Interview with ALMG Founder Al Lindstrom and Marketing Director John Notarfrancesco
John: Everything is good. We’re looking forward to the new year and working on these new projects.
How did you guys get started in the marketing game?
John: My path is similar to Al’s. I’ve been involved in different sides of marketing. I started out doing college radio and from there I figured out that I wanted to be involved in the music business. I was doing promotions on campus. I started out on the ground level. I started out on street teams. I did the college rep program for Cornerstone and I was doing giveaways on the radio station. From there, I went to another marketing company that was similar to what we do now. I was doing marketing for films and produced the Mixshow Power Summit for two years. After I left RPM, I went to Rockstar Games. I was the retail marketing manager for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Midnight Club. At the time, I was putting together a campaign for Bully. I was doing everything retail-related, whether it was dealing with Amazon.com about getting the product placed on their front page or talking to the managers at stores to wear the t-shirt. That was my responsibility. Then I joined up with Al and we combined forces.
Al: I’ve been doing record promotions for about 13 years, but I kind of got into finding other opportunities in radio promotion. I helped Funkmaster Flex break the Celebrity Car Show that he started. That was in 2002. We did some endorsement deals with Numark for DJ’s like Tony Touch and Flex. We branded their own product through the music equipment company. I was working with TVT, Jive and Tommy Boy. I started my own company about three years ago.
Did something specific happen to make you want your own company?
John: It was time. We had the experience and the knowledge about what went into making a marketing campaign and doing cost-effective promotions. We both had the knowledge and experience. After you go from company to company and see how it’s done, after awhile you start to realize that you’re putting money in someone else’s pocket and you’re limiting your potential. You can only do what the position allows you to do. Somebody’s either going to tell you to slow down or do more, but you may not get back what you put into it. We felt we could do it and we knew what it took, so we said, “Let’s do it.”
What exactly does ALMG do?
John: Right now, we provide a lot of labels with record promotion services. Based on the experience that I had doing other events as well as Al’s experience, we’re getting into creating events. We’re going to get into field marketing campaigns. We might be promoting a DVD and do in-store contests and events. We also provide business-to-business marketing. We consult business-to-business companies. It’s a full range of marketing. We also shop tracks from music producers. We’re in contact with A&R’s and we’re trying to get them the music they need for their albums. We’re going to start going after advertising agencies and film supervisors to try to fill their needs as well.
Al: Recently we’ve worked closely with Hi-Tek, Fat Joe, Rick Ross and the Clipse. Some campaigns are marketing and promotion and some are just strictly radio. We do everything from creating ideas and marketing plans to the roll-out of singles to promo tours to setting up interviews. We do anything to build awareness for a project.
How hard is it to break a new artist in today’s game?
John: It’s tough. The majors these days are struggling. Imagine what an independent artist is going through. We have really scaled back from taking on smaller independent projects because most of the time the expectations are not realistic. They think that you can just jump in and get a million spins and everybody is going to go buy their projects. The fact is, only 10% of recording artists ever recoup their advances. It’s rare for a lot of artists to sell over 10,000 copies. It’s a crowded market and it’s hard for it to lead to success.
How important is the support of radio to the success of an album?
John: These days, looking at the numbers, it doesn’t seem like it’s adding up. Some of these artists come out with huge radio records and then they end up scanning under 100,000 the first week. I don’t even want to say it’s a radio thing. I think it’s just everything that’s going on with the internet and I think the consumer is not sold on one record anymore. You have to have multiple impressions out there. That’s really it. Radio used to be the way that people would find out about artists and music. “Who is this guy? I want to go buy it.” I was taping stuff on cassettes when I was a kid. You always heard new music on the radio, but now everybody is online. Sites like HipHopGame are breaking new records now. Do I want to listen to a million commercials and hear the same song a million times, or do I just want to go online and hear it and take it from there?
Another thing worth mentioning is that right now, slowly, what’s starting to happen is that online advertising is going to eclipse radio advertising. All the money they spend to promote records on the radio is going to move to online sites.
What potential do you see online?
John: It’s really unlimited. It has the potential to allow independent artists to be more successful than they are now and to help the artists find their audience. If you force-feed your songs on the radio market, you are not going to be as successful as you could be if you put your music online. The internet allows you to find your audience and reach more people. You can reach a million people a day with sites like YouTube and MySpace.
How much payola is exchanging hands in commercial radio?
John: Honestly, we don’t deal with any of that on our level. We deal with relationships and the quality of the music. We’re not dealing with programmers or any of that. I can’t answer that at the level of what we do.
Have any DJ’s ever approached you in a funny way?
John: Not at all.
How much does it cost to successfully break a record to mainstream America today?
John: Before you can break a record, you want to have a good MySpace page and a good main website and a good PR campaign so you can reach people who potentially may want to cover your artist. If you make music and it sounds like this guy’s music, then maybe you should look where that guy’s fans are and try to attract them and get them interested in your project.
How much money does it cost? It can be expensive. But at the same time, if you have quality music and you find the outlet and you’re able to reach people who really appreciate what you’re doing and you come off as genuine, then that all helps you.
Being a major is so powerful. Look at “Show Me What You Got” by Jay-Z. That song was everywhere the next day after it leaked. The majors are so powerful and I’m sure they’re rolling out some heavy money. For new artists, you have Cassie, who was discovered through MySpace and her record sat out there for six to eight months and it connected. She was fortunate to get a deal through MySpace. Where she is now, it doesn’t seem like the numbers are really adding up. She barely scanned 250,000 records since the release of the album, but she sure had a heck of a buzz and heavy airplay on her first single. It feels like it just fell apart. There are advantages and disadvantages to getting signed through MySpace. You’re just not sure of what’s going to happen. The consumers also have so many different choices now. There are so many ways to access music now. You can download it illegally and you can buy MP3’s. There are so many different ways to come out and the market is fragmented. There is radio, there’s online radio, there’s satellite radio…There’s a lot of competition. The major label system is slowly starting to degrade. Independents come out and they can make more money.
You also have to pick and choose where you promote. A one-page ad in Vibe Magazine is $50,000 to $90,000 a month. Fat Joe went over to Imperial and EMI after he left Atlantic. He’s seeing a lot more money on the back end and the guy scanned almost 100,000 records in three weeks. He’s going to be great at the end of the project compared to if he was possibly still at Atlantic. He might not have seen that same money if he was still there.
ALMG works some of Def Jam’s singles while Def Jam’s own promoters work the same singles. Do you guys ever cross paths or bump heads?
John: Independently, everybody has their own projects. Usually they’ll hire us to do most of the urban stations and mixshows. Then they will hire another company to do the crossover stations. We’re the support system for a lot of these labels when they start releasing five, six, seven records at a time. You need that support and we’re that support system. We can do it all. If something’s not appearing on a website, we ask. Most of the time, we make it happen. That’s from doing a lot of business with different people. That’s what relationships are. We never say we can do everything on our own. There are other people that specialize in certain things that we don’t, but we have good relationships.
How much do DJ’s play music because they like it versus receiving pressure from promoters, labels and artists?
John: I think guys are playing records because they’re quality records. A lot of times, a promoter is key. He’s the guy who comes in and reminds these DJ’s to play the records and builds relationships. When you’ve been in it for quite some time, you have personal relationships with these guys. You talk about each other’s kids. You see them throughout the year and you interact with them. We’re the perfect example.
Carl Blaze being shot, that hurt. That was felt. We had a business relationship and I’m not going to say we were best friends, but when something like that happens, that hurts. You end up getting attached to people in the business and having personal relationships with people. Once you have those personal relationships, a lot of the times the guys will support what you do. It’s bigger than the records at the end of the day. Anybody can have a list and phone numbers to DJ’s, but if you don’t have the relationships, nothing is going to happen. These guys are getting a million calls a day. You want them to take your call when you call them. You have to ask, “Why am I different than the next guy?”
How much of a record’s success is related to the grind of the artist versus the grind of the promoter?
John: Some artists are lazy. Some artists don’t want to go and do all the interviews. I’m not going to name any names, but it came up recently that this artist did not want to go and do any radio interviews and was not going to do customized drops for the DJ’s. That’s hurting his relationships. Why should the DJ go out and play your music and support you when you couldn’t take five minutes to call up his show?
The promoter can also drop the ball. At the end of the day, it’s 50/50. The promoter has to promote the artist and the artist has to work with the promoter and has to build his relationships with the DJ’s. There are a lot of promoters out there who aren’t thorough but they’re lucky enough to keep their jobs for whatever reasons. There are a lot of great people who aren’t working that are thorough and that are hungry, but that’s the business.
What did you do for the Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury?
John: We worked the first single, “Mr. Me Too,” which had some great success. We worked it out the gate. We helped manufacture the record when Jive didn’t believe in it. We helped manufacture the record and got it up to 500 spins. Jive started believing in the record and they were insistent in getting a video shot and the record ending up doing what it did. There were a lot of issues going on with the artists and the label and I don’t think they got a fair shake out of this project. We did a lot of stuff on the road with the guys and a lot of radio promo stuff. We’re still grinding along. They’re working on a 30 city Seagram’s tour at the top of the year. The guys are doing great. They had an incredible first week for a second single that didn’t get worked properly. They have a following that’s pretty major. I don’t think the label knows about that.
Were you disappointed in their sales?
John: Nah. I thought selling 80,000 records without having a hit single was huge, especially with the climate now. It’s been four years for the Clipse and they came out in the fourth quarter when it’s madness. There’s a lot of competition and the guys have no reason to have their head down, and they don’t. I think the whole way to judge the success of the record is not if you sell x-amount of records in the first week. There’s a new business model developing that’s putting more power into the hands of the consumer. I don’t think anybody should be surprised now. It’s a new day and age of selling music.
Al: Ringtone money and show money is how the artists end up eating today. That’s how they make their money. Ringtones are huge and show money has always been lucrative for the artist. These guys rarely see any money on the backend sometimes. There’s less than 10% who recoup. Think about that. It’s scary, but we’ve come to accept it. It’s a crazy business and not everybody can be a multi-platinum, internationally-known pop artist.
The Clipse received an XXL rating in XXL, had a lot of interviews in magazines and websites and have a huge online following. How does that affect their sales?
John: Maybe without it, they only sell 60,000. I know what you’re saying, because you see them everywhere, but at the same time, there had a ton of online presence, but how many of those people are purchasing those albums? It’s sad to say, but a lot of the Clipse fans on message boards are probably not buying too many records overall.
You’re also working with Slip N Slide’s new artist Plies now. What is your plan to break him?
John: The Plies project has been mainly radio so far. We’re working on trying to find ways to connect him with DJ’s. We’re doing custom versions of “Got ‘Em Hatin’” that caters around a DJ. That definitely gives it some excitement and I think the DJ appreciates it that the artist took his time out. Overall, it’s a hot record. He has so much charisma and energy. He’s a star through Florida already. I think he knows how to put records together, and that’s key. Just with the competition that is out there right now, I just think the guy is a star. I think he has that energy and that hip-hop swag that makes certain artists stand out. Guys like Fat Joe and Rick Ross have that presence that makes you say he’s a star. I think Plies is that guy that’s on his way next.
How long will it take to break Plies and make him a household name?
John: I’m not sure if this first single is going to be the one. Most of the time, everybody doesn’t have the luck of a Yung Joc or a Rick Ross, where the first record is the home run. But this guy (Plies) is a household name through Florida already. He’s been doing shows for the last couple of years now without a deal. I think he’s at a label, Slip N Slide through Atlantic, that knows how to break records. I see him breaking out, if it’s not this record (“Got ‘Em Hatin’”), it’s going to be the next record that takes him to another level. Sometimes you need a labelmate to get on a record to make more people pay attention. A lot of new artists do that.
Al: Look at Consequence. He’s endorsed by Kanye. He’s a great guy, but that’s going to be a work in progress. It’s a tough game. You could be affiliated with somebody, but the records you’re making just might not be the ones that are connecting you to the listener or the DJ and they’re just not sold. Even though you know Consequence does have a following through the A Tribe Called Quest days, that’s still a work in progress right there.
Do you guys ever turn down projects even if the money is right?
Al: All the time!
John: We hate to do it, but we have to. You can only come to DJ’s every so often with bad records and they’re only going to look out for you so many times. We’ll get ten to fifteen calls a day and the first thing we tell them is to send the MP3 file so we can listen to it. That’s what it has to be right now. There are a lot of guys who do take projects and take their money and never get results. We’re not trying to be those guys.
What do you think of the marketing plan behind Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come and how a lot of marketing dollars were spent advertising to non-hip-hop fans?
John: I think it was a good idea. He was able to reach a new audience in the way they were most accessible to them. A lot of white people buy records and they’re all over the country. I don’t care about NASCAR and Budweiser, but he found a way to get them involved and to pay attention and was able to promote himself in a way that was really personal to them. I think he did a great job. He was everywhere and his first week numbers were really good. Some people think he’s selling out. Back in the day, if you were doing commercials or trying to attract a new fanbase, people said you were selling out. I think it’s good business.
How can marketing to a non-hip-hop audience affect the quality of hip-hop music in the future?
John: I still think that he did the record that he would have made regardless. I have my own opinions on the record myself, but I still think he made it because he felt those songs. If he was really trying to get NASCAR people to buy his record, he would make songs about driving race cars. He did his own thing and he didn’t really water the music down.
Remember when McDonald’s had the marketing campaign where they said they would pay artists to talk about Big Mac’s and they would pay the artists for the spins? I hated that campaign in so many different ways. Bottom line, I don’t think Jay compromised himself to make Kingdom Come. He’s still talking about his past drug career on the record. He’s not selling Barney. Budweiser approached him and they’re trying to sell beer. They chopped his video up and they probably paid a piece of that bill for the video. I think what Jay did is smart in making the most of his advertising budget. A lot of magazines can be expensive, but if you have cosponsors involved and they’re paying your fees, you can get your message across more. His endorsements expanded his marketing budget.
Diddy concentrated on the internet in the marketing for his new album, Press Play. What did you think of his marketing plan?
John: I remember when it was coming out and he had four singles on the radio at one time. I thought that was really smart. He took the time and he did the interviews. I know somebody who interviewed him and he took extra time outside of his schedule to do it. He really built some good relationships.
Al: I think his drive is incredible. I think the way he set the tone for his album is great. He’s been saying he’s going to ride this album out. He’s not going to do a couple of singles and then be gone. He’s going to ride this record. That could be the new thing. Artists are trying to come too quick these days. Artists are trying to put two albums out in a year. Look at Ghostface. I think hip-hop is just overly saturated. I think the quality of records is not as great as they once were. I think Diddy’s album is solid and I think he has the right approach. Every artist isn’t able to put out five or six singles, but Diddy’s able to ride this out. I read that Beyonce is going to pay for her next two videos because Sony is not willing to do that. That right there just shows you that artists at this level are taking their careers into their own hands and they’re not relying on the major backing at the end of the day. And they both can afford it, so why not do it if they believe in their product that much?
Is radio promotion changing with the growth of satellite radio?
John: I don’t think it’s changed at all. I think it’s just another outlet and it’s a worldwide outlet. I think satellite radio is still growing. I don’t think it’s believed in 100% yet. I think there’s some great channels, but in my world, I think that for us, it’s just another outlet to expose artists to and build awareness through airplay. It’s not something that’s shutting radio down. It’s worldwide and it’s uncensored. I think the shows are great. Da Beatminerz have a show. I think it’s great, but I don’t know anybody that has satellite radio. Obviously there are millions of subscribers and it’s starting to take off, but it’s still new. With all the free content available online and with audio and video content on your cell phone, there are so many different directions entertainment is going in and there are so many different ways to provide consumers with different products.
How is the internet changing the promotion and marketing game?
John: More artists are making more money online. More independent artists are figuring out how to make money and how to cut out the middle man. Radio is passive. The other day I was watching videos on YouTube and I made a playlist. I was watching all these classic videos, but I don’t remember any of the ads I saw. I was able to lock down my content and I didn’t have to pay anything for it except for the internet connection. Everything was available on demand to me and it was in good quality.
There are so many choices. We have access to news and media 24/7 on our Blackberry’s and online. Radio is very passive. They tell you this and play you that. Online, if I don’t like your banner or the “punch George Bush in the face” game on a site, I can just click somewhere else. I can play my own videos. MTV plays Justin Timberlake one hundred times a day and maybe I want to see something else. Look at how the companies are finding new ways to reach their consumers. In Gmail, if I’m reading an email about the Bootcamp Clik, Google has ads relating to Bootcamp. Previously everything was so force-fed. Scion is doing a producer contest. That’s their way of relating to you and letting you know that they’re out there without forcing it down your throat. They give you this content and then when you want to look into their cars, you can do that. It’s not in your face.
How would you advise artists to spend their money after they have their music done and ready to go?
John: Before I would advise them to spend money, I would suggest that they find fans. You can find fans by doing local shows. Tap into the college market. Do your MySpace thing. You can have email blasts. Start small. Start with the people you know and your network. What can they do for you? How can they expose you to new people? Start there. A lot of artists expect people to come and listen to them because they’re an “artist.” That’s a mistake. There are so many ways to listen to artists but everyone is flooded with solicitations. Start your own network and build a mailing list. Ask your fans to expose you to other people. Approach websites for feedback. Look for feedback. Don’t just expect people to flock to you.
Al: At this point, our radio side of the business is great and successful, but we want to grow outside of that. The marketing stuff is the direction that we’re headed. That’s why John is here. He comes from Rockstar Games. He’s done stuff for Sony and he produced the Power Summit for two years and worked for Disney and Miramax. We’re trying to grow and we don’t know where the music thing is headed right now. We’re in a tough position. That’s why we’re trying to approach more corporate clients while staying with the music. We’re trying to spread out and do as many things as we can. We get so many demos and we know what’s going on in certain markets. A lot of times we’re able to get our hands on what we need to shop certain artists. We’re in the process of doing that right now. We have a few potential things that can be great. We have our ear to the street and at the same time, we’re growing into the corporate side as well. I think that’s the balance that we have.
What’s coming up for ALMG?
Al: We’re going to be doing more record promotions. We look forward to retaining our relationships with Def Jam and Capitol. There’s some other stuff that’s on the table, but I’d rather not say what it is in case it doesn’t go through. The company is growing and we’re getting involved in more than radio and record promotions. That’s the direction that we’re heading in and that’s where we feel we can be most effective. We can put together solid marketing plans. We call them multi-touch campaigns. Those are plans that allow a company’s product to reach the ideal consumers in a variety of ways that they will be most receptive to the message. We’re not trying to get over on the companies. We’re trying to show them how they can benefit from being involved. We’re also getting involved in more online and guerilla marketing.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Al: We’re just fans of the music.
John: We love what we do. It’s a great thing when you can have your own company and be partners with somebody and be creative. We’re blessed to be a part of the music business. We both came from doing college radio and I was a party promoter for ten years. We’re learning. I’ve been in the business for 13 years, but I’m learning every day. We don’t love the quality of music out there right now though. I’m an ‘80’s and ‘90’s guy. It is what it is and we have to accept the way things are and the way music is being created. We’re just trying to be here for a long time and continue to build and spread out.
For what it’s worth, since we put the site up, we’ve had a lot of people writing to us for internships and jobs. I would like to say that the way people approach these opportunities has been good and bad. Some have been professional and some have sent CD’s with no writing on it. Some people couldn’t convert a CD to an MP3 but they expect us to promote them. Other people want a job but they’re misspelling words left and right. Check the way you’re presenting yourself and read your emails before you send them. Check the way you package yourself. There are a lot of industry imposters out there and they’re saying they do this and that, but they don’t really do it. We might have to start an industry beef. (laughs) There are a lot of industry imposters out there and there are a lot of guys who claim they do this and this, but our name is good. Our clients are happy and we’re at this level now where we feel we can pick and choose what projects we want to take on where other promoters might just take anything because he might need the money, but they’ll end up not getting results at the end of the day.