by Fred Deane
In this year-end issue of e-QB we thought we bring two venerable veterans together as we re-launch one of FMQB’s most venerable features, FACE-OFF. iHeartMedia RSVPP of Programming Alex Tear and Atlantic Records Group EVP John Boulos are currently celebrating thirty and forty-one years respectively in the business, so what better place to start.
The pensive Alex Tear tosses a few questions to the very seasoned pro Boulos, who has been long-reputed as one of the industry’s most direct and profound label executives.
First a little background on each…
John Boulos has experienced a storied label career as he started in the mailroom for London Records in 1976, and in 1977 was given his first field promo gig for the label. He spent the eighties holding a variety of positions for various labels like Vanguard, RCA, Island, Polygram and Virgin where he received his first set of VP stripes, holding down that gig from 1988 to 1996. From there it was a two-year stint as Epic’s SVP of Promotion which triggered a series of SVP moves to WB, Capitol and Atlantic where he landed in June of 2006 and eventually ascended to his current role inside the Atlantic complex of labels.
As for the illustrious career of Alex Tear he’s had a highly successful run in radio and has always made a lasting impact along the way. Tear has combined his passion and intellect for programming and music with his business acumen and deft people skills, to formulate a professional track record for three decades that would do anyone in his field proud. After various programming stints in just about every secondary market in Michigan and successful stints in Detroit and Pittsburgh, he headed south to Miami where today he serves as RSVPP, CHR National Team, PD Y100, for iHeartMedia a company that shares Tear’s vision of forward thinking and innovation.
Alex: What have been the biggest evolutions in label promotion over the four decades you’ve worked in the business?
John: We went from using a system of all hype to a system of real based data. Prior to Soundscan, BDS and Mediabase, everything was manipulated and hyped where the charts were driven by the priorities and not necessarily the hits. I also used to have to carry cassettes and use them as set-up tools with radio…and heavy boxes of albums. Now I carry a phone. It’s much easier on the back.
How do today’s programmers contrast to programmers of the 70’s and 80’s?
We are in an era where there is more of a conservative approach to playing new music. I see less chances taken in the corporate owned radio sphere as opposed to a time when more chances were taken to play and expose more artists. You could actually sit with the small owner locally and put together a great plan to break the artist. As for today’s programmers, I doubt they could have lasted a night out with me back then. But I could walk away with a shot on a song after that night 99% of the time.
Which active programmers today did you work with in previous years still maintain that creative approach?
Rick Thomas, JR Ammons, Brian Kelly, Michael Martin, John Ivey, Tom Poleman, John Peake, Steve Salhany, Rob Morris, Sue O’Neil and Kevin Weatherly are some of the people I worked hand in hand that still have that in them today.
What would frustrate some of the earlier programmers about today’s methods and practices of radio in general?
Restrictions or perceived restrictions on taking chances. The fear of “people above” looking at their music choices wasn’t an issue in the past. If their gut said I want to play this, they could walk into the studio and put it on the air.
Which programmers from your early days influenced you the most, and what insights did they impart to you about your own career?
Rick Sklar, PD WABC NYC, Scott Muni, PD WNEW NYC, Frankie Crocker, PD WBLS NYC, each so very different. Rick played very few songs and they had to be huge hits selling top 10 in NYC. Scott and his team were all about the music and the artists, and that passion is something sadly lost in today’s environment. Frankie went outside the boundaries of the stations so called format.
Rick taught me that you have to play the numbers game, Scott taught me to build relationships with everyone, radio, artists, retail, and to use that with your passion to be successful. Frankie taught me that we shouldn’t ever think an artist or song couldn’t cross format boundaries. He was the first person to discover that Annie Lennox and The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” was magical, and played it before the masses.
How has the label/radio relationship changed over the years?
The bottom line is great relationships are always the key. In order to know where you stand, on either side, you need to have a mutual respect and understanding of each other’s goals. We can’t succeed without each other. Sadly, I still see “fights” over small nonsense and I still see a lot of mistrust.
Do you think there’s a sound mutual understanding of each other’s business models and motivations with respect to labels and radio?
I don’t think everyone fully understands this. On the label side I have seen reps thrown into the field without proper training or understanding of radio’s goals, many nationals as well. All they do is beg for airplay without understanding the stations goals or understanding fully a playlist, music flow, categories, etc., and having a lack of training on how to be a professional business person.
On the radio side, they haven’t all been schooled to understand our business, the long-term planning and finance that goes into the decisions we make. And there is a sense that it is okay not to communicate. Many in radio ignore communication, be it email or phone calls. That’s not good. I understand we’re all busy. We need to do better. There is a rudeness between both sides that should be fixed. We can’t always get what we want from each other. “The harder the call, the quicker you make it.” RESPECT!
Do regional label reps have more or less autonomy in today’s environment, and what have been the most pronounced changes in this area?
It depends on who is running their department. I have always believed that in order to have the best team, you have to fully trust your field staff and give them autonomy in making decisions. I will guide them along with our department heads to make sure we evaluate the final decision. We give them autonomy to spend a certain amount of promo dollars without my approval. They know if they cross any lines we will discuss it. They also know we have trust in them. They can make decisions on tickets, tour support, etc. in their markets. They own it.
If you could give programmers advice today on their approach to evaluating new music, what suggestions would you have for us?
Use your gut. If it sounds like a great song and you like it, let the audience decide. Give it a shot. Read the signs. There are so many ways for people to discover and enjoy music now. We can see the results on various platforms.
Don’t live and die by what I consider an antiqued system of playing a hook for a test. The world is different. We need to use the technology to better read music. And be patient. This A.D.D. world of listeners may say they “know” something, but they really don’t “know” it until it touches their soul and evokes passion to decide if it’s a hit.
How have the various analytics and metrics derived from a variety of sources, changed your label’s thinking regarding the timing of when to impact radio with new artists?
We can see reaction to music pretty quickly in the streaming world. I don’t believe just because a song streams that it will become an instant radio hit. I still believe you need to build a solid foundation depending on the type of song it is. But we cannot ignore this opportunity to see reaction to music. It’s very much like looking at single sales from airplay in previous eras of our business. You can see a much more detailed consumption picture in each local market. The world is moving at a fast pace. We need to keep up with it.
Do you feel that programmers (in general) may rely too much on the analytics side of the equation when determining new music?
You can’t ignore the analytics but too many in the business interpret them differently. There is not enough gut and I feel that more and more people use their interpretation of the analytics as an excuse. There seems to be less passion out there for music then I’ve seen in the past.
In general, how can labels do a better with respect to set up and delivery of new artists to the marketplace?
I think we’re learning the new world of streaming and how to use that to ignite the marketplace. We at Atlantic try to do this, tour artists, set up in clubs, etc. in order to have a foundation for terrestrial radio. We continue to be better at supporting artists locally with digital marketing so that local airplay sees a connection quicker. Sadly, the minute a song slows down on a chart, most decide to jump off it without fully giving the time and patience needed to connect with their own market.
How long was your hair in the 70’s and how did you look wearing bell bottoms, and what do you miss most about both?
Uhmmm, when were the 70’s? Let’s just say that running to visit club DJ’s in NYC back then was an amazing experience that has led to a life I love. My hair was an afro since it was curly! Fred Deane has photos! I don’t miss the bell bottoms. It made it harder to walk around when I was on ludes!