Business

Executive of the Week: 12Tone Music's Steve Bartels

Steve Bartels
Rukes

Steve Bartels

This week, Joji’s Nectar and Dolly Parton’s A Holly Dolly Christmas came in at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Independent Albums chart. So what do those two albums -- one a lo-fi release by a young Japanese singer/songwriter, the other an October holiday album by a legend of country music -- have in common? They mark the first time in 15 months that an independent label, in this case 12Tone Music, has held the top two slots on that chart with a different artist at the same time since BMG did it in July 2019 with 311’s Voyager and Big K.R.I.T.’s K.R.I.T. IZ HERE, respectively.

For 12Tone, it marks a major victory for an independent label run by two longtime major-label veterans, Doug Morris and Steve Bartels, and a significant achievement for a company that is still less than three years old. And it’s helped Bartels to earn the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.

"Every artist and partner that 12Tone Music is aligned with gets a full and focused custom plan of release strategy that speaks to the artist's vision and goals," says Bartels, acknowledging the work that its release partners -- 88Rising for Joji, Butterfly Records and CTK Management for Parton -- did in rolling out each project. "It takes a lot of thought and time -- especially through a pandemic and being offsite... [It’s] exciting on both fronts as emerging and established artists can live side by side and have success in our ecosystem."

Here, Bartels speaks about the rollout and successes for both Nectar and A Holly Dolly Christmas, 12Tone’s ability to push a variety of different types of artists and projects at the same time and how 12Tone has "built a nimble, modern, forward-facing company, where titles are left at the door and we all work together in pursuit of advancing our artists and partners' creative agendas."

This is the first time in over a year that a label has held the top two spots with two different artists on the Independent Albums chart. What key decisions did you make with these releases to help facilitate that success?

Both of the releases became set next to each other through independent circumstances. With Joji, the Sean Miyashiro-led 88 Rising team drove various activations, set up single releases, TikTok contesting, videos and visual content along with visceral marketing plans until Joji and team deemed it was time to launch the album and set the date. With Dolly, the album date had long been planned along with CTK Management & Marbaloo Marketing and we drove together to let the world know Holly Dolly was coming. It was actually Joji's second week since release and Dolly's first that aligned the stars together to advance the feat of the one-two punch.

Both Joji and Dolly put out very different types of albums. How did you make sure each got the support it needed?

Every artist and partner that 12Tone Music is aligned with gets a full and focused custom plan of release strategy that speaks to the artist's vision and goals. It takes a lot of thought and time -- especially through a pandemic and being offsite. In Joji's case, the 88Rising team stayed close to the ground with him and we partnered with them to build out the broad strokes of the global plan. The same held true for Dolly Parton, who as a National Treasure gets the benefit of legacy and brand-building over time with marketing considerations. [It’s] exciting on both fronts as emerging and established artists can live side by side and have success in our ecosystem.

Dolly also topped the Country and Holiday Albums charts, and had a No. 1 on the Christian Airplay chart. What was your strategy with such a diverse album?

Each chart has a slightly [different] audience and the goal across all genres was to introduce the project with a bang, as there is a short window to the holiday sales season and we wanted the most people to become aware of what was arriving ahead of time. As we became involved, the team had the benefit of management and outside marketing activity already in the queue as we joined with partners such as Cracker Barrel and Williams & Sonoma, pitched holiday gift guides, activated press and created content marketing opportunities with all DSP partner platforms while launching in advance an aggressive D2C campaign to window into Dolly's world, among them. Dolly also is currently recording virtual holiday performances that are yet to air, made all the more difficult as we are in a COVID world where it is challenging to accomplish these types of things expediently.

With both Dolly and Carrie Underwood, holiday albums have arrived earlier than ever this year. How did you decide to market and promote the album so far ahead of the usual holiday season?

It isn't so unusual to have a holiday album out in advance of the holiday season so the table is set in time to make maximum impact. Also, given current conditions with COVID, people are looking forward to the end of this year to get on with it and an album from Dolly gives hope for the season. There were also a number of other activations all happening at the same time -- an annotated lyrics book, the 40th anniversary of the classic movie 9 to 5, a first- ever DVD collection highlighting her career, an upcoming Netflix special (Christmas on the Square) as a broad start. It's going to be a Holly Dolly Christmas everywhere. So, getting fans and consumers in gear earlier connects everyone for the excitement to come.

Joji has also had a strong presence on Billboard’s new global charts. What push did you give the album outside the U.S. to help its success there?

Joji built a strong following off of his debut album, Ballads, less than two years ago that has the single "Slow Dancing in the Dark" still streaming 17 million a week with close to 2 Billion RTD. Given that, the 88Rising team and our 12Tone staff, along with local global territory partners as well as Warner/ADA galvanized around his music leading up to the Nectar album release, prioritizing him as a global breakthrough. The artist's perspective was brought forward through multiple visuals, contest activations, challenges, platform activations across all partner retail sites, TikTok acceptance, YouTube, along with Apple and Spotify among them. A big push. Also, overseas we saw more social engagement ahead of each single release. Radio became more engaged in his artistry this go around, along with a first-ever late night performance on Jimmy Fallon to advance the album conversation into a global conversation.

Where do you go from here with each of these albums in terms of further pushing them forward?

Both of these albums are really just in the discovery stage. For Dolly, the wins are just beginning and we haven't hit the holiday selling season nor touched the surface of what is still to go live to support this project. Her first official radio single "Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas" with Michael Bublé launches in November and many live (virtual) TV performances are yet to come. Joji has a number of drivers that are still to be unfurled as the album opens up every day to a new audience that looks for his music. Singles being worked, visual releases and the 88Rising team has planned the Joji Extravaganza that will go live one-night-only Oct. 23, which is a live-stream ticketed event that will have Joji showcase the Nectar album from a different vantage point, display artist skits, include unconventional guests and feature performances.

What has 12Tone done as an independent label to be able to compete in the music business today?

Under Doug Morris' tutelage we have built a nimble, modern, forward-facing company, where titles are left at the door and we all work together in pursuit of advancing our artists and partners' creative agendas. Every situation is different and in each of these we are supportive and can move quickly. It's a great place for the staff to not be stuck in one area of discipline. We have a major-minded sensibility, years of executive experience and artist care but remain movable so we can adapt as needed in our changing times.

What does being an independent label allow you to do that you might not be able to, particularly when it comes to albums like these?

We can make decisions very quickly. And then we can move on that decisiveness. It's efficient and clear. We can take chances, consider best practices and implement them quickly. When it works, fantastic; when it doesn't, we can pivot quickly and revert to a new path without much fanfare. We also have to make our choices and aim as close to the bulls eye to deliver our artists' and partners' mission statements of what we are looking to accomplish.

In our case, we started 12Tone with no catalog, no office, no artists and just a very small team. We have since built 12Tone outward into an artist destination with hard work, acumen and support in the very short period of 32 months. Having artists such as Anderson .Paak (through Aftermath), Illenium and Lauren Daigle (with Centricity) as well as the rest of our smart roster has been incredible. Very surreal, but we look forward with excitement and only look in the rear view mirror to analyze what has to change and what we can do better. Each of these albums -- Joji and Dolly -- and all of the artists and partners we have the good fortune to be working with benefit from that vision and drive.

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