One Label Head Reveals The True Cost Of Doing Business, And Country’s Unique Challenges

Radio-Info.com Phyllis Stark  8//10/10

Cory RobbinsNew independent labels continue to set up shop in Nashville, sometimes at a rate of what seems like two a month. But what are their chances of success, truly? And what are the real costs of trying?

“Some of them will succeed, but most of them won’t,” according to one label president who has had big successes in multiple other genres but, thus far, hasn’t managed to crack the country marketplace.

After almost 30 years of running successful, profitable labels in New York, Robbins Entertainment founder and president Cory Robbins has an interesting perspective on how differently the country format operates compared to most others. In 2007, he set up shop in Music City with country label Robbins Nashville. He maintained an office and staff there for two years without scoring a hit, much to his frustration. [In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Robbins as VP of A&R for the Nashville division from 2007-2009.] Last year, he closed the Nashville office—although not the label—and consolidated operations back to New York. He’s still eager to work in the country genre, a format he’s genuinely passionate about, and is regrouping for another try down the line.

Meanwhile, Robbins readily admits that foray into Nashville cost him about $50,000 a month. That price tag included six salaries, recording costs, rent, supplies and that big ticket item: record promotion. While $50,000 a month is a lot of money to burn through, it’s actually frugal compared to what many other independent labels spend. In Robbins’ case, the existing staff in New York handled all of the back office functions, including legal, sales, business affairs, and mailroom functions, and those salaries were not attributed to the Nashville division’s bottom line. If they were, Robbins says, “I could have easily doubled that number.”

Robbins NashvilleRobbins launched Robbins Entertainment in 1996. Since then, the label has had many big hits in the pop and dance music markets, including Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch,” “What Hurts The Most” and the platinum selling “Evacuate The Dancefloor,” as well as D.H.T.’s “Listen To Your Heart,” September’s “Cry For You,” Darude’s “Sandstorm,” and DJ Sammy & Yanou featuring Do’s “Heaven.”

Prior to launching Robbins Entertainment, he was president and co-owner of Profile Records, a seminal label in the rap, reggae, and pop music scenes known for such hit artists as the multi platinum-selling Run-D.M.C., as well as DJ Quik, Rob Base, and Judy Torres. Robbins founded that label in 1981.

For all of those reasons, Robbins thought himself well prepared to crack the country market. One of the things he soon discovered is that country runs in a unique little ecosystem, with rules that sometimes don’t make sense to the rest of the industry. And he thinks some of those rules may actually be causing harm to the overall health of the country format.

“I thought that country music would be no more difficult than top 40 music, and it is,” says Robbins, who believed the timing was right for his long-planned foray into Nashville when he saw labels like Big Machine and Broken Bow having success, as well as isolated hits from indie acts like Heartland (then on Lofton Creek) and Emerson Drive (on Midas). “It was very encouraging,” he says.

“I’ve worked in several genres successfully: R&B and hip-hop and top 40 and dance music. They all have their idiosyncrasies, but I didn’t think country would be that different in so many ways, and the ways that really drive me crazy.”

For instance, Robbins says what passes as an “add” at country radio would barely qualify in the pop world. “Why is the quality of the adds so crappy,” he asks. “What’s accepted as an add by record companies is five or six spins a week, all overnights. That’s considered an add that you should be happy to have. I don’t think any other format that I’ve worked in feels that way. In top 40 you would certainly not be happy with an add like that.

“If they’re only going to play it once a night in overnights, they might as well take it off,” he says. “It’s not doing us any good. It just makes the record look bad. It doesn’t sell, it doesn’t research and of course not, because who heard it? If you have one play a day in a good time of day, I’d say, ‘OK, at least they’re giving it a shot at some audience.’ If they’re playing it in the evening, once a night, I’ve started records like that. If a record’s good it can break out of that. But if you’re putting a record in at 3 in the morning, once a night, it has no chance. But that’s accepted by record companies in country. People don’t complain when they get that, that’s the usual way. That’s wrong. I don’t understand how that came to be acceptable.

“I’ve heard people get excited because they got an add in ‘full light.’ That’s great! You got full light. Really? That’s not how it goes at other formats.”

While adds at New York top 40 station WHTZ (Z100) are tough to get, Robbins says songs that do get added there get 30 spins a week in all dayparts but morning drive. “That’s an add,” he says. “Then you know in a couple of weeks if you have a hit record or not. They believe in their decision making well enough that when they put a record in, they really play it.”

Robbins has also been discouraged by how slow the country chart is, and how slow some stations are to add proven hit records. Case in point: Lee Brice’s 51 week (and counting) ride up the charts with what’s now his top 5 hit, “Love Like Crazy.”

“It’s a great record, so why does it take so long,” he asks. “It’s clearly a hit record. It was a hit record 49 weeks ago. It’s a hit record now. Why do you have to wait so long to play it … or bump it up?

“I’d love to ask somebody at Curb if in working it for so long, even though it’s a hit, will they lose money? Every week they work it costs them money. If it takes a year to make a record a hit, that’s a year they should have been working four [other] records. Can they make their money back? They have other things to work and other successes, but it does take a certain amount of dedicated overhead per record, and every week it’s more and more. Of course on a stiff you’re going to lose money, but can you lose money on a hit? Maybe. Unless Lee Brice winds up having a big album, I wonder if they’ll even make money on it.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Robbins says. “So why is it so slow? Why is country radio so conservative?”

Another of Robbins’ pet peeves that’s sure to be controversial is with the notion that radio programmers need to feel invested in the act before they’ll commit to playing the record. With new acts, programmers often ask to hear more music beyond just the single, they want to meet the artist in person, see them perform, and they want to feel confident the artist is going to have a career with legs.

Robbins calls all of that “a bunch of bulls*&t. Who cares? All your listeners want to hear is hit songs.” He cites an example of a particular artist who had one massive hit two years ago, and thus far hasn’t had another. “Was it wrong to play that one,” Robbins asks. “Of course not, it was a smash.

“If [radio programmers] knew at the time he would never have another hit, would that stop them from playing such a great record? Why should it? If the listeners like a song and are reacting to it, you should play it. It shouldn’t matter whether you think the artist is going to have a career. That’s really not your problem. As a record company, that’s my problem. I want that more than you do.

“One hit artists are, unfortunately, a fact of all formats occasionally. But that hurts the label more than it hurts the radio station. The radio station played a hit song.”

Despite his frustrations, Robbins says of country, “I really love the music and I’d love to have some success in it. I still don’t think it’s impossible. I just haven’t figured out how I have the best chance of doing it yet.

“In country it’s tougher,” he admits, “but I still believe if you have the right record in country it can become a hit. I still do believe if you have that unbelievable, unstoppable record, you can have a hit.”

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