Project Music is a music and technology business accelerator, operating in partnership with the Nashville Entrepreneurial Center, and sponsors the Country Music Association and Google. The eight startup teams chosen for the 14-week program were invited to listen to music media experts at the EC center on Jan. 22. The discussion Media In The Music Business featured Lisa Konicki, Country Weekly, Nash magazine; Lauren Black, Country Music Is Love; Charlie Cook, Cumulus Media; Leslie Fram, CMT; and John Marks, SiriusXM. Moderator was NEKST’s David M. Ross. The following is an edited version from the panel featuring the session’s high points, some of the humor and a variety of views on music media’s lunge toward a multi-channel mindset.
David M. Ross: Today’s media is distributing content across a widening number of channels. Our panel, Media In The Music Business, features representatives from physical and digital print, TV, plus terrestrial and satellite radio. Let’s begin by asking each panelist to tell us about themselves and the companies they represent.
Lisa Konicki: I’m Editor-in-Chief of Country Weekly magazine which is about 20 years old. I oversee daily operations, decide what content goes into each issue and who goes on the cover. We have a staff of about 13 people. We share the country music lifestyle with our readers including artists at home and on the road. Our website, countryweekly.com and social media activities have grown dramatically over the past 4 or 5 years. We were owned by American Media, but have recently been acquired by Cumulus. You’ll find Country Weekly in grocery stores and newsstands, but 40-50% of our sales are in Walmart which fits our target demo—45-year old females. About 80% of our readers are female.
Lauren Black: I love country music. I was the girl that made t-shirts to go to the Kenny Chesney concerts. My husband suggested one day that I start a blog. In 2008, when we started Country Music Is Love, there weren’t many country music blogs. It has grown significantly over the years organically and online. Facebook and Twitter have been huge channels for us and now Instagram. My husband and I moved to Nashville from Orlando two years ago to get closer to the industry.
Charlie Cook: I’ve been in radio 45 years. I started as a disc jockey in a little town in Northern Michigan and then moved to Denver, Wheeling W. VA., NYC, LA and Miami. Currently, I am the Program Director of NASH and NASH Icon and the operations manager for the Cumulus cluster here. We have six stations. including talk, sports, country and urban. I worked with Cumulus Media about 6-8 years ago and returned to the company about a year ago. So that’s what I do—get in early and leave late.
Leslie Fram: I have a radio background as well, starting as a baby DJ. Like Charlie, I was the Program Director and did mornings. For 25 years I got up at 4 am and left the station at 6-7 at night. I also had the opportunity to work in New York which is mind blowing when you are in radio. The station in New York was being sold to relieve debt so I was at a crossroad of whether to stay in radio or go somewhere and plant my roots. My mentor, Brian Phillips, who is now my boss said, “Why don’t you interview outside of radio at other media companies?” I did and coincidentally a job came open in Nashville at CMT, so I went from radio to TV and from rock to country which was a huge transition. There are seven people on my team and we oversee music across all platforms on CMT, CMT.com and book all of our digital franchises. I also book our CMT tour and really anything we do with artists. As part of the Viacom music group we do cross promotions with MTV and VH1. Country artists are amazing to work with, you can actually look them in the eye.
John Marks: I head country at SiriusXM Nashville. I’m responsible for the operation and programming of 11 separate country music channels. My day-to-day task is the Highway which is the current country music channel. I also worked at AM/FM radio for about 45 years, and made the transition from terrestrial to satellite about four years ago. While there are similar elements between the two in how they do their jobs there are also many dis-similar elements. It is quite a learning curve to master the digital rules and regulations. I like the variety this job offers because I’m able to keep my hand in various genres of the format from current country to ‘80s, ‘90s to the 2000s. We have separate channels for all those country genres plus Christian, Southern Gospel and Folk.
David M. Ross: One thing you all have in common is the need for a steady stream of content. How important are relationships in achieving that goal?
Leslie Fram: Artists are all media trained, but they like to have fun so content can be simply putting up a picture on Instagram or something silly you did with an artist that their fans want to know about. So we take it from the fan perspective of what can we do exclusively with this artist that the fan would love?
Charlie Cook: I’d like to talk about music as content. This town is run by a small cadre of people—musicians, producers, songwriters and labels who do most of the music. You’ve all seen that mash up where 6 or 7 country songs were put together and sound a lot alike. That is problematic in radio and one of the reasons we transformed WSM-FM into NASH Icon. It’s a different kind of country station from the other two in town, one of which I program. I can play Jo Dee Messina, Patty Loveless or Joe Diffie which gives me flexibility. I’m not at the mercy of just getting what’s hot, I can go back 20 years, and that’s why it’s doing so well. Most country stations today are about 70% current. We are 70% gold with 30-35% current and recurrent.
Lauren Black: At CMIL I get lots of emails from newer artists, but if I publish an article about Blake and Miranda it gets the hits. But I also really want to help focus on these fresh faces. Relationships are about building trust. Like Leslie said, the artists want to have fun and maybe they’ll tell you something, but you have to know where to draw that line. You don’t want to post gossip. Sometimes helping out with a new artist will then get you access to a superstar.
John Marks: There are transactional elements to artist press opportunities. Most artists are out supporting an album release or pushing a favorite charity, but anytime we can get an artist in, even if it is for some shameless publicity, we are happy to do it. It creates one more opportunity for a fan to engage with that artist and the station, on what feels like a one-on-one basis.
Lisa Konicki: As a print magazine we often piggy back off these guys. If CMT does an event for example we can send a writer and photographer to cover it and get content for our website and magazine. I don’t see them as competition. Country music is a tight knit community and we all scratch each other’s back.
David M. Ross: If I’m a new entrepreneur ready to launch, how can I use the media to my advantage?
Charlie Cook: Everybody is looking for new ideas wrapped in a bow. That’s the key. Bring ideas to all of us and other outlets in town like the Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, or Nash Lifestyles, and you’ll find most of us pretty receptive.
John Marks: I take meetings all the time because you can’t think of everything yourself.
Leslie Fram: Viacom is very open to partnerships which is great because it can help us reach a certain scale or add metrics to whatever platform. If you have something that has to do with music or videos we would absolutely love to meet with you.
David M. Ross: Record sales are shrinking, but Cumulus is selling country music access, and that’s more popular than ever.
Charlie Cook: Cumulus has a vision of the country lifestyle and Nash plays into that. We will try to deliver as much as we can to that audience. The Nash Icon record label and format was a natural extension for us because there are a lot of acts who no longer get played on country radio. The magazine furthers the brand and we have a new TV channel which will be online and available on your favorite cable system. The Nash brand will also be seen in Target, Walmart and Macy’s.
David M. Ross: It’s a brilliant vision, so deep and wide. They also have a TV Awards show. Will we see it get translated into the stock price someday?
Charlie Cook: From your mouth to my 401k!!!!
Lisa Konicki: I’m new to the Cumulus family, but its Nashville media center is like one-stop shopping. An artist can visit the Nash campus, spend two hours with us and knock out print, reach several million radio listeners and now do Nash TV as well. The artist feels comfortable and the reach is huge.
David M. Ross: All media must dance to a higher power—the need to aggregate eyeballs, readers, listeners or viewers. Right?
John Marks: I’m the gatekeeper, but once it gets into the stream it is up to the listener to react. We’ll provide significant airplay for 3-4 weeks and then measure through social media, sales and tracking info the viability of a song. If it’s not trending it’s gone. That takes all the subjectivity and politics out of it which is very nice. It’s a bit different than how terrestrial radio approaches their programming with dayparting, etc. We keep every song in daylight and give it an opportunity. Often top selling and researching songs for the Highway have barely charted on Mediabase which makes me hope that some folks at terrestrial might notice, because I’d love to see those artists have broader success.
Leslie Fram: We watch what John does on the Highway, because we have CMT Pure, a 24-hour video channel which is in about 25 million homes and allows us to program classic country, new country, Bluegrass, Americana and edge. We spotlight new artists for about 4 weeks with 3 or 4 spins a day. We can then look at the data and music metrics to see what’s happening.
David M. Ross: What do you see for the future of entertainment media?
John Marks: It’s all going to converge. My business is the car dashboard and our online applications, but the time is coming when everything is going to be combined—in the car and the home. I love being in the middle of the chaos, watching the confusion and hacking my way out of the weeds.
Leslie Fram: Don’t fight it, be part of it. Fans are immersed, listening to all kinds of music. We are the ones that put it in tiny compartments. It’s about being available for all ears and eyes. Take risks.
Charlie Cook: Absolutely everything is going to be right here (mobile phone). And if this screen isn’t big enough, it will project on the wall. I have a 13-year old daughter I drive to school every morning for about 25 minutes. She likes Rdio. I hand her my phone and she picks what she wants to play. That’s the future.
Lauren Black: People are doing ten things at once so their attention span is short. It’s about speaking with them across different channels and adapting to constant change.
Lisa Konicki: NASH has a good hold on media with its one-stop shopping concept. Everyone is being forced to be creative, grow and be different than everyone else.