We had a great talk when former Taylor Swift manager and marketing consultant Rick Barker stopped by to chat with us! Rick shared his extensive experience in the industry, tips for fan engagement and social media, and lots more!
This article features some of the highlights from our talk, but make sure to check out the full interview on the Music Business Lounge podcast!
- Treat your career like a small business.
- Be willing to do what no one else will do.
- Build relationships and engage with as many people as possible.
- Get involved in conversations and then bring your music into it.
- Grow and network as you develop.
You have done so much in this industry. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you started out?
Radio was my thing. When most kids wanted to be in rock bands, I always wanted to be the guy on the radio playing the songs. Growing up we would take the cassette tapes and record the countdowns and I would practice talking like the DJs. That’s just really what I loved and what I wanted to do.
In 1989 I was hired by KISS FM in LA as an intern answering the phones. I worked my way up to my first part time gig in Santa Barbara on a pop station. Then I moved to Santa Barbara and did my whole radio career there and loved it! I spent 15 years doing morning radio. I’ve been on every English -speaking Radio station including sports talk. In 2001 I was asked to build a country radio station. I grew up in Alabama. I knew who Johnny Cash was so I felt as qualified as anyone else in California to build a country station. At that time it was right after 9/11 and the word was in a different place. The mentality was different. Country music just seemed like the right fit at the time.
I started getting opportunities to meet artists and meet labels. I started asking questions. I realized that when these artists go out on radio tour there really wasn’t anything in place that got them paid or let them get in front of an audience. So I went ahead and I created one. It was called Nashville to You. With that I helped launch Sugarland, Little Big Town, Rodney Atkins, a bunch of different country artists. It got me on the radar of Scott Borchetta, who was a promotions guy here in town but was getting ready to start his own record label. He brought me out of radio to work for Big Machine Records.
He introduced me to a 16-year-old named Taylor Swift. He wanted me to teach her radio. She came out to California and we spent 30 days together that ultimately ended up changing both of our lives. That was my first management client. I went from no management experience to Taylor. That was kind of the beginning and then a few years ago I decided I could be of more service to help more artists if I could learn how to teach. I went and started studying from the best internet marketers in the world about how to give more people an opportunity to learn how to build an audience, build a fanbase, monetize it and hopefully start making money with their music.
When you think about your career thus far, what are some pivotal choices good or bad that you learned from?
That’s a great question and a great way to look at it. One of the things that Scott Borchetta said about Taylor and I in the beginning. He said “you guys are going to be successful because you’re too dumb to know any better.” I was like “is this a compliment?”
We realized early on that if we were willing to do what no one else was willing to do, there was a good chance we would get the results that no one else was willing to get. At the time, social media had just started. It was MySpace. She was very actively involved in MySpace. We learned early on that if we were willing to let the fans know things about her…she made herself equal with the fans and that’s what still makes her the biggest star today. That was one lesson we really learned from.
We also had the philosophy “let’s start at crazy and work backwards.” So “crazy” at the time was no one was doing after-show meet and greets. So we became famous for these three-and-a-half hour meet and greets at the end of shows. When she won an award we brought the award out and let fans hold it and take pictures with it. We ended up as everyone’s thumbnails. Everyone else puts the awards on a shelf. We took hers on the road. That’s just the stuff that we did different. We wanted to have a very hands-on approach with the audience. We wanted them to feel that she knew them as they knew her.
You once told Taylor “If you want to sell 500,000 records you have to meet 500,000 people.” Can you talk a little bit about how an independent artist can take that idea and run with it?
Sure. I saw the impact she had when people met her. I was like “okay, so how do we get to as many people as possible.” I knew if we tried to do it just through touring it would take forever. That’s why we started really utilizing social media as well. That’s what independent artists have today. They have the ability to get themselves in front of people all over the world. The problem is most of them don’t know how to talk to folks. All they do is try to promote and sell.
One of the things I really focus on in the programs I teach is building relationships. Let’s get involved in their conversations. Let’s not make it just about you. Find out the movies they’re watching, the books they’re reading, the sports teams they’re cheering on. Get active and participate in that. Then bring them into the music side of things. Not all artists have the personality to need to get in front of somebody. It can actually cause more harm than good! She was one of them that won with people, so that’s why we did it.
You talk about becoming a “business-minded artist.” What does that mean to you and how can artists start becoming more business-minded.
Ultimately if you want people to invest in you, you need to start investing in yourself. First and foremost you need to get yourself set up properly legally as a business to be able take advantage of certain writeoffs and protect yourself from lawsuits and things like that. You also need to understand that your job everyday should be to get your music in front of as many people as possible.
Your job everyday should be to provide customer service to your business. That’s going out and utilizing social media to build and maintain relationships. If all you think the business is is just recording music and playing, that’s called a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby, but if you ultimately want to try to get somebody to invest in you, they need to see that you understand the business you’re getting yourself into and you’re actually treating it like a business.
What are the baseline promotional tools that every artist should have?
Everybody should have a website. Their own domain name. That’s the only thing that you own. Everything else is kind of leased space through social media and things like that. Make sure you have a website. Make sure you have an email list. Make sure you’re utilizing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. If you have a young audience you may want to play in Snapchat a little bit. You basically want to hangout where you audience is hanging out. Go get involved in as many conversations as you can. Ultimately try to bring them back to your music in the least forceful way possible. Hopefully the most organic way possible.
How do you outline who your target audience is?
Think of it this way. You could have the best hamburger stand in the world, but if you open it up in a town of vegetarians you just screwed yourself. It’s the same thing with your music. If you’re out trying to push heavy metal music to a hip hop crowd it’s not going to be that successful. For example, we were just having a conversation here in the office about the TV show “Nashville.” If you feel your fans might be watching the TV show “Nashville,” you can go get in on the hashtag, go start talking about what you thought about the episode. Bring value to the conversation. Then when the time is right, you can slip in “last night’s song inspired me to go write this one.” Now you all of a sudden let them know you’re a musician.
Go get involved in conversations. The books your audience is reading What is going on in their lives? Know as much about them as you can. That’s what Taylor did. All these little girls would say “Oh my God it’s like you’re reading my diary!” No, she was just listening. Don’t be afraid to listen.
What are some of the repeated mistakes you see people making?
They think it’s about them and it’s not. It’s about the fan. Your job is to deliver music that eeffects them in some way shape or form. You are telling their stories. You are relaying their emotions. The modality at which people can consume music right now. Anybody can get it for free, so if they are going to invest in you, they’re investing you you.
Don’t always talk about yourself. Don’t take days off. With scheduling programs you can be active every day. Your job is to try to get their attention every shape or form. If you just show up every couple of days it’s not going to happen. The analytics through the social platforms aren’t going to allow your stuff to be seen. You aren’t showing consistently that you’re stuff is engaging. That’s what they’ve committed to show people in their newsfeeds.
Show up every day. I see artists only show up to talk about themselves. We hate our friends that do that. Don’t be that person. Be someone that understands reciprocity. Go be a giver, not just a taker.
What are some suggestions you have for people trying to avoid those missteps?
I say “treat your social media like you treat your meal plan.” Something for breakfast, something for lunch, something for dinner. In the morning people need to kind of get motivated. I’ll usually do inspirational quotes. Some funny videos in the afternoon to liven things up. Then I’ll usually teach or solve a problem for them later in the evening, and drive them to one of my free video series.
It’s the same thing for an artist. Do a little quote, then say “Hey, heading into the studio. Working on a track today. Can’t wait to share it with you guys.” Then later on do a Facebook Live and play some original songs. It’s as simple as stuff like that. Everyday you’ve got to remember, there’s no shortage of artists. There’s no shortage of people vying for attention.
Can you talk about building relationships on the business side?
I think one of the things that people don’t learn is the skill of networking. I think sometimes people try to get to folks that aren’t at their level. I say that respectfully, but if you’re a songwriter you don’t just come to town and say “Hey, I write songs. I ‘m going to go hookup with hit songwriters.” Probably not going to happen in the beginning.
If you’re a band that’s looking for a manager and you’re not doing 100 shows a year. You’re just getting started. You’re probably not going to want to go get in front of Irving Azoff. Maybe find a buddy and let them start there. The key to any good networking is knowing where you’re at. You don’t want to be seen too early. You don’t want to be seen before you’re ready. The folks that I work with in the industry are looking for a reason to say “no” because it’s so crowded. Don’t give them any. Be willing to grow.
We are one of the few business where we put unqualified people into the marketplace with a half-a-million dollar investment and then when it doesn’t work we fire them. It blows me away. I really try to make sure the artists are prepared for whatever opportunity comes their way. This is a business. You need to show that you can treat it like a business and then you’ll have an opportunity, hopefully, to better yourself and make better relationships as you move up the ladder.
What does it mean to be “ready?”
It depends on who you’re trying to impress. If you think that you’re ready for a record deal but you don’t tour and you only have one song, you’re not ready. Record companies are looking for small businesses to invest in. For songwriting, if you just started writing songs and you’ve got a catalogue of 20 songs, I don’t think you’re ready for a publishing deal until you’ve written 100 songs. You need to go learn your craft. You need to go learn your trade. Then of course somebody will come along and sign a random nobody.
Everyone’s different, but for me you better have been in the business for a while. You better treat it like a business. I better see that you’re showing up for work everyday. If you walk into a record company and you’re the best female vocalist, you sound like Carrie Underwood, but they already have a Carrie Underwood, they aren’t going to sign you.
The smart labels are looking for the most original things they can find. They’re looking to see if there’s a consistency with the work ethic. They’re looking at who’s on their team? Who’s involved with them? What are they doing on a daily basis? Are they already playing? Do they need a lot of work or are they ready to just be fine tuned a bit and sent out on the road? There’s no universal answer to that question. Every situation is different. Timing and luck aren’t duplicatable. You never know what’s going to happen.
Like what you read? Make sure to share this article! Let us know if you had any thoughts or questions in the comments section or at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can find our full audio interview with Rick on the Music Business Lounge Podcast, where we dive even deeper into Rick’s insight.
Connect with Rick!
He received his BA and MS from Boston University and also holds a certificate in Music Production from Berklee. Jeff has helped clients earn coverage in countless international media outlets and was a "Top 40 Under Forty" selection for his accomplishments as a young entrepreneur.
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