Industry Spotlight: Russell Thomas – Order out of KAOS
Despite his choice of KAOS as his company’s name (an homage to Get Smart), Australia’s Russell Thomas is clearly a man of focus. Or at least unmistakable drive. Speaking with Thomas, one gets the jolt of energy unmistakably recognizable to all who have worked with a true-blue, Golden-age promotions vet. The kind of tangible, “taking care of business”, no bull spark that ignited countless careers– those of artists, promo reps, A&R guys. One gets the sense that Russell would be a well-chosen addition to a Cameron Crowe film, guiding the viewer through the highs and lows, the do’s and do-not’s of the music industry via “talk to the camera” anecdotes and thoughtful idioms. I imagine the impulse to take notes when speaking with Russell is not exclusive to those writing profiles.
With over thirty years in the industry, including five as head of Promotion for EMI, Russell Thomas brings to his company and clients the timeless lessons gleaned therein. (“It’s all about the song”; “Email is a confirmation of a call or a meeting- it’s not a way of doing business”; When you’re working for yourself, you’re in a speedboat, and the record companies are in an aircraft carrier. “) And that list of clients? An impressive lot, as independent as Thomas himself: John Butler Trio, Sheppard, SAN Cisco, Gotye, AWOLNATION, to touch on just a few.
Thomas’ selective approach has led to the recognition of KAOS Management as the first and foremost independent promotions company in Australia, with, as Thomas stresses, a focus on exclusive representation at radio. Press? Leave that to someone else. “I did the David Bowie tour in ’83, the Serious Moonlight tour, working for EMI. David always had this thing before he went on stage, which was where he had his hospitality rooms–for him, as per his instructions we invited radio who played his records, retail who sold his records, and not press as they sell papers. In ’87, I had left EMI and was working for David Bowie on his Glass Spider Tour, and the same rules apply. So when I finished with EMI, I thought, if it’s good enough for David Bowie not to meet the press before shows, it’s good enough for me to not deal with the press either.”
Reminiscing, Russell notes the changing nature of the business in Australia, with each passing decade. “In the 80s we had a lot of Australian successes. There were 150 Australian bands that were successful. At the end of the 90s, there were about 10 because a lot of the live venues became clubs. The whole disco thing was happening and it wasn’t really until 2000 that things started getting more active again on the local scene.” Russell laments the oft-underappreciated role of live music in promotion and programming. “The current radio has never been more removed from the live scene. Robbie Williams played 2 x 20,000 thousand seaters in Sydney and everyone sang every word. And there’s only a few AC stations that play him, no CHR.”
While he has occasionally been tapped to work individual projects for the majors, Russell continues to focus largely on independents. “We had a big success with Red Bull, with Itch. He had a song called ‘Another Man’ which went double platinum here. It didn’t happen anywhere else in the world.” It’s a perfect example of Australia’s stand-alone nature. As Thomas explains, “We are our own tastemakers. Australia’s very much a melting pot of all parts of the world. We’ll take the best of the English, of the UK, of America and the best of Australia, and meld it all up into our commercial radio playlists.”
Expanding further on the current state of radio affairs, Russell touches on the seemingly exclusive prevalence of superstars. “Certainly CHR radio is more pop than ever right now. We have to be real, all the core artists in the world right now? Bieber, Adele, One Direction and Ed Sheeran. The rest of them are all going to be judged by what their next record’s like.” Spoken like a true industry vet.
From here, our conversation naturally transitions to the state of rock. Russell recalls a recent lunch with a friend, and poses a challenge. “We were at a lunch and said ‘OK, name the big three rock bands since the year 2000’…and we couldn’t. Who are they, Catie? The Foo Fighters were the 90s.” Feebly, I posed “Mumford & Sons?” “Yeah, there’s one.” Candidly, Russell continues “I think the bands realize now that there’s way more money in live than they’re ever going to get because of the diminishing music sale royalties due to streaming.” At that we kinda give up and return to our independents mutual admiration society meeting. “I was the head of promotion at EMI for 5 years, and found out when I left that I spent 70% of my time in meetings and would wonder how I would do 100% of my job in the remaining 30%. As you could imagine. There’s that brilliant John Cleese video ‘Meetings, Bloody Meetings.’ (Yeah, there is! Poor Russell had to patiently wait as his interviewer geeked out over this corporate training video reference).
Russell is equally “no-holds-barred” in his commentary on social media. “It’s almost like Social media’s having too much of an impact on what’s being played on commercial radio. Shazam, Instagram. Facebook’s passé because their algorithm only allows 5% of people to see posts. Twitter is even more active now…’Remember we used to actually write letters, remember that? I actually send a letter every now and then because people don’t know what the hell to do with it. ”
Don’t let Thomas’ discerning critique fool you, though. He’s vividly passionate about the positives in the music scene, particularly on the independent side. “The Sheppard thing? That’s a totally independent record here. The band just got their million platinum album award the other day. That’s 400,000 plus sales here in Australia, this little independent band from Brisbane, with ‘Geronimo’- seven weeks atop of the national airplay chart.” Thomas speaks with the pride befitting of the dad he is. (He cooed adorably about his daughter’s entrepreneurial spirit. Now the owner of a fashion boutique, the chip off the old block taught herself html on her dad’s IBM at age 12.)
Thomas speaks with equal conviction and fondness for the industry at home. “The birth of independent music, Australia was one of those markets that was a market leader.” He tips his hat to Sebastian Chase, founder of MGM Distribution. “He set up the 75/25 artist thing. The artists are all empowered and do their own marketing and become their own label. Sebastian had the foresight with breaking John Butler. “He paid my fee three times over 12 months to get commercial radio to add. It worked that song, “Betterman” ended up getting played for a year.
Thomas also muses about the majors- the artist contract deals with the majors are ‘you pay for the house, you pay back the advances from the royalties, but if you’re lucky enough to pay it back you don’t own the house. How does that work?” (No flies on him, as they say).
He has equal reverence for the nature of good business, overall: the truths that remain constant, regardless of the internet, social media, and busy schedules, extending beyond the realm of record promotion, and advisable to all who aim to succeed in business. “I go to Melbourne every month. I wanna see the whites of the eyes when I play them a song. My business can’t be done on email. That’s kinda why I’m on the road all the time. I’m going to Melbourne, to Brisbane, the Gold Coast. You wanna do the old stuff, go have a bite to eat. If you don’t have anything to talk about, just cement the relationship, you know? There’s such a thing as a non-call and if the client brings it up…. I would only come to you when it really matters– as a plugger the right song for the right format is imperative, so that you have credibility with the programmer. And that’s the business I’m in.” Here’s to the non-call. (Who’s ready to enroll in the seminar with me?)
In the meantime, stay up to date on KAOS Management’s many projects at www.kaosman.com.au