Industry Spotlight: Rick Barker
Conversing with Rick Barker, one has an immediate inclination to do more and be more. It’s befitting an audience with one whose music industry template background has organically led to the position he happily finds himself: keeper and sharer of the blueprint.
With 15 years of radio under his belt, the booming voiced former morning man and voice of Big Machine Radio, tackles the industry and way more with topics like “The Best Advice for Young Artists Trying to Stand Out” and “Being Your Authentic Self: Knowing Your Strengths and Goals.” Ideal for anyone, particularly those in transition, the podcasts are as thorough and motivating as a conversation with the born storyteller.
Barker shared with us a bit about the trajectory from radio guy, to Taylor Swift manager, to guru in the position of bequeathing his knowledge to those navigating these wild music biz waters.
“My whole life I wanted to be on the radio. I’ve always loved music, I just never had the skill to learn an instrument, or the patience and I wasn’t brought up with the luxury of having disposable income, to be able to take lessons or things like that. But when my mom and dad divorced, we ended up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and we were part of that Muscle Shoals sound. My mom’s boyfriend was Roger Clark, he was a drummer for Paul Anka and on the Muscle Shoals documentary that was on Netflix. Roger is thanked in the credits as being one of those that helped. So, we got brought to Muscle Shoals, I spent a good portion of my youth in the South. Mobile disk jockey, I was the kid that would record the countdowns, how the DJs did it. I tried to emulate that, when you could go back to the days of having cassettes and being able to do all that. Ended up with some personal issues that went on in my life with a drug addiction and things like that. But when I got sober in 1989, the first thing I did was is I got an internship at KISS FM in Los Angeles and it was what inspired me to want to do more. I ended up as a producer for Hollywood Hamilton, ended up as part of his live show from Disney Land, and in 1991 got my chance to be on the air full-time in Santa Barbara and did a whole radio career in Santa Barbara until Scott Borchetta brought me out and hired me up at Big Machine Records.”
Candid in speaking of his sobriety, Barker shares his experiences with others facing challenges.
“What I tell children right now and will I tell kids, and when I speak at colleges…I’ll be 51 years old here in a couple of weeks and I’ve been sober for 26 years, so over half my life. I try to explain to them, it’s not really what you do, it’s what you do after. We’re all gonna have obstacles thrown our way. We’re all going to have certain things that come our way. So it’s up to us to be able to get through those and move on and hopefully share your experiences with others so they can grow from it as well.”
That tendency towards sharing knowledge served Big Machine’s roster and beyond. Upon connecting with Scott, Barker had begun a program called Nashville To You. “It was the only program that ever was getting artists paid on radio tour. I helped with Sugarland and Little Big Town and Rodney Atkins and some of Scott’s other artists, Julie Roberts, and Josh Turner was the first artist that went out on it. So I’d kinda gotten on his radar. Then when him and Toby Keith decided that they were gonna split up, Show Dog and Big Machine, he was going to let Toby keep the promotion staff, and then he was going to hire his own promotion staff and I was the first guy that he hired on the promotion side. And it was awesome because I didn’t know what I was getting into. One of the things that I asked him early on, I said, “Scott you could hire anyone you want,” I said, “Why me?” And he goes “I’m gonna say this as a compliment, but it’s not going to sound that way.” He says, “You’re too dumb to know any better.” And I’m like “How is that a compliment?” “Rick,” he says, “I’m starting this label with a regional act out of Texas named Jack Ingram, Daniel Peck who’s already had an unsuccessful attempt at it at DreamWorks, and this 15-year-old named Taylor Swift that no one’s ever heard of.” He says, “A lot of people will use that as an excuse on why it’s not going to work. You just need to go in one direction.”
A teacher at heart himself, Barker is quick to acknowledge those, including Scott, from whom he’s gleaned lasting lessons. “He always taught me to think different. One of the things he always used to teach all of us was “start at crazy, and work backwards.” And that was crazy! The label he was starting, at the time he was starting it. We were having trouble breaking female acts at that time, and he’s starting a label where two out his three acts are female and one of them is a teenager.”
Barker shared more about the early days launching said teenager’s career. “It was a slow process because Taylor had just been writing music up to that point. So the way that I got brought into the picture was he’s like “Hey, let’s take her out on that little tour that you were doing and let’s give her a chance to know radio, let’s give radio a chance to get to know her.” It was a great opportunity. One is that she was eager and willing to do the work and two that he trusts me, and we already had this process set up before. We’d seen it work for other artists, so it was a great opportunity for her to able to come in and really get her feet wet learning radio while she was introducing them to her music and, more importantly I think, her personality and her work ethic.
“I’ve always been a teacher at heart. I always tell people I’m a terrible manager. The latter part of Taylor’s stage was my whole day was spent telling people “no” on her behalf. That really sucks for someone like me because I want to get out there and I love the early part, I love the development side, I love the building the fan-base side, I love the trying new things. I love that innocence of “new.” As things and success starts to happen and things start to come along, that kinda goes away. I was never wired for that. It never really worked out well for me.”
For those of us inspired and looking to mimic the blueprint, if you will, Rick shares a tip.
“I read a book called The Millionaire Messenger by Brendon Burchard, and the premise of that book was “make a difference and make a living sharing your knowledge and experience with others.” And what was happening about that time is I was with Taylor until 2008, and when I left in 2008 all these dads were showing in Nashville with their daughters in sundresses and cowboy boots, thinking that as the magic formula. “This is what made Taylor successful, she was a teenager and she wore sundresses and cowboy boots.”
“What I realized was that there were a lot of people, and good people, that were recently out of work because of the changes that were taking place, and they were advising these families and these people who came to town, “Here’s what we’ll do, we’ll get everybody that played on the Carrie Underwood record, we’ll get the same people that shoot the videos, we’ll hire a radio promotion team, we’ll go out on radio tour.” A couple hundred thousand dollars later, these poor families were no farther along than when they got here. What I realized early on was that there’s no Chamber of Commerce for the music business. It’s like the wild wild west. Whoever you run into, they’re going to tell you what the best plan is, and at that point everyone knew one plan: record a song, take it to radio, and cross your fingers. And I’m like, “That is the most ridiculous thing that I’ve ever heard.” The way that the internet is changing and the way that the ability to get direct access to your fans and the cost of recording has gone down and the ability to put your own music up for sale and the ability to put your own music up now to be streamed, why are we spending all that money? And now we’re not selling CDs anymore so the record companies were going from splitting dollars to splitting percentages of pennies.”
And, as Rick explains, Play MPE is indeed a part of the process. “Play MPE is a tool that delivers your music to these radio stations, but it’s up to you to build up the relationship with the radio stations and it’s up to you to give radio a reason to play your music. There’s no shortage of pretty people that can sing, there’s no shortage of good music that’s out there. Your music’s gotta be great, and Play MPE is a tool that delivers that, but there is so much that you need to do on your own to be able to take advantage of that. It’s like, your car drives you to the restaurant, your car does not eat for you or pull out your chair or order for you, it just drives you to the restaurant. That’s what Play MPE is, it’s a car that gets you to the location that you want to be at, but it’s up to you to create a buzz.”
Barker expands on the nature of building a career in 2018’s music industry. “The artist development needs to be on the artist. Create a buzz for yourself. Stay independent as long as you can and then that way if you do decide to go into a partnership with a label, you’re now a partner, you’re not an employee. So I decided that I would go out and invest in myself and learn as much as I could about the digital marketing space, learn as much as I could about psychology and human behavior, understand the decision making process when it comes to making online purchases, and then I would go out and teach that to as many people as possible.”
Rick wouldn’t stop there, though. There are classroom-worthy pearls to be absorbed, just in conversation. “What people don’t understand, especially independent artists, is they think they’re in competition with every other independent artist. Who they’re in competition with are the people already signed to the labels, the people already on the radio stations. The radio program director, in my opinion, has one job, and that’s not to lose their job. It’s not to make my artist famous, it’s to make sure that they’re playing music that is familiar and will keep their audience from tuning away. That’s it, that’s the only job. Now, if you can go out and create a buzz and if you can go out and create an opportunity for that radio station person to partner with you, to say, “Hey, we want you to check out this artist, he’s got blank blank blank.” If you give the DJ something to say besides, “here’s this very unfamiliar person you’ve never heard of and sounds like everybody else that’s out there.” That’s not attractive.
We’ve gotta give people a reason to want to get on board with us, and social media gives us that opportunity to get our music out there. Companies like Play MPE, Spotify, CD Baby, they give us the ability to get our music out to the masses. One of my mentors said to me, “If you have a message that can change people’s lives, it’s your responsibility to find them, it’s not their responsibility to find you.” So, that’s what I do on a day to day basis.”
With an infectious go forth and prosper attitude, Rick expounds about what’s ahead, including a return to artist management, with Trent Harmon. “He’s got a fantastic new song. Him and I grew a lot over the last year with some of the trials and tribulations that I was witnessing him go through that made me a stronger person, by all means made him a stronger person. I’m excited about the new podcast that I’ve started. And I’m just excited right now that there are more and more opportunities for independent artists to go out and create their own buzz. There was a time when we were so dependent on someone else to validate us, and that’s not the case anymore, and I’m excited about that.”
And we’re excited to hear more!