May 31, 2011
Few people in the music business can boast success in as many fields as James Stroud. From being a drummer who played with Eddie Rabbit, Ronnie Milsap and The Marshall Tucker Band, to starting The Writers' Group publishing company, to becoming a successful producer of well over 100 #1 records, to heading up Giant Records, the Country arm of DreamWorks Records to co-heading UMG Nashville, Stroud brings a wealth of knowledge to his current challenge as CEO of R&J Records. Here how Stroud plans to use his experience and expertise to break records as a small, independent fish in a vey big pond.
What made you decide to launch R&J - while taking artists with you?
Stroudavarious Records was an entity that was owned by investors in Alabama. Because of some legal problems with one of the investors, there needed to be a restructuring of our label. I have a new partner, Rick Carter, and we arranged a buyout of certain assets of the old entity and implemented a new structure. This allowed us to expand our staff, which was perfect timing to support our new releases.
We have Aaron Lewis, Lo Cash Cowboys, Margaret Durante and Alexa Carter signed to the label, plus we have a joint venture, DMP Records, with Dale Morris, the legendary manager for Kenny Chesney and Alabama. That relationship brings Andy Gibson and Rob Lane to the roster.
Has your responsibilities changed now that you're in R&J?
The whole thing is based around a structure we started with Stroudavarious. Of course, my main duty at the label is to make sure our music is right. We have a fine staff that are all pros and have experienced success. I'm not training anyone. They've all been there and done that. This allows me to make records, sign artists and do A&R. It seems to work really well. It also allows me time to produce outside projects. I'm blessed to be able to produce Chris Young, who is coming off three #1 singles -- and our new one, "Tomorrow," is shaping up really strong, too.
What kind of things can you do better at a small indie like R&J?
I've run major labels in the past and I know it's a wonderful thing to have a big major label behind you, but it's also little tougher to change direction quickly to react to what's going on. We feel we can do that better at R&J; we can change our marketing and promotion focus on a dime. We set a different timeline and can take a different creative path.
For instance, we're now able to involve our promotion and marketing staff earlier in the creative process. When you make them more aware of the music, they can own it earlier. It gives them a chance to look at their side of the business and figure out what they have to do with the project. When you start that process earlier than you'd do at a major label, it helps lessen the time it takes for me to finish the music and get the record out, because we've already worked on the creative -- and implemented all the marketing opportunities.
The process of breaking a record through radio has slowed down so much that the music can get old before the artist has a chance to build on the exposure. We're trying to speed up the process as much as possible so that the artist can get on the road, where they really can connect with an audience.
What does it take so long nowadays?
Country radio has changed a little bit, which makes it take longer to work the records. A lot of that we can't control, but there are things we can do to better our artists' chances -- and the first of them is to get the music to our staff faster.
What's your view of the Country music scene - is it healthier than ever, or by and large, are you just getting by during the recession?
The economy is hurting us quite a bit, as far as the actual business goes. We're suffering in a lot of different areas, but at least we can look at live performances and touring, where there's still quite a bit of business. What we're going to have to do is adjust to the way the business is evolving -- and we do that by focusing on the things we can control. Unfortunately, the economy is not one of them. We have to tighten our belts, but when you get on down to it, it still boils down to "a hit is a hit is a hit." It all comes down to great artists making great records.
How does a small indie label like R&J compete against the majors in a tough economy and a "slow" radio process?
I believe it's better for an indie label right now in the business today compared to a few years ago, because of the way music is delivered now. Certainly radio is important, but today's artists can reach their fans and deliver their music to them in many different ways. It's easier for them to search and discover for our music today. Yes, we still have radio promotion because it's the most important delivery point for music, but we can also go on the Net to make the Country audience aware of our artists. They technology helps to level the playing field. It's not easier to break a record, mind you, but it gives us more opportunities as an indie small label to get in there and compete.
Why is radio slower to break records these days?
As much I don't think it's easy for the labels to get significant spins on their artists' projects, I also realize that we as labels are inundating these radio guys with hundreds of records to listen to and consider. They've got their work cut out for them; they have to be gatekeepers on what works and what doesn't -- and in their minds, they're doing it as well as they can do it. We're all trying to do the right thing for our businesses.
The problem is that there's a disconnect between what records we feel can go faster for radio and what we're inundating them with. They can't play everything -- and I know they're trying hard not to butt heads with us on this. They have to use a tough process to make it work.
How important is the use of the Net and social media in breaking records in this environment?
Nowadays, it's crucial. We just had a #1 album from Aaron Lewis, the singer from Staind, without getting hardly any airplay at all. Yet he entered charts at #1 because of the video and because our online efforts worked.
Of course, we would love to have radio expand on what we've already built -- and we're getting there in terms of airplay. But this record company had to establish Aaron's record before he got a ton of radio play - and using the Net had to be done to accomplish that. Even so, the broadest way expose our music is still through radio airplay.
Do you feel radio gives a decent shake to heritage artists, or are these artists basically being pushed to Classic Country faster and faster?
It's been this way forever. Heritage acts whose music starts to age go through a natural evolution. Obviously, Country radio has to have new music and artists to move the genre along or we'll all die, but the good thing about this genre is that the fans still respect a heritage artist's current work. That's why Country radio can play established or heritage artists a lot longer than any other genre. There's still a good business out there for these artists, because they've engendered so much loyalty. They can still go out and tour and enjoy the financial opportunities that artists in other genres wouldn't enjoy.
How has the Country music fans changed in terms of what kind of music and sound they enjoy?
Technology has helped alert Country fans to more artists in general -- and because of technology and the Net, they've expanded their vision of what Country music is. We've always have a high-quality standard for Country music as far as music and lyrics go. Now it allows us to stretch our sonics a bit, using certain instrumentations. With Country music, as long as you can turn a song-based artist into a performance-based artist, you're going to do well, but if that artist acts fake in any way, the audience won't put up with it. The younger artists today are making great music and are defining a new Country sound that's being embraced by the audience. One of the cool things about this is that these new artists respect where they came from and the heritage artists who inspired them.
Has your production style changed over the years, or do you feel you have a "James Stroud sound?"
You have to evolve. What I try to do is pride myself on making the artist own his music and not mine. That's why I've had 129 #1 records; I try to make "artist records," which automatically has an easier time getting heard. I try not figure out what I did in the past because what I did then may have gotten old.
So when I work with an artist such as Aaron Lewis, I try to plug in as a producer and hopefully enhance the good things and get rid of the things that don't work. Because I'm a musician, I understand the evolution in what's going on in music. I can also go back to my history as an R&B and rock drummer; I'll will grab some of that history and apply it to the new music. It helps create popular music cycles for me; it has worked for me a long time ago and it's working for me again.
Aaron Lewis, Darius Rucker, Kid Rock ... are more country-pop/rock crossovers a good thing ... or does it threaten the purity of Country music?
I do worry about diluting our music when we get closer to other genres, but when you look at Darius and Aaron, they're Country artists who happened to play in rock bands. You look at their lifestyle and way they present themselves ... they're more like Country artists than anything else.
That being said, when an artist crosses one way or the other -- whether they become more mainstream or if someone like Aaron comes over to Country -- it has to be real. Diehard Country fans understand the genre and love our artists ... and they'll know immediately if an artist isn't real to them -- and those artists aren't going to last very long. It's been attempted before, but Country fans figure it out.
Aaron has had good success by playing real music for our genre, but after selling millions of records with Staind, it can expand both his Country fan base as well as the band's. But the key is to have a real artist who writes, sings and lives Country music -- and believes in it.
What's you're involvement with the LoCash Cowboys?
I don't produce them; Jeffrey Steele does, so I plug in the A&R part of me. Basically I'm trying to marry what they do live with what they do in the studio. Live, they're unbelievable and spectacular. To marry that with the music they're doing in a studio is what I have to do to help them evolve. That's my job, which is a bit different than just producing their records.
Is it harder to write or find a hit record in Country nowadays?
We always look for the hits -- and not only is it tougher to find those songs, but the competition to grab those songs from the writers is more intense. To marry a song with an artist, you really have to look harder and apply your skills a lot more. A hit song is rare -- and the competition is stiff to get it for an artist.
A perfect artist, for me, is a writer who does his own material. Toby Keith wrote his own stuff, which made it easier, as he understood his material and knew how to interpret it. Aaron is the same way. That doesn't mean an artist is better if he writes his own material. It's just that the process is different.
Considering the time you put into A&R and your own production work, how do you deal with time management?
We work about three records a time. We're trying to time-manage and schedule so we're not over-extended and our artists are not overlooked. Our artists understand that the development process can take a lot longer nowadays.
I would imagine that R&J would be more interested in prospective artists who realize that and are more patient.
Yeah, but I'm not patient, either. When I get excited about an artist or when we cut a really good record, I want to get it out there and on the radio. In those situations, I can be a very impatient person, to the point where the staff has to calm me down daily.
What other artists are you really high on from your roster?
Obviously, I believe in all of our artists. I try to have a roster that's not competing with one another. It's really important to be diverse with the artists we have and keep the roster small.
Is your goal to eventually turn R&J into a major Country label?
I drew inspiration for the structure of R&J from two people. One is David Geffen, who I worked with at DreamWorks. The other is Mo Ostin; I was lucky to work with him when he ran Warner Bros. for 28 years. Certainly the music comes first ... and it takes care of your business. Sometimes that philosophy gets in the way of itself, but I still feel as long as we do that, there's no way in the world we can fail.
Do you prefer producing, being in the studio to running a label?
Producing. I love to be in a studio; I am so blessed to be able to go in there, be with my dear friends and play music, then watch a song come alive and watch an artist succeed. There's nothing better than to watch that while it's happening.
What artist, alive or dead, would you love to produce?
I always loved James Taylor ... and, of course, Stevie Wonder. He actually played for me one time. I was working on a Nigel Olsson record and Elton John asked Stevie to come in to play harmonica on a track, which he did. I was producing the record and I tell you, I was a little intimidated to be in the same room as Stevie Wonder. I didn't know what to call him, so I called him Mr. Wonder. Then he turned around and said, "You can call me Stevie."
As far as deceased artists, that's a different deal. I'd say Ray Charles. I worked with him one time on a TV show; it would've been great to actually produce him.
You know, I still pull my car over when I hear a record I made for the first time on the radio. I don't know how many times I've done that, but when I pull over, I'm in awe of what these great artists and musicians have done. It's amazing to be a part of it; it's like I died and gone to heaven.