Industry Spotlight: Hauser of the Holy
Upon reading the career highlights of Chris Hauser, Promoter extraordinaire to the Christian radio and music community, one might expect to learn of his formidable successes and multiple projects reaching number one. What one might not expect to find nestled in a music industry trade newsletter are the inspirational pearls likely to delight anyone lucky enough to spend time speaking with the thoughtful and charming Mr. Hauser.
Warm and engaging, Chris Hauser humbly details his career path with the forethought and presence of an expert storyteller, punctuating bullet points with an infectious chuckle. Chris’s journey in the music industry began when, as he describes, his father asked him to narrow down what he enjoyed doing so that he might choose an appropriate career path. “I was not a good student in high school. I was a great drummer but did not have a good head for music theory. So literally, it came down to two or three months before I graduated, my dad was like, ‘Well, if you’re not gonna go to music school, what else could you see yourself doing?’ It was like that first episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza says, ‘Well, I could be a sportscaster…’ ….“Well, I like to listen to the radio’… I literally said ‘I like to listen to the radio.’” (Cue the roars of approval from readers who no doubt relate).
“All I could do was buy records and listen to WAAL Album Rock Radio in Binghamton NY. I lived a half hour away in a small town. All my money went to records, Creem, and Circus, and sometimes Rolling Stone.” We each shared a laugh, reflecting that in those days, Creem was published on newsprint. For decades now CCM’s go-to promotions guru, Hauser proudly recalls attending his first concert: Kiss. “My first concert was December 1975, Kiss in Binghamton. Kiss Alive had been released two weeks before and my mom drove me there, dropped me off and came and picked me like 4 hours later.” It wasn’t long after that show that Chris would find himself charting a course towards CCM. “I enrolled in a radio & TV program at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse. Then, by my second year at the community college, I took a job at a local Christian AM radio station in Syracuse. It was WYRD, which if you say it out phonetically, it’s ‘Weird Radio’…and it pretty much was… ” Just a few years later, WYRD acquired an FM signal, and Chris was named Program Director of the AM/FM combo.
From there, it was the kind of high-rolling many of us remember our first radio jobs ushering in. (chortle, chortle.) “I was in a double wide trailer in a swamp in East Syracuse and the highlight of my week was getting record promo calls. I reported my AC chart to R&R and I had a Christian rock radio show on Saturday nights. So, people were calling me all week and the highlight of my week was getting calls from record companies. So, through all that, my dream was to go work for a record company. I ended up being the first guy hired out of (Christian) radio to go work for a label. Prior to me, all of the record promoters were all kind of glorified college interns or came over from marketing but nobody had really come directly from radio. It represented a bit of a sea change.”
It’s clear that Hauser brings to his clients and projects all the reverence and passion for music befitting a music fan speaking on either side of a “call times” phone call. The industry quickly took notice, and Hauser accepted an opportunity to head up promotion for Myrrh Records in LA, moving cross country with his wife while they looked forward to the birth of their son. “In three years, I worked some of the greatest records of all time in CCM: Amy Grant ‘Lead Me On’, an alternative band called The Choir, a co-signed deal with Warner Bros. Nashville for an artist named David Mullen, two records by Phil Keaggy and Russ Taff, who at the time was the best selling male vocalist in the industry as well.” All this from a guy who grew up loving glam rock in Syracuse. “When I came into that job in ‘87, it was like ‘This is what I was made for.’ Looking back, I got into a fist fight with a friend, fighting over Mott the Hoople, one of my favorite bands of all time. Then, I led a campaign in ‘76 for my junior prom theme for Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Rain Song’… and sadly, there were more girls in the junior class than guys so we lost by gender vote. The prom theme that year was Kenny Nolan’s ‘I Like Dreamin.’ (And, for those keeping score, Chris was able to re-assert his Zeppelin loyalty upon attending his high school reunion, decades later). “The women were still teasing me about what our prom theme was and I was able to put back in each of their faces: ‘Look, Kenny Nolan’s ‘I Like Dreamin’ is, at best, a trivial pursuit answer, and Led Zeppelin is still the greatest band of all time.” BAM. That’s the kind of passion you want from someone hired to promote a record!
We spoke further about that passion and how well-suited it’s made him for his role launching artists, particularly when radio careers are rarely accompanied by the big bucks. (The passion is its own reward). “I look back on all that stuff and go, my passion has been all about trying to get people to love the music that I love. Even in the 80’s I was going out and speaking out on Christian music to youth groups, to civic groups, and it was all about getting people to love the music that moved me and that I loved. So, to be in that position at Myrrh Records and working with artists that I had already played on the radio and loved so much, and then to get into the record side of things, it was simply a dream come true. Aaaand have a baby aaand live in LA which is always sunny and 78… we called it our three year Disneyland experience out there.”
It’s this kind of gratitude and enthusiasm that seem to color any interaction with Chris – a disarming sincerity which has to be at the core of his many successes promoting artists to radio. Hauser’s pride is discernible as he reflects on particular standouts over the years. “I was at Myrrh Records from ‘87 to ‘90 in LA and had 29 number ones in three years between AC, CHR and Rock (the formats I was responsible for). I worked a heavy metal band called Holy Soldier. I worked a punk band called One Bad Pig. I worked Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind & Fire, Julie Miller whose husband Buddy Miller obviously went on to great acclaim, and the two of them together. So Julie was originally a CCM artist that Buddy produced actually. A lot of these people are artists I still have relationships with and I’m so thankful that when I run into them out and about in public, that there’s still such a beautiful bond and connection with them and so it was very meaningful to be there.” Those successes paved the way for Chris to accept a job at Warner Alliance, Warner’s Gospel division, and ultimately led to him striking out on his own, moving his family away from the hustle and bustle of LA to Nashville. A slew of 90’s successes followed, as Hauser’s team worked and broke artists like The Winans, Donna McElroy and Michael English, whose meteoric rise culminated in a sweep of The Doves (CCM’s Grammys).
Continuing to lend his promo talents across all genres, Hauser worked with Caedmon’s Call, described as “flannel-wearing somewhat Calvinist Southern baptist kids who were big in the indie college circuit.” Caedmon’s Call debuted at number one (Billboard Heatseekers, and Christian charts), moving 13,000 units in their first week. “Their success was the entry point for all of these folk pop artists to come rushing in behind them: Jill Phillips, Andrew Peterson, Jason Gray, Waterdeep. That was an amazing experience for me to help break that band and those people are still good friends.”
Hauser’s midas touch has followed him into the 2000’s, an era which has of course brought with it new challenges, thanks to research and the digital revolution. “Christian radio was still not really doing research until around 2000. The most-played song on any Christian radio station would be on a playlist for 12 weeks and then gone. We kept going ‘You guys, slow down – you’re not prepping any songs for your gold category’. But PD’s were just like ‘Look, when we’re tired of it, everyone else must be tired of it.’ I can even call 2005 the good old days ’cause we even had a little more to play with. Every year it seems things constrict a little tighter. There are radio stations that literally do 20 to 25 new single adds a year, two a month. Then they don’t add anything in November and December because of full time Christmas music. And when that happens, its really, really tough, it’s a tough hill to climb. But everyone’s got that problem. I’ve got 96 AC stations and 21 CHR / Hot AC stations that I work with, so if someone’s gonna have two adds a week, there are other stations I could talk to and there’s no use moaning and whining about it. You may as well just lock in and see – may the best songs win.” In speaking of the climate this last decade plus, Hauser shared “When I went independent in ‘98, I decided that I was gonna do everything I could do to only take the records that I love, and that’s made all the difference. Especially in the last ten years, that has made for an experience for me that has just been so low-stress. I tell people I make a great living talking with my friends, all day long about music I love.” Hear, hear!!
Not content to just enjoy his day-to-day job, true to his faith, Hauser is one to give back. “The other thing I’m super proud of is that I’ve been able to help launch some other independent promoters. When guys at radio have lost their jobs because of shrinkage, and someone on that staff will say ‘Hey, I think I wanna be a promoter and they’ll come to me for some oversight and help. I don’t hire people but if the timing is right and the connection is right for me with this person, I will help get them launched and give them some work and give them a client or two that I’ve got. I’m so proud that those people grow and blossom and become great promoters, and I’m the guy that they call every Friday in the early days going ‘I’m going to jump off my roof; I can’t handle it anymore…’ and I’m like ‘Hang in there you’re going to make it and this is why you’re feeling this right now.’”
Hauser’s faith is clearly woven throughout his career as he reflects “Jesus talks about sowing and reaping. You take a little bit of seed and you throw it out into the field and you reap way more. You always reap way more and way later. I would say my life reflects good sowing and reaping – sowing good seed into other people’s lives and reaping joy and pride in knowing that I’ve had a good impact on other people’s lives that way. So I’m so blessed and fortunate to be in that position to help friends launch their careers. The funny dynamic is they’re partners with me, they’re friends, and they’re also competitors. They also have clients and sometimes we work together on records and sometimes we’re working against one another. Being in the Christian music industry, it’s not backstabbing, it’s not gossip and threats, any of that kinda stuff.”
We spoke more about the challenges of remaining “present” within conferences, conventions and the generally fast-paced environment of the music industry. “My perspective on it – and I understand that fear (worrying about spending quality time with everyone you need to) – when I’m in front of a person – the totality of my relationship with that person comes to rest right upon us in that moment. I don’t have to be totally intense in a certain sense with them. All of the meetings I’ve had and all the meals I’ve had are all wrapped up in the moment that I have with them right there and it really is about the gift of being present and living in the here and now. They say that if you take a hologram and cut the hologram in half, you have two perfect holograms of the same image. So at any one moment you can say this one moment reflects the entirety of your life. And this is all wrapped up in this moment, and you can ask yourself how is this moment like my life? The way I’m showing up for you in this phone call – I want that to reflect how I live my life all the time.”
It’s that same sentiment that appears to inform Hauser’s approach to another passion in his life, stemming from a retreat he attended seven years ago, “The Encounter.” Hauser spoke candidly as he described the experience. “I was very very full of myself, very lonely. I could work a room, but a lot of my heart for people was fairly manipulative and I did this four day intensive retreat. I came out of it and called it ‘Codependency Scared Straight.’ But, that sounds like an ex-con standing over you yelling at you, calling you a piece of garbage, and that’s not what this thing was. It’s kind of pseudo-psychology, but somewhat Christian in its basis as well. And it changed my life, saved my marriage. It impacted positively every important relationship in my life, with my wife, with my kids, with my parents, with my clients.”
Hauser has enjoyed the chance to spread the word to loved ones and colleagues. “I’ve enrolled about 65 people in seven years into this and a lot of them in the music industry. It’s a seminar that helps a person come to grips with the broken ways that they’ve kind of situated their life, and gotten through their lives and it’s called ‘an experiential training.’ So, it’s not like a seminar where you write down a bunch of notes, close the notebook and forget everything that you just ‘learned.’ You actually experience things in the four days. That has had such a profound impact on me and the ripple effects as I’ve enrolled other people in the music industry– it’s created this community. It’s so far from a cult, but it’s created this community of people who have had this powerful, profound, deep, emotional experience together. It’s like each of us went through a four day war together and no one can take that away from us. I guess in the beginnings of the church, 2000 years ago, people on the outside would say ‘Look at how those people love each other. Look at how those people care for one another.’ And I’d say that there’s some of that at work in the midst of us who’ve done The Encounter.”
Whether pre or post-seminar, Hauser’s career is marked by purposeful focus and inevitable successes resulting. And they’re still coming, as Chris recounts, detailing current projects and a recent and big highlight. “I’m helping Capitol Christian Music Group set up the next Chris Tomlin single, with a song called ‘Good Good Father.’ If I talk too long about it right now, I’ll probably start crying. It’s a very, very moving song to me. And back in 2005 Brash Music in Atlanta signed an unknown worship leader in Atlanta, Aaron Shust. They found me and hired a publicist and me and another promoter. We brought Aaron Shust to the market and he ended up having the number one song of the year in 2006, won 3 Dove awards in 2007 on the strength of that record, and today the label head (Steve Jones) and I had lunch, and he handed me a plaque for 500,000 downloads for that song ‘My Savior, My God.’ It’s one of the highlights of my career, being involved with that record.”
And Hauser shows no signs of slowing down, equally inspired as he discusses a project he’s taken on recently. “It’s been interesting to be a part of the worship music movement and on the ground floor of that with an artist named Darrell Evans and also Lincoln Brewster back in ‘98 and ‘99. I talked to a top radio station in the country this week and they just had this huge research project and every one of their top 10 songs were worship songs – vertical lyric content, songs that people could sing in church but have been crafted in a way that sound great on the radio. I’m involved in quite a few of those records and have been for over 15 years, and that’s a really important thing to me. This new Bethel Music song called ‘No Longer Slaves’ is a very, very special song to me right now. Ed Cash, who’s produced Chris Tomlin, Chris August- just huge records, multi years of winning Dove award Producer of the Year. He came in and crafted this song for radio, reinvented it for radio, had the singers come in and re-sing the vocal, and built the new track up. This is the most important song I’m going to work in 2015. The chorus goes ‘I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.’ One of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr, says that the phrases ‘Fear not’ or ‘Do not be afraid’ can be found 365 times in the Bible. So, if there’s anything that God wants to communicate to all of creation, in a daily reminder – it’s ‘Do not be afraid.’ There is so much that could make us fearful and afraid people: in the news, in our lives, childhood wounds and all that kind of stuff, so this song says ‘Do not be afraid. I am no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.’ It’s an immensely important song for me right now.” As this writer answered, “I can see why – I just got goosebumps for the second time in this conversation.”
This is also a perfect example of something Chris described earlier during our time talking. Radio and, as such, Promotion will always need and benefit from the personal touch. “I still feel really needed in our industry. Even at age 55 as an independent where the competition is so brutal, it still feels like radio stations still appreciate having someone in my position helping them know what good things are happening for singles because they don’t wanna just go on their gut or just look at a research number. They wanna know some real-life stories on how a song is playing in other markets.” Chris is ready with the data, and with a singularity of purpose and respect for the time and task at hand: “I actually don’t sit in front of my computer. I sit in a big chair, I face away from the computer – I’m looking at 2 LP covers – I change out my LP covers every week so I’m looking at different artwork every week so I’ve got something fresh to look at every week. But I have to sit in this chair away from my computer so I’m completely focused and able to be present with every radio station so that’s something that’s been helpful for me as well.” We spoke about the unique challenges within CCM, and the increased weight to lyrics in building a song’s “case.” “This is a fun challenge – a unique kind of challenge, working what I work because the song doesn’t just have to have a killer melody and a singable chorus or whatever. There are theology positions taken in these songs, so I actually have to, at times have theological arguments with people about where songs are coming from. The theology that can be disagreed upon because, I mean, there are 30,000 Christian denominations in the world today. Radio people, radio programmers are coming from all kinds of different positions, so for me to be able to be kind of instant in season and out of season and ready to make a defense for a song that I bring to a radio station, that’s kind of a fun thing that I don’t think people in mainstream promotion have to deal with very much.”
As for what else is on the horizon for Chris? “We’re all going to see Sufjan Stevens in November. The whole family’s going to go to that.” What could be better than that?