January 24, 2012
Adrian Michaels is one of the best known and most-respected Country radio promotion aces -- and has been for over two decades. Michaels has weathered a dramatic consolidation of radio stations, a digital revolution and the growth of multiple media platforms to expose and break your bands. Here's how he survived â€¦and prospered.
In the 25 years you've been doing radio promotion, what have been the most significant changes in how you do your job?
The biggest change is accessibility. The speed at which we're being able to promote is probably the biggest difference. Look at all of the tools we now have -- Twitter, IM Facebook. You go back 25 years, and I would have to fly places and send people faxes. The fact that people walk around with a phone in their hands, it's as if you've got relationships right there at the end of your fingers â€¦ instantaneously. Radio consolidation has also changed things in that there are fewer opportunities to break a new act â€¦ less real estate to go to and close deals.
So what does it take to have a hit these days? Obviously, it starts with the song, but what else?
The song is the given. You have to have a great song. I don't care what relationships you have â€¦ it can be the best relationships in world â€¦ but in today's new environment you can't get a just-okay song on the radio. You have to have a great song. Then it comes down to the two other things that have never changed in my 25 years in the business --your relationships and credibility.
Are creating good relationships and credibility easier nowadays?
Credibility is credibility; it's no easier to get now as it was then, because you always have to be honest with your relationships. You can't call everyone and tell them a song's a surefire hit unless it's really a hit â€“ and that hasn't changed in 25 years. It's a real easy way to lose credibility if you pump sunshine up everyone's ass and tell them everything is great. We all realize that nobody bats 1.000.
So is it more or less difficult to break hits when there are fewer opportunities from fewer programmers, as it is today in the consolidated radio world, or when there were more programmers with more slots in the old days?
Everything seems to have settled in radio, where there's Clear Channel, Cumulus, CBS and all the other guys. There aren't 20 different chains to chase after. It's the same thing at retail, where we have iTunes, Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, etc. It's much more defined as to who we're talking to. So while there are fewer opportunities to get your new record on the air, the targets are more defined.
Although the issue has been put on the back burner during this election year, there's no doubt that the music community will lobby Congress for a performance royalty for terrestrial radio next year. How did that issue impact your relationships with radio then â€¦and how do you plan on handling things when it comes up again?
No sense discussing this issue. It is very simple. Those making the dollar are in favor of it. Those paying the dollar don't like it. End of story.
Would it bother you if radio said, "Well, if we're going to have to pay a royalty, you're going to have to sponsor the airplay?"
We already pay to develop and find the acts. We pay to send them to endless free radio appearances and shows. I am not sure how someone can claim I get this airplay for free.
How has PPM impacted your job?
I don't think PPM has really caught its stride yet â€“ and there's definitely not enough of a sample. To make a hit these days, you could invest millions of dollars in a song -- then someone tells me six people turned the station off when the song was playing overnight, therefore they're dropping the record â€¦ We continue to study PPM so we can speak PPM.
Do you find yourself doing two different types of promotion â€“ one for PPM stations and another for diary stations?
We do different styles of promotion for every station. No two programmers are alike. Everyone has a different button you must push to close a deal. That is what makes this job fun. No two days are the same. We have to deal with PPM programmers, non-PPM programmers, social media, super-fans, bloggers, You Tube and a slew of new gatekeepers that share music with the world.
It sounds like you're placing more of your promotional efforts on nontraditional media.
We're looking at everything. Promotion has changed. Not only are we working radio stations -- both reporters and non-reporters â€“ but bloggers, Internet stations and super-fans. What's great about the new level of accessibility is the speed to get to people interested and involved. That's a big change.
It used to be pretty simple: I called my relationships at radio -- and if I convince them that the record is a hit, then they make it a hit. They sold advertising. I sold records. It's no longer that simple. Radio is no longer the only gatekeeper â€“ and I don't see that as a negative. Although it is harder to get started at radio, I now see radio as the amplifier. When you have a hit, radio makes it even bigger.
Programmers in other music formats have told label reps that sales doesn't make as big a difference in their song rotations as research such as callout. Does that happen to you â€¦ and if so, how do you respond?
Bullshit! In a depressed economy, when a person pulls a dollar out of their pocket to buy a song that they could have stolen from us, they are making a HUGE statement. We should all pay attention when their audience buys a song.
How do you see Country radio balancing the airplay of the teen Country acts and the established Country acts â€“ are they leaning too far one way or the other?
I don't see a problem there. I think radio is as wide sonically as it has ever has been. From Zac Brown and Luke Bryan to Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift and Lady A, I don't think there has ever been time where the sonic bandwidth, the amount of different sounds and textures of what we call Country, has ever been this wide. I'm not troubled by that at all; I'm very encouraged by the amount of different sounds and textures that are now called Country.
Some people believe that Country radio has a tendency to dump older artists in favor of a younger generation of talent. Have you had to deal with that issue with your older artists â€“ and if so, what can you do about it?
It's absolutely impacted our older artists. There has been changing of guard; it has already happened and will continue to happen. What do you do about it with your older artists? You fight as hard as you can. For instance, we had some success with Clay Walker on "She Won't Be Lonely Long," but to be honest you have to fight 10 times harder to achieve half the success it deserves.
There was a time when many in Nashville worried that their most popular Country stars would cross over into Pop and lose their Country base. With all the Country artists crossing over lately, does that concern you?
I just looked at the AC chart earlier today and saw that four of top-10 records are from Country artists â€“ Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum. I don't see that as a problem anymore. We used to have a lot of meetings and time spent wondering how we can prevent our artists who cross over to AC from being put in the penalty box at Country radio. Between Lady A, The Band Perry and Taylor Swift, not a single one of them is in the penalty box. Today, it almost seems to help grow the country brand -- and they're all very respectful to their roots. None of them have ever forgotten where they come from.
In that light, do you strategize on crossing over your more popular Country acts today?
As far as we go, there is no focus on crossover. We're a straight-up Country record label. While we've had some crossover success in the past with Leann Rimes and Tim McGraw, we'll never change what we do, which is wake up, put our pants on, drink coffee and work Country music. We're extremely lucky when one of our Country hits does well in the pop world, but we certainly don't focus there first. It is fantastic when it happens.
Are radio station visits still important for helping break new artists today?
They're decreasing in number but they still can be very important. It makes Country radio special; it's probably the last format that gets something out of doing that. It is less a part of my set-up plan. I still feel the connection Country radio has with its artists is better than any other format.
The biggest difference here isâ€¦ of the 153 exclusive reporting stations in Mediabase and Billboard, only about 55 of those stations -- that we have tracked and done our due diligence over the last couple of months â€“ are actually able to add a new record out of the box. Lots of people claim they can, but they don't. When you're talking about a brand new artist and the corporate radio culture, there are legitimately only 55 stations that add those records. A lot more stations can play a new Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean, but when I take out new artist X that no one has ever heard of, I only need to concentrate on those 55 reporters.
I might add that there's an entire universe of non-reporters, many of whom add new artist records. I thank every station that takes a chance on a new act and cares to grow our industry so this format is alive in the future There are too many people who are forced to program for the NOW. Hats off to the brave and forward thinkers.
Is getting your new artist a slot on a big tour, a la Kenny Chesney or Rascal Flatts, more or less important in getting exposure?
The competition for slots is intense and it's amazing to get one. We're very happy when we do, but it's not essential. Lee Brice is an emerging act for us; he did 250-300 dates in a van before moving into a bus. If the price point is right, our acts can tour like that. We're managing to get audiences and build a groundswell of support. So while we'd absolutely love a slot on a big tour, at the same time you can build a real passionate audience for yourself if you go into a market and play a small club where all 500 people are there to see you. Sometimes that model beats playing four songs at 7p, when they turn the lights for the 60 people that are in the arena three hours before the headliner performs. I am a fan of all touring.
How active are you in getting your roster on radio station concert bills?
When we can afford to play radio shows, we do it. It's a privilege playing in front of the most rabid Country fans, it definitely helps us grow our brand, but affordability is a big question. Radio wants us to foot the whole bill and at some point, we simply run out of money to do those shows. We probably do one-third the amount of radio shows we used to; we pick and choose, saying yes to the right ones that are done really well.
This is something that's happening at all the labels. You're seeing a huge decrease in the amount of acts that say yes as often as they used to. When records that used to sell for $17.99 now sell for $7.99 â€“ on top of all the records that people are stealing â€“ that still cost the same amount of money to make, the amount of money we have to say yes to a radio show has diminished. Promotional budgets have been decimated; we have dimes to spend when we used to have dollars.
How do you handle the scheduling of records in terms of giving each one the time and space to make its mark?
We have to manage our roster properly. With a large roster, it takes timing to slot our records in the places they belong. But even the greatest planning in the world can be disrupted when you launch a new act, only to see it get run over by big-act releases on other labels. But all you can do is manage your own roster the best you can.
Our release schedule is a living, breathing entity. Most records are moved forward or backward before they're ever actually released. It's archaic to sit around, like we used to do years ago, at the beginning of the year and make a release schedule for six months down the line. Although records move faster in terms of knowing when you don't have a hit, creating a hit is taking much longer.
How is that?
You find out faster when a record's not going to happen, but once you see the tea leaves that say it could become a hit, that fight takes a lot longer for radio to actually make it a hit. Records used to break in 12-14 weeks; today it's not uncommon for some new acts to have a debut single on the chart for 40-50 weeks in order to break. Before, you used to get three singles on the chart in that time.
What's more, it's three times more expensive to break that hit, so you have to decide whether to invest that money or spend it on three other acts. You choose your battles wisely and make sure you read the room. We fought for Lee Brice's "Love Like Crazy" for 56 weeks to create a career for him. Now his new single is #6 on iTunes and mid-20s on the chart. This new hit will get there in half the time it took for the last one.
It's interesting that Lee's new single is doing better on iTunes than on the Country radio charts. It goes back to the question of sales impacting radio play â€¦ or is it the other way around?
iTunes sales are mostly impacted by radio airplay. I'm sure that might not be as true in other music genres, but Country success is still generated by airplay. I would say that 80% of a record's success will be due to Country radio.
Finally, I take it that with all the changes in the business, you're still quite excited to be doing what you're doing.
Absolutely. I'm jazzed about it all. There are new opportunities and avenues to explore. With all these technological changes, it's a very exciting time to be in this business. Change may scare some people, but it only energizes me. Innovation will save the world. Bring on the changes!