Joe was also a touring musician in the ’90s, hosts his own radio show, and co-founded the Alt-country Specialty Radio Chart — so he’s got a LOT of wisdom to share not only on the radio side, but on building a music industry career in general.
As we’re heard on other episodes; be ready to stay in it for the long haul, don’t bank on overnight success, and constantly (C O N S T A N T L Y) work on developing your network.
Also, be nice to people.
If you’re interested in more radio talk, check out our conversation with Shil Patel of Tiger Bomb Promo.
Frank Keith: [00:00:00] Tell me about you, how you got to where you are today, working in radio promo and what that journey looked like.
Joe Swank: [00:00:06] Okay. I’ll try to crunch this down as best I can. Went to school, went to a vocational school after school for recording engineering. When I graduated from that, I got a job at my hometown station in radio.
That led to as radio does leads to multiple radio jobs over the course of time. In 2000, I moved to North Carolina with intentions on finding a job in the industry cause they had according to the booklet I had, they had a YepRock records, sugar hill records, red eye distribution, a mammoth records was there at the time.
There was just a ton going on in North Carolina and I’d been there with my band. I’ve also had several bands and we played in North Carolina. So I liked it down there and moved down there, started to work for YepRock records in the warehouse. Actually for red eye distribution. And my nefarious plan was to figure out the music industry and then utilize it to for my band.
That’s not how it panned out. I was there a few months and the radio position became available. I took that. That was 2001, 2002. I worked for them until 2008 when bloodshot records hired me away. And I worked for them until 2014. When I had the realization that I was paying Chicago prices and every single thing I did happen over the internet, I was like back where I’m from in Southern Illinois, it’s dirt cheap to live.
So I went out on my own most at, at that time. And still possibly to this day most record companies want their radio person in house. And there’s good sense in that because your publicist is there and everybody’s in the room where you can just say, Hey, and you don’t have to instant messenger or whatever, but I left.
And then they asked me to come back and train their first replacement. I did that. He got another job doing booking. So then they asked me to train the next person I did that they immediately went back to college. I think it was. So then after the third time they were just like you just do our radio.
And I’m like, yes, that’s what I wanted to do. But I also do independent radio promotions since 2014. And my, my main thing is I’m trying to promote as much twine based. Americana is the work umbrella, but I really like the 20 year end of that spectrum because Americana has become very much a AAA sounding board, an early starting place for a lot of AAA acts.
So I try to lean the twine direction. And in the last couple of years, I also with a. With Ginny Finley down in Texas. I we started alt country specialty chart currently has a little over 30 stations. We’re hoping to get at least up to 50 before. Deciding what that means to anybody or anything, but it’s just, it’s all country and roots music.
It eliminates the, a lot of the R and B and the heavier blues aspect of the Americana chart and leaves it with kind of some sort of country influence. So that’s what I try to do. That’s what I try to promote. My overall, I have a radio show. There’s a couple of different stations and the overall theme of everything I just mentioned is trying to push and promote.
All country music that I’ve been a fan of since the mid nineties, possibly before.
Frank Keith: [00:03:19] Yeah. You have alt country. I’ve, I’m familiar with that chart. I’m hopeful to watch it grow as well. That’s how I got into music was, the uncle Tupelo’s, Jay Hawks side of it.
And you’re right. That umbrella of Americana has gotten so wide. That makes absolute sense that you’d make a little niche chart for that. And then hopefully it’s not so niche.
Joe Swank: [00:03:43] Yeah, exactly. We’re we’ve gotten quite a bit of interest, but we’re also still very small scale, very basic website.
Very, it’s really just a math game. I said, I don’t want to wait anything. I want it to just be an even shake down of the numbers of what everybody’s playing every week. And it’s quite a bit of effort, but I feel like it’s worth it. I feel like I feel like it’s a bit more of guide a guide post for people like us that are like, Hey, this is I was into drive-by truckers and old 90 sevens and all that.
I want to know what’s going on in that group.
Frank Keith: [00:04:15] Yeah. Yeah. That’s my pocket, man. Let’s pivot to more like nuts and bolts. We’ve talked to one other radio promoter on the show. It was Shil Patel at Tiger Bomb.
Joe Swank: [00:04:26] I love Shil. He’s a fantastic dude.
Shil and I have worked together on projects where, you know, if I come into something that is heavy, AAA, I will suggest, You’ll want to get a AAA promoter on this because I work with a handful of AAA stations, but I don’t do that anymore.
It’s, it became such a different world that I’m like, I’ve got to pick a lane here. But it, it becomes a really weird thing. When you have a record that it’s oh, this would work well at AAA because AAA doesn’t like to take chances on new artists. They like a nice foundation in place. And that’s where I think Americana has come into play for those folks.
Frank Keith: [00:05:04] Try to drop the names where it can and assets for awhile. So I’m always, it’s a double plug for it. W what I was going to ask you is just more general, though. What’s your day-to-day like you’re working pitching around to Americana radio. You say you’ve pulled out of the AAA game.
You said it’s a different world. What is the day to day like in Americana where they alt country promo for radio?
Joe Swank: [00:05:26] I fear you’re going to get a lot of what I call grandpa speak from me because as everything is changing, I certainly run into things where it’s this is how I used to be, and this is how it is now.
And this is why I make that reference. The day when I started, you had to do a lot more phone calling. It was just required. But as the digital age has moved on, email usually takes care of most folks. There’s a handful. Yeah. It’s always better to get them on the phone, you don’t want to talk to another person any more than another person wants to have to call them.
So it’s an ebb and flow of, and a lot of things run on an age scale. The younger people are quicker on the email. They’re going to be far more receptive to digital. When you get up to the other end of the scale, those folks are going to want a tangible copy in their hands. They’re going to want the phone call.
It’s just I wanna say just off the top of my head, there are 90 some. Reporters that we just, you know lost a couple and added four or five over the course of the last month. So I’m not sure the specific number, but and they’re all divided up into when they want to be contacted about stuff.
So really it’s there’s a master grid of who needs to be gotten hold of, and when you look at that, you boil it down to, oh, I’m on this person for that. I’m on that person for this. And then, every now and then you want to do something that’s all encompassing. And just remind everybody that you have things going on.
I’ve never really believed. And I don’t think any promoter believes that you can really harass somebody into playing something. You certainly can, but it’s not going to last, it’s not going to do you very much. So I just, my main thing is, did you get it, have you had a chance to listen to it?
Is it of interest to you? Matt that not, maybe not that specific wording, but that’s kinda my three points of getting through someone with a CD is do you have it? Have you listened to it? Is it something you’re into? And on that third question, is it something you’re into because we are very much, especially with the.
Amazing glut of records that are hitting the market right now. It was getting bad before the pandemic. But now that the pandemic looks to be dwindling down it’s at a level I’ve never, ever seen before of so many records coming out. And that, I think I just drifted on my own topic, but I think we’re, I think we’re, I was going with this was You that there are only about five available spots and you know that they’ve got about 60 or 70 records.
So if, oh, I do remember. If that third question were you into that, if they say, no, you’ve got one last little window to say then maybe try this cut because they are very different stations. You’ve got hardcore country down in Texas. You’ve got hardcore AAA on the east coast. And those guys are almost never going to intersect But you do what you can every now and then you get lucky and you go, oh, this station is into that.
It surprises me, but I’m glad I didn’t give up on them. So you try not to give up on anyone, even though they may be a long shot, but of course you start. Upfront with the folks that you think are going to like it first and try to get through them first. And then the day, that’s just, that’s the ideal scenario then the is full of a dozen other things that may or may not, especially when touring kicks in.
Cause a lot of times you get. To you have your tour and you try to work at a couple of weeks out, but you always get a, Hey, we just added a show, Hey, we’re going to be passing through this. And then you got to snap to and go, okay, if you’re passing through here, you might see Duncan and Tucson.
Let me get in touch with him real quick. See if he’s, there are always those things that pop up in the day and some days, yeah. Some days are not but that’s, yeah, that’s pretty much my day, who to email, who to call, who I need to follow up with. Who’s next on the list. And and hope, hope that you’re finding the right people that are going to add one more notch to the list that week.
Frank Keith: [00:09:08] You talk about the glut of records. I’m feeling it too right now. It’s insane. How many records are you working feasibly at any given time?
Joe Swank: [00:09:19] I try not to get over three or four at a time, but then it’s also, there’s almost three phases of a record. And the first one is the most time-intensive, which is really the main thing that stops me from doing more projects is because it takes a lot of time to, to listen to an album and cook down the tracks that you think are going to be most beneficial and find out what your artists how much your artists can afford to send.
That’s a new thing in the last year or two. I used to just say, look, we’re, we’ve got to send 150 hard copies to cover everybody, but between the pandemic really forcing most folks, hands on digital. I’ve had people that two years ago would not add a record without physical. And now they’re telling me I’m full.
My closet’s full. I can’t, I don’t throw CDs away and I literally have no space left. So don’t send me anything. Unless I specifically ask you, I promise I’ll listen to the digital. So that having happened loosened up my, I gotta send a physical CD. Cause now I got to go, station person by station person and see what they wanted.
And also that’s reflective of, postal rates almost doubled became a lot less consistent with the whole the joy derailing of the post office. It really made everything a lot more difficult. I used to be able to take a package in and they would weigh it and they would post it. And I would say I have 150 going out to the U S and they could print me off 150 of those, and I’d just sticker them.
And now. He added in this factor of location and weight. So now they physically have to take every package, program it into the computer, get you a total at that point. And it, they don’t like it. The postal people don’t like it any more than anybody else, but it was just one more attempt to to slow the system, to make the system look worse than it is.
And that really hit. Me and my guys I’ll come to clients and say, I’d like to send out 140, 150 copies. And they say that, at four bucks a pop for first-class mail says the other thing you can’t really rely on media mail. Plus media mail. We’ll ask the station for, I’ve never figured this out. As far as this goes, my postal person will weigh it.
For the destination, give it a price and I will send it to that destination. That destination will say you still owed 29 cents. And I’m like, how can that be? You guys work for the same company, your why? It almost always happens in Portland and in new Orleans. Those two post office in particular will red flag my stuff.
And when it’s media mail, they then ask the radio station for that money in the radio stations. What are you nuts? No, we’re not paying to get CDs that we don’t didn’t ask for. So then the post office throws it in a room for a couple of weeks and eventually I get five packages back in the mail that are a month and a half old that I didn’t know.
Never got delivered unless I happen, unless I talked to that person about that disc and they said, yes, it’s arrived. It’s most people just say, yeah, I think it’s here. I’ll look for it. Whatever the phrase of the day is, but meat. So media mail can’t be really trusted. So you got to use first class in a first class envelope that was $2 and 38 cents five years ago is now $4 a pop.
And sending 150 packages that $600 added to already me and the digital delivery service and everything else. So a lot of times I have to say, look, we can make a bare bones, 50 CD, hard copy mailing, and just trust that the rest of the folks will ask for it. And then that’s, that’s another weeding process that takes a while is to go through and go, okay, who really needs this particular disk.
So there’s a lot of new math involved with all of it. Which again is where I start to get on my grandpa. In my day it was all a set system and now everything has to, each project has to be taken on its own merit and decided where the money is best spent for that project.
Frank Keith: [00:13:24] Let’s say I’m a brand new artist or maybe not new, but the project is new and I’ve got my debut release. Expectations if I hire a Joe to work the record?
Joe Swank: [00:13:36] This is definitely a grandpa moment. And for the longest time I’ve told people, I worked with Lydia Loveless from the beginning.
I worked with Justin Townes Earle from the second record. It took three to four records for both of those people on a label, one with a really good name, attached to it, for radio to get with the picture and go, oh, a new Justin Townes Earle all right. Let’s get, they were still nobody’s for a while.
And that’s the thing with both YepRock and Bloodshot. A lot of times we were getting a first timer. And it’s a building process. So you take that first record after radio and maybe you want, I only get 15 or 20 stations. It seems abysmal, but then the next record you get another 20 or 30 and then that, so it’s this building process and this is where my grandpa genes kick in because it’s very frustrating now for me to watch people, to try to make their success on a single.
When they have nothing to back it up with. If you’re, John Prine, it’s not a problem to throw out a single, but if you’re nobody from Nowheresville, nobody cares. There are a million singles coming at them. The odds of them even listening are small. All right. All my career has been building artists, not like trying to stick them out there and make them successful overnight.
And that’s a really difficult problem because the further we go into the system, that’s what more people want this instant gratification of. I thought it would do way better than that. And it’s yeah, but you got to look who you’re up against. You got to see every week, there’s a new Rodney Crowell or a new Willie Nelson or a new, these people that are going to get one of those five spots with zero questions.
So now your odds of 60 to five, just moved down to 60 to four, and each time somebody sees a name or hears a name. It sticks in their head. I definitely, I, there artists that I’ve worked with two and three records in a row, and that’s how it happens. It tends to build record by record. And then and then on the other side of that coin, I work with ShinyRibs, Kevin Russell, and he changes so dramatically record to record.
It definitely tends to stun a few people and you have a few that go it just wasn’t like the last one, but then you have another few that go, oh, this is better than the last one. So with someone like him, that wave just keeps going in such a weird fashion. You just got to go, okay, what’s the next record?
What’s that going to be like? But he has longevity. So what was our, oh, you’re a new guy. Expectations shouldn’t be too high, but at the same time, and this is pre pandemic logic talking. So I don’t know if it still holds the biggest impact is just playing shows repeatedly.
And it seems, especially nowadays it seems futile. Even when my band was touring in the late nineties, you still needed a credit card. There were going to be shows that didn’t pan out there was, not that many people showed up, what can we trade? That’s only going to give us a big, giant bottle of whiskey instead of that we need for, so it’s never been real cost-effective to tour until you get to a certain stage.
And that’s of course, what everybody’s trying to get to is, the level of not having to do anything but this anymore, but it takes a little time. Playing Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana, and hitting these spots. And over again who is the band? I want to say it was the Avetts when I lived in North Carolina the Avett brothers were becoming they had their name on the radar, but then they spent one whole year just beating the east coast up and down and up and down and up and down and plant every bird that they could possibly play.
And then when the record came out, it sold like mad. But when you looked at the SoundScan, it sold like mad in the Eastern third of the U S like the west coast still had no idea who these guys were, because they hadn’t put that legwork in there yet. But, they did, but in a comparison factor, when you looked at that SoundScan, it was like, wow, this path that these guys wore up and down the coast, that’s where all these sales are enrichment and in Philly and the places that they, and that, that kind of reaffirmed the whole touring thing to me, it was like, yeah you go out there and you beat yourself senseless, but there are end results.
It’s just, it’s not cheap. No one is going to pay for you to get in the van for a year and work towards it. That’s even, I found people that thought that’s what a label did. Oh, they pay for your touring. No, they don’t pay for your touring. A record label is just a loan shark that won’t break your legs.
No one ever sees a dime, why all that went to pay for posters and point of purchase and all this stuff.
And, there are some cats that still try to play that game, but it’s, I think it’s diminished, especially since things like point of purchase have gone away or at least moved over to the iTunes store. It’s probably still the same game, just digitally speaking.
And then of course your first three, four weeks, depending on how thick things are, it definitely does. When there are 60 records a week coming out, it’s going to take them longer to get to your thing. Most people I work with do get to stuff.
And, but sometimes it’s way down the line. It’s a Mattson at KMBT down in Texas. I don’t even remember what record it was at this point, but I had literally just sent the final report to my client and said, this wraps up the radio campaign. And before I’d hit send, an email popped up that Mattson had just added the record.
Like that the day that I was ending the radio campaign and he played it for months after, but it took him three months to get to it. So it’s you get, you never can tell when somebody is going to stumble across your record. And that’s the one thing I try to reinforce in people, as you’re making your name known just because this station doesn’t like you now doesn’t mean two records from now.
They’re not going to be mad for you. And I like to tell this story when I was in North Carolina American aquarium BJ brought me the, his very first record. It’s okay. I played a song, Hey, local, good guy. I played a song on my radio show. Now I’m a fanatic of American aquarium. I love wolves.
I love the next record, but it’s I remember. And I was informed. This is a funny story from bloodshot era. I fell in love with the newest Brent Cobb record Providence canyon. I think it was. And this is long after I’d left bloodshot. And I wrote a note to one of my buddies there and I said, man, have you heard this Brent Cobb record. It is just fantastic. I can’t get enough of it. And he wrote back all in caps: you hated him two years ago. And I’m like, I have no idea what you’re talking about. And he says, we were looking at this record two years ago and wanted to see him live. And you mumbled some stuff about fake hillbilly, acts something.
So I went back and listened to that record and I wrote him back and I said, I still stand by that, but I still love Providence canyon, man. Sometimes your first record is the best one, but sometimes it takes a couple of records for what you do to click with people. I’ve definitely had records sit on my shelf for a couple of years and then someone mentions it and I go back and listen to it again.
You know what? This is good. Maybe I was just in a bad mood that day. Maybe, maybe. So I like to look at it as building a continuous story. And unfortunately that’s not what a lot of people are looking for, but it’s the necessity of. Do you want a flash in the pan, Spotify single that got a bunch of followers for a month?
Or do you want to build a career where people, when you play a gig, people are going to actually come out to the show, buy your t-shirts, buy your hats. It’s a long term investment. There aren’t a lot of people that get that quick fix.
Frank Keith: [00:21:49] Yeah. I it’s an overarching theme not just on this podcast, but the music industry.
It’s a long game. It’s a long-term I really try to harp on that for people. Totally agree with you on the singles thing. Maybe that’s what you want, but if that’s the case, maybe you don’t need to be looking for radio success, just put all your money to digital marketing.
Joe Swank: [00:22:13] Yeah. And it’s, at this, I’m still thinking like labels, which the argument was always how is this a long-term financial gain for you? You’re not making real money off this comparatively, big artists. Sure. They’re probably bringing in some cash debatable as if they would have sold those records or not any other way, but the average person can’t make a living off Spotify streams.
And I don’t know, I haven’t looked at the data, but I gotta assume it’s pretty fickle. I got to assume that just because you’re on someone’s popular playlist, that playlist does not hold weight for very long until the next one comes along.
Frank Keith: [00:22:56] Hard tickets. And sales you probably not going to get that just from chasing Spotify success. I’m sure there are exceptions out there. I know there’s a couple of artists that Rachel and I have been in touch with. They’re like, oh, I made $60,000 of Spotify last year off one single.
And that’s awesome, but that’s the exception, not the rule. And then the next question is how many tickets can you sell in Wilmington, North Carolina?
Joe Swank: [00:23:23] That’s what a lot of, so much of this business is contingent on how many physical human beings you can put in a room. It’s not theoretical. It’s not Facebook followers. It’s not Twitter followers. It’s like when it all comes down to it, if they book you in world cafe in Philly, How many bodies are you going to put into that room that are there to pay to see you?
And that still the biggest guidepost. People are always looking for booking. I’m like, yeah, but bookers are so thin and they make their money off commission. So they don’t want 20% of nothing. They want 20% of a stream that already exists, that they’re going to step right into. And as soon as they start getting good dollars for you, they start getting good dollars.
So there’s no until you’ve actually carved your path in the tour grid. There’s not a lot that they want to talk to you about. And I get that. I wish that there were more people that took it on a base level, really effective for bands is as a manager guy, Not a manager. But a guy who will do that stuff, a guy who will make a few calls for your, maybe take care of your website, cider puts them a lot of bands have just a guy in the band.
Sometimes it’s the front guy. Sometimes it’s not. I know Patterson hood was just a work machine, Still is, but back in the day, when we’d play club shows together, he’s up first thing next morning, do an inventory on merge. How much did we sell? What did we give away? He added all on a clipboard and that, that was first cup of coffee business every day.
When we worked with Whitey Morgan JD Mac, his bass player was the guy who took the reign and said, this is where we gotta be this is when we gotta be there. Here. Here are times he took care of. So there’s almost always in a successful band. There’s almost always somebody who says I’ll take responsibility for making sure all these ducks get in a row.
And when you don’t have that, it becomes a lot more difficult to put bigger plans together. And I as I was saying, I wish, there’s always people that love music, but can’t play or sing or whatever. Those are the ones that are the most helpful. And I’d still know, I know. Older couples in this town that put a lot of their money into just supporting local music because they can, I know that’s two different ends of the spectrum, but the point being that if you have a friend that’s into your band, that’s into your music, not saying, take advantage of them, but saying, Hey, would you like to act like a manager Booker for a while and see what we can do?
That’s the way to learn this business. That’s literally talking to these booking agents every day. You’re going to get the vibe. You’re going to go, oh, I need to send other stuff on email first. Tell them what I’m going to call the follow up. Make sure, it’s just an as fast as things change. There really isn’t a you can’t buy a book and say, this is how the music industry is because that book is now two years old and half of it is possibly irrelevant.
And there are things that have come along since then that make a difference that are not in that book. There’s never a real way to tell this is how it’s done, because it’s a constantly shifting beast, but the commonality in everything hard work, I hate those two words together with a passion because I hate doing it, but it’s so necessary to do the legwork and make sure you cover all those bases and make sure your social medias are covered.
And I see people that try to do it all. And they’re constantly dropping a stitch here and dropping a stitch there. There’s just no way one human being can run a band by themselves.
And the trick is to find people that can economic, that can help you out that are on your level. You don’t want a big manager, if you’re a small fish, because they’re just going to ignore you and take whatever little money comes in the door. You want somebody that will learn with you. Say I’d really like to play in this area.
Get you and him, her, them together, sit down with the Google, find all the places, get all the numbers, find all the information, learn about that area. And over the course of your career, that becomes easier and easier to go. We had a good experience here. We didn’t have a good experience there. Let’s try this place first. All those pieces start to fall together.
Oh, this is a common one. Small people become big people. Do what you can for the little piddly station on the corner at the community, stay. If you’ve got the time and the availability do everything you possibly can, even if it seems pointless at the beginning, because every small person, if they have a deep enough heart interests, they’re going to climb and become a bigger person and get into booking or get into a bigger radio station at a bigger radio station. A lot of the people running the shows now I knew when they were definitely not running the shows. It’s making those connections. And, on that side, those people that you’re making connections with, if they see you’re working, that puts another little bell in their head that they go, I can count on this guy.
If he says he’s going to be here, he’s going to be here. And I won’t even pretend that working hard is going to make it happen. Working hard is going to give you a better chance at making it happen. I mentioned Patterson earlier, a couple of times in my life I thought my band was good enough to open for the drive-by truckers. And I’d send this little sheepish email, if you need an opener or, and I didn’t hear back from him. And that’s, in retrospect that’s how it should have been. I wasn’t even big enough to ask, but I was dumb enough. And sometimes that works out for you, but usually, you got to consider this scope.
What’s my little Zen pirates band going to bring to a drive-by truckers show. Nobody that wouldn’t have already been there in the first place. People that if we were playing next door would have skipped our show to go to that show. But those friends do happen. Those, those scenarios where if you do have a good band.
All of a sudden one day the truckers might go, Hey, let’s get that person to open up for us. It’s a world of relationships. And I’ve definitely seen people that come in with a gray, aggressive and angry attitudes, just fall by the wayside because no one wants to work with them.
But fortunately, those are few and far between in the music industry. Most of the folks I run into are all about helping all of us, bring the whole game up a level. And that’s kinda what it takes.
Frank Keith: [00:29:50] Sitting here, nodding my head, Joe, this is all great. I think we got away from radio, but you brought it back really well.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, this has been great.
Joe Swank: [00:30:01] This has been fun. I have no idea what I said, so I’ll have to listen again just to see what idiocy I spouted out, but hopefully it’s useful to somebody. I know no one likes to hear luck and work , but unfortunately that’s going to be the answer most, every time.
And make friends for God’s sakes. Don’t go in there and be in a fucking sad sack. And. And snapping at everybody and yelling at the sound guy. And, remember you’re on a mission here to make people like you. And it’s more than just the people standing on in front of the stage.
It’s like everybody involved, we always used to say, make the bartender happy first, everybody after that can go to hell because a lot of what we’ve found out is, the owner will be there. The manager might not be there most of the night, but when they come back in at the end of the night, they’ll go, how is the band.
The bartender liked you were fantastic, man. They were really there. There’s some good stuff, but if you’re being a Dick to the servers and stuff, there’s how was the band? Or they were shitty brought about four people off key and it can be the same show. Just don’t make enemies. You don’t have to suck up.
You don’t have to be a fake about it, but don’t go in and make enemies just because you’re in a bad mood and thanks for having me. I certainly appreciate it. This has been fun.