Country in the city: A review of the CMAO’s Ottawa seminar

Seventy-five budding artists, one music room, 10 country music industry professionals, seven hours, innumerable takeaways.

The University of Ottawa’s music department saw more than 75 budding country songwriters, singers and musicians gather on November 25 to hear from Canadian professionals in the country music industry – everyone from music directors to recording artists to booking agents to producers – on everything from radio to publicity and marketing to lyrics, style and business.

Below is a recap of the day, including the most prevalent discussions, topics and information. Let me tell you, I could’ve written a book from all the insider advice and knowledge the insightful panelists provided. But out of interest to keep my readership and abide by one of the facts I learned in this seminar (you have a short timeframe to make your point and an impression), I’ve summarized the most dynamic elements of the production below.

Panel one: How to get your songs to radio

Panelists:

Brian Allen, producer, Amplus Productions
KT Timmermans, music director, The Island
Joel Lamoureux, music director, Y101
Anya Wilson, Anya Wilson Publicity
Steve Parker, Canadian Country Spotlight

The CMAO put on the day-long seminar to 75 budding artists

The CMAO put on the day-long seminar to 75 budding artists

Key takeaways from panel one:

  • Focus on: song, image, story
  • It’s the music BUSINESS
  • Talent is a very small part of the whole business. Like anything, it’s who you know, what you know, and what you do with it.
  • Radio is looking for the song that’s going to catch directors’ attention in seven seconds.

As moderator for this panel, Allen did a stellar job bringing the topic of conversation back to the importance of the business aspect of putting music on the radio. He stressed, with necessary emphasis, that it is a money-making industry in the first place, and to get airplay it requires much more than just talent.

Some other important ideas to keep in mind:

  • Bring an audience with you
  • Be ready by the time you get there
  • Build a relationship with the stations
  • Pitch small-town radio

Panelists outlined that country musicians are in a unique position as artists, as a result of the size of audience the genre captures, the connection listeners have with on-air personalities, the loyal characteristics of the audience, and the large demographic. As Timmermans so fittingly put it, it’s the “music of the people.” Lamoureux added, “the country music audience is the most passionate, and you need the songs to connect with them.”

Lamoureux said country music listeners are 60 per cent female, 40 per cent male, and it’s a genre based on a relationship format. By bringing a built-in audience to the game, he notes, you’ll be more likely to be considered for airplay. Therefore, a new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both.

What goes into a radio station music meeting? Radio station music directors Timmermans and Lamoureux said:

  • Music directors get a stack of CDs almost daily, hear a few seconds of the demo and either say “yay” or “nay”
  • A song will normally get 18 plays a week
A new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both

A new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both

Parker, whose show, Canadian Country Spotlight, showcases emerging artists, discussed the value of time on radio, and all panelists conceded the importance of having a business plan. “You need to have a footprint, or the beginnings of a national profile,” noted Parker. “We look at the business model and if there isn’t one, we have to say ‘no.’”

Wilson, a seasoned industry publicist, takes certain artists on as projects and lobbies radio to get them airplay. She consults on songs before they’re radio-ready, including ensuring it matches the sound of other acts on the radio at the time. Once radio adds something to its airplay, the song is played for at least 14 weeks, meaning it commits to those artists. Wilson makes it her job to ensure they’re capable of reaching that point. “I don’t want a one-hit wonder,” she said.

But, years in the industry have taught Wilson it’s not all about the song. “Radio is a blind medium,” she said. This means a song can’t be five minutes long. It also means there has to be more to an artist than just a hit.

An artist’s newsworthiness is critical to their ability to grow in popularity. Have a good story, Wilson adds, and the development and execution of that story is crucial in an artist’s success.

Timmermans, who views artist biographies daily on the digital music courier service DMDS, echoed the importance of having a good story. “Don’t make light of what your story might be,” she said. “That’s what helps market you.”

Panel two: Making it in the ‘biz

Panelists:
Wendell Ferguson, musician
Charlie Major, country star
Robert Wilson, manager/booking agent
Heather Ostertag, Ostertag & Associates

Key takeaways from panel two:

  • Again, it takes a lot more than just talent
  • Funding is a daunting process and you have to be in “it to win it”
  • Be your own team, but have a team to back you up
Panelists get ready for critiquing

Panelists get ready for critiquing

The second and final panel was much broader in scope, touching on subjects from funding to fans to failing to fulfillment. Broken down by panelist below, read the industry insights on how the specialists got to where they are, where they would go differently, and when they knew they made it.

Charlie Major

When asked by moderator Wendell Ferguson what his biggest piece of advice would be for aspiring country artists, Major responds with a deep and quiet, “follow your bliss.” Seemingly simple words of wisdom from a chart-topping star from Aylmer, Quebec, who’s recorded six studio albums and released more than 20 singles.

After traveling around the world with his guitar, Major decided making music was what he wanted to do. “Know what you’re good at, and do it,” he suggested.

Throughout his career, he’s committed not only himself to follow through with “doing what he’s good at,” but also his team. “I go out there every night and give it my 150 per cent because I’m not just representing myself, but my booker, manager, record company, and so on. It’s a collaboration, and you have to be ready to take on that responsibility.”

Country star Charlie Major

Country star Charlie Major

And amidst the doom-and-gloom perspective of entering the industry prevalent throughout the panel, Major made sure to provide the audience of hopefuls with some optimism.

“Every week I listen to the Top 40,” he said. “And every week there are 40 songs. Somebody is writing those songs. Somebody is playing those songs. Every week, every year, there are new people coming out. It can be done if you want it badly. It’s not insurmountable.”

And while not insurmountable, it’s also not easy. Major said when he sat down to write music and play songs, he’d be at it for 15 to 16 hours a day. “That’s sacrifice,” he added. 

Brian Allen

King of the session’s most quotable lines, Allen, as founder of a production company, focused predominantly on the business aspect of the industry.

Budding artists have to be willing to put in the legwork behind their music and BE the team before they HAVE a team, he said. “First, you have to have a brain,” he noted. “Nobody’s going to be interested in you if you don’t bring something to the table or have an interest in learning how to do some of the work that goes alongside just singing, like promoting yourself and booking yourself.” No one is going to come along and say ‘I believe in you and I want to lose a million dollars,’ he said. “You have to be strong enough to attract a team.”

And attracting a team is different than seeking out a team. “Some managers and agents will show up when they smell talent,” said Allen. “The best managers and agents will show up when they smell money.”

Play live to determine whether or not you should record a song

Play live to determine whether or not you should record a song

Allen made mention of the innumerable times he comes across someone wanting to make a recording to start their career. But, he advises, artists should be making a recording to further their career. “People want to be rescued by a recording and think it’ll pull them out of their dreary day job,” he noted. “I think that’s just wrong, unrealistic thinking. To figure out if you have a song worth recording, play live! If they don’t clap, don’t record that song.”

He added there are logical, tested, strategic steps to go through when coming up with your music business plan in the beginning, which he dubbed the “career equivalent of diapers.”

But how does one know when and if this is the right thing to pursue?

Allen said an artist will know once they evaluate the opportunity cost of making music for the rest of their life. “You know when it’s time to commit to music when you know that the value of what you are leaving behind is worth less than if you had not committed to it,” he said.

Top three Brian Allen quotes of the day:

  1. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
  2. “A fan is a stranger who will give you money twice.”
  3. “Loose lips sink ships in this business.”

Heather Ostertag 

As former president and CEO of FACTOR, Ostertag knows the ins-and-outs of funding for musicians. While an option for some, funding programs are serious business and not for the faint of heart. “Funding is not an entitlement,” Ostertag said. “You may be lucky to get it, but you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the funding.”

All funding agencies (like the CMT video artists program, Canada Council for the Arts, FACTOR, and the Toronto Arts Council, for example) provide forums for competition for the money, complete with a jury to determine the successful applicant. “To have a successful application, you really need to think beyond just production,” she adds. “You can’t just have the talent. You have to have the knowledge, the expertise, the ability to take it into the marketplace and exploit it in moving your career forward.”

FactorLogo

Put bluntly, none of the agencies are interested in giving you money just because you have talent.

The realist of the group, Ostertag added the industry is based on a lot of “no’s” and if you do so happen to get the funding, it comes with accountability.

Finally, she emphasized the importance of knowing what is being done on your behalf. “Know what’s been put on funding forms, especially if it’s done by a third party,” she said. “You are accountable for what’s down there.” While you require a team, it behooves you to know what’s happening. “I’ve seen artists who’ve been taken to the cleaners by their team and lose everything. It’s incumbent upon you to know the business in music. I’ve seen so many people have their dreams sold back to them because they didn’t do their homework.”

And my favourite Ostertag line of the day: “It’s evident by some of the people who came to FACTOR that they had been getting advice from friends or family or deaf people. Your friends and family don’t know. It’s a business.”

Wendell Ferguson

This panel’s moderator and accomplished guitar player, Ferguson brought intelligent and careful thought to the session, making sure to add a few jokes throughout.

Aside from his remarks like, “think like your audience,” and “your talent may be big, but you’re not,” what stood out for me was his recommendation on staying committed. “In Nashville, they say your first thousand songs don’t count,” he said. “Come to me when you’ve written 1,010, and they’ll probably be really good by then.”

Vince Gill said if you're getting into the biz, learn to love every aspect of it

Vince Gill said if you’re getting into the biz, learn to love every aspect of it

Clearly an esteemed musician, Ferguson recounted an exchange he had with Vince Gill. “He told me, if you’re getting into this business, you have to learn to love every aspect of it. If there’s something that drives you crazy, it’s going to keep driving you crazy until you can’t handle it.”

Seems like some of these lessons are not only those helpful in the music industry, but life lessons, as well.

The down low on CanCon

Being a Canadian seminar with Canadian industry professionals, it wouldn’t be truly patriotic without the mention of “CanCon” – Canadian Content. Love it or hate it, the CRTC-regulated policy is a reality that today’s Canadian radio stations must abide by. The CMAO panelists shed some light on what makes up music that fits these strict guidelines.

The MAPL system defines that to be Canadian Content, or CanCon, at least two of these letters have to be true:

  • Music written by a Canadian
  • Artist a Canadian citizen
  • Place of production is in Canada
  • Lyrics written by a Canadian

Further resources

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