We sit down with Eric Alper to understand Taylor Swift’s marketing genius, why fancy suits don’t fix everything, and a few hot takes on music’s future (hint hint… Comcast is coming).
Eric Alper is a Canadian public relations expert with many years in industry working as the director of media relations for eOne Music Canada. He now runs That Eric Alper, his own PR firm. He’s one of Canada’s most in-demand influencers and has worked with numerous artists such as Snoop Dogg, DJ Khaled, Ringo Starr, The Smashing Pumpkins, and many more. In addition, he is the host of ThatEricAlper show on SiriusXM.
The Politic: I know you’ve been asked this before, but I think it’s really useful to set a scene and start by telling your story: so how did you get a start in the music industry and why specifically public relations?
Eric Alper: So my grandfather has a bar in Toronto called Grossman’s Tavern and it’s one of Canada’s oldest running venues. I remember as a kid going and seeing all these amazing artists like Jeff Healey, Rough Trade, and a number of other solid Canadian bands. I was mystified by the community aspect of what music really is.
I can’t play an instrument, and I tried– I was in the worst cover band in high school and it was awful. But, I had a subscription to Billboard magazine when I was 12 and got super interested in reading about the people in industry and how it worked. The more that I was reading about music, and not just about what was #1 on the charts – but the history, people, and thought process behind the artists and musicianship – it all blended together in a way to help me find out more about America and Canada and what was going on in the world. This kind of led me down a lot of rabbit holes.
Bruce Springsteen has said that he learned more about the world in the grooves of a 45 record than any of the classes that he took in school. It felt the same way for me. Music was the leaping point to find out more about the world around me and to do good. So, when I went to university, I volunteered at the campus newspaper and worked for the campus radio. I knew I wanted to do something in music, but because I had no talent, playing was completely out of the question.
When I graduated, I realized there were a few things that I could do, and so I did them. I started up a record label, a booking agency, and then a PR company. I dropped the first two and kept on doing PR since it allowed me to work with a lot more bands rather than go broke on a record. This was back in 1994, so there was a really huge movement of “Do it Yourself” from grunge– Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The indie spirit was in full force so I kept doing it, and I was either too stupid or too smart to stop. And every day I was around, I’d be working with indie artists with no business having a publicist whatsoever. but I was cheaper, faster, and worked longer hours than anyone else. I figured that if I kept to that philosophy, sooner or later I’d stop making as many mistakes with artists.
That led to a job offer working for a record label that had the first release from Nickelback, and then we changed distribution companies to a company called Koch. The president asked me if I wanted to work 400 artists instead of 3, because at the time, all their labels were American based and they knew nothing about Canada. They would give me promo copies and bios and tell me to do what I could– and I’ve been doing that ever since. Koch merged into a company called eOne, and I left that to start my own PR company two years ago.
You really had first pickings! So you spoke about how music is something that is collaborative to you, and I know this is a major problem statement that a lot of companies like Spotify have posed. Where do you think media and PR fit into collaboration, and how do they bring artists this collaborative spirit?
Yeah, I mean right now we’re seeing uploads of about 22,000 songs per day to Spotify and other streaming services. YouTube has a billion music videos on there, but only a half-percent of those videos are actually getting more than a thousand streams or a thousand views. So you end up with a giant triangle of the music industry where the top not even one percent, but one 10th of one percent, is actually doing really, really well, and everybody else is in the middle struggling to survive and keep going.
PR just gives those artists and those bands, musicians, and record labels another leg up to help spread the word about what they’re doing. Whether you’re a new artist or an old artist, your competition isn’t another band from your city or another band from your state. Your competition is the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Adele, and Drake. It’s every single artist that has their music available on that same platform because they’re all going after the exact same eyes and ears as everybody else out there. And although access to music has never been easier, the audience now has access to whatever they want to listen to, whenever they want to listen to it, and however many times they want to listen.
So the gatekeeper, when I was growing up, was that if you released a single yourself and were able to build a buzz, then another label signed you– whether it was a small indie label or a major label. At the time, there were seven major labels. Now there’s three. Then you did a video which the label paid for, and then you got it on Much Music or MTV. The next time, you couldn’t even walk down the street without getting mobbed. You went on tour, made a million bucks, and that was the road to take.
And there were very few roads to actually take. If you were a rock band, you had to tour the country like crazy and try not to go broke or kill your drummer. Now, if you’ve got 12 songs on your album or release, you’re kind of thinking about making videos for all 12 of them – once every month – just to keep the buzz going and to not get ignored. Back then, you were just worried about getting paid, and now you’re just trying to break through the complete white noise of all the releases that are out there. So publicity is a really big part of that in working with the media, whether it’s print, radio, TV, blogs or music streaming services, and explaining the story of why they should be covering one artist over another.
“The other artists” are kind of faceless, but the more that you read blogs or daily newspapers, or the more that you listen to the radio, you realize that the press is telling the story about why you should care and why the artist matters. And it’s not so much about “this is the drummer” or “this person plays saxophone better than anyone else out there.” You have to make it compelling. My job as a publicist is to try to get those stories out there– explaining the artist’s thought process and why it’s interesting that this artist is actually creating music in the first place. What does this album have to do with the last album? Is there a story behind the title of the record or the new single? Why did they choose to collaborate with these people? What does the video have to do with anything? What are the fun stories to read about?
Unfortunately, nobody really wants to read 22,000 words anymore like those long pieces from Rolling Stone– though I do, and I love them. Now you’re just trying to get five or six lines and a blog or a video link. So PR’s changed a lot because the actual gatekeepers and the roads to take aren’t just one or two anymore; there are dozens and hundreds and thousands around the world. I don’t care whether or not somebody from Milwaukee happens to be listening to artists from Zimbabwe or in Canada. For me, a stream is a stream and a view is a view. It doesn’t matter where they’re coming from.
It sounds super daunting in the age of SoundCloud and Spotify. Like you said, “artists are storytellers” and a lot of life is about selling your story. At what stage in an artist’s career do they come to you, and what kind of campaigns can you run to push them above the white noise?
They’re really coming at all aspects of their industry. Before, I never used to work with anybody unless they had a strong record label behind them. One that was willing to put marketing dollars into buying more advertising and putting them out on the road to do promo tours and visits to radio stations. They had to have strong management. Somebody with a real clear direction on where they wanted to see the artists going in a year: if they were just going to put out a couple singles and call it, or if they get to do something bigger. Then they needed to work with a booking agent and give me a reason to contact other cities across America or in Canada.
I needed to know what exactly we were promoting– if we were promoting shows, singles, or the album. All three of them were pretty separate.
Now I’ve got artists and bands that are coming to me three weeks after they started, saying that they’ve got a new EP ready to go and that’s okay. They can totally get together and record in their house and get it up themselves, becoming their own distributor by putting up their own music on Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud. They can even book their own tours, or not even go on tour. And if it hits and the music connects, people don’t really care how long they’ve been around for. I’m seeing artists contact me really early compared to years past, as well as artists that have been dropped from their labels but still have their manager and booking agent. They just may not have a record label that’s willing to put money into their projects, but for the most part that’s okay because they’ve got money and they don’t need anybody else’s money to release the album. They’re just manufacturing CDs for the stage sales or the merch table. So those artists I’m working a lot with: artists that have been around for 15, 20, 25, or 30 years that have an established audience and love going on the road. It’s a little bit easier to promote those artists because a lot of the people in the media already know who they are.
And for some of the campaigns, especially early on for those newer artists, it’s just doing a lot of blog outreach around the world. It’s just trying to get them noticed and working with the artist a little bit closer these days on making sure that their social media is up to date, that they’re posting a least once a day, and not just saying “buy my music,” “buy my single,” or “stream my video.” It’s telling me about yourself. Tell me what you love to do. Tell me what it’s like being a musician. Make the audience love you, not just your music, but make them like you as people because the artists that you love– you probably know more about than anybody else. And that’s exactly what artists today have to do. It’s not just about creating that next big song. It’s also giving yourself enough to connect with the audience on a more human level.
I’ve been watching some of these “out there” campaigns. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Arcade Fire one.
Yep! I know them well.
Sweet, so I personally really liked what they did with that– have there been any memorable campaigns that you’ve run?
I haven’t worked so much on campaign style. I think obviously in hip-hop people starting beef with one another is always really cool because media continually gets fooled by stuff like this, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, Cardi B is dropping a new album.” Sometimes you don’t want to make the campaign supersede what the music is really all about. I think with the Arcade Fire one, they had the right idea. I think what they wanted to do is make a really good and big statement about the state of, not only the media, but also of the world where we’re easily fooled by “fake news” headlines, clickbait, and fake documentaries.
I think they wanted to make a real good statement, though it might have not hit in the way that they wanted to because a lot of Arcade Fire’s fans take them seriously. Their humor has always been there, but for some reason, it just didn’t click. I remembered that they were doing a number of shows where they told people to dress up – no band shirts, no t-shirts – but dress up as if you’re going out to dinner because they wanted to create an aura and a different experience for their audience. And it kind of rubbed people the wrong way– people who were like, “dude, I don’t even have a dinner jacket.” And so I think that kind of stuff is always fun to try and do, and it certainly got Arcade Fire in the media a lot because of their campaign. But you never want it to always be just about the campaigns, and not about how good the music is, because they put out a really solid record.
So to me it’s not so much about the on-off campaigns. Take a look at what Taylor swift does on social media. I don’t care if somebody loves her or hates her in terms of her music, but she’s able to really connect with people. Just like, you know, “here’s me with my squad,” “here’s me at an animal shelter,” “here’s me doing this and here’s me doing that– by the way buy my single!”
She’s connecting with people all the time, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. There’s nobody that does social media better than she does, and that’s what I think every artist should be striving for. Not so much the front page of the gossip columns, but just how to be real. Because at the end of the day, you’re stuck with yourself, and long after the album kind of fades away from people’s spotlight, you still want to be able to be true to yourself and to your audience. They’re the ones that are gonna stick with you through thick and thin.
Right. So it seems like in the age of social media, what you really need to do is put out quality content with a consistent upload schedule and still somehow keep the audience fully engaged. It just sounds like a tall order.
I hear artists all the time. It sucks that they just can’t concentrate on the music and build their careers and get better as musicians by practice. Every hour that they’re practicing kicks them away from social media and talking to people, posting, taking photos, or doing videos about what’s behind the music of the song. But that’s what the audience is demanding. And once you’ve stopped listening to what the audience wants, you start to get into real trouble. Artists would just be creating for themselves, but I think now it’s a little bit different because you have to try to create for yourself. If you want to break through everything, you’ve got to connect, and you’ve got to figure out what’s gonna work well with the audience.
Not so much that you’re pandering to them whatsoever, but it’s very easy to just not realize that there’s a whole world out there. There’s your client and there’s your audience base. And if you put out something that’s garbage because you’re not concentrating on practicing and recording good music, I don’t care how good your campaign is, you’re still not going to sell it.
So it seems like in the last five, maybe 10 years, a ton has changed. Tech like Napster was a huge change back in the mid 2000’s or earlier than that. In the age of streaming, have record labels and core industry shifted? Has there been structural change?
Streaming put the power back into every single person’s hand that loves music. So it’s not just, you know, 10 or 15 people in your city or in your state that can get to control the music scene. Music blogs now have their own Spotify playlists where they’ll write about a couple of new artists per week and add them to the playlist in order to keep readers on their site a little bit longer. So what it does is it makes everybody a curator, and that’s a real amazing thing to have. Just like when Napster first started, the ability to share files was something that nobody had access to previously. You weren’t allowed to. And if you did, if you didn’t have access to music or new albums, the most you could do is to physically bring that CD, cassette, or vinyl on over to somebody’s house and play it for them.
There was no way that anybody would actually have an audience for something unless they got a job on the radio, and there were very few jobs open for that. And on a show, you end up with very tight radio playlisting. There’s only a handful of companies that own all the radio stations in America, and they’re pretty much playing the same songs on the same format. Whether you’re in Miami, Florida, or in New York, these people have the power to play whatever they want to play because they’ve tested it.
But now we’re all DJs, every single one of us, since we have the ability. We don’t even have to have a blog. We can start our own playlist on Spotify and show the world what we’re listening to at any time of the day. Thanks to social media, you don’t even have to live in the same neighborhood. You can have followers halfway around the world in different time zones and post whenever you want to. You can start your own blog and your very own musical revolution by sharing what you love and not having to wait for anybody else to give you permission to do so.
I feel so young here because the only music I’ve really listened to has been during the streaming era. So I’ve had everything at the tip of my fingers. It’s kind of shocking how much things have changed in my generation.
And it’s tough because you also don’t know who to believe. You can go to 100 different blogs and 100 “best” albums will pop up on that week. You don’t have 95 hours a day to listen to music, so you find those curators, writers, editors, bloggers, and those radio stations that you trust to sift through all of the releases and all the garbage and all the great stuff in order to find stuff that is amazing– which is why Spotify does what they do so well. Not only do they have pretty smart human curators to actually go through each of the listings and new releases and find the stuff that they think I’ll enjoy, but also personalized music that they think I’m going to like based on my past listens. The amount of data that they have is just incredible.
How does Google know that I visited this website seven weeks ago when I keep seeing ads for it? Spotify does the exact same thing where if I listened to Drive-By Truckers, next week I’m going to get the new Steve Earle album, right? That’s amazing! I don’t even have to know whether Steve Earle has a new album– it’s right in front of me. I kinda trust those people at Spotify to kind of find what they think I’ll like, and more often than not it’s pretty bang on. When Napster was around, you only got to have access to – illegally – the music that somebody had already uploaded, and it was horrible. To be able to try to even put together an album was difficult because everybody would upload the same exact Madonna song. If you wanted the whole album, you had to wait for somebody to upload it. And then it would put the power completely out of the artists hands to actually deal with distribution.
The industry had no idea what was popular anymore. Once the files went up on Napster, you could have 4 million people download that song, but there was no way of knowing about it. There was no way of knowing what was an underground hit unless you suddenly put tickets on sale and 10,000 people bought them.
If the artist and the audience want to work together and go through the proper channels, not only getting the artists, record labels, and distributors paid, but also taking advantage of the sheer amount of data that can be provided once it’s done legally– it only benefits the actual consumer in the long run. So I love that. I mean Napster was kind of fun. It was like being a kid in a candy store again. But it was still illegal.
Yeah, I’m kind of the kid in the candy story with Spotify.
So I think I have enough time for one last question– I’m going to bring this back, kind of like a time capsule. Six years ago you were asked where you saw the industry in five years, and you spoke about having the Canadian industry members address what would happen to Spotify, iCloud, intellectual property legislation etc., specifically pointing to the growth of streaming, and I think you were pretty spot on!
I should have bought stock!
Well, Spotify only went public a short while ago, so you didn’t miss out on too much.
Yeah, I should have applied for a job to be COO.
Back in 2011, you’d have made a lot of money! Though recently, there have been a couple major lawsuits raised against these streaming sites, led by artists like Neil Young, showing dissatisfaction by the industry and content creators. However, music consumption is at an all-time high. I’m going to be lazy here and ask the same question considering your take was spot on: where do you see industry in 5 years?
I think only the strong survive in any business. We’ve seen that the world only needs one Google. It only needs one Amazon. And everybody else is just going to go after the breadcrumbs that are left. It’s going to be immensely hard once you are already in this world and in this field to lose any momentum. I mean, these companies are too big to fail almost. But, as you know, things come and go. We used to say that about Myspace: “Myspace is the only thing that matters.” And then look what happened to them!
But I think where it’s going to go is– we saw this week Sprint offering deals to Tidal and buying into a little bit of Tidal’s philosophy and business structure. I’m just waiting for that moment to happen where stuff like Netflix is now on your cable bill. You don’t think anything of it, you pay one price, and then it’s going to be lumped in with the other telecommunications companies. I go through my server and my telecommunications company in order to access Spotify. So I think it only stands to reason that one day telecommunication companies are going to wake up and realize that they need to make a deal. They’re going to make a deal for Spotify, Tidal, iTunes, Google Play, or Pandora. Once that happens, it is going to explode in terms of the money that is going to be given back to the artists and the record labels.
It’s one thing for you and I to go on Spotify and pay for it separately. It’s another for my parents to be able to have Spotify on their cable bill without thinking about it, and that’s where the tipping point is going to happen. It’s going to be the people that already have that billing cycle there. All streaming services need to do is just tap into that. For all I know, it could be happening now– or you might see it a year or two down the road. You can’t just wait on 40 million people around the world to pay $10 each, although that’s a really good business model. If you really want to change the industry for the better, you’ve got to get the other 90 million people with access to a credit card and cable down. That’s when it’s gonna start to explode.