903 Music Aims to be Artists’ Missing Link
By Edward Morris
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
As a performer, Neal McCoy had all he could hope for — except a record company that loved him as much as the crowds did. So he started his own label, dubbing it “903 Music” after the area code of Longview, Texas, his hometown. So far, the new enterprise has done well. For starters, it generated McCoy his first Top 10 single in nine years. It’s also developed enough muscle and confidence to take on two more acts: Darryl Worley and the Drew Davis Band. Worley’s first 903 album was released on Nov. 21, while Drew Davis Band is scheduled to make its recording debut the second quarter of 2007.
After working with Charley Pride for six years, McCoy signed to 16th Avenue Records, Gaylord Entertainment’s short-lived label, in 1988. In 1990, he migrated to Atlantic Records, where he would spend the next decade. His first few singles fizzled on the charts, but his career appeared to skyrocket in 1994 when “No Doubt About It” went to No. 1. He followed it with “Wink,” an even bigger hit that stayed at the top of the Billboard chart for four weeks. Throughout the next three years, he scored six more Top 5 singles. Then things began tapering off. From 1997 until “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On” came along in 2005, none of his singles rose higher than No. 22.
When Atlantic shut down, McCoy moved to Giant Records and then briefly to Warner Bros. Records. But despite being plagued by label closings, executive turnovers, priority shifts and a frustrating indifference at radio, the lanky singer was such a dynamic live performer and tireless touring act that he still racked up one Gold and three Platinum albums.
Allied with McCoy in 903 Music are two silent-partner financial backers and his long-time manager, Karen
Kane (right). They launched the label in July 2004, Kane said, but didn’t announce it until the following February, after they had a staff in place. In the interim, McCoy completed his album, That’s Life, and shot the music video for his rollout single, “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On.”
“We realized that as an independent [label], we had a lot of things working against us,” Kane said. “But, luckily, when we did launch the label, it was the perfect time for one in the marketplace. We needed to have a really strong promotion team in-house. That’s the first thing that we did.” (Prior to becoming McCoy’s manager, Kane spent 13 years in marketing and sales with Warner Bros. and WEA Distribution.)
Kane’s first hire was Bill Mayne, a former General Manager and promotion executive at Warner Bros. whom she once described as “Vice President of anything and everything.” He was put in charge of promotion and artist development. Then came four regional in-house promotional reps, a digital content staffer, a marketing consultant and an independent publicist. Recently, Kane added Chris Rogers, the veteran music video director, to the marketing staff. The label uses independent producers.
“The landscape has changed completely,” Mayne said. “To me, the exciting part is understanding the changes in the marketplace and adapting to a new methodology to getting music exposed. First and foremost, you have to have credible people and credible product. We’ve got a smaller staff than anybody out there in the marketplace, so it’s a matter of working hard and working smart. It’s not about unlimited resources and large staffs. We’re forced to be more creative.”
To raise both McCoy’s and the new label’s visibility, 903 signed on as a sponsor of the 2005 Country Radio Seminar. This enabled the video for “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On” to be played prominently throughout the Seminar, including at the heavily attended New Faces Show. That’s Life was released in August 2005, and “Billy” peaked at No. 10 in late November.
Once it became apparent that 903 was gaining traction for McCoy, the principals decided to “grow the label” by signing other acts, Kane explained. Worley was a natural choice. A casualty of DreamWorks’ closing, he had a catalog of hits that included “I Miss My Friend,” “Have You Forgotten” and “Awful, Beautiful Life.” More important, as far as the label was concerned, he had an organization behind him.
So did the Drew Davis Band. “They’re a new act, but they already have a business in place,” Kane said. “They’ve been touring for three years. And that’s really our criterion — signing acts that already have businesses in place. The way our business model works is that we view ourselves as sort of a link in the chain of the artist’s business. One of the issues with Neal was that we felt like our organization was working on all levels except for our records. We decided if we did everything else in-house, why not pull that in-house too.”
Based in Los Angeles, the Drew Davis Band, Kane said, already has a publishing deal and a booking agent and is managed by Doc McGhee of McGhee Entertainment. Currently, the band is shopping for songs and a producer. And so is McCoy, as he looks toward his second album.
Kane speculated that the label’s album budgets will vary widely, “depending on which producer you have and what kind of deals you cut. But I think the budgets that we have for albums are comparable to what the majors have. We want to put out quality products.”
While 903 products are available via all the major digital providers, Kane said that most of the company’s sales are through conventional retail outlets. She turned to another former colleague at Warner Bros. — Neal Spielberg — to advise the label on how to get its albums into the marketplace most effectively. “Because we have a real seasoned professional advising us in Neal, we’re pretty conservative on what we manufacture as opposed to what we ship. We want to make sure that we don’t have a lot of returns. Because of Neal’s experience, we’ve been able to keep that percentage pretty tight and not over-manufacture. Our distributor is Navarre, and they’ve been really great about turning around product very quickly.”
Kane admitted she couldn’t comprehend the gulf that exists between McCoy’s enormous crowd appeal and his generally tepid reception at radio. “After 10 years with Neal, I still scratch my head about that. Of course, every station wants him for its listener-appreciation show. We try to explain to radio that their consumers are buying tickets to his shows, putting out cold cash to see him and that he has a real impact in the market. But sometimes there’s just a disconnect there that I haven’t really been able to explain.
“I know that [radio programmers] love Neal personally. It’s not that they’ve turned their backs on him as an artist. But they just haven’t felt — this is what they’re telling us — that he’s had the right songs. And then we came with ‘Billy,’ and they gave us that support. They felt like their audiences demanded that song. Neal’s biggest successes have been from songs that consumers have demanded.”
Kane estimated that McCoy does about 120 shows a year. “He would do many more,” she said with a laugh, “if we would let him. He’s really in heavy, heavy demand as a live performer.” Later on, McCoy plans to give the Drew Davis Band
(right) a shot as his opening act.
“Neal generally tours on his own,” Kane observed. “He’s headlined his own tours from the very beginning because nobody would follow him.”
On the Web: www.903music.com