August 30, 2016
Michael Plen is a true music fan who became a music biz lifer who made his bones by using a " renegade mentality" to turn Alternative-before-they-called-it-Alternative records into mainstream hits. Now, a digital generation later, he's applying the same mindset in dramatically different arenas, with challenging platforms and audiences. Here's how applies his talents with Ingrooves in today's environment.
Next year will be your 40th year in the business. Are you surprised at how your career -- and the business itself -- has evolved in that time?
In April of 1976, I was the MD of a college radio station that was sorta the KCRW of Hartford ... 80-mile signal ... WWUH. We broke records. I wanted a career in radio and communications, so I was a news and production director, wrote commercials for multiple stations and was a MD there.
A&M liked my taste in music and offered me a college rep promotion gig in the Northeast, with the likes of Phil Quartararo, Jay Boberg, Al Cafaro, Doreen Ringer ... and many other cool people
The market in some way has always had a way of heralding the trends. Being on top of them, building opportunities from them, and staying close to the artists, music and street is key. Artists, their music, their fans ... always make the noise. While the technologies and marketing systems have all evolved, calling on a phone to friends or fanzines, to tech now, it's still artist ingenuity and delivering that message which will create growth and monetization. It happens faster now, but it's important to know the long game. And listen.
What have been the biggest surprises during that time? Did you discover any revelations about yourself and this business?
During the early years at A&M and IRS Records, we were renegade punks. We weren't aware we were developing the schematic on how to develop new music in the breakout era of late '70s-'80s. We were creating rules as we went along. IRS' distributor A&M was savvy enough to affiliate with us, but their promotion team needed convincing that the Go-Go's, REM, Wall of Voodoo, The English Beat and Fine Young Cannibals were mainstream or promotion-worthy. We discovered you had to pound them and compete with them on the same level to get noticed. We were indie, so crossing up to broader radio required A&M's help. Charlie Minor, may he RIP, fought it at first, then he saw it was really the mainstream, he throttled it with us. The revelation of how long it took A&M to see we were creating the mainstream was intriguing, but many execs on their marketing side got it early. Charlie later said to me IRS taught him how to promote in a new way he never understood.
Our philosophy continued to be get the act noticed, from "hand-to-hand combat", fan engagement, marketing ploys. No rules; we made them up day to day, fueled by our sheer music enthusiasm for changing pop culture.
Did that mentality change when you segued to Virgin Records?
It was the same as IRS and early A&M days as it was being run by all the A&M people who knew the cool artistic potential of this music. At IRS, we were working with a few beakers and some bubbling explosive materials. At Virgin, we had a bigger chemistry lab where we applied the same renegade mentality. Plus, we were our own promotion and marketing team, so there were no walls on what was promoted. The U.K. was sending us groundbreaking talent. Virgin was my dream company to work for. They always defined itself as the ultimate place for artists who were unique and different and trendsetting. That's what Virgin stood for -- Tangerine Dream, XTC, Simple Minds, Magazine, Mike Oldfield, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry ... Branson ... really left-of-center artists who had talent, class and potential. It was exactly the same mentality early A&M had; you give artists a career and they create star power in time.
At the beginning, though, Virgin was more of a jukebox. It didn't have bands as much as it had hit songs by Johnny Hates Jazz, Cutting Crew and Danny Wilson. Eventually, as the company grew its A&R team, we signed or developed superstars such as Lenny Kravitz. Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, Massive Attack, The Verve, Daft Punk, Paula Abdul, Ziggy Marley and UB 40, Spice Girls, Bowie ... too many to mention.
How did you adapt when the business started changing at the turn of the millennium?
In the late '90s, we saw it coming. Marketing meetings with futurists showed what was going on and what we'd be in for. The Internet was exploding. We all still had a young mentality from our hottest days, so as the business changed, we expected change and maneuvered with it. That didn't mean the conventional record company system would survive, but the music biz and industry is reinventing itself daily based on what's going on musically and technologically. Did that mean people would lose their jobs? Certainly, but for those who did forge the struggling times, they found ways to be successful.
You started working for smaller companies and for yourself; how was that experience?
Fantastic and ever-changing. You had to create opportunity and get it recognized. Whatever worked before didn't necessarily work anymore. After Virgin, it was the first time in 25 years that I hadn't been in charge of a promotion department. This was at a time when the industry was downsizing ... fewer heads of promotion jobs out there. I liked being independent and working with artists and people with vision ... Blue Man Group, Jeff Ayeroff, Alexi Murdoch, Gary Gersh, Peter Asher. I did a lot of indie things, and out of that grew an opp with Sanctuary, a management company/label. In management, the closer you are involved with the artist, the more fields of income you are involved with, unlike a label. As SVP/Marketing-Promotion, I got to use all the experience prior. Radio airplay, but also marketing and film/TV/ad licensing, tour marketing, strategy and merch came into play. Also as a management company, Sanctuary was a broader palette for artist career direction.
Later, Jeff Ayeroff, who I worked with at A&M & Virgin, a true genius, had this Jerry Lee Lewis record that Steve Bing produced. He told Steve, "Don't bring it to the major labels; let's build the best team we can and we'll do a better job than any major." They can pivot faster. He then hired me to be head of promotion efforts for the project. That unique team of 20 people together and our indie distributor broke the record; we ended up selling 300,000+ albums. We got Jerry Lee on late-night shows, plus big press and radio looks. It brought him back to show how relevant influential he really was. We created a textbook platform of the new indie marketing team, and that became Shangri-La Music. I was SVP/Marketing & Promotion for five years.
How did the INgrooves opportunity come about?
When I was at Shangri-La, Steve Bing started producing more movies, including the Rolling Stones and Bob Marley and historic musical artists. Post-recession, he took a different view of what he wanted out of Shangri-La musically. People were always calling up for my help and two of the artists that reached out were Matt and Kim and Yuna, both who were on Fader Label. Fader offered me to run the licensing/sync area and be involved with the label's promotion and branding. Fewer acts and Fader/Cornerstone's ingenuity, invented the trends. Jon Cohen/Rob Stone/Andy Cohn/Robert English are futurists. Matt and Kim had their biggest radio success with Let's Go, while Yuna popped, too, with Pharrell and a bidding war landed her at Verve. One day, Jenni Sperandeo recommended me to Bryan Mead. We met, along with the other INgrooves team and they were kind and innovative. It was intriguing to work on a lot of different artists, reunite with Jay Boberg, who was chairman, and work with a company that was setting technological and musical trends.
INgrooves offered a job of VP Marketing & Promotion working on all radio, but with ability to use my other strengths and contacts ... licensing and marketing ... using everything I know to maximize plans for individual labels and artists, be it on an independent or a label services group.
Do you see INgrooves as an example of the reinvention of the music business?
Yes, INgrooves excels because it's not a label but a digital technology/marketing powerhouse and music company that brings artists and their music direct to market worldwide via distribution tools, including analytics and rights management services. Our software is used as the platform for Universal Music -- and INgrooves bought Fontana to add a physical element to it. INgrooves works with 300+ labels, from the smallest of unknowns to the biggest. Tech N9ne/Strange Music, Against Me! Nahko, Peaches, SideOne Dummy, Big Gigantic, WaterTower soundtracks label. You'll get things like the Game of Thrones soundtrack or Harry Potter's next project, from up-and-coming bands few in radio have heard, but sell massive tickets, to the Oasis reissues. Indies with multi-national catalogs with artists who sell and stream heavily. It's an amalgamation of great music as a distribution, copyrights and technology global platform. The team at INgrooves helped build this digital and technology platform, because they invented it from the beginning of the century, just post-Napster to fill a new demand of artists and labels that wanted to go direct digitally.
How are your current relationships with radio - especially compared to the past?
I work with radio all the time, and love collaborating. We are always working with the SiriusXM, iHeartMedia, Entercom, CBS, Emmis, Cumulus ... pretty much everyone. Radio continues to be a powerful medium with a lot of trendsetting curators who move the needle. People I've grown with through the industry from day one... I work at strengthening those relationships. People I don't know? I'm always interested in meeting new people and hearing their passions and visions for their success, and using the past, present and possible futures to help our businesses grow together. The people in radio who have great taste, vision and chutzpah understand where it's going. They keep it a hugely successful medium.
Most of the acts on INgrooves have never gotten on radio, or very little, or radio has not been in their scope; we build that with them. Or they were on it before, and we're trying to find a way back in. We work alongside them in promotion and marketing and help build out these future relationships and career development with radio.
Every project creates a whole new marketing plan on how to engage radio. You've got to build a story for the act, brick by brick. For instance, Big Gigantic sold 10,000 tickets for shows in Denver and New York and lots nationally, but they were fairly unknown in the radio world. They're making records that are getting more attention, so we're hopeful that radio invests more in them. Their touring base is large, but since it didn't come from radio, hopefully they'll invest in an act that brings their audience to them. That's how they help each other. The music is like Virgin's calibre ... ahead of the curve, but defining one of the culture's biggest moment now. An introduction to radio, without a format box, is a key element.
Is it harder or easier to get your music on the radio today?
Today, it's probably tougher because there are less slots, and fewer programmers overseeing more stations. There's also more music out there, with people making their own records. Previously, you couldn't sit in front of a home computer, with Garageband, a USB mic and a computer program to make your own record, and put it out on the Net. You don't need a middle man now, but where labels and INgrooves are key is in the marketing and evangelizing. Everybody may be on equal ground getting their music to market, but you need a committed team of people and the resources to actually get noticed above everyone else - especially now that it's more competitive than it has ever been. One result from a spin, appearance on radio, a glimpse, can help the 360-degree aspects of marketing-publishing-agents, touring and streaming. Those seeds always lead back to helping get more radio and even bigger opportunities in other media.
In working radio today, it helps that many programmers today grew up on REM, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, Lenny Kravitz, Police and the UB40s of the '80s and '90s. We lived and built a lot of those careers from day one, when they were all in vans. Patience and persistence is critical. Hopefully today's programmers are just as intrigued about Janet Jackson and D'Angelo, early hip-hop and grunge, and hoping to develop something that can be memorable in this new era. The excitement and craziness of those days are gone. INgrooves variety keeps you moving and competitive creatively. I hear the hits I worked in my career more than ever on radio as a testament to the great successes we developed, but none happened easily.
How else do we make it happen? One of Big Gigantic's songs launched the TV series "Empire." For weeks, it was used there and during the NBA playoffs and Wimbledon highlights. The market noticed and so did programmers. Kid Kelly and Mikey Piff of SiriusXM Venus-Hits1, along with Ari Fink of Jam On believed. So did KNHC, Music Choice Dance, WPTY and WEQX ... then more terrestrial stations started playing it, too. Their sound is strong. Meanwhile, the INgrooves team that works on Spotify, Apple, Indie stores, playlisting, brands and other depts. had successes that built the story more. They make the needle move every day for all our acts. Radio is important, and with all of us working together, it's like building out a puzzle that makes a complete marketing picture that radio can invest in with conviction. I'm hoping we'll find more believers. Their fans know how great it is. Ahead of the curve.
How do you divide your time between working over-the-air radio and online/digital radio?
To me, all broadcasting entities have reach and my time is based on how that builds opportunities into successes. Locally, nationally, digitally, one voice at a time. Time management is knowing your acts, their sound, their audience, their commitment, and what would make for good listening and who might care to make a difference. I have a plan, but knowing people as they've evolved from radio, video, TV, film, bookers, podcasts and tech mediums helped me individualize ideas to pursue daily.
Interconnectivity makes it happen. I work for Bryan Mead, who oversees all the labels and marketing groups. We interact with our marketing team and label managers constantly. As the promotion department grew, Gabriella Ianni came on as the promotion person in NY and our SiriusXM account rep.
They are so many outlets, I try and work with people who are enthusiastic about what they do and are committed to growing they're business and ours collaboratively.
How do you help with INgrooves' synch licensing efforts?
Mike Locke, is head of licensing. We know a lot of different people in film, TV and advertising. When I came over from running Fader's licensing and sync, I said to Bryan that it's important for me to remain involved in this medium. He was very agreeable. The music supervising community and advertising agencies are massive music fans. They give acts springboards all the time and no one can ever predict culturally how that will affect the market. Always a great talking point. They're a broadcasting medium that's powerful. They want to be turned on to the next great thing.
Each artist has a different licensing arrangement. Some synch rights are managed by INgrooves; others aren't. Either way, if there's financial or marketing potential for an INgrooves act, we'll pursue it for artist development. We take these marketing opportunities and pivot them into radio and the market and things grow!
So what about your future ... do you have any other goals and challenges?
My goals are to continue to be an executive leader with a mentor mentality and discoverer in the changing landscape. I listen to as many people's ideas as possible. I love music and artists ... and what's happening in technology, evolving trends and the street's message - and where radio can lead themselves to. There are so many forms of the term broadcasting -- when focused on the market, they are continually powerful, and I love and respect that. I like being part of their evolution. What's exciting for me still is creating cultural change, short- and long-term artist career development, how tech changes things daily, and financial success with integrity. I'm sure tomorrow will be something new. Big thanks to Joel Denver and his All Access team for keeping radio and music invigorated, and to Jeff Silberman for the vibrant talk.