October 2, 2012
Who says "you can't go home again?" Not Jon Loba, who certainly has gone back home - to BBR Music Group - and earned greater success than what he accomplished when he and Broken Bow Founder Benny Brown got the indie label off the ground. How has he done it during a time when the paradigms of radio (with the advent of PPM) and retail (with the single sales mentality fueled by iTunes) have changed considerably? Here, Loba explains how he has done it.
You were at Broken Bow Records for a great run, then left, and returned last year as SVP ... now rising to Executive VP. Why did you leave in the first place ... and what made you decide to return?
Scott Borchetta and I had talked for several years about working together. He was viewed for years as one of the best in the business and I wanted to prove to myself that I could run with him and grow professionally. As much as I loved and believed in BBR, I knew in the end, I couldn't lay my head down on the pillow at night wondering if I could keep up with Scott. I knew working a few years for Scott would better equip me for wherever I ended up in the future.
Still ... the timing was never right. We were in the middle of really building the foundation of the BBR and I felt leaving during that time could potentially set that growth back and be damaging. Benny Brown (owner and CEO), the artists and staff were family and I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize their chance to have a vibrant, stable label. When I finally decided to take the leap with Scott, I didn't feel like it wouldn't be detrimental to those I cared so much about. Still ... it was INCREDIBLY tough to leave as I loved everything about BBR so very much. Leaving felt like I was running off to Europe for a study abroad.
In the end though, Scott was offering an opportunity that was too good to pass up ... one that would make me a much better music executive. I viewed it as my chance for a PhD in the music industry. As well, I had the chance to be part of building something from Day 1 with Valory Music. Scott said, "Let's start a second label, so you can put your fingerprints all over it." I remembered how much fun I had building BBR in the early days, so the idea of doing that again while learning from Scott was incredible. Then he gave me few CDs of new acts he was looking at. One of those was Justin Moore. I fell in love with his unique sound and decided then was the time to take the leap.
With respect to coming back, I had an incredible ride with Big Machine and I did learn a lot. I was proud that we had either a #1 album or #1 single on every act the label started with. In the end, though, my heart was always with BBR. I've said it for years ... not only is Benny Brown one of the best A&R guys in the industry, but he and I truly have the same A&R vision. I always say we agree on music 98% of the time and I have learned the other 2% I am wrong! Ha ha ha ha....
Anyway ... coming back was just one of those gut calls. Being away from staff here and Jason Aldean was very tough. I remember being at the CMA Awards during my first year at Big Machine; when Jason Aldean came out and did "She's Country" on stage, I jumped up and shouted, "That's my boy! He's back!" Ginny Rodgers of WKLB in Boston was sitting next to me, said, "He's not your boy anymore." The realization of not working him every day crushed me.
That being said, I'd never trade the time I spent at Big Machine for anything. I learned a tremendous amount, but ultimately my heart was here. I wanted to come back, work for the man I love and trust like a father, and a staff who were basically brothers and sisters and help BBR Music Group grow even more. It also afforded me the opportunity to be involved not only in Promotion and Artist Development, but every other aspect of our company, including management and publishing. Benny has given me the chance to take everything I learned at Warner Nashville, Atlantic and Big Machine and put it into practice. I have a sandbox to play in here; a blank canvas.
A lot of indies crop up in Nashville, but not a lot of them stick. What's the key for an indie label to maintain success?
First off, you have to have an investor who is committed and has the fortitude to withstand tremendous losses. Before I came to BBR, Benny spent over $5 million and hadn't had a Top 40 charted record. He called it his $5 million education. Then he allowed me to hire other industry pros, such as Lee Adams, and had the patience as we took baby steps. He lost $11 million before we finally turned a profit. It's a long road, so #1, you have to have persistence.
#2 ... it is all about music. The music has always been there; for us it has been a matter getting the right mechanisms in place to expose that music. It's interesting that when I first got to BBR 10+ years ago, people would say a true indie couldn't have a top-10 hit -- and then we got one with Craig Morgan's "Almost Home." Then the industry said, "Sure that can happen once, but an indie can't have consistency" ... and we did that. Then the conversation turned to "You can't get to #1 as and indie" ... and we did that. Then their train of thought went, "Well, you can have radio hits, but you can't sell anything." Then we signed Jason Aldean; and it wasn't long before we proved we could sell records. Then it was "You can't get award nominations" ... which we got ... then it was "You couldn't win anything because you didn't have enough leverage and power" ... and we started doing that. Anytime people told Benny and I couldn't do something, we managed to do it. It's been really rewarding the last couple years -- so much so that there are no excuses in front of us. Now there's an expectation that we can deliver; it's quite a sea change.
Is it just as hard or harder to maintain your success as it was to earn it in the first place?
Without a doubt -- but that is the position we always wanted to be in. We never wanted to be measured against indie labels. Our benchmark is to be measured against the majors; that's a true measure of success. The fact that we are in a conversation these days about our measuring stick for success being other majors is where we wanted to be. I never wanted to be part of a successful "Indie label"... I wanted to be part of a successful LABEL.
What is a snapshot of your job description? How to you time-manage when you oversee two labels, BBR and Stoney Creek?
We also have a publishing company, Magic Mustang, and BBR Management. I'd that say 75% of my time is spent on the two labels. Management probably takes up 20% of time and 5% goes to publishing. That can fluctuate on any given day or week. Fortunately, I'm not a micromanager. We have some great employees, which let me just worry about the big picture and long-term strategy, as well as being involved in the A&R process. Benny also believes in hiring great people and letting them run, so the best thing we can do is develop a message, make sure it's focused, communicate that message/mission to the staff and let them execute in the best way they know how ... which is different for each employee, by the way. I hate "group think" and hiring all the same type of employees. We want strong, smart, creative people who challenge us and bring different perspectives and feel safe and secure enough to express those opinions. Every leader says they want that ... but not every leader actually allow/value that.
How has Country radio changed, in terms of the way you do your job?
The biggest change I've seen obviously is the consolidation of power and decision-making; that's what stands out the most to me.
Also ... during my first couple years in the business, everything was based solely upon research. That was the bible. If you had a sales story, only a handful of stations paid attention to that or any other extraneous info, such as ticket sales and requests. Anything outside of callout research basically didn't matter. I'm happy to say that single-minded reliance on research is very much not the case anymore. Granted, research is still tool for them, but now they're also interested in digital downloads, streams, social activity and such -- a variety of measurements. Everyone is savvier in realizing the value of other inputs when it comes to the matter of judging the audience response to a record. It's not solely based on research anymore. The move towards more information being available -- and decisions being made on that information -- has in a sense made my job easier. I come from a finance background, so all these quantitative measurements now being used has fed my inner geek. I love it.
One thing hasn't changed ... I keep hearing it's tougher than ever to get records played. Year after year, I've heard that it's never been tough as it is right now to get your record played ... that playlists have never been as tight. But I heard those same things 16 years ago, so when anyone on our staff says that to me, I pull up notes from 10 years ago that mentioned the same thing. Playlists have peaks and valleys; they seem to tighten and expand almost cyclically. So in my very uneducated opinion, it's NOT tougher to get records play now than it ever was. It all comes down to those magical three-and-a-half minutes ... and do you have them or not?
How has the "iTunes single sale" mentality impacted way you do your job in terms of artist development?
On one hand, iTunes just gives you another tool, another piece of info to help you work a record. Dustin Lynch was a perfect example of that. Early on, his research was not incredibly strong, but if you looked at the amount of audience it took to sell one of his song's digital downloads ... that was significantly less than anyone else. Only Luke Bryan and Kenney Chesney needed less audience to generate a download. I used that info to show PDs that whenever this song is heard, it absolutely creates a reaction. I know we got several conversions based on that info. So it's important for us in that respect.
The iTunes "mentality" has also had an impact on the A&R and marketing process. Look at Jason Aldean's last album -- instead of offering single bonus tracks or exclusive tracks for each retailer, we just put an amazing album together - with 15 songs - and priced it as a normal album. We figured the consumer would be less likely to buy single by single, when there was much more value in buying the whole album. That worked out tremendously for us. Dustin Lynch had 14 cuts on his last album, and I'm sure we will have 13-15 cuts on Thompson Square and Randy Houser's new records. We're offering greater value when buying a full album.
Has the advent of PPM impacted how you do radio promotion?
Not necessarily; it's just another tool that can vary widely from market to market. I love PPM; it's just like SoundScan -- it's reality, not hypothetical -- if you know how to use it right. And that's the frustrating thing. Not everyone does. It's not used uniformly. Some treat it as the bible and some see it for what it is ... another tool to help them make decisions. For instance, sometimes a PD will tell us that one of our songs got horrible PPM numbers, but you look and the song was only played in overnights ... so if you base your decision entirely on that piece of information, you have one to three people making a decision on a record for your entire listening audience. I love what our SVP/Promotion Carson James told a PD recently, "So you are telling me two listeners are better than your gut and instinct?" As much as I love information and using it to HELP makes decisions, music is still an art form and subjective. We can't throw our gut out the window based on one small piece of information.
Is it harder to work new artists harder today? Are you working them any differently today?
No, that goes back to the earlier conversation about playlists. It's always been tough to break a new act. You just have to be willing to lay down in the middle of the road with your act. You have to live and breathe in your act ... have an unbelievable belief and commitment, and not take "no" for an answer. With all the traffic out there, that's what's going to take to break through the clutter.
I don't really know if there are more releases now than there have been. Being very numbers-driven, I don't rely on hype. I deal with reality, and having all of these tools with real info may not make it easier break a new act, but at least I have more weapons fight with. Conversely, it takes less time now to find out when I don't have something. I can then allocate resources and energies to other things that are there. I much prefer this environment than when I first became a regional at Atlantic.
Are the growing number Country artists crossing into Top 40 and Hot AC good for Country? Are you worried about diluting your product?
I'm not worried. We had huge a crossover hit with Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson. Initially, I was very hesitant about taking that leap because when I first got in the business, Shania was crossing and Faith was crossing - and there was a much more protective mentality from radio at that point. That exclusivity environment is much different now. The prevailing assumption is that you take the opportunity to generate exposure to a wider audience and hopefully bring new audiences in -- especially now since so many have done it, it's much more acceptable.
Where it gets into a challenge is when that artist starts living more in the pop world than the country world. You can't still say you were a Country act when everything you do is pop-centric. But if Country listeners have no problem with it, they won't stop trying to cross over.
When it came to Jason Aldean, the duet with Kelly and "Dirt Road Anthem" with Ludacris were just moments in his career and not an evolution, so he was able to back away from that. In both cases, however, we never went in with a mentality of cutting something we wanted to cross over. Jason cut great records and if happened to fit another format, great. If not, no big deal. Nobody will EVER debate whether Jason Aldean is country. It's who he is and is ingrained in his DNA.
What was the back-story of signing Jason Aldean?
It's true that he considered going back to Georgia the night before he did that one last showcase at the Wild Horse Saloon for us. It's a great lesson I learned from Benny Brown: Make sure you listen to everyone and every song you can ... and make that time to check it out, because you never know what you might miss.
With Jason, Benny called me (he was living in California at the time) and said he wanted me to attend an upcoming showcase with him when he flew back in a couple days. At the time, Broken Bow was having success because it was small and focused. We already had two records on the charts, so I told Benny we didn't need to sign anyone else. Benny said he promised a friend we would check this guy out ... an act that Capitol dropped. I thought to myself, "Oh, great ... we are going to a showcase to see some guy who nobody in town wants and who is headed back to Georgia because he can't cut it." So I went there with my mind already made up that we shouldn't sign this guy. I sat there next to Benny with my arms folded and not wanting to be there. Then Jason came out and blew us away. By the third song, Benny asked what I thought. I said we better sign him before everyone else in town finds out what they're missing. So we walked backstage, Benny extended his had to Jason and said, "Welcome to Broken Bow Records." It was as easy as that.
So you could tell right then and there that this guy was going to be a Country star?
So much of this business is just instinct and gut, where you hope you're right, but you have to act on it. What we saw at the Wild Horse that night was not someone who was going to sell 150,000 records; we felt at that moment that he was going to be much bigger. But we did know it would be a challenge because he was so different than what was on radio at that time.
A big part of our initial discussions with our staff was that it wasn't going to be easy ... but if we could break through, it would be incredibly special and beneficial. Jason would be a format staple and a format-changing artist -- if we could get it to the point where LISTENERS could decide.
Our challenge back then was a debate within the industry as to whether Jason was too rock and roll. Thankfully, Radio gave him that chance and the listeners responded. I love how Jason has stayed true to his brand and who he is while also evolving, taking chances every record and pushing the envelope even further ... while at the same time bringing his music right back to the middle and doing what he does best.
It's been an incredibly journey with Jason and I feel so blessed to be along for the ride. It really hit me last week when I was standing next to Premium Choice PD Doug Montgomery. Jason just lit the place on fire and he says, "He's sure has come a long way from the Guns & Roses and Alabama medleys," That put a huge smile on my face. I forgot about the early days when half his set was his music, and the rest was covers. He had to fill out his set with something! Now he is filling an hour-and-a-half with hits.
Let's talk about the future of BBR. You mentioned earlier that you want your success to be compared to the majors' success. Does that mean you want Broken Bow to be as big as the majors?
I want it to be as big as we can possibly be -- without losing our integrity, our attention to the artists and their needs, and quite honestly, the family atmosphere we have at this here. A lot of places talk about family; ours truly is ... including with our partners at Radio. We never want to lose that dynamic. The minute our growth jeopardizes that, we'll pull back. We've managed to keep growing without jeopardizing what makes us special. We live and breathe this label 24 hours a day, not because we have to but because it's in our DNA. I liken it to the early days of Google mentality. We feel like we can take over the world ... but we want to do it and help our partners in the process the right way.
When you're selling a lot of records and breaking bands, how do you know when you're crossing that line?
That's a great question. My answer is that I hope to know when that happens. I hope our culture is open enough, internally and externally, that when we reach a tipping point, our partners will let us know that we're in jeopardy. I hope that's the case. We know there's nothing we can control and put into place ourselves. But we can be alerted when we're having honest relationships with our partners who'll let us know. That's something we preach and talk about as well.