Corey Smith DIY

This week’s HotStar spoke with Pollstar about how he went from a teacher to a successful country artist in five years.

Maybe you know Corey Smith, maybe you don’t: He’s taken an unconventional path – one that doesn’t include a No. 1 radio hit or a 50-city arena tour – yet it’s paid huge dividends. There are many paths to financial independence and Smith was more than happy to share how he and his band have done it without paying dues in Nashville or major-label marketing.

You’ve done things DIY. How have things been improving?

Right now I’m at a House of Blues in Orlando. We’ve been playing House of Blues for years. We know what to expect: Load in is no problem, you’ve got a great sound system, and you’ve got tremendous hospitality every night.

And last night, we were at a little bar with a tiny little stage in Sarasota, Fla. There wasn’t even a drum riser, and there was no barrier between us and the crowd. There were crappy speaker boxes. It was absolute madness, chaos. People were packed in there, drunk and wild. It was just crazy.

Later on this month, we’ll go play Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Atlanta and there will be 7,000-8,000 people there. Big stage, a big concert experience.

We do everything. Our job is to get in front of people and play music for them. We’ve been blessed to sell tickets but, in some cases, we’ve changed and grown. And in other cases we just keep on doing what we’re doing.

But you’re miles away from 2005 when you booked your own shows and did your own promotion. How long did that go on?

When I was still teaching high school, I began playing little bars around town. That was a very gradual thing, picking up a few gigs here and there, being happy if 50 people came out to a local bar. When I first started out, my goal was to make some extra cash doing something I love and writing songs for people. That goal turned into, “Wow, maybe I could make a living doing this, a good living. Maybe even $100,000 a year playing at bars within a 3-hour radius of my house.”

Then, real quickly, it was “Whoa! There’s a much bigger potential!” That’s about the time I started working with [manager] Marty Winsch and decided to leave the teaching job. I started working with [agent Cass Scripps] within the first six months that first year.

When I first started with Marty, it was January 2006. He was doing all the booking and he was able to get me into some of the bars in Georgia and South Carolina that I wasn’t able to get calls back from. Because of his connections, he was able to go in and get me the best deal. When you’re starting out in the clubs and doing things yourself, you’re taken advantage of a lot. I just got robbed a lot of times because I didn’t have the experience or resources to watch out for myself.

So the goal was for him to do the booking and accounting for three months then find an agent. I had already been getting to know Cass – Marty had known Cass from years before and Cass was eager to work with me at the time. He had just stopped a relationship with Sister Hazel; it was a perfect time for him.

I was nervous in the beginning, handing over booking. I had to give Marty and Cass a percentage and I was already doing well, just cash business. I was like, “Why do I want to give you 15 percent? Why do I want to give you 10 percent?”

In both cases, they said, “Hey. I’m going to more than pay for the percentage you’re going to give me.”

And Marty was right – he did. It was just nuts. With the relationships he had, he was getting me to play at places like Mississippi, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Greenville, Chattanooga, Knoxville. They were all these markets I suspected we’d do well in because of the whole college connection and because I was so popular in Athens, but it was amazing the first few times we went how many fans were already there.

How did you and Marty actually meet each other?

Marty and I met because he was booking a Buffalo Wild Wings. They’re a wings and beer joint but they do music. They all have small stages. But for me, starting out, that was a sought-after gig. Free wings and beer!

And they usually had pretty decent production. In some cases they’d even let me charge a $5 cover so I’d be able to go in there and make several grand. So I wanted to get in these Wild Wings and he was booking one in Anderson, S.C. I eventually got on the phone with him and was telling him how many tickets I was selling in north Georgia. I don’t think he really believed me but we had a great conversation.

It was an intellectual conversation, which I didn’t get a lot in the bar/club business. It was, “Hey, this is an exciting time in the music business. A lot of changes. Indie artists are able to come in and do some damage.”

And we had read some of the same books, like “The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution” by David Kusek. He eventually came down to a big, sold-out show in Athens and realized I wasn’t kidding about my sales.

That “Digital Music” is a great book by the way. I read it while I was still teaching. There was a story in there about a guy who was playing in bars, in a three-hour radius from home, making $100,000 a year selling some CDs, making money at the bar, playing original stuff and some covers, and I was like, “Shit! I can do that!” An important principle in the book is, in this day and age, artists will have to play more roles to succeed. They’re not going to just be musicians or writers or artists. And another notion is we need to embrace the digital change taking place because it’s already taken place. It’s a reality, and the ones who can succeed are the ones who’ve accepted that reality and made it work for them.

One idea Marty and I had in common was that because no one was buying a record that only cost me a few hundred dollars to make, or a few thousand to make, why not give it away? Otherwise it’s worthless. There’s no real value so why not use that as my promotion? I knew there was no chance of getting on the radio or getting in the mainstream media so we advocated file sharing. And that was one important piece of the puzzle.

People will read this and say, “Oh, you’re an advocate of giving music away.” And that’s not necessarily the case. I think artists deserve to be paid for their music and, at a larger level, you can’t be an advocate of just giving albums away. Now that we’ve moved up the ladder, the audiences are larger and the stakes are higher. The albums are more expensive. They’re more complete expressions of what I want. But now I know I have people who will buy the album.

But when you don’t have an audience, why not give it away? I look at it as a stepping stone. It’s a perfect tool for a developing artist. Now you can’t go online and get my album for free. We want them in Walmart. We want to sell them. That’s the goal. But not in the beginning.

Did you have a traveling audience?

Not a huge one, but maybe a dozen or so fans. When I was within a half-hour of home, some people would drive up but it was more about getting fans to come out for the first time. Those who were familiar with the music because they found it on MySpace or through a friend who burned a CD or, more likely, a friend from Athens who went to UGA, saw me at a big show there and left with an impression I was a huge artist, that I was playing shows like that everywhere.

These little cells started popping up. So when we started working with Cass, she had the relationships to go out and do some tests and figure out where these cells were. It was amazing how fast some of the markets came along. I don’t think I realized at the time how amazing. Now I have a deeper appreciation for it. The first time we went to Starkville – never been to Mississippi before and had 400 people come out. Didn’t have a song on the radio, didn’t have any traditional promotion. It was just me showing up at a bar, plugging in a line and letting the local promoter do his thing. The second time, the club sold out with 1,000 people packed in there.

In other places it came more slowly. I remember the first run up that far into North Carolina. It was a huge blow to my ego because we went into a place called Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem and 50 people came out. It was a fairly big room and it felt empty. Same thing in Chapel Hill. At the time I was just touring with an acoustic guitar player so my costs were rather low; it wasn’t like I was losing a bunch of money. But I was just used to playing to much bigger crowds. But the second time we went to those places, 200 people came out. And eventually we were able to go in and sell out all those places. Now we can go there and sell 1,000 tickets at a much higher ticket price and make a really good living.

What about the efforts country artists make to interact with fans? Do you put an emphasis on meet & greets and correspondence?

For years I was out with the fans, having drinks with them, shaking hands, finding out where everyone was coming from. A lot of times that’s how I found out about new markets, talking to people and hearing, “You need to come up to Oxford, Miss.” Or “You need to come up to Little Rock.” Or “All my friends in Fayetteville listen to you.” It was not only a way to connect with the fans but it was market research. I’d take that information back to Cass and Marty. Sometimes it would work out, sometimes it didn’t.

Would you say you have a core group of fans, like Parrot Heads, that keeps growing or do you just say, “Where are these people coming from”?

We don’t have a name for those fans and we don’t have an organized street team, but there is definitely a core of really passionate fans. By this point, some of them can come up and say, “Oh, I’ve seen you 20 times.”

So when I started out touring, our shows were acoustic. My first few albums were acoustic, even though the second and third had drums and bass on them. So our shows were acoustic. For the longest time it was just me in a van with another dude with a guitar and maybe somebody to tour manage. Some fans have been with me since that time where they can remember the acoustic show that we played at a Wild Wings and have seen me go to a three-piece with drums and bass for two or three years and now with a five-piece band. They’ve seen me play in small bars, in small amphitheatres, in parking lots and fields. It’s pretty cool.

Do you have any 1- or 5-year plans mapped out?

My goal from the beginning has been the same. And it’s going to sound vague but it’s worked: My goal is to reach as many people as possible without sacrificing the integrity of my art. And I like that goal because it’s nimble. It worked when I was trying to play within three hours of my house. Now it works when I’m trying to break into Fresno, Calif.

And this tension runs through my music and my albums, even the live shows. There’s always the temptation to go over to the side where it’s, “OK, I’m in the music business and this is about selling records and tickets.” And I know what my fans like. I know what they want. But it’s not necessarily what I want. I know what the masses want; I know a lot about the music business; I know how hit records are produced. But it’s not really what I want to do so I’m trying to accomplish this without going to that place, where there’s still art to it, where I’m still expressing myself and concerns, making a difference in the world, trying to make people think. Trying to inspire people. That’s the real balancing act here, the tension if you will, the tightrope walk between art and the commerce.

What’s been some of the biggest changes in the past year?

The big difference now is we have a much larger group of people working to help me reach a larger audience. And they’re all people who’ve committed to preserving my integrity, who understand that the reason I have fans is because, early on, I was able to do what I wanted to do creatively. In the beginning it was just me and Marty and Cass and a few guys out on the road. Now it’s the same team, plus Robert my business manager and all the great people at Buddy Lee and all the great people at (record company) Average Joe’s, and all their partners. So now the number of people who are working on getting me out there has quadrupled, and that’s really exciting. It comes with a new set of challenges but I can feel the momentum.

With the new album coming out, any effort to get on the late night shows?

Yeah. The first big TV appearance was on Fox & Friends July 10. I have a feature on Headline Country that just came out on GAC. My publicist, Ebie, is working on getting us places, and hopefully it will work.

And coming to Fresno. That’s the important thing.

Hey, I’ve actually been through Fresno before.

Well, a lot of people have been through Fresno before.