Johnny Ioannou – The Music Start Up
Sam: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Johnny: I'm the President of Liberty Stone Records, co-owner of Ticketscene.ca, and I have over 15 years of professional sales and marketing experience. I like to think I possess a strong knowledge of digital media that dates back to the early dot-com days. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and an innate desire to create and build things, combined with a passion for music and marketing. Back when I finished my Master’s degree in urban planning, I never would have imagined that I’d be involved in the music industry, let alone running a record label and online event-ticketing company.
Life has a funny way of connecting the dots. It seems it’s those decisions or projects that kept you up at night are the ones that make the biggest impact on the direction you take. I went from grad school, to selling giftware door-to-door, to running a music company. I’m excited to be doing something I'm so passionate about.
Back in 2006, during the onset of the MySpace days – a period in time that opened up the floodgates for independent musicians around the world and changed the way music was marketed – I saw a need to become a filter for the independent music industry, so I started indieSolo.com “One Band a Day”. We were an innovative music marketing platform that promoted one band a day. Our team would scour the internet and encourage bands to sign up to get featured. Once featured, their fans and our audience would rate the band’s music, vibe, and brand. It forced bands to not only think about their music, but what their band photos, logos, merch and creativity looked like. We featured bands like Protest the Hero and My Darkest Days before they got signed. We expanded our digital platform to put on live events with the bands we featured. Before indieSolo, I had promoted nightclubs, so putting on live shows at the Hard Rock Cafe, boat cruises, and Halloween concerts in barns seemed like a natural progression and a cool idea at the time. Putting on live events eventually led to an opportunity to purchase ticketscene.ca, which was a start-up at the time. Also around that time, mixed martial arts events emerged on the scene, and we became the go-to for MMA music. We provided music for MMA organizations, fighter’s entrance songs, and DVDs. We threw concerts with the band behind the opening song credits for UFC Pay Per Views, and eventually started working and managing the only country band on indieSolo. I helped them land the entrance song for UFC heavyweight “Texas Crazy Horse Heath Herring vs Brock Lesnar” fight. It was pretty cool to be sitting at home and hearing their music broadcast globally, then see them hit top 200 on U.S. iTunes.
How I met Scotty
In August of 2010, Scotty James literally came knocking on my door. He was performing door-to-door serenades to support the start of his music career. He came and pitched me that his music was going to be on the radio one day, and asked for ten bucks to raise money so he could hit the studio.
As a music manager who’s worked with many indie bands, I admired his determination and tenacity. He was actually doing something pretty brave to take control of his music career, rather than waiting on someone to discover him and give him a record deal.
I gave him ten or 15 dollars for the serenade. He sang me “Wanna Be Loved” at the front door. Then he played me a few more songs he wrote. The longer I listened to him perform, I recall saying to myself, “This kid has something special.” I was hooked. I felt he had the “It Factor”. A few months later began to manage him. I created a business plan that would fast-track his career and hopefully attract investors. It was tough. Nobody knew who he was, not to mention he only had 39 Facebook friends. So I took out a small loan and invested in Scotty’s music career. I bought him a guitar, funded his first album, and collaboratively worked with him using unconventional marketing stunts and tactics to gain traction on social media. We chose not to go the traditional route of artist development.
The song he sang to me at my front door ended up hitting #20 on the AC Mediabase Chart, hit #24 on Billboard’s Emerging Chart and earned him a Canadian Radio Music Award 2013 (CRMA) for Best Mainstream AC song – a pretty remarkable feat for an unsigned artist.
In 2012, while Scotty’s song was charting in Canada, we decided to take a trip to Nashville to explore opportunities. We asked a friend to set up meetings with publishers and labels, one of which was Big Machine. Taylor Swift was just crossing over to pop, so we thought Big Machine would be a good fit. We arrived, and the A&R rep had no clue who we were. We met with her on Thursday, and by Friday we were discussing a potential international record deal with their entire team, including label head Scott Borchetta. The outcome pended on our meeting with Universal Republic, who were going to partner on the deal, so they flew us to New York the following Tuesday to meet Monte Lipman. Unfortunately, the deal didn’t take place, but it validated the idea that Scotty James obviously had something special. He’d attracted the attention of two of music’s top record executives.
It was our meeting with Randy Lennox, the former President of Universal Canada, that really resonated with us and changed our direction. I recall him saying, “Scotty is better than the music he writes, and he should be co-writing.” That’s when we discovered the power of co-writing. I began setting up writing sessions for him, and even flew up a writer from Nashville to spend a week with Scotty.
In 2014, we created couple of demos and took a trip to Nashville to shop them around. We got very good feedback, including from a prominent publisher who, after hearing our story and listening to our songs, urged us to put together a business plan, find investors, and open up our own music label.
That's exactly what I did. I put together a solid business plan, sought out and secured investors, and attracted award-winning producer Jason Barry to join Liberty Stone Records as Creative Director. Once we solidified our investment group and label team, Ole decided to get involved and offered us a fully franchised deal which included distribution, worldwide admin publishing, and digital royalty collection. This was a huge win for us. It gave us immediate access to one of the world’s top music publishers, all their resources, a presence in the U.S., and their creative song-pitching team in Nashville.
Sam: That’s a major accomplishment and something you should be proud of. Are you still looking for artists?
Johnny: We've been doing this for about a year now, so our primary goal at the moment is to break out Scotty James and work towards making him one of country’s top new emerging artists. I'm a firm believer that, as a new label, we need to prove ourselves first before we have the capacity to attract other artists. We definitely want to expand our artist roster, but first we need to demonstrate success, make some money, and create a proven blueprint for success that other artists could benefit from.
We’re now three singles in and have already achieved some important milestones – in just 12 months. Our current single, “Still”, attracted a lot of international press from the U.S. and the U.K., and Scotty’s fan base exploded on social media. He’s ranked in the Top 10 biggest fanbases on Facebook against all major Canadian country artists. He also ranks second in terms of rate of new fan acquisition, next to the talented Lindsay Ell. We expect an even more positive fan response when we release our fourth single, “My Car”, this summer.
It’s been our mandate at Liberty Stone Records to think outside the box and expand our reach beyond Canada. There are no boundaries to music. We want to pave the road for future artists and give them a place they can call home.
Sam: Are you going to become a strictly Country label, or are you planning to expand outside that realm?
Johnny: For now, we’ll be focusing on Country. That's where all our assets, resources, and strengths lay, including all our industry relationships. We really want to build our publishing arm and connect some of the best young writers in Canada to Nashville. How amazing is it to think we can take a well-written song and get it into the hands of a major U.S. country artist. That’s what our relationship with ole allows us to do, and it’s something we really want to build on.
Sam: What are the keys to success?
Johnny: Right now our goal is to create an army of fans and to focus on social media. With each release, we want to continue our strategy to grow our fanbase and attract more acceptance from industry. On what other platform can you invest $50 and get $5,000 worth of promotion in return? Our last video on Facebook generated over 260,000 views and almost 3,000 shares in just two months, all with an investment less than $700. It demonstrates the sharing power of a great song and its ability to make new fans and find people’s playlists.
Getting a major cut will really help propel things at the label and increase Scotty’s equity as a songwriter. Scotty has spent quite a bit of time in Nashville writing with some great songwriters. We’ve already got some great songs in our publishing catalogue that we feel really good about. We might be releasing some great news very soon.
Lastly, we also want to continue building on radio. I believe radio is still important for Country, more so than for any other genre. Getting continued play on country radio means validation and acceptance in what is a small industry. For a new artist, radio play can help secure a booking agent, which is often the difference between playing in coffee shops and jumping on the summer festival circuit.
Sam: Do you have a radio tracker in-house?
Johnny: Yes, we used a couple of radio trackers for our first two singles. I decided to track our current single for a number of reasons. I wanted to personally reach out to radio and begin developing a relationship. I also wanted to use this experience to get a pulse and first-hand insight into the challenges facing new artists, and identify opportunities so we can make better decisions with each release. I learned it’s all about relationship-building and, of course, having a great song. Building those relationships take time, something the major and well-established independent labels have done well, which makes it a bit more challenging for us.
It’s difficult when you don’t have the solid relationships in place with radio. I also spend a large part of my day managing Ticketscene, so my bandwidth is limited. We decided to outsource our upcoming summer single with a tracker who has a proven track record of breaking new artists. It takes times to develop those kind of relationships, and I believe if you have a great song and budget, it’s better to pay someone who already has those relationships in place rather than spin your wheels and let a great song go unnoticed.
Sam: As a new label, what are some of the challenges you're facing right now?
Johnny: One of our biggest challenge at the moment is noise. Everybody is celebrating and broadcasting the small wins, and rightfully so. We’re living in a time where people's attention is very short and fans become immune or quickly forget about you. When you're in the business of music marketing and artist development, it’s a challenge when you don't have a large volume of fans. You need to amass a sizeable following to be able to communicate with them effectively and generate the necessary returns on investment with every release.
Also, just the sheer number of great Canadian artists, both established and new, makes it difficult to get time, airplay, and attention. On top of that, the quality of songwriting and song production has never been better, making it tougher to get a cut and radio play.
I believe that the longevity of any artist’s career in rooted in them being themselves, taking a few risks, and being true to their music. You don’t want to sound like everything on the radio today. The song of course still needs to be great and have commercial viability to appeal to the masses, which is important if you’re in the music business. We have investors, and investors want to see results and payback, so balancing patience and expectations is a challenge.
I've learned over my years of being in sales and marketing that everybody has that little voice that reminds you how tough things are and how much easier it would be to quit. I’ve learnt to quickly quiet it up by reminding myself of past successes or those little wins. When you push the envelope to do things that are different or make you feel uncomfortable, it’s easy to get nervous and question whether it will be a success. However, those are the times when you get the best results.
I believe in the direction that we’re headed. I would be nervous if we only had one great song and a sound that fits today’s status quo, but we don’t. Scotty James has a catalogue filled with great songs, is a talented songwriter, and has a fast-growing fanbase that cares. We also have a great team, an award-winning producer, and industry’s largest music companies to support our initiatives. I’m feeling rather optimistic lately. Good things coming!