Industry Profile: Jeff Walker
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jeff Walker, president/CEO, The AristoMedia Group.
Few things are as genuinely Nashville as Jeff Walker.
The president/CEO of the AristoMedia Group is a virtual PR sandwich board for Music City U.S.A.
For 30 years, Walker has—with great gusto and sizeable strategic smarts—been working there, bolstering the careers of such country music giants as Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Shania Twain, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels and Jo Dee Messina.
However, Walker hails originally from Australia.
He came to the fabled American country town in 1974, primarily to visit his father—legendary musical director/producer Bill Walker. After graduating from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Economics degree, and a major in accounting and law, Walker visited Nashville, and decided to take a job at a downtown CPA firm.
Soon afterwards, he began overseeing the books part-time for Con Brio Records and Publishing, a music company his father operated. After only a few months, he quit his CPA job to become VP of operations for Con Brio.
During his three-year tenure there, Con Brio racked up 47 nationally charted singles for such artists as Don King, Dale McBride and Terri Hollowell (who became Mrs. Jeff Walker). Con Brio was named Billboard's Best New Country Label of the Year in 1977.
In 1980, Walker formed The AristoMedia Group. Its early success as an independent publicity firm (since rebranded as the Aristo P.R. division) prompted Walker to expand his business into video promotion in 1983.
Through its ground-breaking video promotion, The AristoMedia Group played a pivotal role in the growth of music videos in country music. The company also played an integral role in establishing the careers of such acts as Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Sugarland.
Meanwhile, The AristoMedia Group also began to provide publicity and video promotion for the Christian music genre. This included overseeing video promotion of such premier acts as Michael W. Smith, Third Day, Point of Grace, and Relient K.
In 1994 Walker formed The Goodland Group to provide video duplication services. A year later, he launched Jeff Walker & Associates, which offers international and domestic consultation services.
In 2004, realizing that there was a need for dance club promotion for country artists, Walker created the Marco Club Connection.
In 2006, The AristoMedia Group launched AristoWorks to develop new media opportunities for clients, and the company branded its Christian video services division as AristoVision.
Since 2005, Walker has hosted, and co-ordinated the annual Global Events of the Country Music Association Festival. This is a series of showcases--sponsored by The AristoMedia Group, and the CMA—that brings the best international talent together. For many of them, it is the first time they’ve been in Nashville.
The AristoMedia Group was launched in April, 1980 which makes it 30 years old.
We started out essentially as a PR firm. Then, in 1983, we segued into video promotion because artists, independent artists in particular, were bringing me videos and saying, “Hey, we want to get these on the air.” So we put a little network together and we started promoting these videos.
In ’89, we took that (video) concept and applied it to the Christian industry, and we expanded to a second department there. Then, in ’91 we got into the radio promotion business with the Marco Music Group. It was initially all of the big stations. After a couple of years, we (decided to) focus on the secondary radio stations in the United States.
Who are The AristoMedia Group’s current clients?
We have 16 people working here, and we have different departments. In publicity, we are doing a lot of stuff for Charlie Daniels. He has two albums about to be released. We are doing the Country Radio Seminar (CRS). We are gearing up for that. We do all of the press and logistics. We have a couple of new acts, DJ Miller and Brad Wolfe, that we are very excited about.
With video, we are working with several really great artists. I can’t tell you all of them. We are working with Billy Currington, Toby Keith, James Otto, and Laura Bell Bundy.
In the dance club area, we are currently doing a big promotion for Blake Shelton. We wrapped up on a Reba McEntire (promotion) recently.
[The Country Radio Seminar is an annual convention designed to educate and promote the exchange of ideas in the country music industry. Country Radio Seminar is a registered trademark of Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc. CRS 2011 will be held March 2-4, 2011 in Nashville.]
Country is undergoing a slight demographic change with the popularity of Taylor Swift and others; and with country radio now trying to attract the next generation of country listeners.
That (shift) is happening with a lot of these younger acts now. Taylor has been great for the country format. What an amazing career she has had in the last 2 1/2 years. It is just tremendous, really. Mass media has embraced her, and the cross-over potential (just continues).The more artists that we get like that, balancing with the other (more traditional) artists that we have in the format is pretty exciting.
Sugarland fits in there too.
Sugarland definitely fits in. Do you know that you can certainly drive to work and hear a Sugarland record, an Allan Jackson record, a George Strait record, a Taylor Swift record, and a Tim McGraw record? This shows what great diversity that we have in the country format.
People aren’t as bothered today with what country is or isn’t anymore. People have recognized that the genre can survive with diversity.
I know. I just heard the new Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson duet (“As She's Walking Away”). It is a marvelous, marvelous record. It is exciting to have this sort of record in the format. Then, there’s Lady Antebellum with, “Need You Now,” which is one of the biggest songs of the year. They will sell more records than anything. You can’t tell me that these aren’t mainstream artists.
It’s exciting what is happening to this format. It is almost like the rock music of the ’60s and ‘70s. Where do those fans go? People that have the same taste in music. Where do they fit in now? If you can combine (classic rock) with Easton Corbin's “I’m A Little More Country Than That,” you almost have within a country format, a JACK (radio) format of music because the music is so diverse. It’s a great thing.
Artists like Shania Twain and Keith Urban provided early breakthroughs for that to happen.
Exactly. Keith has been great for the format. He has never denied that he’s not (traditional) country music. He has gone on, and he has held his head high. He’s still living in Nashville, and he’s still saying that he’s a country musician. That fabulous. It’s hard to deny when you look at his roots. I wish Shania would record another album. Boy, she was great for the format too. She made such good music.
Managers and artists often have unrealistic expectations of promotion and marketing. Do you sit down and strategize with them before starting a project? Say, "you need this and this service, but not this service."
They are the type of discussions that I like to have. It all depends on the level that an artist is at. We try to spend as much time, and to be as client-interactive as we can. It is made easier by email, and by cell phone (today). One thing that I have noticed over the years, is that I don’t have as much personal time as I used to have. Just because we are so accessible with all of these (communication) tools like Skype that are so inexpensive. It’s a great tool to have.
You started out as a publicity firm but, with print media and other things becoming harder to attain, you then had to diversify.
I don’t know if I had to diversify. I wanted to diversify to keep it interesting. I could have diversified into management. Over the years, people have come through my doors and asked, “Will you manage me?” But I never got into that side of things. There are other areas that we could have gotten involved in. When I saw a need for something, I just tried to fulfill the need because I liked the challenge of it.
Publicity has also evolved.
Even the definition of publicity has changed. There is so much new media involved now. We have (to consider) that internally here. When somebody hires us for publicity, and not new media, where do you draw the line? Because some of the new media is really a publicity function as well. If we are not hired for new media, and we are hired (only) in publicity, then we have to do some other things.
What do you make of the recent Country Music Association consumer study that indicated that country fans are adopting new media and technology at a brisk pace?
With the advent of cell phones, all of the (new) technology, and all of the promotion that those companies are doing, I think that people have been forced to accelerate their acceptance of (new media and technology). The CMA research really reflected that, and it’s a great thing for country music, and for all forms of music. I know that digital has slowed down in the past couple of months, but I think it is just because people are readjusting their (digital) plans and have dropped their catalogs (from some services). It will start to pick up again, I believe.
A decade ago, labels had bigger staffs to handle marketing and promotion. With fewer staff at labels, are more opportunities coming your way?
Yes. We have definitely seen a pickup (in business) because (labels) need the help. One of the things that the labels should have picked up on, is releasing more product, not less. It still astounds me that we are so radio-driven with our albums. Instead of picking six or 10 new (potential) singles for an album and putting it out, why not do a Broadway tribute? Or a Christmas album? Or a “songs that I wished I had sung” album and create a catalog, particularly for these (indie) labels. Why not create the catalog yourself? Where you make money is in the catalog.
Albums today are released so far apart.
That’s what I’m saying. You have to build up that 'accounts receivable,' and not wait.
What do you think of Warners’ $6 "Six Pak" CD concept that debuted with Blake Shelton's six-track "Hillbilly Bone" release?
I am all for experimentation. Obviously, that came from a request from Wal-Mart, which is the biggest country retailer (in the U.S.). They said that they wanted the opportunity to sell records in this configuration. So look, whatever it takes. I hope it works for them. I really do.
Country music remains more reliant on CD sales than other genres. If the music industry drops the CD configuration, country would suffer more than other genres.
You are probably right. Country hasn’t quite morphed over to the fully digital model, because the demographic skews a little older.
Why only work secondary radio stations? Because the majors have the big stations covered?
I think so, yes. Also, in order to work the major market stations, you have to have regional people out there visiting the stations. If you are going to do it in-house, directly from Nashville, then you have to be able to make a difference. We found that we could make a difference just by focusing on the secondaries. We have an in-house staff doing all of that.
For every Big Machine Records or Broken Bow Records that becomes a major country music player, there’s labels like 903 Music, 1720 Entertainment, Category 5, Country Thunder Records, Equity Music Group, Midas Records, Golden Music, and Montage Music Group that have closed or been phased out.
Several of those owners have said they didn’t have the leverage to promote artists and records at country radio. It is too expensive.
It is an expensive proposition getting artists out there; taking them on radio tours, and paying for accommodations, plane fares, meals etc. It is a major expense. When radio is the gatekeeper, which they still are, particularly in country music, you have to take a line of least resistance, and work the gatekeepers (in creative ways).
Country is an adult targeted, mostly 35-54 format, and radio plays to that target. New music takes a while to catch on. For new country acts, it takes three hits before they can book good shows. Each single may cost $500,000 to $1 million to promote.
That sounds about right. In the past few weeks, we have had a rush of new releases by Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, the Zac Brown Band, Carrie Underwood, and Sugarland. If you are a brand new artist trying to get a slot on the radio station and they have two slots a week, and (programmers) have all of these superstars bombarding the airwaves, it’s a really tough thing to do.
Those major acts are also touring and making waves. Most new artists can’t afford to tour.
Many people still feel that if they send radio a “hit,” they will play it. Unfortunately, not true. Sometimes, not true even if you spend $1 million trying to make a hit. Nobody wants a new act unless it has a well-connected manager or booking agent. Who pays tour support these days, too? Nobody.
No, because the labels are hurting too. Their sales are down because of the (lack of) shelf space in the major (retail) conglomerates. With Wal-Mart and Target, they are only racking the Top 10 anymore. You walk into some of those stores, and you see that the record departments are a third or a quarter the size of what they used to be.
You have been involved with video promotion since 1983. MTV, of course, was launched two years earlier. You participated in the first meetings at Country Music Television (CMT), which developed a strategy for country videos.
Back in ’83, I saw a real need for (videos) to help break acts, particularly indie acts in the format. I grew up in Australia, watching the Beatles break using film clips. That is what gave me the idea to push this side of the business, which has been really successful. We are still seeing healthy video production here in Nashville. The thing is that there are so many visual opportunities now. People are using (video) for different things. Now, if they can monetize it as part of applications, etc. then it makes it an even more valuable tool. When people shoot a video, they can shoot a press kit and do other things associated with it.
Digital sub channels are providing new programming opportunities for video at many levels, including local, regional and national shows.
There are still opportunities out there (for video). We just did a comprehensive status video report for country and Christian (formats), which is available on our website. It shows the length and width of (video outlets) that are out there. Since we released (the report), we have had calls from people interested in finding out more about how they can start shows or how they can get involved with their radio station and do more (video promotion) timed to their local television outlets. Hopefully, the buzz generated from that (report) will help grow the (the development of video promotion).
[The AristoMedia Group’s 2010 Video Outlet Status Reports contain data compiled over the last year in the country and Christian music formats. The annual reports include a look into the trends and opportunities available at national, regional, syndicated, pool/closed-circuit and online video outlets.]
Are there differences in the usages of videos by country and Christian artists?
Country has the opportunity of having CMT, CMT Pure (CMT Pure Country--the digital channel) and GAC (Great American Country). There’s this new country network (The Country Network) that is being kicked off the ground, and (there’s) all of these video opportunities to go into closed (video) circuits. There are lots of opportunities to see country videos. Christian is a little more limited. Those outlets don’t play as much product. If there’s a scantily-clad maiden or people sitting in the corner smoking or drinking they are not going to play those types of videos. Generally, the amount of product isn’t quite as available to them so you don’t see the quality of big shows.
Christian crossover is growing with the popularity of Deas Vail, John Reuben and Abandon Kansas. Do country video programmers generally use Christian artist clips?
GAC has the Sunday morning show, “Positively GAC” that helps to show some of the Christian artists.
Well, that’s a form of ghettoizing. Few Christian artists have had mainstream airplay or video airplay in country. Perhaps it is because they aren’t as well known.
Yes, it could be because of that too. Some of the major Christian artists are now taking another look at the AC (Adult Contemporary) and trying to get involved in that market. I think that’s a good thing.
Video has become a strong tool in attaining local media for artists while touring. Certainly, magazine and morning shows on local TV stations are receptive to videos.
It helps you sell the act. The more tools that you have, and the more visual tools that you have, helps sell the talent co-coordinators. We have this new Downcast service that we offer, where we send out EPK-type cards to about 9,000 media outlets around the country. We have gotten network television bookings off those things. Network people see these artists performing in this area, and they not only book them (for an appearance), but they might add some of this information to their website. What is so great about (the EPKs) is that use is instantaneous. You can send the information out at 7 o’clock and at 7:20 it is up on somebody’s website. It is fantastic, it really is.
[In 2009, in partnership with Travis Television Productions, The AristoMedia Group co-developed the DownCast service, a video content and electronic press kit distribution service.]
Radio has been slow in using video on their websites.
That is changing. They are seeing the need and the opportunity for it. Clear Channel has a separate video channel (department) that programs a lot of the websites. They go through and screen a lot of the product. Obviously, they want to make sure that they are playing the record on the (individual) radio station before they schedule the video.
Labels keep seeking to monetize videos. Maybe, they should just try to put videos on as many platforms as they can.
You have to be able to promote your artists, and find different ways for people to do it. I think that applications (apps) will be the thing of the future. Where people can buy the whole application, and they can get the full album, the videos, he album art, the song lyrics, the tour schedule, and updates on the artist. For $12 or $15 they can get everything that they want for a year or two, or whatever. Then they can renew the application. I think this is the wave of the future. It is where the record companies are going to find their revenue.
Marco Club Connection handles dance club promotion.
We work with a network of about 250 dance clubs around the country that are airing country music or that are doing promotions with country artists. We have developed this network over the past two or three years to let people know what is out there. This is an alternative way to get (an artist’s) music heard. With many of these clubs, the disc jockies from the (local) radio stations are there nightly programming music. So, it’s another chance for (radio programmers) to hear the music and see the (crowd’s) reaction. People also hear the music in clubs and they can request it at their local radio station.
You came to the U.S. in 1974 from Australia. Was your father already living in Nashville?
Yes, he was. Our family went to South Africa when I was very young. My mom and dad got divorced there when I was 9. My brother (Colin) and I went back to Australia with our mom. Then, when Jim Reeves made “Kimberly Jim” in South Africa, dad did the soundtrack. Jim asked him to come to Nashville. The week that dad got here was the week that Jim was killed in a plane crash.
[In the early ‘60s, American country star Jim Reeves was more popular than Elvis Presley in South Africa. Reeves toured South Africa and recorded several albums there. In 1963, he starred in the South African film, “Kimberley Jim.” In 1964, Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel died near Brentwood, Tennessee in a small airplane crash.]
Your dad also recorded Floyd Cramer, Duane Eddy, and John D. Loudermilk while in South Africa.
My dad recorded a ton of (artists). He has quite a biography. Very checkered. He was Johnny Cash’s musical director (for ABC-TV's “The Johnny Cash Show” that ran from June 7, 1969 to March 31, 1971.)
Hard to walk behind such a famous person?
Yeah, but I was so removed from it going back to Australia. I used to see dad on TV when Johnny Cash would say, “Goodnight Bill Walker.” I’d see it every Sunday night in Australia. Johnny would say that, and the camera would zoom down to dad.
[Australian-born Bill Walker holds a distinctive seat in popular music. In the ‘60s, he worked for RCA Records in South Africa, recording visiting RCA artists from the United States. When Jim Reeves came to South Africa to film “Kimberley Jim,” Walker was hired to write the score.
In 1963, NBC-TV asked Reeves to host a variety show. He asked Walker to be the show’s music director. When Walker arrived in New York, he learned that the private plane which Reeves was piloting to Nashville had crashed on July 31, 1964.
Walker opted to stay on in the U. S. His career skyrocketed after writing arrangements for an Eddy Arnold album that included “Make The World Go Away,” which stayed at #1 for three weeks on Billboard’s country chart and reached #6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
As the music director of ABC-TV’s “The Johnny Cash Show,” Walker worked alongside such as acts as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Merle Haggard, James Taylor and Tammy Wynette. Cash closed his shows by shouting, “Good night, Bill Walker!” leading Columbia Records to issue the album “Goodnight Bill Walker” by the Bill Walker Orchestra.
Walker later worked as an independent producer for Capitol Records, overseeing sessions for Roy Rogers, Billy Walker, Ferlin Husky and Wanda Jackson. He also produced both of Donna Fargo’s 1972 #1 country hits, “The Happiest Girl In The Whole U. S. A.” and “Funny Face.”]
You studied to be an accountant. You have a degree in economics.
Yes, I have a degree in economics with a major in accounting and law which has really helped me run my business for 30 years. As part of learning how to be an accountant, you learn how to handle money. You learn how to budget. You learn how to understand how everything works on the business side of things. I think that this has helped me run a successful business. I have watched so many businesses come and go in Nashville since I got here. It has been a real education.
Is it a true story that you decided to come to Nashville after meeting Johnny Cash backstage in Australia?
That part of the story is true. But I actually came over to work at an accounting firm in L.A. My plan was to spend 6 months with my dad in Nashville. Well, when I got here the guy running the office in L.A. wanted me to come out there immediately. He got very confrontational with me. So I went downtown and I got a job with a firm here (in Nashville). I called my boss in Sydney and I resigned. I said, “I’m not going out to a city where I don’t know anybody with a boss that is already being confrontational to me.” So I got a job here. I lived with dad for a few months until I got an apartment. Then my brother came over, and we lived together for several years. Then I got married, and he went back to Australia.
In 1977, you began working at your dad’s label, Con Brio Records. And you met your wife Terri, who was a singer on the label.
Yes she was. She did a great job. She toured England five times. She did the Wembley Festival. She co-hosted five shows on BBC-TV with Ronnie Prophet. She did several festivals over there. It was an exciting time for her. Then she had our son Jonathan in ’81, and decided that she didn’t want to (perform) anymore.
[Born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, Terri Hollowell signed with Con Brio Records in 1978. In the next two years, she had five nationally charted singles, including, "May I,” "It’s Too Soon To Say Goodbye,” and a remake of the Beatles’ "Strawberry Fields Forever.” During this period, she made five trips to England and appeared at Mervyn Conn’s International Festival of Country Music at the Wembley Arena in London, toured with Don Williams, headlined her own club tour, and co-hosted five BBC TV specials.]
Con Brio Records had some good records.
The catalog is up on iTunes. We run a digital record label called GMV Nashville (launched in 2007) and all of the Con Brio stuff is up there. My dad’s (orchestral) album tributes to the Statler Brothers are there. (“The Hits of the Statler Brothers” and “A Gospel Salute to the Statler Brothers.”)
[Also available is a Bill Walker collection of gospel standards, titled “Reach For The Hand” featuring his wife Jeanine.]
How active is your dad today?
He’s doing great. He and Jeanine play at events and sell records. He still writes arrangements. Occasionally, he will do a recording session with someone. He is sort of semi-retired. He hasn’t done television for several years, since the end of the Statler Brothers’ show on TNN, (which he directed).
How did you adapt to being Bill Walker’s son in Nashville?
Initially, I was Bill Walker’s son. Then, when I was running Con Brio, I was doing a lot of songwriting with Don King. So I became Don King’s co-writer. Then, I married Terri, and I became Terri Hollowell’s husband. Now I have my son and daughter working in the business. Jonathan works in our new media department, and Christy works in our publicity department. So I am Jonathan and Christy’s dad. I have always had to fight for my own identity, Larry.
How cool was it for you to work with Keith Urban? Being that you both are from Down Under (Urban is from New Zealand) you’d certainly have an understanding of his background.
I worked with him practically all through the ‘90s. Through the early ‘90s to early 2001, when he was getting The Ranch going. That was a great time. I saw him go from just starting out--and not really having anything--to where he took the Top New Male Vocalist of the Year at the ACM Awards (at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2001), under our watch as publicists. It is just great to see the international and global success that he’s had. We have always believed in him here.
What period of time did you work with Shania Twain?
We worked with Shania through all of her albums. We worked every video that she put out. We worked with and promoted her and had just a great time with those. Boy, you talk about a great machine over there at Universal under (chairman and CEO) Luke Lewis; how they orchestrated and set up those releases. It was a fantastic thing to watch and be part of.
Who hired you to work with Shania?
The label hired us. We had relationships there, and we were always there and accountable to them. If they needed something done, we got it done. That is one thing that I have tried to ingrain in my staff. That we have to be client-friendly and do the right thing by our clients.
You also worked on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” project.
We were part of the team for that with Mercury Records. John Grady was over there (as senior VP) at the time. Honestly, our meeting on that project was six months before it was released. We knew that it wasn’t going to be radio-driven. Of course, it ultimately became more radio-driven. We knew that this would have to be video-driven because of George Clooney in the video and everything. So we set up a strategy, and a marketing plan to do that.
Certainly, nobody envisaged the impact that “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” would have.
John Grady did. He’s very much a visionary. Just the enthusiasm that he had (for the project), it was infectious with everybody else.
As a soundtrack, it changed the music business to some degree.
It really did. Certainly T-Bone Burnett has continued to go on from strength to strength.
[The soundtrack of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” has sold more than eight million copies. It won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002; the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for singer Dan Tyminski (whose voice overdubbed George Clooney's in the film on "Man of Constant Sorrow"), songwriter Harley Allen, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band's Pat Enright; and the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "O, Death" by Ralph Stanley.]
In what period of time did you work with Alan Jackson?
We worked promotions for a lot of his earlier videos, from ’89 to ’93. With the "Chattahoochee" video (named as Music Video of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1993) we were really involved. We set up the promotions for “Chattahoochee” to take it to the next level. At the time, (people) felt that they were putting Alan into a different image. “Here’s a country singer that is going to be on water skis (with his cowboy hat) out on the lake. What do we all think?” So we set up a bunch of fun things. It was really exciting. He’s quite a guy.
You are still working with Toby Keith and his label doing all of his video promotion.
We have worked with Toby for a lot of years. He’s a dream to work with. He knows what he wants, and he’s well-managed. He has surrounded himself with a great team. His music is very diverse. That has helped to insure the longevity of his career. I’m really proud of what he has accomplished.
Since 2005 you have hosted, and coordinated the annual Global Events for the CMA Music Festival.
There are so many great (international) acts. Some of the country talent coming out of Canada and Australia is amazing. In Australia, Adam Harvey, and Troy Cassar-Daley are incredible. Boy, with Canada, you just have to look at Johnny Reid. I know that he’s not traditional country, but what great music he is making. All of these people should be big stars in the United States.
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.