July 18, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
- Active Industry Research - 1990 to 2002
- Epic Records - 2002 to 2008
- Total Impressions - 2008 to 2011
1) What led you to a career in the music business? Who are some of your earliest mentors who gave you a shot in the business?
My father, Johnny, was in the business from the day I was born. I was hooked from my first Carpenters concert. We lived in Baltimore and he did local promotion for A&M Records. That roster was amazing! I have so many great memories of going to amazing shows by Styx, Supertramp, The Go Go's, The Police, Squeeze and countless others! It got me hooked on the business from a young age. I always loved the music but I was also intrigued in the business side of things as well.
From the very beginning I always loved the music and that feeling when the lights went down at a show. I went off to college but I was lucky enough to get a shot from Jonas Cash at AIR when I got out of school in 1990, and I've been doing promotion ever since. Jonas and my dad really taught me everything about people, music, and how to be passionate about your product. Preparation was key - you had better be prepared when you worked for Jonas.
2) What is the biggest thrill about breaking new music to the masses?
I've been blessed to be a part of a few really great projects that came from nowhere to become real amazing success. Sara Bareilles' "Love Song" was never supposed to be. We weren't really sure it would ever come out. But a few people at Epic really believed in her and in that song so we put ourselves out there. She is an amazing talent! She has a voice that just is unbelievable and she's amazing to work with. That's my highlight... so far. The goose bumps come when you see it live and a 1000 or 10,000 people are singing along to that song, and you take a moment to say, "I had a little bit to do with that!" Despite all the current challenges, that's what keeps you coming back.
3) What do you feel is the most important issue facing record labels in the current business environment?
Clearly managing overhead and monetizing a product that many consumers believe should be free are among the many challenges that labels face today. It's clear that revenues will probably never return to the levels we all remember a decade ago (even though I just read that we had a really solid first half of 2011!!) so we must manage the overheard. It's tough - because when it's said and done, radio promotion is a people business. We can E-mail or E-blast radio programmers all day long, but we need to make a personal connection with the programmers to really get the message across about why the music is vital and important. I feel like we've cut enough people. I'm not sure what's left to cut but I hope it's not more people.
I think music is important. For many of us it has shaped our lives, and it continues to do so for many people in the world. I watch the way my kids get excited about a great song and still dig into the lyrics and photos. It's important to have people who love music out there trying to tell a story to get it exposed to the rest of the world. Radio is still the best way to take it from a niche to the masses. The fact that the whole world knows about Adele now is because of radio and that's a great thing.
4) Records sales are down for the past decade now. What can be done about this?
I am not sure if anything can be done about driving more sales but we can manage our overhead as best as possible. I always say, "It's not how much you make, it's how much you keep!" I do believe the labels should share in the overall revenue of the bands they develop. I know 360 deals don't always work but the true talent and skill of a label is marketing and promotion. If a label turns you into a touring force through those efforts, but you only sell 100,000 albums, shouldn't the label share in the rewards the band is reaping on the road and through merchandise?
Major labels are still the best at delivering projects 'all the way' but it is an expensive and risky proposition and they should be insured through a sharing in of all revenues. There are a lot of great bands that aren't selling what they used to, but doing very good business on the road. The labels should share in that revenue in the right circumstance as a compensation for their marketing and promotion efforts and their expertise and the risk they have taken.
5) What are your thoughts on the current methods of research used by radio today? What do you feel is the most valuable research tool that radio should be paying more attention to?
I still believe that sales are the most valuable research tool we can use. If a person is willing to pay their hard earned money for a ticket or a download, then that artist or song clearly has value. Focusing on Hot AC radio, there is a value to supporting artists like Zac Brown, Mumford and Sons, Fitz and the Tantrums, etc. These are artists that people care about and they show it by buying albums and concert tickets. Their songs may not research quickly in the traditional sense but if you stick with them, they can come through with the other research techniques as well. Look what happened when Adele she got a real shot? Obviously, PPM and "M Scores" have made it tougher and tougher because familiarity wins. Those are realities that are here to stay, but seeing some of the breakthroughs of the last year demonstrates that it can still be done with great music, a great staff and persistence. From the Script, to Christina Perri, to Adele... it can still happen.
6) What do you like best about working in this format?
I have worked nearly every format over my 20 years and Hot AC radio just fits who I am. (Old white guy). You have to be consistent, persistent, and passionate. It's not rhythm radio where things blow up, but also come and go. It takes time, but you can really build an artists here. There are a lot of great people in this format on both the radio and records side. I feel like we have adjusted to the new normal and there is a bright future for breaking records at Hot AC.
There have been some wonderful promotion jobs done over the last 12-18 months to break artists through. For awhile there it didn't feel like it was possible to make it through the 'valley of death' between #20 and #15 on the chart. I thank all the mentors who have helped me along and all the clients that have supported me over the last three years. There is still nothing better than going to a great Rock N' Roll show and seeing how important music is to people. It makes the world a better place, and I thank my dad for introducing me to this business and helping me become a part of it.
7) What was the craziest promotion you ever did with a radio station?
The lounge I did with with Tori Amos at WQAL in Cleveland my first week at Epic was a hell of a way to get initiated! It was at a restaurant that was supposed to be closed for the event but the dishes and such were still being cleared during her performance!! To say she was miffed is an understatement. Her quote to me was 'I don't f*&^*ing do dinner theatre!" I always wondered if she could see the sweat pouring off of me as I took my beating like a champ. I learned how quickly a problem can go from Cleveland, to LA, to New York, and back to Cleveland as my phone rang in about 20 seconds with my boss screaming ' What the hell is going on out there!!".
Tori was the most intense person I ever dealt with. But she is an amazing talent. She apologized to me a the end of tour for yelling at me (which shocked me) because as we all know, musicians aren't normal people and I was sure she had forgotten about the incident.
8) What do you do to inspire your staff for success? How do they motivate you?
That is the one thing I miss as an independent contractor. I loved working with the staff at Epic and at the AIR Competition. I feel like I helped move a few people along career wise, just like Jonas Cash and Johnny Powell did for me.
Working with a staff on a daily basis and working through ideas to move things along keeps your creative juices flowing. I have a great group of clients and 'partners' that I work with. We keep each other motivated through the tough grind of working radio. We know radio is shorthanded as well and has its own challenges too. But I believe most promotion executives want to do honest and positive business together. I really feel like we are all in this together. I love the freedom and new opportunities working for myself has given me. But I do miss the day to day camaraderie of working with a staff.
9) What do you do in your spare time?
I play a lot of sports, like volleyball, softball, and kayaking. Being a dad and husband also helps to fill my days as well. I'm also finishing up my MBA in Marketing at Loyola here in Baltimore. That has been an amazing experience, learning from people in so many different businesses and how they do things. I don't envy their 'normal' jobs but I do learn how other industries apply research techniques to what they do on a daily basis. I'm trying to get a little smarter and see we'll see where it takes me.
10) What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Be prepared. Jonas Cash always told me to know more about your projects than anyone else, and never answer the phone unless you are ready.
I have also always tried to work from the place of "How can this record or artist benefit the radio station?"' I have just always tried to take a longer term approach. I just never wanted to burn anyone on a song that wasn't going anywhere just to get the "add" and survive another week. I think that's even more important now as getting a shot is harder and harden to come by. You had better be right more than you are wrong. I do believe that approach that has helped me stick around for a bit.