April 12, 2016
These are certainly challenging times for the record labels - especially challenging for those who specialize on the rock side. Mike Easterlin is up for this challenge. After several years on the promotion side, Easterlin has graduated to the President's chair for noted Alternative and Rock labels Fueled By Ramen and Roadrunner. And despite the tough business climate, FBR has scored major success with Twenty One Pilots, Panic! At The Disco and Paramore, while Roadrunner is home to Killswitch Engage, Slipknot and Stone Sour, among others. Here's how Easterlin and both labels keep pushing forward.
What made you decide to leave Y95 and get into the label biz in the first place.
Actually, I was working with Kidd Kraddick when one of my really close friends on a label got a promotion, and he suggested that I go for his old job. It was with Virgin; I interviewed with Michael Plen and John Boulos, the interview went really well and they offered me job. I always thought about working closer with music and artists. I knew I would love the process building of an artist career and taking the long road to get them to success. It continues today to be the most satisfying part of the job. Watching an artist go from obscurity to household name. It's a rush!
How long did it take you to get comfortable in the label lifestyle?
The standard thing in radio promotion is that for the first six months, you're basically scared to death. But as soon as you get that one moment -- whether it's a great conversation with a PD, or getting a really big add at a big radio station - you start to feel, "I can do this ... I got this." I think the first year is always very scary, but once you start to do some cool things, get some accomplishments, have some wins under your belt and break some records, you start to feel more at ease.
You spent many years in pop promotion. How has promotion evolved over the years, in terms of breaking your bands?
Funny, I discussed this very same thing when I was on a panel at SXSW. The way the record business is now -- at least at Atlantic, Fueled By Ramen and Roadrunner - in a promotion meeting, radio used to be the first thing that came up ... and now it's the fifth thing. Believe me, radio is still the best and/or biggest way to sell records. We all realize now that you've got to have all of your content in and have that foundation built underneath the song before you take it to radio. Otherwise, you're going on a song and a prayer. It's also good for artist development to build a foundation first. It kind of protects the band and creates career artist, just in case the first couple of radio singles don't go all the way.
Your labels are heavily rock and alternative-based. How important is crossing their records over to Top 40?
The most important thing for us is to make sure we establish them as an artists first. Our bands need to have established their bases before we even try to cross anything to radio. After that, it really comes down to the artist and the song. With Twenty One Pilots, we decided not to cross the first single from this current album because we were still building the brand. They were growing so much in the touring space, we didn't feel like we needed to rush out and cross the song over. We were very careful and calculated that we wouldn't cross the first single even though we could have because some of the Top 40 guys talked to us about it.
The key to success in promotion has always been relationships. With radio consolidating, especially in terms of regional/national music programming, have maintaining those relationships changed and how have you changed with it?
I don't think relationships have changed that much. The same people are basically making the decisions, and they're good at what they to do. I'm not really talking with radio as much in my current position. I'm dealing more with managers and artists. But for me, it's still great to have those relationships at radio. I can still call programmers and pick their brains about the current landscape of music. It helps me from a standpoint of now overseeing everything. It's a really valuable tool to have in my toolkit, to call on the guys I worked with for so many years to pick their brains about stuff.
What's your impression of the Rock and Alternative formats?
I think Alternative should do everything in their power to embrace their artists who crossover to Rock and/or Top 40 and make sure they continue to make them their own. They have to realize that big, successful crossover songs are as great for them as it is for Pop stations. Both formats enjoy the same benefits, so they shouldn't be scared of the possibility that their hit songs are crossing over.
The Active Rock side is a whole different animal. They've gone through a really difficult period. It is a head scratcher where so many of the rock fans went. The music is still great, but there doesn't seem to be that huge connections to bands anymore. The event of the single download was probably the #1 killer of the genre. I remember going up, I fell in love with rock bands because of the album, the packaging, etc. Then came the singles business and the relationship with artists started to fall off.
We were in a meeting the other day looking at streaming on rock artists. It is mind-blowing how slow the rock kids are gravitating to streaming. The Disturbed record is arguably the biggest rock song in years and while sales of the single are beyond impressive, it is doing under a million streams a week. That is not the fault of Warner Brothers; that is an overall rock fan problem. I have a hard time thinking they all just disappeared, yet the sales and streaming have been difficult in the last few years.
Finally, the younger kids are discovering a new crop of young bands out there like Turnstile and Code Orange. Bands from a different kind of scene. It is exciting what these bands are bringing to the table and what it could mean for the future.
You mentioned that as a promotion person, you had to change with the times in terms of providing info to radio. Does the same go for the A&R process?
As I said, we're trying to find the next big sound from a rock standpoint, and we're making a very conscious effort to find something fresh in the modern pop lane for FBR. There are bands out there selling tickets and making really cool rock records, but not really making radio records. I want to have a lot of conversations with bands like that. From a Pop and Alternative standpoint, we're looking very closely at what the audience is telling us. Streaming can be a very good indicator on whether to sign a band, as well as for picking a single. It can become a more helpful tool than sales in some cases because it's so immediate that you can pick up on trends little bit faster.
What's your take on EDM and it becoming a major moneymaker, in terms of sales, for the labels?
I don't really get involved in EDM; we have Big Beat in-house that specializes in that. So I don't spend a tremendous amount of time with it. I have seen these songs streaming a ridiculous number, but not actually selling. It could be that the EDM audience is ahead of the curve on streaming. I've also seen big streaming songs not gain traction at radio. It's a tricky thing to figure out -- which one of those songs can legitimately be in a mainstream world, and which ones are just for the EDM world. It's just not the type of music where it all translates. We just had Robin Schultz, whose single was out in the world for a very long time before we took it to radio. We knew we had to get a real solid foundation underneath before we even attempted to go to radio. We are going to mix shows and Dance stations. Once it hangs there, we may try to cross to Top 40. It's a long process to see what goes into the mainstream world.
How has the concept of artist development changed from the '90s to today?
Well, there was the MTV world that doesn't exist anymore. Now it's like the whole world has been turned upside down. Almost everyone can make a record, which has created a lot more noise out there. What we're trying to do is put out enough content for our bands -- whether it's multiple tracks or content such as videos -- to cut through the clutter of it all and make significant inroads, because radio is such a slow process, especially for new artists. We now believe it is okay to put multiple looks from an act into the marketplace while at radio, staying focused on s singular idea.
We know it's a long process that can takes six to nine months and because of that, in those six to nine months, we have to make sure other pieces of content, such as video or other songs, go to the marketplace while going through the process of whether we have a radio hit or not. We have to build enough of a foundation underneath to make sure the artist will be okay if the first single doesn't break. It shouldn't come down to one song or video, so it shouldn't take six months to try to relaunch once again. We're trying to make sure we're surrounding whatever happens on the radio front with other things.
Gold and Platinum sales used to be the markers for success. That happens with a lot less frequency today. How can one be successful with lesser sales?
It's becoming that again when you factor in streaming. I can look at an album from Twenty One Pilots, which sold about 850,000 ... that's 150,000 short of a million ... but it's considered Platinum because of streaming. When you put everything into it, the album equivalent is 1.4 million. Even though their previous record sold only 400,000, thanks to a ton of streaming, it went Gold. Their "Stressed Out" single is up to 1.9 million, but because of streaming and YouTube views, it's been certified double-Platinum already.
To be sure, we still want to sell millions of albums, but only a handful of artists have done over a million. If, by the end of summer, Twenty One Pilots does have actual sales of over a million, that will be a source of an immense amount of pride.
What does "artist development" really constitute nowadays?
It's doing smart business and realizing that this is a marathon and not a sprint. We built Twenty One Pilots literally with a multi-album plan. We had a goal set for where we wanted to be after the first album, and set another goal for where we wanted to be after the second album - and we've exceeded expectations both times. At this point, we still set realistic goals about where we want be in three to four years. We know it doesn't always happen the way it happened with Twenty One Pilots; we don't always get whatever breaks or luck we got that way. It is a shining start, but you never hear much about the ones that don't necessarily connect. The fact that Slipknot, Paramore and Panic! At The Disco have all had #1 album debuts in the last couple of years shows that we are committed to a long-term vision for our artist.
What upcoming releases are you looking forward to working?
At FBR, we signed a band called Flor, who are doing something really different and exciting. They toured with Halsey in the U.S. and U.K. this year. Another new artist is Against The Current, a female-fronted band making amazing pop/rock songs. We feel there's multiple singles on the album. We're super-excited about reinventing 303 again; they made an amazing album. Paramore is writing, while the Young The Giants is almost finished. A new band, Chef'Special, will open for Twenty One Pilots on their arena tour. Then there is one band that we signed but can't mention yet. They are an established act with a huge tour base. We can't wait to announce and share new music.
At Roadrunner, we've signed a couple of bands recently that I am super-excited about, but we can't mention them yet. We're continuing with Killswitch Engage, whose album debuted at #3 in its first week. Trivium just had their first real breakthrough song at Rock radio. The Gojira album is amazing; we have a new band from the U.K. called Creeper; there's also Marmozet, Amity Affliction and Joey Jordison (Slipknot), who will launch his new band later this year.
Now that you're settling in as President of these two labels, how has that impacted how you view the future?
Every day I come in, I'm so excited about both labels and what we have going. I'm still incredibly hungry to break another couple artists on both labels really soon, not only from the standpoint of what it does for our brands, but you become very close with artists -- much more than I was when I was on radio side. When you oversee all aspects of your artists' career, you have very transparent, sincere conversations like you've never had before. You see their vulnerable sides, you hear their concerns ... it's a lot more intimate experience than I've ever had before, so when something doesn't work, it definitely hits you harder.
It's an interesting thing ... Lyor Cohen used to say the all the time in meetings that "having great success makes me more nervous and makes me want to have more success." That drives me as well. Not getting complacent or comfortable with how we're doing is the best way to be.