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PopMark Media’s Confessions of a Small Working Studio: Indie Record Label Trades in Quick Sale for Long-Term Relationships

Do a search for indie record labels, and you’ll find, well, a lot. We know because we’re constantly checking them out to see who’s gotten in (and out of) the game and what they’re doing. That’s how we came across Playing in Traffic Records. Not unlike others, the label offers artist development, promotion, touring, and so on, but with one unique twist that we don’t see very often: They’re not in it for the quick sale, but rather, for the long haul. Imagine that.

From left: Kevin Wommack, photographer Jon Pattillo, Whitaker Elledge, and Troupe Gammage of SPEAK during a photo shoot.

Do a search for indie record labels, and you’ll find, well, a lot. We know because we’re constantly checking them out to see who’s gotten in (and out of) the game and what they’re doing. That’s how we came across Playing in Traffic Records. Not unlike others, the label offers artist development, promotion, touring, and so on, but with one unique twist that we don’t see very often: They’re not in it for the quick sale, but rather, for the long haul. Imagine that.

When he founded Playing in Traffic Records in 2009, Kevin Wommack had a pretty good sense of the kind of record label he wanted to create. By then, he had decades of industry experience under his belt, previously founding the music management company Loophole Music Management 25 years earlier in 1984. With the band Omar and the Howlers on the Loophole roster, along with singer/songwriter Sara Hickman and rock musician Ian Moore, Wommack was introduced to a new band that blew him out of the water. The band was Los Lonely Boys. Wommack took them from the trailer they were living in to the national stage and Grammy Award winning/multi-Platinum recording artist status.

After signing several more young rock bands, Wommack and his partners—Whitaker Elledge, who joined the company in 2007, and Mary Jurey, who signed on in 2010—realized that Loophole was doing more than a just managing; it was providing full artist development services for its clients. The revelation led to the birth of Playing in Traffic.

“As managers, we were putting our own money into artist development and pitching them to labels, so it made more sense for us to form our own label,” says Elledge. Having Los Lonely Boys on the roster enabled the fledgling indie label to obtain a solid distribution deal with Sony Red, and its signing of the UK band, The Dunwells opened the door to a distribution deal with Universal, launching the label’s distribution arm, which afforded it a nice advantage. But there was something else that the label wanted to offer its artists: time.

Long-Haul Philosophy
If you were to ask Elledge what defines Playing in Traffic, he’d say it’s the label’s artists, who now include Michelle Armstrong, Sahara Smith, The Steps, and SPEAK, along with Los Lonely Boys and The Dunwells. “We have insanely talented artists on our roster,” he says. “They are the most important component of the label and our priority.”

Maybe that’s why when they say they’re in the business of artist development, they really mean it. Case in point: The label started working with Texas-born singer/songwriter Sahara Smith when she was 15 years old, but it wasn’t until she was 21 that she put out her first album. “The reality is, we’re committed to an artist beyond how many albums he or she puts out,” says Elledge. “We realize that not many other labels—and certainly no majors—would be willing to develop an artist like this, but it’s just what we do.”

In this case, the risk is paying off well. In addition to landing appearances on such national programs as The Late Show with David Letterman, Smith has enjoyed positive reviews in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Seventeen, and Glamour. It doesn’t hurt that Playing in Traffic was able to harness the talents of the legendary T Bone Burnett, who steered the original songs on Smith’s album.

From left: Playing in Traffic Records partner Mary Jurey, Jojo Garza of Los Lonely Boys, Whitaker Elledge, and Kevin Wommack

The label worked in a similar fashion with singer/songwriter Michelle Armstrong. “Michelle had a personality and drive that enticed us, and she had a willingness to work with us to develop the kinds of songs that we thought would be best for her,” says Elledge. But getting to that point didn’t happen over night. The label didn’t officially sign Armstrong until the fall of 2011, after a 2-year courtship, one that enabled the label to cultivate trust and ultimately benefit the artist and them as they move forward.

How, and why, does Playing in Traffic elect to make long-term commitments to unproven, up and coming artists? “We realize that it takes a long time for an artist’s brand to seep out into the public’s mindsets,” says Elledge, who admits that it takes a monetary investment to secure these extended relationships. “Our goal is to identify smart ways to spend the investment and focus on organic growth. From a financial standpoint, we try to be calculated about the approach, building campaigns to keep artists in front of as many people as possible. There’s no doubt that it requires mental fortitude on both sides of the equation. If we were just a label, we’d be doing bearish marketing spends.”

Promotional Strategies
Elledge says the underlying goal of Playing in Traffic is to move an artist forward on all fronts, so that they look at all aspects of an artist’s needs. “As managers, we try to create the most artist-friendly scenarios as possible,” explains Elledge, who says the label operates their own version of a 360 deal.

One of the most important elements of the label’s promotional strategy is seeking TV/film licensing deals for artists. “TV and film are the new radio for the younger generation, so not only is TV/Film licensing a huge marketing driver, but also a good cash infusion for the artist,” says Elledge, who says Playing in Traffic places emphasis on pitching and making deals with licensing agencies. So far, this approach has proven successful. One of the label’s artists, The Steps, for example, has made over $50,000 from TV and film placements.

Elledge says there is no one-size-fits-all scenario under which the label operates; they simply try to find the right deals for artists based on their unique needs. “If it makes sense to involve a large label entity, we go for that for an artist. If it makes sense to enlist a booking agent for touring, we’ll do that. The key is creating awareness in the industry. In order to be successful, an artist has to have that buzz factor, and that’s what we try to create.”

Give and Take
Success the Playing in Traffic way also depends on relationships and the give and take on which healthy ones are based. The label is, in fact, relationship-focused, developing a good rapport with artists, cultivating friendships, and then reaching out and capitalizing on the relationships they’ve built with music industry decision-makers.

It’s not a one-sided relationship, however. Playing in Traffic expects that their artists bring a few very important ingredients into the mix: a true passion for their music, great songs, authenticity, and an understanding, or willingness to develop an understanding of, the importance of social media in furthering their careers.

“There are key elements we look for in artists, but one that we’re most attracted to is songs that knock us out,” says Elledge. “While one of the factors that dictates whether or not we sign an artist is personalities and whether or not they jibe with ours, at the end of the day, it comes down to the songs. To us, the songwriting is the most important part of the equation and one that we are not willing to compromise on.”

An artist who is well versed in or has a willingness to become educated about the value of social media is also attractive to Playing in Traffic. “The more an artist can bring to the table with regard to social media stats, the more likely we are to sign that artist,” says Elledge, who admits that they sometimes have to school artists on the significance of the medium. “We like it when we see bands talking to other bands via social media channels and ramping up their online social presence. We look at social media as more than just a way to advertise; we believe it provides an opportunity for an artist to open a window into their lives, which is extremely important to fans.”

In fact, Elledge believes that an artist’s honesty and willingness to be open will ultimately determine their success in the indie world. “A lot of what attracts us to artists is their ability to be transparent about who they are,” says Elledge. “The definition of an ‘indie’ artist has been morphed over time from someone who was simply on an indie label, to a style that is cool and groovy, to something that is more narrowly defined. Today, what really affects how an artist is perceived in the market is whether he or she is true and honest,” he says. “The ‘hip factor’ can’t be fabricated. It’s determined by the audience’s perception of an artist, so while we can capture great photos, create a big online presence, and communicate an amazing story about an artist, the ones that will be truly successful are those who show who they really are instead of hiding behind a shroud of mystery.”

Lisa Horan is a writer with more than 19 years of industry experience, as well as the co-founder and executive director of PopMark Media, a unique partnership that offers creative and marketing, custom music and music production, and audio post-production services to music, film, and business clients. Her “Confessions of a Small Working Studio” column has been regularly featured in Mix since 2010.