Interview with DOUG HOWARD, A&R for Rascal Flatts (No.1 US) - Jul 10, 2006
"Look if there is an act on a label that is similar to what youíre doing, and seek the labels where there isn't one. Try to find a gap in the roster of the record company,"
... advises Doug Howard, A&R at Lyric Street for Rascal Flatts (No.1 US) with whom he now enjoys the 4th Platinum.
He spoke to HitQuarters about discovering new talent, the importance of radio, and Nashville as a musical capital, not only for country.
How did you discover Rascal Flatts?
Rascalís Mark Bright and Marty Williams had contacted me along with a producer friend of mine, Dann Huff, who is still working with them now. Mark and Marty came in and played me three demos and they were just incredible.
Itís really just about the relationships of Nashville. Instead of lawyer-driven it seems like things tend to be more producer and publisher driven and that is sort of how things bubble up to the labels.
The demos they played you, were they rough, or finished productions?
They were really not final but they were good enough to know you can upgrade them to master. In fact, one of the first three songs they played me was the single we picked.
What made you actually sign them?
Interestingly enough, itís just that sometimes you hear something and you love it. In the real world there are so many things done with ProTools and the like. So every time I hear something that I like a lot, the next thing I do is ask the artists to come in and sing live. Because that way you just know whether or not it was done in the studio or if they can pull it off.
After I heard the three demos, the guys came in the next day, sat down with acoustic guitars and played a couple of songs. The vocals and the harmonies, it was all there, I was just blown away. The lead singer, Gary LeVox, has such a unique and compelling voice, it was instant. But generally it was a matter of first hearing the demos and then getting them to come over and sing live.
What happened next?
I went, ďcancel your other meetings, if you got any, and letís do a record!Ē
Did you go to publishers and look for songs or send them to co-writings sessions?
The Rascal Flatts are all great writers, but they also want to cut the best song. So they are open to both writing on their own and taking songs from outside, so itís really a matter of going out and just trying to find the best songs. There has been a good balance.
How many songs did you have before you released the album?
We could have released the album before we released the first single. We like to complete the album first. We really believed that this one song out of the first three demos, ĎPrayin' For Daylightí was great as an introduction for the radio and us, so we made it the first single. But there were four singles on the first album and the fourth, entitled ĎIím moving oní ended up selling another million records.
I think in our format we really need those up-tempo radio-driven things to launch an act and then hopefully you can get to some of the deeper stuff. You know ballads would not break an act but that one really ended up selling a lot of records.
So as soon as all the material was there, how did you get them in the market?
Before we launched our first single, we sent them out to radio in order to do just what they did to me. They went to radio stations and played live acoustically. In some instances they played at stations with a full band for special events.
So they went out on a radio tour for several months prior to the launch of the first record and then they continued touring radio to support the launch of the first single. That was how we introduced them. It took approximately six months from our first meeting to the radio tour.
So is it that easy? You simply call the radio stations and say, ďhey, weíre dropping by with our new act?Ē
Well, if you are a label that has credibility, thatís the thing. And you have to have the relationships like our promotion staff. They can call and say; ďcan we set up a meeting? We want you to meet this new act.Ē If you are not established as a label you cannot do that. Thatís how business in Nashville is done.
How many radio stations did you approach?
In the States there are approximately 2000 country stations. Out of those only a 130 report to the charts like R&R and Billboard. Those are the major market stations. So we tried to get the guys to all of these stations. They probably went to a 100-125 stations.
Did they do a lot of other bookings at that time, too?
Radio in the States often has requests and they will ask you if theyíre having a special radio event or summer concert. So they invite especially bands that are new just to help introduce them to audiences. So they did a lot of those. Once you have that first hit single, then you try to get on a tour with somebody.
They ended up opening tours for Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn and several other major artists. They toured like that for seven before they started headlining their own shows. Of course, now they just do sell-out shows.
What do you think is the most important promotion tool in country music?
Having a hit song. If you donít have a great song you canít promote it. You might be able to get it so far on the chart with all the efforts that you put into it, but ultimately the people that listen to the stations and the people that are going to buy the records are the ones who vote for this. If you donít have a hit song, there is nothing else you can do.
Do you aim for the European market as well?
If it happens to bleed over into other territories, thatís great. But our primary focus is the States only because the format that they were broken out of was the country stations in the States and in Canada. But the album that has done so well recently is now getting AC play and Hot AC play. That album is probably friendlier to other formats.
How open would you say is the country market for crossover attempts? When I heard Rascal Flatts, I thought itís pop music with a country attitudeÖ
Thatís an interesting way to describe it. I think the country format is very flexible; it will let something like this exist side by side with the real traditional music. Weíre just really lucky to have a format that, within certain parameters, lets a lot of variety in.
Could you take a hit song from another genre, add some country instruments on it and take it to the country market?
Itís not that easy. We really first and foremost go for the format the guys are going to be in. They know it so they continue to make records that present a variety of music but still mostly country as a base. Certain songs that have a different flavour might work more in a pop side and tend to cross over but we are not pushing it that way.
If it happens and the song works, great, but if that song doesnít work, we are really still aiming for the country market. I have friends that donít like country music and they tell me, ďthose guys canít be country!Ē I ask ďwhy?Ē And they say, ďbecause I like it!Ē
From which angle did you approach the music business in the beginning?
I came first as a musician, second as an engineer. Then I learned the publishing business and went to law school. So basically I ran Polygram Music Nashville for many years. Thatís really more the publisher and song writing development side. Instead of being a writer or a musician I wanted to pursue the publishing business.
I was fortunate enough to be hired at a major publishing company. About half of the writers that were there are now in the Nashvilleís writer hall of fame. I was blessed to grow up working and pitching songs for some of the best writers in Nashville. That really was an educational experience because I was exposed to great songs and from there your career just blossoms.
When you represent great writers, you have access to all the great artists and producers. My publishing background was so important, because it allowed me to eventually be in the position that I am today as head of A&R.
If you would be an unsigned artist nowadays, what would you do to get in the business?
It would depend on what format, what type of music, which city and so on. If you are in Nashville, the best thing to do is come to learn the players. Learn the different labels; learn what seems to be working for each because there is a real difference between them.
Look at the label and see if there is already another act there that does something similar to what youíre doing, and seek out the labels that donít. Try to find a gap in the roster of the record company.
So record companies donít sign artists that compete with each other?
Well, some do but if itís right on top of the other act, one is going to win and one is going to lose. We try not to do that. We try to fill the spectrum. With Rascal Flatts leaning towards pop, we have somebody like Trent Tomlinson who is really traditional. Itís just not fair if you stack up guys that are really similar to one another, it doesnít work.
So you would say: donít send out 1000 demos; get to know the people and the industry first.
Every situation is different, so I cannot make any golden rule. If one artist out there is playing live a lot, they might never have to send one package out, just because the word of mouth about how good they are is enough. The most important thing is to move to a music center.
In the US this would probably be New York, Nashville, Los Angeles and maybe Atlanta. You need to be where you are going to have an opportunity to meet people that are in the business, make friends and relationships but more importantly get your music heard.
How is your company set up?
We are owned by the Walt Disney Company. Our immediate staff at Lyric Street counts 20 people. That includes an A&R department, a marketing department, a promotion department and publishers. But when you get to our legal and business affairs and our financial and sales people, there are many other people involved directly up in Los Angeles that we share with other Disney labels. We currently have six acts on our roster.
Is there a certain style your label stands for?
Unique and compelling. I really like a stylist. Someone that is very identifiable and different from everything else. Disney has a pop label and childrenís label in Los Angeles. The Nashville labelís primary focus is on country music so thatís my job.
Do you have a direct access to go on the Disney Channel?
If itís appropriate for that channel, we have access but it has to fit.
What are the limits for launching new acts?
We really donít try to break more than one new act a year because there are still the other five that are already established and then you are bringing a new one in to the fold and see if thatís going to work. Every country label is bringing one or two new artists a year.
When you start adding it up Ė RCA, BNA, Arista, Universal, Mercury, Broken Bow, Lyric StreetÖall these labels are bringing new acts to the market place. So realistically in Nashville they might be trying to break 20 new acts a year but from our label we try to wisely focus. If you can break one act a year, you are doing a heck of a job.
How does a development deal look like? What do you do?
Just take it slow, maybe cut a few sides on spec and just see where we are, before we go into the full record deal. If itís a writer just give them time to continue to write but if itís someone who is looking for outside songs we might go in and cut two or three sides and see if we feel like we can work together.
Itís a lot of work. I prefer to not waste my time so Iím only going with the things I really think could work. For example, I worked on and off with Trent Tomlinson for several years before we decided to cut the album.
So what did you do in this period of time?
I always thought that he was a great singer. But I felt that his writing was in transition from writing to other people to writing for himself. I wanted it to be real and it wasnít believable. Then we kept focusing on Ďwhat do you want to say? Who are you? Write about what you know!í When that transition came and the material rose to that level, it became obvious to me and to him, so we started cutting the album.
When you look for new artists, are there certain places where you go to check new stuff out?
Iíve been working in Nashville for many years and I have a great relationship with all the creative people in town and with all the different publishing companies and all the clubs, so Iím pretty much informed when somebody comes through town and is playing somewhere.
There are a lot of showcases and places in Nashville where people can go and perform live and the publishers will be the first who step in and help somebody get in a studio and record a couple of sides and then bring it to us. So thereís really a lot of different ways in Nashville for your music to get heard. Itís funny because Nashville has always been a magnet for this particular type of music.
Many, many songwriters work here. Itís just seems to be a real tight music community and most of us compete for the same things. So itís probably a more open doors city then you would imagine because weíre all looking for the next big thing. If my door is not open to that, Iím not going to hear it.
If you arrive in Nashville as a new artist, where would you go first?
The hot clubs are where the writersí nights are. There is a music row area that has all the major labels in between five or six blocks. All the major publishing companies are about 10 blocks of each other. So itís a music centre within the city itself. Just read the local newspapers that you find on any corner and youíll know whatís going on in the clubs.
There is stuff going on every night. There is a magazine called Music Row which recaps what was happening the previous week, who played where, what parties took place, etc. Iíd give you a bunch of names but it would be so much better, if you were here. Then it would be obvious. The lower Broadway part of downtown, there is just club after club after club.
There are specific showcase clubs like 12th and Porter, 3rd and Lindsley or The Bluebird but thatís not fair to any of them to single them out. There are many opportunities for somebody to play but once they start playing, that buzz of the music is created. This is really a music city.
Would you say Nashville is the place to start off if you play country music?
No doubt, because the music industry is here and you find everything through the relationships. Itís possible to get a record deal, a publishing deal, a management dealÖthe journalists, the infra-structure, everything is really aimed to country music.
Nashville also has a big Christian music industry. Because of the studios and all the musicians in town itís still a great place for other styles as well. The rock band Kings Of Leon that toured with U2 came out of Nashville.
What advice would you give an unsigned artist that is not in Nashville and has no contacts in the business?
If they are not in Nashville, I think itís appropriate that they hopefully do get some kind of website because without having to travel here, it would be a way for someone to maybe get exposed to their music. But I always tell people: If they are all interested in either song writing or being an artist in the country market than they ought to just take a trip here. Just spend a week here and get a feel of what goes on here. Itís worth it.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters that want to know more about the song writing scene in Nashville?
There is the Nashville Songwriter Association Ė NSAI. They help writers not only in Nashville but all around the world in establishing relationships. They hold writing seminars, itís just a real need deal. Itís great for people who want to find out more about the writing community here.
Would you work with artists outside the US?
I would but itís difficult for us because I am really geared towards the marketplace here. So only if the music would be relevant to this marketplace.
How important would you say is it to see an artist in front of an audience?
Itís enough if I see them live in my office. If you have to ask somebody else whether itís good, you shouldnít be doing this. Iíve been blessed to have signed some great writers and some great artists, but itís been based on my gut.
If it doesnít move me, I donít expect that it will move somebody else. I have to trust myself because Iím exposed to so many artists and songwriters. If something stands out from the pack, then I have to really pay attention to it.
When you look for a new artist, how important is the Internet site of an artist?
Itís just easy for everybody, because that way I can sort of get turned on what the person is about, before they even have to worry about coming to see me. But every artist that we have on our roster now did not have a website prior to getting the record deal. Itís a bigger tool in the future but itís not a requirement right now.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, because I have a relationship with so many songwriters, producers, A&R people and attorneys that if something is happening, it can reach me. Itís a friend of a friend situation but I canít just take tapes from all around because that becomes a legal issue.
In which direction will country develop in the future?
It always seems to keep swinging back and forth every five years between a very pop sound and a very traditional sound. But I donít think thatís a negative thing because Nashville respects the musicians and artists that came before. As each new generation emerges, they tend to have listened to records from different eras and they bring that into the music.
Sometimes a certain format keeps pushing forward without a history, but in Nashville people really look back to the past with respect. Each generation is going to bring their new ears to the game. I think itís really important as a format that you always want to be identifiable and separate from other genres and thatís just important for the existence of country.
There will occasionally be a song that might cross over but when it comes to the overall body of music, I think when a radio station plays country music, they want there to be no question that youíre listening to a country station.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: The Digital Download Revolution
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