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Interview with JIM HESTER, director at at independent Nashville label VFR Records, home of Mark McGuinn (US Top 10) - August 22, 2002

"Major labels have a hard time coming up with something different, and tend to deal only with what sells lots of records and has mass appeal."

picture Jim Hester is the Director for New Business Development at independent Nashville label VFR Records. Artists signed to the label include Mark McGuinn (US Top 10), Trent Summar and The New Row Mob, Hometown News, and Corbi.

How did you get started in the music business?

I started as a publicist at a company called Network Ink., where I worked with Sammy Kershaw, Dolly Parton, Gary Allan and Hal Ketchum. I knew the guys who started VFR, Harold Shedd and Paul Lucks, and they asked me to come on board and help put the company together.

What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a label executive?

Learning about sales and distribution. Often people in the music business think only about making the records, but there is a whole other element which involves getting the records in stores and making them available for people to buy. I’ve learned a lot about this part of the business. But in the end it does always come down to the music. It doesn’t matter how well you distribute it, people have to want to buy it.

What is the story behind VFR?

Harold Shedd and Paul Lucks ran Mercury Records Nashville for a number of years where they signed Shania Twain, Kentucky Headhunters, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Sammy Kershaw. They left Mercury, and started VFR Records two years ago with secure financing from a wealthy guy named Ed Arnold, a micro-electronic engineer who participated in developing some of the algorithms that make computers work.

With all the label mergers and consolidations that were going on, Universal, Sony, and BMG buying just about everybody, etc., it was a good time to start an independent label that could come up with music that sounds different. There’s a lot of unhappiness here in Nashville with the way music sounds at the moment - there’s a definite feeling that we need something new.

How are your records distributed?

Our records are distributed by RED, which is now a division of Sony, who bought it from Edel six months ago. We are very happy with this situation, because our product goes to Sony warehouses, it’s Sony who does the invoicing, it has the Sony power, but it’s the RED independent sales staff of music lovers who work for us, and since it’s a small company they’re not working on a thousand records at a time.

How do you explain the current rise of new independent record labels in Nashville?

The need for new music that breaks barriers. Major labels have a hard time coming up with something different, and tend to deal only with what sells lots of records and has mass appeal.

But there hasn’t yet been an independent label that has really broken through consistently. Another independent label called DualTone have David Ball, and he released a hit single called “Riding With Private Malone” with which they cracked the Top 10. But it was a little different, because David Ball had already been on Warner Brothers for years, so he was just coming out with another single. We’re the first independent label to break the Top 10 in over 20 years, with Mark McGuinn, and we sold more records than any other new artist on an independent label in SoundScan history.

How do you get exposure for your artists?

Primarily radio, and a little bit of TV, especially CMT - Country Music Television, and GAC – Great American Country. CMT and GAC like our videos and play them a lot. All of our acts tour and perform live. We have about 500 people working in street teams all over the country who call radio stations and visit record stores.

What’s different about the way you work compared to a major label?

We try to spend less money and not spend what I call stupid money; we keep budgets reasonable and watch every penny. We don’t have a huge infrastructure and therefore we don’t have a huge overhead. We try to think more creatively, and we’re more willing to take risks and do things that may or may not work.

Mark McGuinn didn’t get a record deal, but we signed him and he hit, just being different and outside of the norm. We actually get a lot of support from people who like to see us trying to take on the big guys.

What do you think about the radio situation?

It’s very tough. The major labels dominate radio and spend a great deal of money developing relationships with program directors. They have the big hit acts and they use their influence. They do whatever they can do to shut us out and it’s very difficult for an independent label to crack into that. I’ve just heard a rumour that Mercury were flying program directors on a week-long trip to Switzerland to listen to Shania Twain’s new record. How do you compete with that?

Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades? If so, why, and is it a problem?

It has decreased. Major labels are the main players in town and their mentality is that it has to work on radio or it doesn’t work at all. They send a single out to radio and it has to reach a certain level of success, get into the airplay Top 20 or so, and if it gets to that level then they release the record. A new artist doesn’t get more than three chances to get a single on radio. If it works then you’re fine, but if it doesn’t then you’re out of the game.

Are there any specific styles of music you concentrate on?

Our focus at this point is just music that we love. We’re very open, if something comes in, everybody listens to it, and if we like it we all try to figure out how to work with it.

What artists are you currently working on?

Trent Summar and The New Row Mob, Mark McGuinn, and a songwriters’ record which features the guys who wrote Garth Brooks’s big hits. We have a new group called Hometown News, who are an Everly Brothers-style duo. Their album came out in June and we’re currently trying to get a single called “Wheels” on radio. And then we’ve got a new girl, Corbi, with whom we’ve just finished recording an album which we’ll put out next year. Harold and Paul are certain that Corbi is a superstar waiting to be released.

What were the important factors in the breaking of Mark McGuinn and Trent Summar?

With Trent Summar, the most important factor was his incredible live show. With Mark McGuinn it’s his songs; people just love the songs. We had picked a song called “That’s A Plan” to be the single, and we shipped out a 4-song sampler to radio just to introduce him, but they all started playing “Mrs. Steven Rudy”, another of his songs, so we just switched and stayed with that one, which took off and got to No.6 on the Billboard Chart. That’s an example of something that we are able to do but that a major would have had trouble doing.

How do you find new talent?

Most of it comes to us because of Harold Shedd and Paul Lucks’s excellent reputation. People are constantly coming to see them and sending them music. We’re now at the point where we are an independent label that has been more successful than most, and so a lot of it comes to us.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Not really. Most of it comes from people we know.

What do you look for in an artist?

Great songs and a great live performance.

Once signed to you, do you support an act financially so that they can focus on the music? How long is this development period?

It’s different with every artist. With Trent Summar for example, we also signed him to a publishing deal and supported him financially through that. Mark McGuinn already had a publishing deal, so he didn’t really need financial support.

The development period depends on the artist. For Mark McGuinn it was 4 months, and for Trent Summar it was 2 years.

Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, the attorney, the team is, when considering signing a new act?

We pay attention to it and it matters, but none of those things are necessarily deciding factors. None of the acts we’ve signed had managers or booking agents, and they didn’t get them until they’d actually signed with us.

Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?

Some do, but most don’t. It’s something that they do need to learn more about, but that doesn’t necessarily affect their chances. What matters is their music, although they need to have their eyes wide open and be aware of what they’re getting into. At VFR Records, we have a partnership arrangement with our artists. We have a profit share from the first dollar of profit onwards, so it’s a different kind of a deal. Our contracts are only about 7 pages long, and they don’t include any of those articles designed to screw artists.

How important is it for an aspiring country artist to be based in Nashville?

Different people will tell you different things. I don’t think it’s very important. None of our current artists are based outside Nashville, but if we found one that was, it wouldn’t be a problem.

How important is the Internet for you in your work and in what ways do you use it?

We use the Internet a lot, especially for promotion. It doesn’t mean much financially, as it doesn’t sell many records, but from a promotional standpoint, we do as much as we can with it. From an A&R point of view, it’s not something that we use to discover new bands.

How do you think the Internet will affect record companies’ business model?

It will completely change it. The fact of the matter is that, in due time, there will no longer be a need for a physical product, which will be digital. The only question is when will that happen? But major labels will still be around, because the difficult thing in the music business is the marketing. It doesn’t matter how great the music is - if nobody knows about it, it won’t sell.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

Lessen the grip of radio on determining the future of artists. Disperse the marketing, so that it isn’t as dependent on radio. To me, it’s not right that one or two songs decide if an artist stays or goes. Radio needs to be less important.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Hanging out with Dolly Parton! She’s a tremendous person.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

That’s hard to tell. Trying to figure out how to sell music and make money for artists in the new digital age.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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