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Sony RED: The Color Of Success

Sony/BMG RED is in the midst of a very successful year. One that could, in any other year, go unnoticed simply because of the work it does as a distribution company whose promotion arm usually develops projects before they get siphoned through the major label system. But this year the color of RED success can be defined by one artist who was never absorbed by the majors, Elliott Yamin. It’s not often that a distribution company delivers a Top 5 single but SVP Artist Development & Promotion Danny Buch and VP Artist Development & Promotion Mark Gorlick have done just that...19 weeks later! We recently checked in with Gorlick to get some insight on the new promotion model that has delivered some pretty successful results.

What are the primary functions of Sony RED and how it is integrated into the (parent) Sony system?
Sony RED is a distribution company that’s owned by Sony BMG. All the major labels have an independent label group inside their systems. Some artists feel, in an independent world, they can get better attention by having independent label distribution, so they choose to go (what I call) downtown, as opposed to uptown. They feel that independent label distribution is going to give them a better focus. Like the major label groups, we have relationships with Best Buy, Circuit City, iTunes and the big box retailers that everybody needs to get their records positioned in, but we also focus and super-serve lifestyle accounts like Hot Topic and Nordstrom. But the difference between major label distribution and independent label distribution is the focus we’re able to give bands during the incubation period. We’re just a little more efficient because we’re dealing with the mom and pop retailers and concentrating on creating awareness. Our core function is a little bit different than a major label. But the big difference is our ability to get records started in places where bands need to start.

What is the composition of the RED promotion staff?
There are seven of us. We don’t have a field staff. We all sort of oversee a format from Pop and Hot AC, to Triple A, Rock, and Alternative. We also cover specialty shows and Danny Buch oversees it all.

What are the main repertoire sources for the company and is there an internal A&R department?
No, in the sense that a major label gets its A&R from the A&R department. Alan Becker (SVP Product Development) is like our A&R department. He doesn’t sign bands. He goes out and finds labels, and we get our A&R from the labels. It’s not like Epic, Columbia or RCA who have their own A&R departments and they go out and look at bands in clubs. Alan goes and finds labels that have their own A&R and artist rosters. He assesses the labels and how many records are in their catalogue and their ability to sell records. He also makes deals for labels, and ultimately it’s all the labels that supply us with our A&R.
     Because we have far more records than any of the major labels, we have to manage our product flow accordingly and try to take the records that are going to have the best chance of success at radio. We’re sensible about it, and those are the ones we work because it’s not possible to work every record. In that regard, we’re probably no different than a major label except that at a major label, when a main A&R guy signs a band you might have to work it anyway, regardless if you can get radio or not. At RED, if we can’t get it on the radio, there may be a marketing or lifestyle play that creates a floor that in time could give us a different perception, a different spin, a different look that radio might respond to. 

How did the company end up working with American Idol finalist Elliott Yamin?
American Idol
itself has options on the top finalists. There are certain rights you give up to participate in the competition. One of those rights is the ability to have your own management up to a certain point. The top two are automatically RCA label group artists, and the remaining three and any other artists at their discretion. If they chose not to sign you then you can go on your own.
     With Elliott finishing in the top five he was told they were not going to sign him. At that point Jeff Rabhan, who had a relationship with Elliott, stepped in and became Elliott’s manager. They were working on an album and the songs were for Sony Publishing. They shopped a deal even though it wasn’t coming through RCA and every other label inside of Sony BMG had the opportunity to release the record and chose not to.  But Sony had the publishing and the desire was to keep the artist on an in-house label. The only way to keep it in-house was to put it on through RED distribution. Hickory was a label that publishing had back in the early ’60s. It had been dark, so they decided to reactivate it and put Elliott’s album out on Hickory Records, which is Sony ATV’s publishing’s record label, keeping the project inside the Sony system.        

What are the biggest challenges you face being solely an independent distribution company?
Typically distribution doesn’t have promotion although that’s changing, but by far and away of the four major label groups’ independent distribution arms, we have the largest and arguably the best connected promotion department to radio. The biggest challenge is distribution typically doesn’t have promotion. Once you jump that hurdle, the next biggest challenge is competing against the large promo staffs of major labels. Most promotion departments at record companies have seven to ten field people in regions. They call radio and deal with tours and do a lot of the local lifting essential to getting your music heard.
     The challenges at a small label are the same challenges they’ve always had: How do you separate yourself from the competition? How can you get an equitable voice with radio on par or above the major labels? How can you get programmers’ attention when they’re spending less time than ever dealing with promotion because they’re wearing ten hats and managing multiple station clusters?

Elliott isn’t a Pop artist per se, although his exposure on American Idol has helped him cultivate a fan base. When did you know you potentially had a single that Top 40 radio could embrace?
We initially had a single “Movin On” which was a record that was committed to AOL First Listen, because at the time it was the only single that was finished. We also shipped it to radio. It had some airplay but when I went to visit KIIS-FM I had just received another single, “Wait For You,” and I played it for MD Julie Pilat and she thought she could hear KIIS playing it at some point. Both Julie and [PD] John Ivey were very passionate about wanting to play the record even though there was some superstar traffic with Justin Timberlake and Fergie. Then Ryan Seacrest world premiered it and the ball started rolling. Then it started spinning on WRVQ/Richmond and KHTS/San Diego. Going into our impact date with KIIS, WRVQ and KHTS already playing the record certainly gave us a significant place to begin and got people’s attention.

Being a winner or finalist on American Idol doesn’t always ensure success. Strategically speaking, were you concerned at all of any stigma that may have hampered the early acceptance of the artist at radio?
Absolutely! It completely cuts both ways. It’s great to have the American Idol winner. It’s like anything else, it’s great to be the first in the building or the first out of the building, but it’s not necessarily an advantage to be the fifth or sixth and there is a stigma attached to the artist. We were concerned, but again when you’re coming out of the gate with the kind of acceptance that we had, a lot of that perception gets cast in your favor. It’s only negative when you don’t have what Elliott was fortunate enough to get in terms of real airplay on key stations.  

How much of an advantage was the Pop culture leverage attached to Idol in establishing Elliot?
We as an industry like to think of our artists as brands. If an artist is a brand, how does it ever hurt you to have your brand in front of thirty-million people a week for five months? It’s a tremendous advantage, because it requires less explanation to the first tier of people that you need to have an explanation for and that’s the program directors.

How tough was it to maneuver through a slate of superstar releases (and how did you position the artist to radio among the competition)?
Initially, we felt it was important to cut through by putting a face to Elliott. We put together a five-week promo tour across the country, and just worked it. We were up early on morning shows and out late at station events. Elliott and I spent a night at the Waffle House in Phoenix at 4 a.m. We never checked into a hotel because we left the KRQQ/Tucson event that night at one in the morning and we drove to Phoenix. There was no point in checking into a hotel for an hour because we had to be on the air with John Jay and Rich at KZZP. That’s how hard that guy was working.
     When programmers saw that the Elliott in person was consistent with the Elliott they saw on television that was huge. He’s an incredibly nice guy. He came off like the underdog on the television show, and he came off as that guy you wanted to help out. These guys help you because they want to help you, granted your record needs to perform. As the promo tour came down on top of the release of the single, the record was Top 5 phones at KIIS and KHTS and building momentum. It was just the perfect storm. But performance is still the key and if a record’s not performing, it’s done. It’s that simple. But if it is performing, then it’s about connecting the dots which is what Danny Buch and I did and it didn’t hurt to have a single that we thought had major hit potential.

What were the early indicators that signaled to you that this record could become the big hit that it is today?
The early phones with key guys were pretty significant. That’s not manufactured. You might get a little bit of luck to get in the nightly countdown features here or there. Programmers might just schedule a record in the countdown just to give it that showcase highlight. But if the record really doesn’t perform, it’s certainly not going to go back in there. For the first five weeks of the life of the single we were getting phones. Every promotion person’s potential nightmare is research. KIIS had been playing the record, they popped it like 20-30 times the first week, and then the next and it stayed. I went in there early April, after a month of airplay, and said to Julie: “I’m scared to ask this question, but…how’s the research?" She looked at me and smiled: “It's really good!” KIIS-FM was the first station to really play it and got good callout. Then everybody just started to say: “Hey, this record could be a secret weapon.” In week one, we had eight adds. In week two, six adds. In week three, nine. In week ten we had 25 adds, which was bigger than weeks one through nine. That really signified the record was for real.

Elliott was a constructive part of the promotion process. How important is it to have an artist that involved with the daily promo process?
It’s a complete plus. It doesn’t have to be Elliott, it can be any artist. The closer you can work the artist as a label, the better off you are. Even if you’re not having the kind of success we were fortunate enough to have, simply because the artist gets a chance to see it unfold first hand. They may be mortified by it, but they get a chance to witness the process. It’s one thing to describe it to them and tell them about it, but it’s another thing to actually live it and sit down with the PD or MD and see callout research and ask questions. But for Elliott it just brought him closer to the people who got a chance to see what he was about.
     It’s also good because of events like Christmas shows that we’re now talking about doing. When you sit down with Elliott and his management team, you say: “Hey, it’s this station. Do you remember that guy?” A light bulb flicks on: “Oh yeah, I remember that guy.” He knows Rich Davis, and Chris P. in Tucson, and Boomer. He’s been out to dinner and sat in front of Jeff Kapugi and Toby Knapp. He’s met Tom Poleman and Sharon Dastur. He knows Julie and John at KIIS. It’s invaluable. It’s not his job to understand radio. That’s our job. But it doesn’t hurt for him to experience the process. 

Elliott Yamin

What's next for Elliott?
This guy’s calendar is so busy he barely has a moment to breathe. He spent the month finishing up a Christmas album that will be at Target in November. One of the things that is great about Elliott is he’s very philanthropic. Elliott is diabetic and he does a lot of work for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
     He’s going to most of the Top 10 markets appearing on local morning TV shows and doing whatever we can to help further connect the dots. For as big as Elliott was on Idol, when you step out of that show and you don’t have the power of the show behind you, and then there’s another season, people move on with their lives. We’ve seen that people love the song. Research bears that out, and people like Elliott, but people still don’t quite make that connection. So we’re going into all these markets and doing TV because that’s the best, most efficient way to make that connection. He then gets ready to go to Europe then the Philippines. Then he’ll come back and rehearse and he goes on tour starting in October through the end of November. Then in December we’ve got Christmas shows. 

What other projects are we to expect from RED?
RED represents the best of the major labels as well as the best of Independent label artists. On the Hot AC side we have another single coming from Hello Goodbye (Sanctuary/DriveThru/RED). We took last single Top 15 at Pop. There's a great CD coming from DriveThru's New Found Glory featuring a cover of Sixpence None The Richer's "Kiss Me." We have a brand-new single and album from Constantine Maroulis who also was on American Idol. Let’s not forget that though they are now past us, Brandi Carlile, Matisyahu, Boys Like Girls, Quiet Drive and more started at Red. If Columbia, Epic, RCA, J, etc, are spokes in the wheel, we sit in the center. They will send us projects down to start, and then we’ll send it back up or they’ll come back and take it based on their product flow or what’s going on in the market, and we’ll either work it collectively which happens in most cases, or they’ll just take it over completely like in the case of Boys Like Girls with Columbia and Quiet Drive with Epic.
MTV just nominated Almost Gold's/RED/Columbia's Peter Bjorn & John as VMA Best New Artist in the upcomming VMA's. ATO/RED have taken Gomez to #1 at AAA and are breaking Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Crowded House, Patty Griffin in tandem. The Columbia/RED soundtrack to Once has sold over 100,000 units and selling 12,000 a week! The   Provident label rock band "Red" is coming off a Top 10 track at Active Rock. We have consistently had five of Top 10 albums on the Heatseekers charts with artists like Jive/RED Bullet For My Valentine to Epic/RED The Editors. RED also just did a deal with the newly re-launched CBS Records label (part of the televison network) and are releasing a great new artist named Will Daley. More quality new and breaking artists is our model.

How does the RED business model stack up as a viable model for the music industry going forward?
(RED Distribution President) Bob Morelli runs RED and is very quick to adapt to the changing marketplace. Bob has seen the advantage to having a promotion department that can help drive certain projects farther. You don’t leave it to chance, you can actually get these records played and maximize them and help sell records. The model as it exists today is changing, and this company seems to have a very keen ability to adapt to changing conditions rapidly. We weren’t in the merchandising business last month at this time, but we are now. 
     Conceptually speaking, you could have a record company, an artist management company and merchandizing company. We’ve talked about web hosting and design. We’ve talked about virtually everything you could conceptualize in the music space and doing it. It all has a priority and takes resources. But you can’t lose sight of your core business, which is to ship physical records and take care of the digital business that’s growing. That’s the primary responsibility and hopes for the company. But the fact that we’re now getting into other areas, speaks for the viability of this model, and the people who run it see that the business is changing and they’re adapting to it much quicker than some of our competitors.

** QB Content by Bob Burke & Fred Deane **


Nicki Farag,
SVP of Promotion,
Def Jam Recordings

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