Radio is fundamental in helping artists to break out and providing them with an opportunity to make a living at their music career. But many artists are considering radio without truly understanding what it takes to make it in the field. Luckily, I got a chance to discuss radio tracking with one of Canada’s most successful country music radio trackers. I was fortunate to be able to work with Randy on the CMAO board. He was key to building that organization, and I picked up a lot of fundamental knowledge from him during that time. I believe this article will shed some light on how to “make it” in radio.
Sam Arraj: Why don't you tell me a bit about yourself and your history in the music business?
Randy Stark: My history in the music business started in Calgary, Alberta, at the lowest level, picking orders in a record warehouse. I was able to move up with some great companies, such as A&M Records, GRT and then Warner Music Canada. Each level was just going up a step -- from warehouse order picker, to warehouse manager, to sales rep, to promotion rep, to branch manager and then finally, with Warner, as Vice President of Marketing and Promotion. That was a great opportunity. I’ve been lucky because I've had great mentors over the years, people like Joe Summers at A&M Records, Stan Kulin at Warner, Alex Petchkin at GRT, Tom Tompkins and Sheila Hamilton at the CCMA.
Sam: Your last stint was with Warner Music before you moved out on your own. Why did you decide to go out on your own?
Randy: I was with Warner for 20 years, and it wasn't necessarily that I was ready to make a move. They [Warner] made the move for me. At the time, they were downsizing the whole company, and the entire senior management team was restructured within 18 months. The company moved from about 140 people down to 70 people.
Sam: When was this happening?
Randy: That was between 2000 and 2003.
Sam: That’s when we started to see the digital revolution, when Napster was making a significant impact on the industry.
Randy: Exactly. In all fairness to the business model, it was changing dramatically, and we [Warner] had just built a brand new warehouse. That building was sold, and the team moved into a smaller complex that was essentially sales and marketing. It was a dramatic change.
Sam: You’ve seen the whole business change?
Randy: Oh my God. I have seen it go from 45's and vinyl to 8 tracks, CDs, MP3, to streaming … and now, back to vinyl!
Sam: After you left Warner, why did you decide to stick with the music business?
Randy: I was just trying to find my way. I was president of the CCMA at the time, and that afforded great opportunity that morphed into being involved in the country business. I was doing radio tracking for a small list of clients, and I started working on some consulting projects as well. I did some work for CMT and other clients, and that led to a management company. It was all a nice fit.
Sam: You're still doing radio tracking, so you sort of moved from radio tracking into management, right? Was it intentional?
Randy: No, it wasn't really intentional. Artists who needed help came to me. Given my label background, I felt I had something to offer. I’ve always tried to keep my client list very lean in order to devote proper time to each artist. I can’t accept most prospects, because there's just not enough time in the day. Same goes for my tracking client list; less is more, quality over quantity. I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day and not take people's money for the sake of taking money.
Sam: One of my biggest pet peeves is that some radio trackers will take on an artist for the sole purpose of making money. Rather than being honest with the artist, they sell them on radio tracking when there is no realistic hope of them making it on radio.
Randy: It would appear that way. It would seem that there are those who will just take things on for the sake of taking it on. But you know, in all truthfulness, radio doesn't want to talk to you if you have a list of 12 records. You have to be focused. By keeping a small list of clients and rotating the release dates so they don't conflict with each other, you can actually go out to radio and not waste their time, make your point and focus quickly.
Sam: You've been very successful with radio tracking because your client list seems to get continuous radio play.
Randy: Part of my background at the labels was picking singles. We would sit down with the artist and go through the record and choose four or five singles to roll out to radio. I’ve been lucky, because I've had great clients with great songs; Jason Blaine, Deric Ruttan, Aaron Lines, Aaron Pritchett, among others. It really helps when you have a good solid client list. Let’s be truthful: if you have an A list, then radio wants to talk to you. It's all about credibility.
Sam: Having worked with you on the CMAO board, you’re very picky about who you take on. Is it because you don't want to take people's money? Or are you trying to be sure your reputation doesn't get tainted?
Randy: It's not a matter of tainting a reputation. Radio success from a tracking standpoint is based on credibility, the credibility of the tracker to deliver great songs. It’s based on the credibility of the roster, the artists he represents, and it's based on integrity. If you can deliver those things, then you are going to have success. Let’s not kid ourselves, Sam, it's not about me. It’s all about the song. It has to be a great song first.
Sam: I always ask artists what their biggest challenge is, and many say radio. If they could get on the radio, life would be easier for them. What are your thoughts on this?
Randy: Yeah, but there's no room! In Canada, radio has an A-List of approximately fifteen artists that they rotate on a continual basis (Dallas Smith, Dean Brody, Gord Bamford, High Valley, Tim Hicks, Jess Moskaluke, Jason Blaine, Chad Brownlee, etc.), dependent upon release timing. But radio only has room for seven to eleven records, on average, at a time. So you have that A list of fifteen, then you have a B list of 30, and a C list of 45. It’s a VERY crowded space, and the truth is that many very good songs just won’t get on the radio. One programmer put it quite succinctly: “Good just isn’t good enough. Radio is looking for great!” It truly is a pyramid structure, and radio starts at the top.
Sam: If radio doesn’t pick from the A List, they’re putting themselves at risk, right?
Randy: Absolutely. Radio wants familiarity. They don't want anything to scare their listeners off, so if you add a complete unknown, it's a bit of a risk. That's not to say that it can't happen or doesn't happen, because it does. If we look at this past year, we've seen Jojo Mason make it through the scrum, so there is room. But not a lot of new acts break. It's really a challenge. Keep in mind that when radio looks to add new artists, there's a couple things they need to feel comfortable with. First of all, are they still going to be playing that artist in five years? If they're looking at devoting some precious inventory to that artist, they have to feel comfortable that the artist has a plan. In order to gain that comfort level, they look at the team around them -- the agency, the management company, the label, the publicist, the producer, the tracker. They look at that team structure. So if it's just a random artist releasing a random single, it gets to be a very tough and expensive game for that artist.
Sam: I see a lot of fairly new acts who are just producing their first album, maybe a EP. They get approached by a radio tracker, and all of a sudden they’re spending tons of money to chase radio. What are your thoughts?
Randy: Well first of all, if I was an artist and I was approached by a radio tracker, that would be my first warning flag. I’ve never called an artist to say, “Can I work your record at radio?” You have to be cautious, and a new artist looking at radio tracking has to ask a series of questions to prospective trackers. Such as:
Who else are you representing?
How many records are you currently working at radio?
What is your release schedule for the next 8 weeks?
What were your past five releases?
What were their chart numbers?
If they've released five records and haven't charted a single one, then you should look for a different radio tracker.
Secondly, as an artist, you have to make sure that you're radio-ready. A lot of new artists feel that they are, but they're really not. When you’re ready, that’s when you go through the vetting process of radio trackers. I still have faith that there is that integrity out there where somebody's going to say “It's just not ready.” Listen to what’s on the radio and to what other artists are doing. If your song is not as good as what you’re hearing, you're not ready. Be realistic.
Sam: You’re still in a unique situation, where your artists are making a good go of it. Is radio still key to someone breaking through and making a good living?
Randy: Radio is still, in my estimation, the key driver. It really is. Other media (socials) certainly come into play and are “must haves”, but radio still has the biggest impact in terms of building a reputation. If you have a hit at radio, a top-twenty single, which is not easy to do these days, it causes a lot of things to happen. It gets the industry to notice, gets an agent to notice and so on down the line. If you're struggling below fifty on the charts, few agents, or the agent you want, isn't is not going to react to that. Hits provide opportunities with agents, managers and publicists, so it allows you to start assembling that team. It does take a team to make things happen.
Sam: With regard to management, you’re managing Jason Blaine and Western Swing Authority. What are the challenges you're facing right now? Is streaming starting to erode music sales?
Randy: Well, streaming certainly is eroding sales. For the past several years, downloads have been a decent source of artist income, but that is being dramatically challenged now. There’s the odd exception: you will have a Dean Brody that comes along with Turn Down The House and sell a hundred thousand downloads, but those are few and far between. Then you look at the other A-listers: High Valley, Gord Bamford, Dallas Smith and Jess Moskaluke, etc. On average they are selling between eight to twenty thousand downloads, when it used to be higher.
Sam: How are your artists making money?
Randy: A number of revenue streams come into play. Live revenue, sale of downloads (tracks and full albums), merchandise sales through the live shows, publishing, neighboring rights income, sponsorship income, endorsements, etc.
Sam: When does an artist need a manager?
Randy: When there is something to manage! There has to be something to manage! I could take on several new artists, but that’s hundreds of hours of work just to get it to the point where there's something to manage. In the beginning, you are your own agent, manager, publicist, social media expert and publisher. If you can get somebody to help you, someone that truly believes in you, who you trust and doesn't harm you, then that’s a great help. But first and foremost, they [the artist] need to always work on the songs. You have to have the best songs possible to have a chance at any level. Managers come when you have something to manage.
Sam: And how does somebody go about working on the songs?
Randy: Well, you do continuously have to work at it. I mean, there's a lot of publishers in Canada and in the US where you can go to and acquire songs from them to record and release. You can develop your craft as a songwriter by getting out to all the songwriter association events and develop your network of writers. Also, co-write and develop your industry networks, so there’s a chance you can get a decent song, whether it's self-written or whether it's obtained. A lot of artists make the mistake thinking their own songs are great songs, when in fact they’re not. They need to be critical.
Sam: Do you have any advice to any artists who are coming up?
Randy: Network. Become involved in your local and national associations, and just work on your craft. If you are a songwriter, then continually write songs. To me, it's really important that you co-write, because you get different perspectives that can only make you better as a writer. Treat it like it is a job, and treat it like the craft it is. It has to be studied, practiced and honed. If you’re a singer, spend hours singing to make sure your voice is the best it can be. If you’re a guitar player, play whenever and wherever you can.