RCA's John Fleckenstein on the Shifting Record Business, D'Angelo's Mysterious Release

Ben Hider
John Fleckenstein, EVP of RCA.

John Fleckenstein hasn't just been around the block -- he's been around the world (and yes, that's also a reference to Daft Punk, whose Random Access Memories he marketed to international success). The executive vice president of RCA Records came into his new position from years spent overseas, from running BMG's global marketing division in the early '00s to becoming Jive Records' international svp in 2005 to his last position, evp of international for Sony Music Entertainment. 

Fleckenstein arrived at his new office -- which was actually his old office from when he worked at RCA Label Group that was then turned into a conference room -- shortly before long-dormant superstar D'Angelo nailed a moving Saturday Night Live performance and as producer Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" continued its hot streak, spending a fourth week on No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. "We're very blessed with some very hot projects," he tells Billboard over the phone. "It's that first two-week period where, someone said to me the other day, it's like drinking from a fire hose, but that's great."  

After getting up to speed with and getting to know his "talented" staff (Fleckenstein admits there may be some restructuring, but he is still figuring it out), the executive known for his smart, sarcastic Twitter feed is settling in for a 2015 filled with breaking artist news, from Prince Royce's hopeful U.S. market gains to Tinashe's tenacity to rising U.K. outfit Wolf Alice, which shares Alt-J's manager. "We're extremely focused on the road ahead," he says. 

[D'Angelo's] album was really the perfect storm, a record that people had been waiting a long time for, and the external circumstances conflated it all. So how do you handle that from a marketing perspective? Do you try to control it in any way, or do you just let it go on its own, in terms of the press and publicity?

The biggest trick with that release that hadn't been done before is we made the physical date the digital date, which historically was a very challenging thing to do: the second the physical starts leaving the warehouses, in today's world it's very hard to contain. So we started with a cryptic online ad the week the week prior with the assumption that there's going to be some stuff starting to leak out. Very quickly people put two and two together, so that started the wheels in motion from a media perspective and from a consumer perspective of, is this coming? When's it coming? Is this a song? Is it an album? We just tried to offer more questions than we did answers. 

It seems like the vp of Sony International is more of a bird's eye position than being vp of RCA. Do you have something of a changed perspective on the industry or on your own job from when you were at RCA three years ago?

Very much. When you're doing international marketing, if you're on the phone with the head of marketing with our U.K. company, then you're talking marketing lingo. If you're with the head of sales at our German affiliate, you're talking sales. You get a good view from a campaign perspective and from a flow perspective as to how these artists roll out their projects. Once you have the conversation about the strategy and about what you will do in Germany and where will you go with this record and what stations will you take it into and all that conversation, the ball then transfers to our affiliate. The affiliate is the one who actually picks up the phone and speaks to the radio stations, speaks to the accounts. That second part is what I was not doing before and what I am doing now, which is one of the exciting parts about this change for me.

It's always been hard for artists abroad to get a foothold stateside. What's the biggest challenge to establishing U.S. artists abroad?

Most international markets outside of America tend to have a far bigger percentage (with the exception of Japan) of acceptance of international repertoire. The further you get away from pop, the more challenging it can be. If you are a very hardcore street rapper who's coming out of the U.S., if the hooks are largely your lyrics and you're going into markets that don't speak English, then your hook is not being heard. 

Another challenge, if you're trying to have an international career, is how you balance your schedule. It's not like international is just one country; it's actually a whole bunch. There's 50-odd countries that are going to be meaningful to you as an artist; where you spend your time, and at what time, and how much time you spend over there becomes a really big issue if you're in demand in your home market. 

Speaking about global schedules, how do you feel about a global release date?

In short, incredibly overdue. I'm a big advocate of a global street date. In today's world it comes down to a day; it comes down to a minute in terms of piracy. And I think that is one of our biggest industry issues-slash-wins if we can collectively come to agreement on a date. It allows everybody to rally around one particular date, it allows us to gear media around one particular date, and it becomes a focal point for our industry. 

You say it comes down to the minute in terms of piracy, and obviously Sony was the victim of those hack and leaks. In your new position, are you taking any new strategies with regard to piracy or hacking or any illegal dissemination of albums?

The single biggest strategy is knowing that if we're going to try to put an album out around the world and not tell anybody and have it come out physically and digitally, we spend a lot of time going, okay, to the day, when does the physical album leave our warehouses? When is the first moment that a pair of hands could be on that CD where they could potentially, whether they do it or not, leak the song? In the past, knowing that the album will leak a week out because it's that much in demand and it's off the trucks at that point, we do a pre-stream so that the competition is undermined, having the promotion out there that's going to help us sell albums the first week. 

Sales are changing now that more people are streaming her songs instead of buying them, especially when it comes to the Grammys or the Super Bowl. Have you seen shifts in event-triggered sales as the music industry changes to more of a streaming model?

Absolutely. You see very quick impact on iTunes as it is. When we did SNL, the reaction jumped D'Angelo's album straight back in the Top 10 on iTunes. If you're buying a download or a physical album, you're pre-buying every listen of that song you're going to listen to because it's a one-time transaction, whereas streaming is somewhere between a radio play and a purchase, right? The whole game is how you get people to continuously listen to that song, because that's when the revenue starts coming in. 

We did a huge playlist and campaign on Pentatonix last year. What we're doing these days is becoming increasingly strategic if we know there is going to be a look, a nomination on the Grammys, or if you know there's going be a TV moment, we'll make sure that that song that's being performed is well-positioned in all the key playlists in regards to hot new music or whatever we're looking for. Sometimes there's an artist who's had a big hit moment elsewhere in the media, we might want to have our song right near that artist in other playlists to keep the traffic churning. 

What's the best advice you've ever received?

"Free shit is still shit." I would say this is advice given by the collective consciousness of the Internet. If what you do and what you create is genuinely great, it will always have value. 

What's a business lesson you learned the hard way?

It's about the people. One of the first campaigns I product managed was Santana's Supernatural. I remember Clive [Davis] convinced Carlos [Santana] to do a promotional tour to Europe. He was to leave the day after the Grammys and we were doing a press conference at the start of his tour in Madrid. I thought I was just being sent over for two days to cover it -- well, Carlos' world blew up after the Grammys, of course, and four weeks later I was still with him and his crew on their tour bus. They needed the help, and a few thousand dollars in hotel laundry bills wasn't going to stop me.

Who are your mentors?

I am lucky enough to have had many mentors along the way, but there are a few who come to mind pretty much immediately.  Tom Corson has been an unwavering mentor from day one for me, offering sage advice at every turn. Rob Stringer has taught me so much about what it means to lead with heart and with passion, to be bold and be brave. Barry Weiss has been incredibly supportive over the years, especially during the years I spent at Jive. He was the one who really taught me that the music business is indeed a "business." Lastly, Denis Handlin has been an incredible friend and mentor over the years. His coaching sessions are legendary -- generally beginning around 2am at the bar.