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MAYBE, JUST MAYBE, PT. 7: THE PROMOTION FAMILY TREE

Over the course of our 34 years at HITS—and for quite a few years before that—I’ve studied the people doing radio promotion. I came to know their styles, their personalities, their tells, their golf handicap. And over the years, I met each new batch of young promo people they’d mentored. And I learned their styles, traceable through the people who taught them the game and the various companies where they were schooled. Every Tuesday, as the add tallies flowed in, I was able to enjoy watching the rising stars of the game turn into MVPs.

Mondays and Tuesdays continue to be action-filled days for me. The promotion wars are sizzling hot, and with haggling and horse-trading over show lineups mainly off the table, more relationship promotion—and more analysis-based conversations—are happening than we’ve seen in quite a while.

The heads of promotion at the major labels have all had historic careers, which have catapulted them into these positions of prominence. They’re at the top of their game—and they’ve earned their lofty positions.

But there’s history behind their ascent—who their mentors were and what promotion “families” they came from. There is a family tree, of sorts, to the promo game, and we’ve been watching it grow for decades.  I had a lot of fun (and ransacked my memory banks) getting this down on paper, so I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to correct any errors, omissions or misconceptions.

By my reckoning, this is how we got to where we are.

Brenda Romano: Obviously the dean of promotion giants, Brenda, now President of Promotion, has held the top promo position at Interscope since very early in the company’s history, having taken the reins after the exit of Marc Benesch. However, it was really in her formative years under John Bettencourt, Phil Quartararo and David Leach during tenures at Mercury, RCA and Island that Brenda truly earned her wings. Then, barrister extraordinaire Peter Paterno, who had switched to the label side, brought her to Hollywood to serve as Head of Promotion; when Peter exited the company, Benesch seized the moment and enticed her over to the House That Jimmy Built. I would credit the tenacity of her leadership to watching the frenetic and charismatic Phil Q and Bettencourt. Mr. Benesch, a great friend but a troubled Vietnam vet who died young, connected one-on-one with Dr. Dre, Suge Knight and the rap giants who built Interscope. When he chose to leave the label, Brenda was immediately named his successor, and has guided major campaigns for the industry giant through the years.  I’ve watched closely as they piled up the wins.

Joe Riccitelli: Another industry veteran, who has been awarded with the title of President, started out in the Bettencourt/Leach years but is most closely known as a protégé of Johnny Barbis. Johnny’s career took him on many promotion stops, as well as into management (Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg). Barbis remains just about the friendliest, warmest human ever to cross my path. Joe is imbued with that same genial kindness, mixed with Bettencourt’s masterful cunning. He’s also renowned for his close relationships with artists; it is industry lore—but entirely plausible—that P!nk demanded to stay with Riccitelli when Arista, Jive and RCA merged. Joe has guided the careers of his artists for two decades, and his longevity is easy to understand.  Being a great guy, the kind of person you just want to hang out with, has gone a long way for Mr. Riccitelli. He’s not the guy gatekeepers ever want to say “no” to.

Peter Gray: Columbia’s current gunslinger, after spending years overseeing promo at WB, is the clear product of two promotion dynasties. He started under former indie-promo superstar and avid golfer Lenny Lyons, and then entered the major-label world under the gentlemanly tutelage of Richard Palmese and the legendary Clive Davis. Peter thus learned right away how to (1) build relationships and (2) survive endless detail-oriented label meetings. He’s grasped the tendencies of his competitors and knows which levers need pulling in order to win. Peter spoke at a class I was teaching at UCLA a few years ago and broke down the analytics and strategies necessary to understand where records stand against the competition. His blend of old-school Clive/Richard training and modern-day analytics made it digestible and entertaining to the novices. I had invited him back to teach a class on 4/15; I look forward to its being rescheduled in happier times.

Rick Sackheim: Rick’s roots in the business are deep. Rick was long considered the best Rhythm-format promoter in the game, but he actually started in rock promo at Restless Records before blossoming into a major all-format exec. He served his first major-label tour of duty under Steve Bartels at Arista, then under Joe Riccitelli at Jive, then returned to working with Bartels at Def Jam. I can’t think of anyone else who commuted from Malibu to New York every week, but a surfer is the chairman of his own board. Now, in the #1 position at Epic, he has leavened his flinty street tenacity with Bartels’ panache, transforming difficult, anti-format records from the likes of Future and Travis Scott into Pop smashes and stardom. I still owe Rick a sushi dinner for besting me in a bet; current social-distancing protocols have spared me an enormous bill.

Gary Spangler: Dubbed “Spangmania” by boss Monte Lipman and known to his friends as Spanky, Gary operates the hottest promotion machine in the business. He first surfaced in the shop of indie-promo kingpin Greg Lawley, then moved to Republic and reported to Joel Klaiman. Under the detail-oriented and seriously demanding Klaiman, Spangler became a ninja at maximizing the chart potential of the label’s copious hits. When Klaiman moved to Columbia and Charlie Walk moved in, Spangler’s attention to detail and his burgeoning relationships complemented the front man. Then, when Gary got the nod, he amalgamated his lifetime of learning and took the department to a decidedly new place. Unencumbered by ego and driven to win, he became a master of moving hits swiftly and efficiently through the system—earning chart positions that surpassed even the high quality of the label’s stellar A&R. I can’t say enough about Gary’s growth in the past few years. He’s earned everyone’s respect.

The heads of promotion at the major labels have all had historic careers, which have catapulted them into these positions of prominence. They’re at the top of their game—and they’ve earned their lofty positions.

Greg Marella: A few years ago, when Greg began his promo reign at the Tower, the buzz in our office about him excelling became almost a company mantra. Wow, he’s gonna get that one. Damn, he’s really overperforming on that one. Yeah, but no way in hell is he taking the Capaldi ballad to #1!  Radio hates ballads; stations are gonna bail—whoa, he did it. Naturally, the talk has changed. Surfaces, yeah, it’s on Capitol; Greg will get it. His path to overnight success was long and winding. He started at Priority Records, mentored by one of my all-time favorites, the late Nancy Levin. Next came a stint at MCA during Craig Lambert’s heyday. Then he truly earned his stripes during a long, successful National promo run on Brenda Romano’s Interscope team, then took his first #1 role for Kemosabe. Greg really learned to be the man from all-time greats. Now, as a major label kingpin, he has his own strong, dedicated crew of lieutenants to tutor. His story is simple and elegant: Greg gets records played.

Mike Chester: It was actually Kevin Weatherly who first told me that Chester was going to be “the one.” I was picking his brain about the best young promo people, and it was Mike who’d caught Kevin’s attention. I was aware of the burgeoning superstar very early in his days at IDJ under Steve Bartels. Chester would walk into the HITS cesspool, and our staff would just light up.  Mike was first hired by Richard Palmese, and then recommended to Bartels, who upped his duties and honed his natural talents. It was clear to everyone who met the warm, outgoing and charismatic youngster: The world was his oyster. Later, he took the plunge and left the label system to join the House of Scooter Braun and worked closely with some of the industry’s biggest stars. This calling card opened every door and afforded Mike relationships at the very top. His sincerity and charm won over everybody—programmers, DSP execs and TV bookers alike. When Tom Corson, newly hired to co-run Warner Bros. (as it was then known), chose to recast his department with youth and power at the top, he was introduced to Chester. After a hypothetical nod of approval from future-partner-in-exile Aaron Bay-Schuck, Tom decided Mike was his guy. Good call.

Ayelet Schiffman: The Island promo domo has one of the most interesting pedigree stories in the business. She was hired at Epic by Hilary Shaev (from the Daniel Glass family tree) and the late, great Polly Anthony, who had by then ascended to the Presidency. Polly was easily one of the greatest promotion people I’ve ever known—charming and brutal all at once. Hilary is brilliant and wonderful, and after Epic she became head of promo for Virgin. Then she ran screaming from the industry to help found the WNBA with Commissioner David Stern. Ayelet has a bit of both mentors in her promo DNA, giving her the necessary qualities to be a winner in a tough game. She sailed to the top of her class, running Rhythm promo at Columbia for a series of charismatic promo crazies under constantly morphing administrations. If that’s not enough heritage for you, there’s this: She partners with “Spangmania” on many of her priorities. All this experience and training has put her into the promo wars at nearly every format, with hit records and major career artists under her watchful eye. Top-of-the-line teachers helped lead her to this moment.

Nicki Farag: Talk about finally getting the nod as the promo #1 under difficult circumstances. Nicki’s number was called during a madly tumultuous phase in Def Jam history. She had to trim her staff and fire her best friend. But let’s not go there now; let’s start where she did. She was hired into the business by Ken Lane and Erik Olesen at IDJ, both of them tied to the Daniel Glass school of promotion. (She shares this alma mater with Monte Lipman, Greg Thompson, Hilary Shaev, Miles Simon and the recently departed Neil Lasher, to name but a few.) And if that isn’t pedigree enough, she also worked at Z100 in New York, then rose to glory in Rhythm and Pop promotion under Steve Bartels and Rick Sackheim. Though she was always close with many of the HITS weasels, I only became friendly with her in the last year or so. My loss. Nicki is fantastic, with that magical ability the great ones have to light up a room. I have no doubt that the next iteration of Def Jam will give her a Promotion leader’s real best friends—songs with hit potential. Until then, she owes me a meal that was cancelled earlier in the year; she is being spared an enormous bill.

John Boulos: This Yankees fanatic, and known simply as “Boulos” to peers, has a far different story than any of his contemporaries. John has, for the most part, been his own mentor—and has mentored a great many local and regional execs of the past few decades. He’s an old-school, Damon Runyonesque street hustler who began at indies London and Vanguard, visiting DJs and mailing records to any gatekeeper he could find. Then he joined the unstoppable Phil Quartararo at RCA. He’s worked with other greats over the years, including John Bettencourt and Brenda Romano. Boulos is best understood as our version of the baseball bench coach, developing staffs and serving as a shoulder to cry on. Now he’s using his estimable chops to help David Massey revivify Arista. But, if you’re looking for him—if and when baseball starts again—just take the D Train and head for the Bronx. He’d be happy for you to join him.

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