Warner Music Nashville's Shane Tarleton On Being a 'Visual Guy,' Working With Blake Shelton & Why Execs Should Give Back
WMN's senior vp of artist development talks marketing, branding and charity.
Radio is still king when it comes to country music. But when a song isn't connecting, the marketing plan doesn't die — not on Shane Tarleton's watch. When Warner Music Nashville (WMN) released Devin Dawson's last single, "Dark Horse," to radio in November 2018, the title track of his debut album never reached the country charts. So Tarleton and his team looked at other avenues to keep the singer engaged with fans, such as partnering with online musical services and social media platforms.
"My approach is, ‘We are marketing this artist to the globe no matter what's happening at radio,'" explains Tarleton, 44. "We're going to go after brand alliances, and we're going to make sure that every partner is aware of what our agenda is. This last tour, we were able to go in and hyper-serve his die-hard fans in small markets. We're building fans one by one."
Tarleton knew he wanted to work in music since age 8, when he would sit on his bedroom floor in rural North Carolina every weekend and write down each song and artist name on Bob Kingsley's Country Top 40 countdown. His first internship while attending Nashville's Belmont University included stuffing Kathy Mattea fan-club packets for a local management company; his bosses at the time, Bob Titley and Clarence Spalding, offered him a job upon graduation. The two men remain mentors. "[Relationships] are the most important thing in my entire career," he says. "They really are everything."
In 1998, Tarleton took a job in the creative department at RCA Records, where he worked for six years under the guidance of vp creative services Mary Hamilton. "I was her assistant for the first three years, literally getting her coffee, keeping her calendar," he says. "But she allowed me in on meetings that were so above my hair. She was a calming presence in the entire company."
When Hamilton retired in 2001, Tarleton found himself responsible for photo and video shoots with artists like Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney. After leaving RCA in 2004, he became a renaissance man of sorts, writing, managing an artist and producing events in Las Vegas before joining WMN in 2010. Now senior vp artist development, he oversees marketing, brand sponsorships, digital interactive and creative services for a roster including Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay and Ashley McBryde.
Tonight (May 31), he will receive Musicians On Call's first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award commemorating over a decade of support for the nonprofit, which brings music to the bedsides of patients in health care facilities. Tarleton, an avid traveler, music lover and humanitarian, says his career trajectory is no coincidence: "I've never forgotten that I'm a music fan first and that's why I'm here."
How soon after an artist is signed do you start working with them?
As soon as they're signed, I get to sit down with them and basically do a fact-finding: "Let's get to know each other on a personal level. I get to work with creating your image and your brand and what you want this to be." I always say to the staff, "You're working on creative with these artists. This isn't a bottle of ketchup, like in an ad agency. It's someone's dream, and it's highly, highly personal." It's our job to make all of those things happen [and] not to assign an alternate personality for them because we think that might be easier in the marketplace.
What's a project from the past year that you're especially proud of?
I'm overwhelmingly proud of the setup and execution of the launch of "God's Country" for Blake. Sonically, when you hear it, you immediately realize this is new Blake Shelton music. He has never sung like this before. I'm also proud of the [amount] of content that we have [coming] on Blake. He has had such large success for so many years, and obviously the industry is changing day by day. The fact that people are consuming so much music on YouTube means we have to create more content. He's very busy but he has leaned in, and all of the numbers reflect that: His YouTube numbers are great; his streaming numbers have grown week after week after week. It's a testament not just to the song and the way he sang it, but to all the visuals around it.
How has the music marketing landscape changed since you started?
Working at RCA in the '90s — when we spent megabucks on music videos — they were looked at as a necessary evil, and there weren't really metrics to support [if they were] moving the needle. Then, probably a decade ago, when [album] sales were going down due to streaming, we had to start cutting music video budgets completely. Fast-forward to today, and we can't create enough: Content is king. People are consuming music with their eyes, and they're also making an assessment of your music based on all the visuals that we're presenting. It's so important that we capture as much quality video content as possible. While quantity is important, so is quality.
How do you consume music?
I'm a Spotify guy. I have memberships to Apple and all the premium services. [But] my go-to is YouTube because I'm a visual guy. My whole career, basically, has been based on visual content. If I'm looking for something, I'll go to YouTube and dive down the rabbit hole and learn everything that's on an artist's YouTube channel. The stuff that I find very engaging is on fan channels because I personally like the more organic, less-produced [videos].
What are some of your biggest goals and challenges in this position?
My biggest goal is to grow the young team that's here. [It's] also very fun to watch people blossom and to give someone the platform for ideation and then to present it to the team. If everybody thinks it's a great idea, then you get to go and execute it. It's very much collaborative. We have a meeting every Tuesday morning with my entire team. There's 26 people and we sit around this big table and everybody gets a chance to talk and ask questions or have ideas.
A challenge would be, how do we continue to create content without breaking the artists' back as far as time constraints because they also have to tour, and they also have to write, and they also have real lives? How do we do that without depleting the marketing fund? Finding creative ways to create meaningful content without putting somebody in the red is always a challenge.
You are a big traveler. Does seeing the world help you do your job better?
Travel is really the only thing [where] it's good to make yourself feel so much smaller. I come back feeling a fresh approach to everything. Whenever we're inside our own little bubble, you lose touch with the world. I always ask people, "How do you discover music?" It's interesting, the artists people gravitate to or what their perceptions are of music — specifically country music — wherever you are.
You are very involved with Musicians On Call. How important is it for executives to give back?
My grandmother, who was my touchstone, was very religious. [She would say], "To whom much is given, much is expected." I always have that in my mind. It's the perfect charity for me because I come from a family of nurses. Musicians On Call takes music and the health care industry and puts them together.
It's so special to watch how everybody reacts differently to music. I encourage my whole team to find some sort of charity that makes [them] feel good. The reason that I want everybody to at least know what Musicians On Call is is because if you make your living in any way that touches music, this will show you how important your job is. Music is a healer, and it also allows people to find a sense of peace in those final moments, too. There's all sorts of opportunities to help the world if we just open our eyes.