OMFM: I remember when Garth Brooks broke down walls, and country also became mainstream. Has country now become country/crossover? Do you have to look for artists that can play in the pop world also?
JC: Garth changed a lot of things for a lot of people. There are artists that lean more contemporary country, and there are artists that lean more traditional country, and there are a lot of artists that are in-between, and there a lot of innovative and really cool things happening in town as well. One of my favorite artists in town is a guy named Colt Ford, who does country rap, but it's very unique and fresh and cool; he's got a great piece of business out there because he's connecting with people. He took my new guy, Tyler Farr, on the road with him, and they hit it off. We got to see those crowds reacting to something that's completely off the wall. It's probably not the most country radio-friendly thing in the world, but you know what, the fans are into it, and the airplay that he does get helps drive his sales, and he's selling a lot of records. This time in Nashville, there are no rules. This is music, not all of it's going to appeal to everyone, that's what music does. It can be polarizing, but that's what I love about it. I always try to find things that stand out, are a little bit different, and are going to have some identity to what they do. It's not always going to be relevant, it's not always going to sell two million records, but it needs to start there, and those are the ones that have the potential to sell multi-platinum. This genre is very wide open right now. You've got really traditional country artists that are important for the format, and there's some really amazing contemporary talent too that does have the potential to cross over into Hot AC and AC and into that pop world a little bit and get some additional airplay, and be a part of pop culture. There's a reason why Blake Shelton and Keith Urban, and these country artists are being asked to be on these shows: because Middle America is in love with our format right now. It speaks to people, it's a great lifestyle. The two worlds don't clash. You can listen to a country radio station and hear an artist like Carrie Underwood, and then an artist that's a little bit more traditional right after her, and it still all marries together.
OMFM: How has new media influenced the A&R process? Has the old school way of demos and club showcases been replaced with online outlets?
JC: I don't sit on the internet all day looking at social networks, trying to find the next artist. It's like searching for a needle in a haystack. We obviously keep our eyes on those charts and what's going on out there, but it's still mostly word-of-mouth about an artist. Once you hear about an artist, these social networks are a great tool to go to and see what they do. You've got a visual there, and usually some music posted; it's just a tool. There are some times where you stumble across something online or via new media that lures you to an artist, but for the most part, I use it more as a tool to research after I've heard about something. On the flip side of that, new media plays a significant role once we've signed an artist. If they're touring, if they're doing their own thing, if they've got an independent thing going, looking at their numbers and just seeing if they're connecting to fans or aren't, what they're doing that's working or not, and getting an idea of how they're going to be as an artist to work with. It's important from all of those respects. It shows their personality, it shows how engaging they can be with the fans; it complements what we're already doing, but hasn't replaced it.
OMFM: In my experience, there seemed to be two different approached to A&R; one where A&R hands off to product managers, the other where A&R is the product manager. How does it work now?
JC: We're set up here where there's a dedicated promotion department, marketing department and publicists for each of the three imprints here, Columbia, RCA and Arista. There's a point person for every artist in all of those respects. So, once the music's finished, we hand it off to the other side of the building that starts promoting and marketing and coming up with ideas, but we're still pretty hands on as an A&R department. We're really the first ones to touch the artist and know what they're going to do, and know what the brand's going to look like when the music's finished. I try and bring those other departments in as early as I can to start sharing music to give them an idea, and let them start brainstorming. It's a team effort. These guys and girls in this building are specialists at what they do. Country music is a very lifestyle-driven genre. Even the artist's hobbies play a big role into who they are musically. Those kinds of things really help the marketing department and the promotion department when they're going to radio to have other things to talk about besides just the music, and show that this artist is well-rounded, has a great personality and can connect to people in many ways. Country music has always been that way, the fans have always wanted to know more about the artists and their lifestyles and look at them through the window of their life.
OMFM: How does retail impact A&R? Do you look to tastemaker accounts for new talent?
JC: Our biggest accounts are WalMart, Target and Best Buy, and now iTunes. More of the development stage is being done online. Online outlets are discovery tools, things that we can monitor, to keep an eye on what an artist's fan engagement looks like it might be or become. XM's a great tool for developing artists, to see kind of what you got, gauge the reaction. But it's a little tougher now at brick-and-mortar retail, venue sales are really more of what we look to at when an artist is touring. Before we release anything, we'll do an EP nowadays, let them take that out with them, and see how quickly we can sell those at their shows.
OMFM: What do you think about the popularity of singing shows? Are they a healthy approach to a long-term career, or a quick fix for sales?
JC: The way I approach it from my desk and from an A&R perspective is it still comes back to the music, comes back to the artist. These shows are amazing platforms that are an awesome connection to the fan base. And it's something you can't ignore. I think that we've seen a lot of artists come out of this and some of them have gone on to become big superstars, they're very talented people and they deserve it. I think it just depends on the songs that they choose and they record, and how powerful they are as singers and how engaging they are to the consumer and to the fans, and that's ultimately what we do every day, anyway. They're the same things I look at when I sign an artist, they're just coming through our door in a little different way. I'll listen to anything that hits my desk, man, I don't care where it comes from. We've participated in these shows, but we don't sign every artist that comes off the shows. We evaluate them the same way we'd evaluate any artist that comes to us through any other traditional fashion. It's just another tool of discovery. We take the artists we believe in off of those shows, and they're not always necessarily the winners, either. There are some hurdles with it, don't get me wrong, you just put them through artist boot camp as quick as you can, they figure it out. It hasn't been a problem for us.
OMFM: In this era of piracy, how do we keep the perception that music has value and is something worth paying for?
JC: I think in general, people want to do the right thing. They understand that this is a career for people, and that most people out there don't want to steal music. They want to buy into it, they want to own it, they want to be a part of the artist's career. I think that's the reason the reality shows are working. The consumers are out there picking the talent. Things are going to change on how we monetize that; there may be another income stream that we maybe haven't even thought about yet. But it still comes down to creating great music, creating great artists and an artist creating a brand and engaging their fans. How it's monetized, the sky's the limit. I look at this time in the industry as probably the biggest opportunity. It's my generation's job to take all that knowledge and apply it into the future and learn new ways to expose and monetize great music. Opportunity is endless now. We're not just trying to sell one piece of plastic anymore; we can monetize music in dozens and dozens of ways. We have to really be out there trying to discover new means to expose these artists, and that's our job as executives in the music industry. That's why artists come to record labels, why they sign with us. They know we're experts at exposing what they do. That exposure may look different ten years from now, but the job is still the same.
A&R is something that's my life. I love being with my family and my friends, and, music's a huge part of all of that. It doesn't matter if we sell a million records or ten records, you get out there and you do the best you can. Stay afloat and keep the artist moving forward. I'll do this, regardless of how strong or how healthy the music industry remains. I'm passionate about artists, songwriters, songs and music. It's what drives me, it's what gets me up in the morning to come in and do this every day