October 4, 2011
In a way, being a successful label promotion person is not unlike being a great juggler. Every day, you spend every waking second trying to maximize the potential of every released single to radio and beyond. Lesly Tyson has been quite successful at doing just that at Arista Nashville, balancing the interests of superstar acts and first-timers alike. Here's how she does it...
How long have you been doing promotion ... and how has the duties of radio promotion changed over the years?
I began my music industry career at RCA Label Group (RLG) years ago, but it wasn't until 2002 when I entered the world of promotion -- and I worked at Capitol on the pop side. In November 2004, I received a call from Bobby Kraig and Butch Waugh to return to Country and Arista Nashville; I jumped at the opportunity. I have been here ever since, going from regional to National to VP.
There has been a major shift in the industry from when I started promotion to now. iTunes was just getting started and was a small part of our business; Facebook, Twitter and Spotify didn't even exist. Radio focus at that time was not on building their websites or social networking properties, and there were no Personal People Meters ... so things have changed dramatically.
At Capitol, we worked seven formats -- 75+ stations in a region and 15 to 20 projects at a time; the goal was the highest chart position through adds and airplay. In Country, you have one format to focus on and 7-10 projects at a time. Airplay is key and it is our responsibility to help choose the right singles, and to expose these artists to as many consumers as possible through airplay. At the end of the day, though, we have to be able to sell product and to find new revenue streams for our music.
Promotion is not just about airplay and moving a record up the chart anymore; it is about exposing our music to the masses and driving sales/revenue. We have to continue to be incredibly creative to find new ways to work with our radio partners to accomplish those goals.
How can Country stations in different markets remain so unique when more and more of them are using syndicated or voicetracked personalities?
Obviously there are a lot fewer stations that can afford to be 24/7 live and local in 2011. I love driving through a market and hearing a fully staffed live local station, but you have to be more than just fully staffed ...
The talent has to be great to make it worth it. The average listener/consumer is impacted all day long by an influx of information and technology. People used to drive to work listening to their radios ONLY. Now they are bombarded with the phone, e-mail, text messages, kids in the back seat wanting to watch DVDs, the list goes on ...
To really captivate people, you have to have interesting content, great music and a connection. On-air talent has to be able to connect directly to the people listening and not sound like they are eight states away. It is absolutely necessary for syndicated and voicetracked talent to do their homework in each market. You must know what makes Atlanta different than Phoenix ... and Phoenix different that Grand Rapids -- if you are on-air in each of those cities. You also need to know what artists and what music works best at that station. It is as important for those shows and jocks to be on the road and making appearances in those markets as it is for artists to tour there. These guys need to build a fan base just like the artists do ... and they need to stay current, exciting and sound local-focused in their content.
There are still those great stations and jocks that are larger than life in their markets -- Mike Kennedy and TJ in Kansas City, Bob Robbins in Little Rock, Coyote Calhoun in Louisville, Lisa and Ray in Chicago, Dex in Chattanooga --- syndicated and voicetracked talent have to strive to be that type of talent in their markets...it takes a lot more work, but real success doesn't come easy.
How competitive is it for you to get your music on a typical station's playlist today? Is it harder than ever?
It is absolutely harder than ever. To start, the music is more competitive than ever. There is fantastic music coming not only from our stars, but also from the new acts. Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Ronnie Dunn, Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton -- all have some of the best music of their careers out right now. Then you look at what's happening with Jerrod Niemann and The Band Perry -- white-hot on their first albums -- and Chris Young, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan and Eric Church ... on fire on their third albums. REALLY amazing music. Just those artists alone take up a lot of slots on shrinking playlists. I am blown away when I go into Mediabase and listen to the new music; it is very exciting for the format, but it definitely makes it tougher to get new artists off the ground and become recognized.
The music being incredible is one challenge. The bigger challenge is the very limited time many programmers have to spend on music. Most PDs are spread very thin. They are programming and/or overseeing multiple stations and formats with smaller teams, and they have the expectation to over-perform in the PPM world that many are just beginning to learn about. Music is not their #1 priority, yet they have 40 to 50 record reps calling them every week to discuss music and begging for the one slot they may or may not have.
It's tough ... it's competitive, but it is still completely rewarding. Our partnerships and relationships are more important than ever, and quality of the music has to be top-notch. If you have those things in line, you can win. For both record and radio folks, there is nothing like being in a venue packed with 20,000 screaming fans singing all the words to a song that the two of you worked together on.
So what's the key for you to succeed when the competition is so intense?
The music. In the last year, Gary Overton has had more than one difficult discussion with artists about their album not being complete -- we were missing something ... we didn't have the first single yet. I can not imagine how hard those conversations must be, but in the end, they have been game-=changers.
Jake Owen's "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" was one of those songs that came later. "Bleed Red" and "Cost Of Livin'" for Ronnie as well.
Brad turned in the album This Is Country Music, then came back to Gary and asked for more time. He felt like he had one more song to write. Two weeks later, we all heard "Remind Me," the powerful duet with he and Carrie, and WOW ... we were blown away.
This is still art, and as much as we may want to force it into a schedule, sometimes you just have to be willing to be flexible enough to let the process happen. In the end, the right music is worth it!
Is the relationship with the programmer just as important as it was in years past?
Absolutely. More than ever. Not only our relationships with our programmers, but our artists' relationships with them as well. The relationship with the artist and the listener is equally as important.
How do you handle working your superstar in multi-Country station markets when it comes to concert presents and appearances?
The important thing is that the fan has an incredible experience at the show and that each station has a memorable interaction with our artists. Our goal is to expose Brad, Carrie, Ronnie -- all of our artists' music to as many people as possible and to give those uber-fans an experience they will always remember. We try hard to do that with all of our partners in each market in ways that are unique and are win/wins for everyone.
Are you ever concerned that Brad or any of your bigger artists could achieve crossover pop success that might compromise their Country core support?
I'm really not. Brad and Carrie ... both are Country artists. They have built incredible fan bases of people who love their music and love who they are as people. Exposing them to more people through their music when it works in another format does not change that in any way. These two also work very hard to consistently bring more fans to the Country format. They have an awesome reverence for the artists that paved the way in Country ... and you can see that in Carrie's incredible support of the Opry and in songs like "I Told You So," her beautiful remake of Randy Travis' hit; and, for Brad in his current album This Is Country Music, and in the little Country "gems" he has included on every album he has recorded.
Lady A and The Band Perry have both proven that great music is great music ... and just because a song works on Hot AC or Top 40 radio, this doesn't mean the artist doesn't still make great Country music. Certain songs can break all barriers and touch millions of people -- ask anyone who played "Need You Now." But a song crossing over is different than an artist crossing over. A song can be universal.
If an artist chooses to go a different route creatively making non-Country music, that is a different conversation. It would probably be difficult to come back to the Country core after that.
With artists like Brad and Carrie ... I do not see that happening. They are incredible Country artists. If they have a song that can go to another format, that doesn't have any bearing on whom they are as artists.
Of course, not everything that's release becomes a hit. When do you know that you have to give up on a song?
That's the hardest thing we have to do, because at the end of the day our job -- and the responsibility of this job -- is to get our artists' music exposed ... not just move it up the chart, but expose it to as many people as we can. Radio is still the #1 sales driver in the Country world, and that makes the decision to come off of a single very difficult. We wouldn't work so hard, travel all the time, spend weekends away from our families, spend sleepless nights agonizing over single choices ... if we didn't passionately believe in what we are doing and the artists and music we are working.
In this job, when a song starts to show signs of falling apart, we find ourselves looking for a little light at the end of the tunnel -- some research or sales somewhere, to keep you invested in the single. We have all seen songs that didn't initially work ... Chris Young's "Voices," Sugarland's "Baby Girl," Brooks and Dunn's "Believe" ... that eventually became HUGE successes. When you realize a song is not going to turn around, and you have to make that tough final decision, you also realize the number of people you are impacting -- and that is not easy.
Don't certain songs take longer to show the "signs of life" that could turn them into radio hits?
Absolutely. The gatekeepers have the toughest time with ballads in this format. You constantly hear them say, "We want tempo, tempo, tempo ...," but some of the biggest songs in format are really slow ballads. "Believe" was one of those songs; the pushback because of the tempo was horrible at first, but in the end it won "Song Of The Year" and led to a Platinum album for Ronnie and Kix. "Whiskey Lullaby" was the same for Brad Paisley; initially a lot of programmers did not want to play it, but it turned into a career-changing song for him and his first double-Platinum album certification.
It can be so frustrating, because even with the amazing track records of so many HUGE ballads in Country, ballads are still a struggle and you always hear excuses like "it brings the station to a halt" or "people don't want to hear sad songs." People want to connect with music. Just like people don't walk around in a daze of "happiness" 24/ 7, they don't want to only hear songs that are fast and happy ... if they did we would never know songs like "What Hurts The Most," "Just A Dream," Colder Weather," Who You'd Be Today," "When I Get Where I'm Going," "Where Were You," "Stay," "The Dance," "Don't Take The Girl," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "Go Rest High"... the list goes on. Can you imagine Country music without these amazing songs? I sure can't ... and as a listener, I don't ever want to.
Are you concerned that programmers may drop hits to soon because they're worried about burn?
In general, no. Some people ... yes. It is not something I worry about too much.
I definitely think there are some people who program that way, but in this format it's really nice to have so many individual programmers out there with completely different styles and philosophies. As whole, are PDs jumping off songs faster? No, but some people who use ONLY Internet research see records burning faster. I believe there is no one holy grail ... no one answer in making music decisions. There are tools ... research is one of those, sales info is a tool, Mscore can give you some information ... "gut" matters ... listener response is a factor. Smart programmers look at all the information from different sources to make decisions and they don't knee-jerk because of one little thing.
What current songs does Arista have that you feel will overcome such objections?
If you haven't heard of Brent Anderson or seen him perform yet ... you will. Last week we were in Chicago and he opened for Brad Paisley, a big move for a 23-year-old kid from Pascagoula, MS. You just never know when a new artist is opening for a superstar how the crowd will respond and if they will embrace him even slightly. Well, we were all mesmerized when Brent took the stage. He has a charisma that people spend years trying to master. He is completely in his element as a performer ... an insanely talented musician, and a wonderfully clever songwriter with one of the most unique, fresh sounds I have heard in this format. Brad has become such a fan, he called Brent back on stage during his set and they killed "Sweet Home Chicago" together. His first single - "Amy's Song" - was co written with Chris Dubois (I can't even count all the #1s Chris has penned) and Craig Fuller, and is instantly familiar with a taste of Pure Prairie League's "Amie" in the midst of an infectious song.
To me one of the most powerful songs on radio is Ronnie Dunn's "Cost Of Livin'." You turn on the news or read the paper today, and, you can't miss how Americans are impacted by the economy. This song is such a beautiful acknowledgement of what so many people are going through. From the reaction we have seen from programmers, from listeners, on Facebook, YouTube, etc. in response to Ronnie's performances of this song ... people are really connecting to this. So many listeners thank him for "understanding what they are going through" and for helping them "not feel so alone." When he performed it at the Marconi Awards in Chicago, the room gave him the most amazing standing ovation. Skip and I received multiple e-mails and phone calls from radio executives (many not in the Country format) about his performance and specifically "Cost Of Livin'." It was so humbling and such a wonderful reminder of how a powerful song really moves people -- and guess what ... it's a ballad!
I also couldn't be more excited about Jerrod Neiman. To have a new artist's first album debut at #1 is awesome ... add to that his debut single going all the way to #1, the follow-up hitting Top 5 and his third single already at Top 15 ... we are ecstatic. It is very hard to break a new artist on their first album, but that is exactly what's happening with Jerrod. "One More Drinking Song" shows just how much fun he is having along the way!
I assume you have a good portion of your 2012 release schedule already set up by now. How much time are you spending on deciding what records are released when?
We actually get together weekly to look at our Arista Nashville and other label schedules and go over the moving parts. We talk about how music is coming along in the recording process and how things are moving on the charts. We are flexible where we need to be, and hold firm to the dates we can. Because it is part of our regular conversations, we aren't scrambling to make changes if something has to move. It is all about planning and preparation when you have multiple artists on four label imprints ... and it is something we are very good at managing. The music we are putting out has to be right and at the right time. We work hard to make sure that is always happening.
Considering how hectic your job is, do you have time to look at your future in the long term, or are you constantly focusing on the here and now?
No matter what role you're in, you have to have personal long-term goals and plans. I have been very blessed to be at Arista for seven years, and my goals have evolved and grown over the years. I love the artists and the people I work with. We have an absolutely incredible team -- not only our promotion team, but Gary, Skip, Paul and the whole crew.
I work towards my personal future goals everyday. For each artist there is an immediate focus that is all part of a bigger plan for their careers and their music. The same is true for our team and for me personally. The most important thing is doing it all with integrity and the utmost respect for others.