“When you’re commissioned to promote records, there’s one rule of thumb: No fear of failure. If there’s fear of failure, you will never succeed. You can’t enter the battle and be afraid you’re gonna lose.”
—--Richard Palmese


Promotion Legend Richard Palmese on Breaking The Lumineers at Pop, the “Rhythm Wall,” Irving, Clive and Much More
When somebody finally builds the Promo Guy Hall of Fame, Richard Palmese should certainly be among the first inductees. The charming, avuncular veteran is a consultant at Azoff Management (he’s joined longtime friend and manager/collaborator Irving Azoff in moving from Live Nation to the next entrepreneurial chapter). But he’s also working with outside acts independently, recently spearheaded the breaking of Dualtone’s indie phenoms The Lumineers (#1 Hot AC and #2 Pop this week) and Ultra/Roc Nation/Columbia’s Calvin Harris at Pop. He’s the kind of guy who can utter a phrase like “slam-dunk smash” (see below) with complete authenticity.

After working as a morning DJ at KSHE/St. Louis, Palmese started on the ground floor with Clive Davis at Arista in 1975, rose to SVP Promotion in five years, and then worked his way up the MCA ladder to a five-year tenure as label prexy. He then reunited with Davis in ’96 as SVP at Arista, and in 2000 became EVP Promo at his mentor’s new label, J Records.

When J, Arista and RCA were combined as the RCA Music Group, he held the same post there. He’s played a vital role in the careers of more artists than we could possibly name, but that’s never stopped us from trying: Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keys, B.B. King, Usher, OutKast, Carlos Santana, Rod Stewart, Sarah McLachlan, Dave Matthews Band, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, Gavin DeGraw, Luther Vandross, Dido, Sean Combs, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Pitbull, Jennifer Hudson, Calvin Harris and Ke$ha.

Given his brilliant history and current success, it’s all the more baffling that Palmese consented to answer a bunch of annoying questions from HITS’ Editor in Chief Lenny Beer and Contributing Editor Simon Glickman.

LB: Let’s talk about the success of The Lumineers, the noteworthiness that this is a rare instance of an indie record on an indie label cracking the Top 40. How were you able to accomplish that, and what do you think it suggests about what’s happening at the format? Let’s talk about the record and how you’ve done the campaign.
The first thing I want to say is, not only does it come from the indie world—but boy, does it ever sound indie. I mean, it’s really a folk song, you know? And very foreign to what you expect to hear on Top 40 radio stations today.

SG: It’s almost like a modern-day “You Are My Sunshine.”
Yeah. I think what works to our advantage is that the climate at Pop radio is more open to new sounds—different sounds—than they have been, because there’s no longer that, what I like to call, rhythm wall. It’s kinda like the Berlin Wall—it finally fell down. And it’s allowed different non-rhythmic, even more sophisticated music, to find its way onto Pop radio. So if you look at Gotye, or you look at fun., at Adele—without a doubt—18 months ago, I don’t know if they would have found their way. They may not have.

But Pop radio is experiencing the best ratings in its history right now. I think it’s reacting to the fact that the audience is more diversified in their taste, because we live in a world where you can discover music, so much more music, in so many more places. When I grew up, I listened to WABC in New York. And if I didn’t like it, I’d listen to 1010 WINS or WMCA. They all played the same music. If you grew up in L.A., you were listening to KHJ or KRLA. In Boston it was WRKO; in Chicago, it was the big WLS. They just played 40 records.

Today’s audience has so many places to discover and find music. Obviously, social networking has opened up a Pandora’s Box of opportunities to become more familiar with different flavors of music. And I think Top 40 programmers recognize that the taste of their audience is much more eclectic—and that can work.

LB: And they wouldn’t have accepted that argument a few years ago.
They wouldn’t have. It was all rhythm. So the magic of The Lumineers, I think, ultimately comes down to the song. This is a hit-driven business, and that song is a slam-dunk smash! Yeah, it has a folksy feel, and at the end of the day, this song is a smash that connects with females in a big, big, big way. The fact that we had the benefit of a #1 Alternative record and Triple A record qualified it for consideration, and we had great single sales. When we first jumped into this, in September, we were in the neighborhood of 25,000-30,000 a week. Our hope was that it would be big by the holidays. [The album is closing in on 750k as of this writing.]

LB: It was gigantic by the holidays. Besides the fact that you had a quality product, how were you able to do it to compete with the major-label system, which of any format out there, dominates Top 40 the most?
Not only compete with the major labels, but compete with what I think is the busiest season that I have ever seen of superstars releasing records one after another—and just pushing good contenders back. A lot of the records have fallen by the wayside. We, fortunately, did not. The early strategy that I put into play was, OK, this is gonna be a fight. It just doesn’t sound like anything else, you know? It’s an acquired taste.

But I know programmers. At the end of the day, they will admit that it’s not their ear that matters; it’s the public’s ear. So our job, obviously, is to get past the gatekeeper, get it on the radio, and let the listeners tell you whether you’re right or wrong. That’s our responsibility and our obligation to the artist, and we take that very seriously.

What we did is, we identified stations that were credible—ones that had good ratings in vibrant markets, that heard the record and realized its potential. These programmers, who agreed the record was really special, signed on and were willing to partner up with us, and put the record in and not bury it overnight so that only the people at the 7-Eleven would hear it, because they’re the only ones who are up. They really gave it a good shot, played it in the daytime, when people could hear it and respond to it.

And we didn’t give in to the temptation to just push it onto stations, not caring about where and when it would be played, just to be most added. No, don’t care about that. I don’t care if it’s only two adds. If those two were committed and were really going to give this a shot, and the song was the hit that we heard it to be, it would react. Those stations would then share the reaction and the research with us; we would take those flames and fan them across the country to other markets and tell the story, and build it until the record really got up on its own two feet and exploded, which is what happened.

SG: So it was about credibility and authenticity from the outset.
From the very beginning. I mean, I didn’t give in to it. There are a whole group of independents who, you know, I could pay good money to tomorrow. “You cut a record, you give it to me and I’ll give it to this indie, and we’ll get this station and that station, and let’s just bury it in overnights.”

LB: Yeah, that’s overnights in Modesto.
You’re absolutely right. And it kills records. Smart programmers—most of them are smart—see who you have, and they know. They know this is bullshit play, they know it’s just overnights. So you actually insult them and do a disservice to the artist and the song.

SG: And there’s kind of an instant bullshit test, isn’t there? Because you can look at a record that has a zillion meaningless adds, and even if you decide, OK, maybe it’s still having an impact, you can still measure it against, is it selling singles, is it having any kind of response online, or is there any kind of vibe to it? You can judge that almost instantly.
Yeah, it’s all smoke. When I read that a record’s got 400 spins but the audience growth went from 15 million to 14.6, something’s wrong. That means they’re either getting a lot of airplay, probably overnight, when no one’s listening, and they’re not growing the audience. But if you see a record go from a 14 million to 21 million audience, you know that record is really getting its shot. It’s reacting, and it’s getting played when the audience is there to build.

SG: Obviously, the radio people you went to who are the true believers were kind of the foundation for telling that story. But what kind of resistance did you meet? What did people say who didn’t quite get it?
The typical response was, “Yeah, it’s a great song, but it doesn’t fit on our playlist. It’s not our sound. It doesn’t belong on Pop radio. It’s not a Pop record.” The question is, what was the objection of those who didn’t come on early? And there are still people. We’re still waiting on certain Rhythmic stations.

LB: You put together a team of people and broke Calvin Harris, a record that you also broke outside the system on an independent label. It’s a similar story, except that was a record that fit the formula. But you start to create a team of people that you could put together to accomplish these goals. And then Calvin Harris went Top 10?
Calvin Harris’ “Feel So Close” went Top 10, “Let’s Go” went Top 5 Rhythm and Pop.

LB: Okay, so he’s starting to develop a team that adds to his credibility. You started to know how much people can actually do, in a different way than you ever had done before.
That’s interesting. I had field people before, so I really know what these people can and can’t accomplish.

LB: But the point is that you’ve created a situation that now functioned for Calvin Harris, which may have made it a little easier, but then functions for The Lumineers, which is just as hard as it could possibly be. And now you have this availability for people in the future to come to you and help out the small guys.
Correct. That’s what I do.

LB: So if I’m a small label with a record that I feel has a chance at Top 40, I can come to you and you’ll have the capability of delivering and proving it.
Right, and many have. I’ve turned down more projects than I’ve taken on. I did not want to take on anything that I really didn’t believe in, or didn’t feel that we could deliver. I have been very fortunate in my career. I’ve had the opportunity of working with radio my whole adult life and bringing them really good music.

LB: And because you’ve worked with people like Clive Davis, Irving Azoff and people like that who have been involved with great projects.
Exactly. I’ve been very fortunate.

LB: Can you say a little about Irving and the structure of the company?
I've known Irving for 30 years. He makes the rules and wins the game--always. His visit to Live Nation delivered record breaking-profits for its shareholders. Now he can put his entrepreneurial T-shirt back on—no more suits—and take us once again on an amazing ride. Fasten your seat belts!

Irving is amazing. The magic of Irving is that he gives you all the opportunities that you need to do what you do best, and for you to be able to do it with a smile on your face. And if you need Irving to step in—and needless to say, he’s got a lot of capital, probably more than Obama—he steps in and makes things happen. He’s been a great friend through the years. I’m really fortunate. Irving’s the best.

I consult from my management, Azoff Music, in the promotion arena. So artists that are signed to the company can benefit, if they choose to, from my promotion expertise. I work with the artist. If they’re signed to a label, I’m happy to work—take Christina Aguilera, for example—with the label, like I do at RCA. Now Calvin is on Columbia, so I’m working with Columbia, and they’re doing a fantastic job on his new single. If an artist is unsigned, then I’ll work with the manager and the artist within our structure, and I’ll put in place the team. But I am my own entity: Richard Palmese Entertainment, for lack of a better name.

LB: How many years did you work with Clive Davis?
All in? 25 years. His autobiography is coming out Feb. 19, [published by] Simon & Schuster. They’re very pleased and excited about it. Clive is amazing, and his work ethic is second to none. He’s in early, and when I call at 8:00 at night, he’s still in the office, getting ready to go to dinner. He just finished the very emotional Whitney CBS TV tribute We Will Always Love You and produced a new best-of collection released on his Arista label.

Of course, he’s looking forward to another star-studded pre-Grammy party; L.A. Reid will be presented with the prestigious Music Icon Award. Former honorees include David Geffen, Doug Morris and, of course, Clive. I hear Dennis and Lenny are in consideration for next year.

LB: No comment. So, you just did the John Ivey Roast.
Yes, and it went over very well. We had a good turnout. This is the fifth roast, and I would say, of all the honorees, I think John was really the most excited. He really got into it. He flew his family and friends out from Oklahoma, or Kentucky, I think. It was a wonderful tribute. My co-hosts were Joel Klaiman, who did a funny bit, and Peter GraySteve Bartels was our MC. We had Taylor Swift, who was funny, Enrique Iglesias, Irving—just all these famous people that came out to roast him. Scott Borchetta from Big Machine,  You should see the video, it’s hysterical. David Corey, who was one of his music directors, was there; Cat Thomas from Vegas. Julie Pilat was hysterical. Will.i.am was there in person.

LB: Any parting thoughts?
I think when you’re commissioned to promote records, there’s one rule of thumb: No fear of failure. If there’s fear of failure, you will never succeed. You can’t enter the battle and be afraid you’re gonna lose. I always say it starts with belief. If I didn’t believe that The Lumineers was a hit, there’s no way it’s ever going to become a hit. And I’ve always had really great people around me. I always tried to hire people that probably were capable of taking my job. I wanted that. And, certainly, they had to believe, and also they had to be committed. And I define commitment this way—and it’s corny, but it really does define commitment. It’s the Ham and Eggs Theory. Have you ever heard of this?

LB: No. We’re Jewish.
All right, then: The chicken, who provides the egg? Interested. The pig, who provides the ham? That’s commitment. Because he’s on the frying pan. And that’s the way I define commitment. That’s how I approach it, and that’s how I want people who work with me to approach it. You put your ass on the line. You’re not like the chicken.

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