September 16, 2014
Country music has the life of a double-edge sword. On one hand, it's immensely popular on radio, especially among the young. On the other hand, sales are off and radio is essentially a ghost town for female artists. The key to improving Country's fortunes? Improving the connection between its artists and its audience -- not just through the radio, but beyond it. Blessed with an extensive marketing background, UMG Nashville Pres. Cindy Mabe discusses the current situation and how she intends to improve it.
When you landed your first job at a Country label, was becoming President of a record company one of your long-term career goals?
No, my very first job was as an independent contractor for RCA Records. I went to school at night and took early morning classes while I was a daytime ticket manager and sales coordinator. My company was Mabe Ticketing Enterprises, but I always wanted to get a full-time job at a label - and my initial goal was to work in marketing.
Was there a point in time where you felt truly comfortable in the business, where you felt you knew the lay of the land?
Interestingly enough, even as an intern, I would bring in ideas and marketing plans. I don't know if I felt confident in what I was doing; I just had ideas all the time that were eating me up. I wanted to be part of something bigger, but I didn't know how to make noise where people would notice me. I also had passion.
Your expertise has always been in marketing. How has marketing evolved over the years as Country grew and the industry became more digitally oriented?
It certainly has evolved along the way to the point where you can't expect to have a career that's solely about having radio hit after radio hit. Fans have to know the artists and have a personal connection with them through social media, while labels and artists have to find other ways, beyond radio, to tell the artists' stories.
When did you come to that realization?
I've always known about the importance of connecting to the artist. Back in the day, I was a huge Alabama fan - and I tried to know as much about them as I could. Today, it's more important than ever for artists to create that connection - especially new artists. When there are 20 new bands going for a couple open slots at radio, what makes them different? What makes Luke Bryan stand out? If he's "too Country" for national TV, how does he connect with the fans? You start to build lifestyle elements around him and his songs. It takes so long to chart these days - and even then, you need more than one radio hit to break through.
Do you bring your marketing perspective into A&R when it comes to choosing more marketing-friendly unsigned talent?
We're all about connecting. The music has to connect and the lifestyle elements have to connect. We know more about artist marketing when it comes to radio promotions, single choices, imaging and tours - everything that connects artists with their fans -- and connects them with a purpose. Having a marketing background, I have to figure out who the artist is and how to get the artist's point of view across to the consumer. That's critical - and that's my strength.
With album sales at an all-time low, how can UMG Nashville optimize revenue?
First and foremost, the music has to matter. And we have to sign artists we really believe in, who make a difference and are game-changers. While that may seem obvious, it also feels like that has been forgotten by those who still focus all their energies on slots in radio charts. Sometimes an artist's record doesn't really belong on radio; there has to be other ways to get the music out there. We're trying to explore all kinds of opportunities to market our artists beyond just a radio strategy. That's very critical when the artist doesn't necessarily fit in that small box. We look at every element; it can be building a touring empire, where we invest as much or more in tour support as we do on promo tours. We're trying to find the right strategy to break each artist - and each strategy can be different. It goes back to why these artists are special ... and how we can break them by connecting them to their audience.
Country radio has consolidated; there's more national syndication and the big groups are making it harder to get new artists airplay. On the other hand, if you do get picked by the cluster and group VP/programmers, you get a lot more airplay. Do you prefer the cluster music decisions, or the individual PD decisions where more artists can get added, but it takes longer to break?
Again, it goes back to each artist being different. We have a new artist now, Sam Hunt, who has moved up the radio charts surprisingly fast. The chains got behind him, which was certainly nice, but that's not the normal evolution of a new artist. Usually it takes up to 45 weeks to get one song up the chart, which is a brutal way to live. In that case, you start building more momentum on the road. That's where real artist development starts ... by building your own fan base out there. That's part of the growth experience you need to have in the long term. So while you can invest less money if you move up the chart faster, that's rarely the reality. On balance, you have to take the time to figure out who the artist is, who the audience is, and the best way to connect the two.
Country radio is skewing young and male these days. What's your take on "Bro Country?" Is it just part of a cycle or is it growing out of proportion?
This format has always been cyclical and this is just one more example of that. Right now, we're far into the cycle to where it feels as if it's "all male, all uptempo, all the time." Country radio has always been a balance between that and what real life is. Now it feels a little disconnected; it's so uptempo that it doesn't always reflect real life. When we're at our best, we sell to the most diverse audiences. In six months to a year, I believe we are going to come around again with a new cycle. When people start to get burned out on the "bro," there will be more balance.
That brings up another cause for concern: the paucity of female solo artists on Country radio. Do you feel artists such as Kelleigh Bannen are getting a decent shot these days ... and do you have to tell her to be more patient?
You absolutely tell her to be patient. That's life. At this point in time, if you are a female, you drew the short end of the stick for Country radio. When the radio station sees a female solo artist walk through their doors for a promo visit, it seems like a seed of doubt is planted in their minds. That's why we're all waiting for the next new female artist to pop through. There are so few of them; you have to do everything right. For Kelleigh, like all others, we're going to take a minute to figure out who she is, get a story, then build an audience at radio and beyond radio. That can include everything from TV appearances to social media. You have to build more than one way to get an audience
Now that Taylor Swift has gone pop, do you see an opportunity to get Kelleigh into that opening?
It's my job to do that, but the whole town feels the same way. We haven't given our consumers enough options. There are two females on the radio right now - and that's not enough options for the audience. I'm not saying every female artist should be represented on the radio, but when I was growing up, I remember Country radio with a more equal balance. That enabled me to become a huge fan of Reba, as well as Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. Those artists were household names.
Could the current situation be tied to a lack of female PDs, VP/Programmers ... and maybe even female A&R reps?
I don't think having more females in those positions would hurt, but if you're a good programmer you're not trying to reflect your own tastes. You're speaking for the audience. It's more a matter of balance. Sure, you'd like to see more female PDs, but ultimately, right now we're in this cycle where it's all uptempo, all the time - and women don't tend to be all uptempo, all the time. Female artists are the balladeers who have something important to say. Some researchers have concluded that listeners are not looking for female voices, but I think those conclusions come from the way they're testing people.
Does the growth of younger Country audience prompt a change in A&R philosophy?
Frankly, it starts with the music, which stems all the way back to publishing companies and writers who write the songs. You look at the songs being written for females, and the only ones that break through are songs written by the female artists themselves. When you have that going on, labels are going to sign fewer females because they're not breaking through, so they're hedging their bets. But I look at it as a wide open landscape because when females do score, they score huge - Taylor, Carrie, Miranda.
What's your take on NASH Icon and John Dickey's assertion that the Country format is ready to fragment?
The jury's out on this whole thing, but I can tell you with certainty that there is an audience for older artists who have a bigger catalog and fan base, but might not be the radio flavor of the month anymore. They still have an audience. We have one that just won Entertainer Of The Year. And there is a fan base that is buying Alan Jackson records without airplay. In fact, he's selling more than artists who've had five hit singles. So there is a fan base out there of people who do want to hear artists who aren't heard on the radio anymore. But I'm not sure that the format has to fragment to do that.
Although streaming is the biggest growth engine in retail, artists aren't happy with current royalty rates, and the Net providers don't want to pay more. How do you see this situation playing out?
The situation only resolves itself when everyone is subscribing to streaming services. That's going to happen when more than just young people have smartphones and are subscribing. It has to be people of all ages. You can't build a profitable business model when a significant number of people aren't subscribing. Imagine if all the eligible people had smartphones with a streaming service integrated into the phone; that business model would make sense. Now how long will that take? That won't be happening in the next six months, but it's certainly possible two years from now.
So what are artists and labels supposed to do until that happens?
It's really tough to figure out how to fill that void. In the meantime, music still has to matter. None of this matters if it doesn't.
Crystal ball: Who will be the Country format's next big superstar?
We have a kid on our roster who's going to be massive; Sam Hunt is going to break though in a big way. He's doing things differently; he's a great writer who has benefited from touring for years. He's also pretty aggressive in streaming; Spotify has really taken to this kid. He has put out an EP for them and another one for iTunes - all before his album officially comes out. Even though the album is not in the marketplace, multiple songs are being discovered. We feel that's better than being known for one song, because one song is not driving people to see him live. That's the best place for them to react to his lyrics, the way he looks and the way he sings ... he just moves people. My job is to try to get as much content as possible out so people discovering this guy will get his lifestyle and who he is -- as opposed to connecting to only one single off the radio.
Do you prefer a new artist such as Sam Hunt to open for a major act and play for many thousands at once, or go out on his own, play smaller clubs and connect to people in a more intimate way?
We prefer both. He needs to be out in front of people, whether it's in a club or a large arena. Either way, he still moves people. Sam has also built his own unique fan base, which is critical. You can tour both ways, but the smartest thing you can do is find your own audience.
Finally, you've been asked multiple times about breaking the glass ceiling as the first female President of a label. You've said you were proud of the accomplishment but would prefer being looked at as just a label president. How long do you think that will take - and what can you do to facilitate that?
I'm proud to be a female; I don't hold anything back from that. But if I were asked, "What would you like to be known for - as the best female label president in town or the best label president?" I'm going to say the latter.