In a town where everybody says, “It all starts with the song,” it’s amazing how often the story gets left behind. With icons like Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, their larger-than-life realities spring as much from who they are and how they got here as their singular recorded output.

Yes, promotion takes it to radio—and reaches country fans seemingly effortlessly. Absolutely, marketing makes it happen in the marketplace. But with a genre famous for turntable hits—lots of #1s, but not always commensurate sales (tickets or otherwise)—it’s the publicists who stoke the story.

 “What makes the artist unique,” says CBS EVP of Specials, Music + Live Events Jack Sussman, re-sponsible for the Grammys, the ACM Awards and the network’s other music-driven specials, “is the story from the team, especially the managers and publicists. It’s what lifts an act beyond the hits or the facts and makes the artist someone people can relate to and invest in. People forget—this is television; it’s not a radio show. When someone watches, they need to care.”

Caring is everything in our information overload world.

“With all eyes on Nashville,” says Sweet Talk PR founder Jensen Sussman, who reps Florida Georgia Line, Kelsea Ballerini and Chris Lane, “and the steady influx of amazing talent, it is even more important to set a rising artist apart. Where and how you read/hear about them will impact the impression. So, with each press look, I think of it as a first impression, a way to make new fans. I’m always asking myself, ‘Is this the right outlet at the right time for this artist?’”

It’s not as simple as it looks. Says GreenRoom PR co-owner Tyne Parrish, who’s responsible for Garth Brooks, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and Thomas Rhett, “I think we’re in an interesting place somewhere between people having the attention span of 140 characters and desiring something deeper. It’s a balance, and certainly something there’s no formula for.”

For Ebie McFarland, whose Essential Broadcast Media represents Eric Church, George Strait, Darius Rucker and Kenny Chesney, it means digging deeper. “It’s imperative to look beyond trends and what’s expected to separate your clients, especially your developing clients, from the pack. We tend to lean into the emotional connection, while using touring, chart success or music releases to anchor timing or create a sense of urgency. I want that moment and momentum to serve as a call to action, but that’s timing for stories that have to be compelling.”

McFarland cites breakout Ashley McBryde and “the power of one song.” Using “Girl Going Nowhere,” McFarland messaged the every-girl anthem of being told you can’t, and then, as Springsteen would sing, “pulling out of here to win.”

“Her journey was not without struggle and disappointment, but she channeled those emotions into equally powerful music,” says McFarland. “Leading with her story charged people’s emotions —and it drew a fervent response. Television was clamoring, and the critical media ‘heard’ her truth in a way that set her in motion.”

“When it comes to country, most of the mainstream media seem fixated on sonic variations or definitions, not necessarily the story,” explains Big Machine Label Group SVP of Publicity and Corporate Communications Jake Basden. “Instead of asking, ‘What makes this country music?’ we should be creating a narrative that gets the media to ask, ‘What makes this matter?’ It starts, though, with managers and artists taking the media seriously. Fifteen minutes is a joke, especially since 10 will be spent talking about nothing. How do you make a meaningful impression or set yourself apart doing that?

Instead, Basden asserts, “Treat every single interview with attention and care, as if every person around the globe will see it. No matter how big or small, you just never know, because a really good interview will get picked up by other media—since they’re so rare. Look at your interview with Miranda Lambert: I’m not sure I’ve seen a trade article get such widespread pick-up since the Grammys earlier this year.”

For UMG Nashville SVP of Media Marketing Lori Christian, the time and place for artists is also critical—whether it’s a superstar or a developing act—to fan the flames and build momentum. “For Alan Jackson, it was a CBS Sunday Morning piece on the heels of his Country Music Hall of Fame residency and installation that helped launch his album Angels and Alcohol, but it also fell right in the middle of our 25th anniversary campaign, which created a lot of conversation about his incredible body of work.

“With newer acts,” Christian says, “you need to go where your champions are. For the launch of Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, his first two TV appearances were The Late Show with David Letterman and The View. The Letterman booking fell slightly before launch, then the week of launch we had The View, surrounded by print features and rave reviews. We saw instant impact during and after his performance on The View, not only in sales but through social media, because people were primed.”

Caring is critical. For BB Gun Press founder Brian Bumbery, whose firm reps Shania Twain, Wynonna, and Cam, as well as Madonna, Metallica, Green Day and Duran Duran, it was the personal connection that drew him to The Band Perry. “They reached out because they liked what My Chemical Romance did with The Black Parade,” he recalls. “I flew out to meet them, walked on the tour bus and fell in love. They were like family immediately, and they didn’t want to do the obvious things. That’s a big thing.

“We’re in a business of people saying no, so I try to find the people who say yes,” Bumbery says of his strategy. “With the ones who might be resistant, I tell the story through influences, life experiences, whatever gives it dimension. I look at the artist first: Does it move me? You can tell the ones whose lives depend on making music. When there are so many artists, it’s a crowded business.”

As one manager who asked not to be named lamented, “Checking a box in today’s world doesn’t cut it. Like, ‘Yeah! We’ve got Rolling Stone Country. Look what we did.’ If it doesn’t mean something beyond the moment, it doesn’t mean anything. You have to keep building, and developing the story.” 

Sarah Rodman, who cut her critical teeth at The Boston Herald and Globe, moved to the Los Angeles Times and is now the Entertainment Editor at Entertainment Weekly, considers the debate about print journalism. She says, “Everyone can talk directly to the audience, but the media helps to contextualize it. On some level, everyone knows your story on social media is curated, whereas even a friendly feature employs independent consideration.

“Making the artist think about the art is a start,” Rodman continues. “It’s not just an amplification of the art itself, it’s a different, journalistic way of interpreting the message. If you’re reading, you’re getting to spend more time with those artists.”

Basden also ponders that expanded message with artists ranging from Reba McEntire and Rascal Flatts to breakouts Carly Pearce and Midland, as well as the wildly visible BMLG founder Scott Borchetta, who served as a mentor on American Idol before launching his own global show, The Launch.

Watching media’s evolution, Basden wants to up the margins. “To survive in communications at Big Machine, you have to always be a student of the game, constantly studying and learning various types of media and influencers,” he points out. “You could be making a partnership announcement with NASCAR, helping Big Machine Vodka announce a new partnership, talking to international media about The Launch. All these people love some kind of music, so you’re switching gears.

“While nothing beats the credibility of the late-night shows, NPR, top magazines and newspapers, we can’t sit idle waiting for them to embrace our clients,” Basden continues. “Content distribution isn’t the problem, it’s content creation, which is the most difficult and expensive to do well. It requires a good amount of creativity and the right team. Think about Carpool Karaoke—it’s simple, relatable and fun. The right artists can create that series, and their labels can fund it. If it works—and you have to be smart—it monetizes itself.”

Present-day intricacies like collaboration with digital marketers and cross-promotional and branding opportunities make getting the story told that much harder. As McFarland points out, “Time is the biggest challenge; newer artists rise quicker due to streaming and playlisting without having time to build relationships and develop a real story. The time to do key shows in L.A. and New York isn’t there when you’re trying to establish your artist. And on the network side, when they haven’t seen the artist perform, you’re competing for a finite number of spots that feature all genres of music, comedy, TV and film. Creating a strong sense of story and urgency is key.”

Bumbery, who’s repped Kassi Ashton since she graduated from Belmont University, agrees. “In the streaming world,” he says, “pop open an Apple playlist and it’s all there, closer than ever. But if you go to individual outlets and tell the story, you go from being one more single to someone who stands out. It’s why CBS Sunday Morning wants to do a piece early, because I played them her music, told her story and connected it in a way that stands out.”

Other media-savvy practi-tioners of the craft include Sony’s Allen Brown and Warner’s Wes Vause, roots-cred indies Asha Goodman at Sacks & Co. and Jim Flammia at All Eyes Media, out-of-towners and multi-genre houses including Jim Merlis and Ken Weinstein at Big Hassle, Shock Ink’s Elaine Schock and Paul Freundlich at PFA, as well as longstanding mainstreamers including Jesse Schmidt at Schmidt Public Relations. Collectively, the men and women crafting the stories put in long hours, juggle countless phone calls, schedules and demands and seek to lift up the artists they’ve taken on.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, but one thing hasn’t changed over the decades: It’s the artists who mean something that stand out. Connecting the dots of humanity and life experience with the music—that’s where a savvy media person makes an unquantifiable but crucial difference.

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