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  Industry Profile

Industry Profile: Fletcher Foster

— By Larry LeBlanc

This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Fletcher Foster

There was a point a few years back where the country music consumer said, “You are giving me so many new people I can't tell them apart.”

More recently, other than top-40 styled Taylor Swift and Kelly Pickler, it’s been difficult for Nashville-based labels to successfully launch new acts.

However, this year Universal Records South has had two of its acts break through for the first time at American country radio.

First, the Eli Young Band’s single “Always The Love Songs” topped country radio playlists. Then Randy Houser broke out with his rollicking hit single “Boots On.”

The video for Houser’s hit incorporates a mesmerizing home video of 4-year-old Drake Dixon rocking out to “Boots On” first posted to YouTube. This original clip was then edited by Universal South with video footage featuring Houser. Together, the two versions have surpassed a million on-line streams and have aired on CBS’s “The Early Show,” CNN’s “Morning Edition,” and Perez Hilton’s infamous on-line blog site.

Houser was, perhaps, on his way to becoming a mainstream figure anyway. After CBS late-night host David Letterman heard his raunchy ballad "Anything Goes" on Sirius Satellite Radio, he asked his booker to track Houser down. After his appearance, Letterman joked that the song was, "The story of my life."

All this media actions makes Fletcher Foster, senior VP and GM of Universal South beam.

A savvy marketer and a widely-respected businessman, Foster is as comfortable hoisting beers with the boys at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, Texas as he is sampling a vintage French wine at Wolfgang Puck's upscale Spago Beverly Hills restaurant.

Foster was appointed senior VP and GM in 2006. He reports to Zach Horowitz, president and COO of the Universal Music Group; and to Mark Wright, president, Universal South.

Nashville may remain a byword for mainstream country music but Universal South is far from being a mainstream country label.

Its eclectic roster includes mainstreamers like Phil Vassar, Randy Houser and Joe Nichols but also raunchier sorts like Shooter Jennings and red-dirt act Cross Canadian Ragweed that first cut its teeth in Stillwater, Oklahoma and dissed the country-music capital in their song ''Anywhere But Here'.”

Prior to joining Universal South, Foster was senior VP of marketing at Capitol Records in Nashville where he was a key player in the market breakthroughs of Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, and Trace Adkins, among others.

Foster’s association with country music started early.

Before he was 10, the Wichita, Kansas native had recorded several singles and an album that received local country radio airplay. The exposure led to him becoming a junior spokesperson for the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC).

After he entered the music and business programs at Belmont College in Nashville, Foster got further studio experience and supported himself by recording advertising jingles. He also worked as an intern at Sony Music.

By the time, Foster graduated from Belmont College, Nashville had entered a slump. Unable to attain a full-time position, he worked part-time jobs at Mercury Records, MTM Records, and at the Country Music Assn.

Eventually, he landed a full-time position as a junior publicist at the CMA. He later moved to Sony Music as manager of publicity working campaigns for newcomers Ricky Van Shelton, and Mary Chapin Carpenter as well as overseeing publicity for Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, and Joe Diffie in addition to working in artist development.

In 1993, Foster moved to Los Angles to work at Arista Records, then in the midst of break-out debut albums with Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. As senior director of national publicity & media relations, his responsibilities included overseeing media for the label’s artists, including Houston, Braxton, Annie Lennox, TLC and Kenny G.

After three years, Foster moved over to MCA Records. However, after two years, he left MCA, which was going through significant restructuring, and returned to Nashville in 1998.

He was soon hired as president of artist development at Arista Records. Eighteen months later, he was promoted to senior VP of marketing. While at Arista Nashville, he created national marketing campaigns for such artists as Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis, Brooks & Dunn, and others.

Foster heads Universal South during a period that traditional retailers continue to disappear and even Wal-Mart, by far the largest seller of country music, devotes less floor space to music. At the same time, the Internet is being hailed as the future selling tool for music overall.

While almost all country artists have their own web sites as well as MySpace and Facebook pages, a disturbingly revealing March, 2009 survey by the Country Music Assn. of 7,500 people indicated that country's digital penetration is significantly less than that for other music genres.

The survey found that only 50% of core country fans have Internet access at home. That statistic sharply contrasts with a 2008 survey by Nielsen Media Research that found that 80% of all American homes have a computer, and almost 92% of those homes have Internet access.

What’s more the CMA poll revealed that 42% of country fans who do not have home Internet access have no desire to change the situation.

As well, the poll also revealed that core country fans are more likely to be female, between the ages of 25 and 39, married, white and from small towns. This group, according to the research, drives nearly half of all country music revenue.

Tony Brown and Tim DuBois launched Universal South in 2001 with the goal that it would evolve with a mainstream roster into a multi-genre label.

I think with having Shooter Jennings, Cross Canadian Ragweed and a lot of acts that were signed within the first 5 years, it led that way. Tim and Tony are really creative music guys. What I needed to do was also make (the label) mainstream too. We started the call with Randy Houser and the Eli Young Band breaking at mainstream country radio. But still keeping the integrity of the Eli Young Band with their Texas audience too.

Today, Universal South doesn’t look like a traditional Nashville country label? Am I wrong?

No. I think we are the only label in town that has a recording studio in the building. I love musicians coming in and out. We record overdubs here. If there’s something the (studio) staff are excited about we all can immediately listen to it and move very quickly on something.

Would you sign a non-country act?

Yeah, if I believed in it enough, and I felt that I could market the band and give them the best success. Absolutely.

Was the recent CMA study a jolt? That fewer than 50% of country fans have internet in their homes, and many of those don’t want the Internet. That surprised me.

I was surprised too. It is interesting considering that over the past four years there’s been the shift of a younger demographic into our format that Taylor Swift, Kelly Pickler and a lot of the “American Idol” artists have brought. You would think that (internet use) would have become much higher.

Taylor Swift may be up to 17 million tracks sold on iTunes, but that’s because of her being a top 40 crossover act.

I think that’s where it really comes from. You can’t sell that many (tracks) to a P1 (country) consumer. I don’t care if you are the Dixie Chicks or Taylor Swift or whoever. You are getting through the door of country music but where you live is in the multi-genres of music lovers.

This may lead to country radio programmers turning their backs on acts they think are too pop-oriented.

Yes. It’s a matter of are they crossing over or is the audience slowly finding them. I think musically the Dixie Chicks probably never left (country) even if you put aside the political ramifications. They were still very much making country music.

Country radio lets artists go to a certain point with cross over and pulls them back. But the labels like those big sales numbers.

You are right.

The CMA research indicates that married females 25-39 from small towns drive nearly half of all country music revenue. Does that impact A&R in country? It seems to be a narrowly defined core.

It is isn’t it? You do think, “Okay, what songs am I going to have to speak to that core P1s to get through?”

Maybe that’s why we haven’t broken as many female artists as were once in the format. You had the early ‘80s when there was Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea and that phase. (Females) sort of went away for awhile and came back with Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Now, they have gone away again.

Now there’s this “young” (artist/audience) resurgence but it is still tough to have a female break through in the Top 10 as a radio artist. There has just not been that consistently--other than with Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Its male acts or groups that have (broken through). The question is would a Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” really speak to a 35 year old woman? At the time I don’t know if my marketing mind would have gotten around that.

This year, Eli Young Band’s “Always The Love Songs” climbed the charts, and Randy Houser broke big with “Boots On.”

It is pretty exciting here. Everybody knows how hard it is to break new artists these days in a world becoming more and more consolidated with radio, syndicated programming and stuff like that. You either have to have a magical record that reaches the consumer or you have to invest a lot of energy.

You did non-traditional country marketing for Randy Houser.

We have been unconventional with him. The first single ("Anything Goes") was a somewhat lyrically controversial ballad talking about jeans on the bedroom floor (“I'm searchin' for my blue jeans on a stranger's bedroom floor”). We had some stations that had problems with that but it’s what got him on David Letterman. That was the verse that Letterman freaked out about.

A label would usually not go out with a hardcore ballad by a country artist first time out-of-the-box. But you made a conscious decision to release a ballad rather than an up-tempo track.

That is unconventional. My thinking was that his vocal performance was so amazing and the song could have easily have been Song of the Year if it caught wind; and, if it didn’t, we would establish him as a credible artist and a great vocalist in the format. I figured we could then take that base and run with it whatever way we wanted to go determined by how much success that we had.

Why not lead with a single that is a ballad if 50% of the core country audience is 25-39 female? A ballad would seem to be a natural.

You would think so. But radio programmers are mostly male and now with (the introduction of) PPM (the Portable People Meter) some of the bigger markets are concerned about how they read PPM. Some of them are saying that certain musical things automatically have people switching the channel. And ballads may be one of them. I don’t think we know exactly what (PPM data) means yet. We are still making a lot of assumptions on what it is.

Programmers have always said they don’t have enough up-tempo songs, but if a ballad impacts, it’ll stay on radio playlists forever.

Yep, and the ballad is the money song 9 times out of 10. You are probably right but you have to first get past the gatekeepers.

Randy Houser’s video, incorporating home video of 4-year-old Drake Dixon rocking out to “Boots On,” has become an Internet sensation.

That was where luck and timing all matched up. It was a matter of discovering a video of four-year-old Drake shot by his nanny in the back seat of a car. Then us finding it, licensing the footage from the family and making a (video) concept around it that incorporated Randy. By the time, we got the video made (with Randy) there were a half a million stream of it on YouTube. This was a great tool to make people aware of the song but it didn’t brand Randy as a new artist. That is why we had to incorporate him into (a new video). So what I did was think of a treatment that we could back into the footage as it pre-existed and have that footage make sense. It may be one of the most inexpensive videos I’ve done in my career. We probably shot it in less than two hours and with a crew of two people.

The original video had a half million streams before adding Randy?

Yes. It went up on Perez Hilton’s site one day and got a few hundred thousand (streams). The next day, we had calls from “CNN Headline News,” CBS “Good Morning,” and “Good Morning America.” They were all putting it up with intros and out-tros going into commercials talking about how you had to see this kid. CMT sent me an email the other day that they are still getting 10,000 plus streams a day (on the upgraded version).

Phil Vassar’s hilarious video for “Bobbi With An I” (featuring a guy who shows up at a country club dressed as a girl) premiered exclusively at AOL’s Why go to that platform first?

Obviously, the content of that song is not the most conventional country music lyric ever sung. (It’s about) a cross dresser. But having actor James Denton (from “Desperate Housewives”) in the video spread Phil to a new audience that was receptive to the song and to the video. It’s a more mainstream video that takes Phil into that (mainstream) world, something that we might not have been able to get with Phil by himself.

When marketing Eli Young Band and Cross Canadian Ragweed do you think, “If we get radio fine but what else can we do?”

Cross Canadian Ragweed and Eli Young Band are both from the Texas-Oklahoma area. Both made a great living without (signing with) a major record company. Both have come to a major record company. If they wanted to go to that next level they needed that marketing and promotion support a major record company offers.

In this case a major record company, Universal South, went to them.

In both cases, they wanted to go to that next level but on their own terms. CCR has a new album coming in the Fall. It’s their first record in 2 1/2 years. We kind of let them go and make the record that they wanted to make. They are who they are. They know their audience. They know the kind of music that they want to make. We let them make that record and we’ll do our best to support it and take it the consumer.

The Eli Young guys knew that to go to the next level that they had to work with a major label. Here was a band that was making a couple of million dollars a year before they even came to us. They had three records out, more merch than most country acts out there and they had their own lights and bus and sound. They were selling out Billy Bob’s and other big venues before we got involved. Our challenge was to take them to the next level.

What can you as a major label offer a band like that? They probably sell CDs at $20 each on the road and their merch sales are huge.

That’s what they have to figure out. Major labels aren’t for everybody and I’m cool with that. It is a matter of what you want out of a deal or what you are expecting a major label to get for you --either in marketing support, distribution, artist development, or financial resources.

As a local band are you really happy making the income you are being a local band? That is where the Eli Young Band was. They were selling out dates in Texas, Okalahoma, Kansas and Colorado. Their challenge was how to get into Chicago and Atlanta. They just played Atlanta for the first time and sold 900 tickets. How did that happen? It happened primarily through country radio and music videos. That wouldn’t have happened if they were still just being played on a handful of stations in Texas and Oklahoma.

What was the first single you made as a kid?

I don’t know (laughing). I honestly don’t know. I made it when I was really young and a local (Wichita) country station played it. We pressed some copies up and then someone working with the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) heard it and tracked my parents down and I became a spokesperson for ARC. It was a matter of me being young and from that area.

After high school you went to Belmont College in Nashville to study music. Why not go to New York or Los Angeles?

I was from Kansas. My parents weren’t going to let me go to New York or LA. That was a little bit much for an only child. I started at Belmont in commercial music, just briefly. Then I figured if I was going to (be in the music industry) I should take business classes more than music classes. I had a pretty good sense of music chord structures and I could pick a lot of that up by having conversations with my friends. I felt what I needed to know more about was the business, that’s when (my life) began to shift.

You did jingles as a singer?

It was great to do jingles because you can knock one out fairly quickly. I did (sings) “The Heartbeat of America is today’s Chevrolet.” in the ‘80s. I worked with (Bob Farnsworth’s) Hummingbird Productions and worked through some ad agents that would package commercials with their ad buys. Here I was in college and I was making some nice money for 30 minutes of work at the most.

You took on an internship at CBS while at college where you came to learn the business end of the music business. You have said, “The foundation of what I know now, I learned there.”

That is when my mind-set started switching. I made myself available (throughout the company) because I wanted to learn everything. Whenever I wasn’t in class I would go there. I would be there first thing in the morning until my classes and, after classes, I’d return and I’d be the last person to leave.

When you graduated from Belmont in 1985, you couldn’t get a full time job in Nashville for some time.

What happened is that country industry had come off that “Urban Cowboy” phase during which it had exploded so much. Record companies had built up staff and were then starting to stream line operations in ’85.

You were a fresh new face in the music business.

I was competing with people who had been in the business for years. I had to fight and say, “I will do anything, for whatever.” And I did. I worked three part-time jobs. I’d either be at Mercury Records or MTM Records in the morning, and then I’d go over to the Country Music Association and pack up the mail in the afternoon. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I was at Mercury Records. Tuesday and Thursday, I was at MTM. Afternoons I would go to CMA. Eventually, I got promoted at the CMA from being the mail room guy to working on “Close-Up” (magazine) and working in the information department. Then a job came open at Sony.

The secretary at MTM then was…

Trisha Yearwood worked there when I was there.

You then worked in publicity in Sony in Nashville.

That's where I worked my way up though the marketing umbrella of the record industry into artist development.

Did you realize that being a publicist wasn’t the way to get ahead?

It was more that my mind functions more like a marketing person than as a publicity person.

I don’t care if you are doing A&R or sales, to be really great at what you do, you have to have a marketing sensibility. If you are listening to songs for Phil Vassar or Joe Nichols, if you know that artist, know what he would sing and know his audience, then you are going to be better picking the songs that would work for that artist and for his audience.

Why the switch from Sony in Nashville to Arista Records in Los Angeles?

I had been in Nashville for a long time. I wanted a new challenge and (to discover) different thinking. Nashville is a great music community but you can get into a mind-set if you don’t watch it. I was in my 20s and I figured “If I am going to (move) I am going to do it now instead of in my 30 or 40s.”

With my knowledge of country music, I figured I could keep one foot in the country music (world) and, if I went to LA, I could work in the Hollywood world too and make some connections. So I went out to LA and worked at Arista.

You were responsible for getting several artists their first national network exposure, including Alan Jackson on the Grammy’s and Billboard award shows, Pam Tillis on “The Tonight Show,” and Brooks & Dunn on the “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

Arista Nashville had just started up with (founder) Tim Dubois (in 1989) and everything was just exploding. We were popping Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Pam Tillis. Everything was happening. That created a groundswell of success for country music in general.

It was also a time when country music blossomed around Garth Brooks’ success. Country music became mainstream. It used to be that (night-time TV programs) would only put one country artist on every week or two. Then it got to the point where they wanted a country artist on weekly basis. The Nashville industry was so successful during that period. The littlest of country artist could walk away with a “gold” record in those days.

You also worked with Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and Annie Lennox.

Annie Lennox is one of my favorite artists and her (1992) “Diva” record is still one my favorite records. I worked with Phil (Vassar), Toni Braxton, Kenny G, Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow and so many others. We started the LaFace Records' joint co-venture out of Atlanta (with the producing duo Antonio "L.A." Reid & Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and with early successes by TLC, and Toni Braxton).

In Los Angeles, you worked the full spectrum of publicity and marketing nationally. How did that impact you?

I definitely think (the experience) made me think bigger and, still to this day, it helps me think outside of the box. Some times I’ll take a step back and think, “If I was in LA, what kind of things would I be doing?” Although things have dramatically changed since I was there. But there are relationships I built up out there. Many of them can be useful now in going forward (with a project). Many of them can be useful now in going forward (with a project).

You wouldn’t know those people if you hadn’t worked in Los Angeles.

Exactly. I can call somebody up and ask, ‘What are you working on now?” They may be working on a boot campaign. I can say I have this Randy Houser boot song. You never know.

You still use the telephone as a prime means of communication?

I love the telephone. I think people hide behind it. For me, it’s “Pick the phone up” instead of going back and forth. Just talk it through and figure it out, especially when there’s conflict.

Is Keith Urban a rocker at heart?

I think he is a musical country artist that loves to rock. He can find a great guitar lick but he wants to produce records that have country sensibilities with banjo and mandolin in them as well.

We had our challenges at first convincing the industry that he was a viable country artist. Keith and I talked about this early in his career. Being Australian, he got his country influences from the United States, and got his rock and pop influences from Europe.

What made him so suitable for the American market?

There were two things, primarily. One, he’s incredibly talented. I remember the first time I took him to LA and had him do an acoustic showcase in front of people with the “Tonight Show,” the Grammies, and ”The American Music Awards.” They had heard me talk about him but once they saw him (the attraction) was immediate. He didn’t need five musicians behind him. He’s an incredibly talented guy who could stand up and play with only a guitar.

Secondly, from a credibility point, he was able to talk to the purists of country music, fans who are the gatekeepers. He could talk intelligently with them and convince them he was one of them. Just because you are Australian doesn’t mean you don’t have a history in country music. Even if he wasn’t from the States, Keith has an appreciation and knowledge of Glenn Campbell who he grew up on, and who was his musical mentor.

Keith, along with Martina McBride, is one of the few country artists with profiles in the U.K. Most country acts don’t even go over there.

They don’t, because the artists are so busy 365 days a year. Early in their careers, they are in trying to get a lock hold in this state (Tennessee). If they do have success they are then touring 250 or 300 dates a year throughout the U.S. Then they have radio success. And they go into that (touring world). So where is the time?

How do you convince an act to go to Europe when they are making $50,000-$100,00 a night in the US?

On a smaller scale, it is exactly the problem I had with the Eli Young Band. Here was a band making tens of thousands of dollars playing in Austin, Texas and I’m going, “Okay, you need to go to Chicago and do a date that is going to cost you $5,000 or $10,000.”

How do you convince bands to make the jump when they will lose money?

The question is, are they investing in their career. Do they want to be a coast-to-coast American artist? Or do they want to stay down there. The Eli Young Band sold 900 tickets in Atlanta even though it was their first time there. So will they go back there? Yeah, because it will probably be 12,000 tickets the next time.

You have to play 4 or 5 times in a market to really make an impression.

You have to make sure that the entire marketing machine from radio to publicity to visibility in the marketplace has been elevated each time you go in.

In 2003, you were a judge for the Miss America Pageant

I met someone at the going-away party for (former Recording Industry Assn. of America chief) Hilary Rosen. She introduced me to someone who was on the Miss America Pageant board. They had one spot open for a judge. So I took a week off at Capitol. It was amazing. People who think it is just a two or three hour show on television don’t understand the process. I had a new appreciation once I saw how hard these girls worked. And I picked the winner (Ericka Dunlap) from the very beginning.

Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.

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