IBMA Keynote address from Pete Fisher

Here is a copy of the Keynote Address delivered by Pete Fisher during the 2009 IBMA World Of Bluegrass convention in Nashville. Fisher, Vice President and General manager of The Grand Ole Opry, gave his address on Monday, September 28 on the first night of IBMA week.

Reprinted with permission from International Bluegrass and Pete Fisher.

Pete Fisher, Vice Prseident and General Manager of The Grand Ole OpryI am very grateful and extremely honored to have this opportunity to speak with you this evening. I believe the bluegrass music industry holds tremendous potential to grow. In my years at the Opry, I have personally witnessed how the power of bluegrass music and its artists can win over those who may not consider themselves fans of bluegrass.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been at the Opry 10 years, and what an exciting 10 years it has been! It was around September of 1998 when Steve Buchanan first approached me about the General Manager position at the Opry. At that time I was in my fourth year of artist management, the second phase of my music industry career. To be honest, the call came as quite a surprise to me. Although I had a very high regard for the Opry, I never envisioned in a million years that my career would lead me to that revered institution.

In addition to the obvious musical compatibility, bluegrass music and the Grand Ole Opry have a lot in common. Introduced to the world by Bill Monroe on the Ryman Stage 64 years ago, like the Opry, bluegrass music has a long rich legacy which celebrates excellence and tradition.

Bluegrass music, like the Opry, is truly a slice of Americana. It’s all-American. Bluegrass Music, like the Opry, is multi-generational – the performers and fans alike.

A frequently asked question I get from the media is, “What is country music?” I typically respond by saying country music, at its best, is about real people singing real songs about real life. If country music is that, then bluegrass music is the espresso version of that!  Both bluegrass music and the Opry are real—authentic to the core.

With each and every one of the 200 Opry shows we present each year, we strive to present a diverse array of generations and musical styles. So when one experiences a Grand Ole Opry performance, they are really witnessing the past, present and future of country music, as performed by it’s new stars, superstars and legends. That is our core programming philosophy for the show.

This approach serves us well because it broadens the Opry’s relationship with performers and their representatives as well as those enjoying the Opry in person, on the radio or on television, online, or on satellite radio. This programming philosophy is best for the long-term interests of the Opry, the performers and from a tourism perspective, the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee.

As many of you know, bluegrass music plays a key role in the make-up of any Opry show. Many Opry shows feature performances by some of the Opry stars of bluegrass like Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Del McCoury and Dr. Ralph Stanley. Many also feature performances by some of the superstars of bluegrass like Opry stars Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss.

We also feature many guest bluegrass performers such as Dailey & Vincent, Rhonda Vincent, The Grascals, Cherryholmes, Larry Stephenson, The SteelDrivers, The Infamous Stringdusters, Steep Canyon Rangers, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Mountain Heart, Dale Ann Bradley, Russell Moore &  IIIrd Tyme Out, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Isaacs, Dan Tyminski, Steve Martin,  Alecia Nugent and The Lovell Sisters, just to name a few.

Over the next several minutes, I’d like to share with you some insights about the Opry, our industry, our customers and also share with you some ideas and best practices. I’m always up for a challenge because I believe we only grow when we’re challenged. I hope you take any challenges I may throw out there in the spirit in which they are intended – to grow and prosper.

I took the opportunity over the past several weeks to meet with various leaders in the blugrass industry. I set out to see what challenges were unique to bluegrass as compared to the broader country industry. What I took away from those discussions is that there really aren’t many differences.

The challenges are really the same: to make music with impact—find the audience and have an ongoing relationship with that audience year-round and exceed their expectations to win their loyalty. Note, I said “exceed their expectations,” as opposed to “meet their expectations.” You know, true fan loyalty comes when we deliver the total experience in a manner which goes beyond what the fan expects. You’ve heard the saying, “Give ‘em what they want”? We actually should be saying, “Give ‘em more than they want!”

We are at our best when we have a strong team. Now, I know many of you may be thinking what a thankless job I must have. I know that because many of you have come up to me over the years and have told me, “Man, what a thankless job you have.” Or you say, “Man, you’ve got a great job. I wouldn’t want to have it.”  Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

So many folks have approached me over these years with a great deal of praise for what has been accomplished. Although I am very grateful to accept those compliments, I accept them on behalf of the incredible team we have at the Opry. It’s very easy to recognize the great team of performers we have on stage, but what is not as easy to see is the great team of performers we have behind the scenes.

Just as any Opry show isn’t ever about one single performer, the Opry is an organization isn’t about any single member of our team.

Just as we have generations of performers on each and every Opry show contributing to a diverse musical experience, we have generations of team members behind the scenes who lend their talents—whether they be hosts and hostesses, concession stand workers, marketers, sales reps, audio, lighting and video technicians, etc. That’s the beauty of it…both onstage and behind the scenes.

It’s important that our team be made up of the best players, playing in the positions they were designed to play in. Everyone has a set of skills that are an extension of what they are most  passionate about. It’s important for us to make sure out team members are doing what they truly love to do, because then, they will do it better than anything else.

One observation I’ve had as it relates to many artists’ careers, particularly artists in the more niche formats, like bluegrass, is that a team often does not exist. Or, if a team does exist, it is rather limited. I realize that a team can be cost-prohibitive at times. If that’s the case, I would encourage the creation of an advisory board which might meet quarterly or even assist in providing some insights and do some strategic planning. We are at our best when we have a strong team.

We are at our best when we have the proper perspective. My time at the Opry has afforded me a number of memorable experiences over the years. I’ve also hd the opportunity to meet and get to know some truly awesome people, whether they are performers onstage or guests backstage.

Another key, great thing is when I stand on the side of the stage during our Opry shows and enjoy the incredible perspective that I, and others are afforded. I recall during my days on Music Row feeling like the only artists and music that mattered were those who were on the charts at the time. It seemed like adds at radio, SoundScan and industry nominations and awards were the driving force in the business. Sure, these sorts of metrics are important measurements of success, but it seemed that was what it was all about. In other words, we had the biggest ballfield to play on, yet we only chose to play in one relatively small corner most of the time – the flavor of the moment, if you will. At the Opry, I and others are afforded the opportunity to view out industry from a perspective which spans over 60 years on any given Opry show which features music spanning from the traditional to the contemporary to the alternative.

Talking about perspective—I believe a key element to success is that talking about perspective—I believe a key element to success is that perspective we hold. Even on the business planning side of the Opry, we shape our perspective, not by how one person in the organization sees it, but how our team collectively sees it. We have a management team who brings very diverse ideas to the table. We aren’t afraid to challenge one another.

If you don’t have the proper perspective, simply, you will not make the best decisions. Personally, I love participating in discussion where all sides are represented. I often find myself bringing up thoughts and ideas in meetings, not because that is my opinion, but because I want that thought to go before the team to get a reaction. That way, the game plan the team ultimately hammers out stands the best chance for success.

As an artist, your artistic perspective is important, especially when it comes to making the music. But the consumer’s perspective, as well as the perspectives of gatekeepers to those consumers like radio programmers, festival buyers and journalists is more important. Do all you can to develop a keen understanding of their perspective.

One last thought on perspective. We often find ourselves mired in the details, or tactics. Take time, on a regular basis maybe with your advisory board, to look at your career from a higher altitude. You know the clarity of thought you often get when you’re 30,000 feet above ground? The same clarity can come to you when you get away from the details and rise above to think from a broader perspective. Think vision. Think strategy. Develop a plan. We are at our best when we have the proper perspective.

We are at our best when we “stand by our brand.” Now what’s the point in developing a plan with your team if you don’t know what you’re developing? That’s where the brand comes in. Not the product—the brand. Not the logo or trademark, the brand. Marketing expert, Stephen King, puts it this way: “A product is something that is made in a factory. A brand is something which is
bought by a customer. A product can be copied by a competitor. A brand is unique. A product can be quickly outdated, a successful brand is timeless.”

Put another way, a brand is a collection of thoughts in the mind of the consumer. Or another way, a brand is a promise to consumers. What excites me most about the Opry is the brand that it is, and the brand that it still can become. When you are developing your producet, what is your promise to your customers?

Each and every brand has a set of attributes or qualities which make up the brand’s portfolio. These attributes need to be crystal clear and represented in all aspects of the artist’s career. Whether it’s the recorded music, the packaging, a video, the media kit, the website, the live performance, the speaking points in an interview, etc. Everything about the brand, the look, feel, sound, smell—it should all be consistent. I’ve always felt that we are in the business of selling emotions through music. In order to cut through the clutter, our brand, and all of the products which come from that brand, need to be distinct and have impact. Otherwise, we become just a bunch of musical wallpaper that doesn’t make an impact on consumers or the gatekeepers to those consumers.

I could go on one and on about brands. I encourage you to read some of the great books that are out there and become brand-centric in all you do.

We are at our best when tradition is a treasure, not a trap.  I mentioned earlier that bluegrass music, like the Opry celebrates tradition. Well, how do we honor tradition in today’s seemingly topical world?

Well, I believe one way you honor tradition is by presenting it in a manner which will resonate with today’s culture. Multi-generational duets, contemporary arrangements of classics and imaging are all ways to achieve this

As many of you are aware, the progress which has been made at the Opry has not always come easy. What I didn’t tell you earlier when I said I was approached about the Opry job in 1998 was that it took me over six months to ultimately join the Opry. It took that long because I was fully aware that succeeding at the Opry was not going to come easy and it would likely be controversial. However, it became apparent to me that not only could the Opry be relevant and viable, but it could thrive and serve to, once again, become a driving force for artists and the industry.

So when I joined the Opry in June of 1999, we set out to focus on various aspects of the show which would drive contemporary artist participation, a segment of programming which has been waning over the years. Much of our efforts and investment were focused on a more proactive approach to talent booking, upgrading the production values of the show like audio and lighting as well as introducing the Opry’s first new set in over 20 years—one that could move from a traditional look to a more contemporary look as the music did onstage. In addition, we placed a focus on increasing the reach of the Opry by growing our distribution with the addition of our syndicated radio show with Westwood One, America’s Opry Weekend and developing a retail and licensing program. We also set out to be more involved with the labels on Music Row, often participating in promotional partnerships with them. This really helped grow the value proposition for the artists who performed on the Opry.

As I mentioned, growing the Opry’s contemporary relevance has not come easy. I spoke earlier about brand attributes. Well, some of the Opry’s key attributes include tradition and heritage and authenticity. Qualities like tradition and heritage are tremendous assets for providing entertaining consumer experiences. On the flip side, those assets can become anchors if not managed properly. An over-reliance on tradition and heritage can lead to irrelevance in the eyes of the media and consumers.

I’ve learned that there are innovators, followers and preservationists in our world. Don’t get me wrong. There is a place and need for all three. However, when preservation leads to irrelevance, or even extinction—what’s the point? If you’re solely focused on innovation with no regard for how that innovation is going to grow and be sustained—what’s the point?

At the Opry, we celebrate and honor tradition by not only presenting it and preserving it, but also making it relevant. A key way that we accomplish this, in addition to the show’s production values, is through the show’s programming. Having a contemporary artist honor a legend, like we did this past Thursday when one of the biggest new names on the scene, Jamey Johnson, performed a Jones Jones classic as part of our Opry Country Classics Salute to George Jones. We are at our best when tradition is a treasure, not a trap.

So, to conclude, we are at our best when we have a great team—the right players praying the positions they were made to play. We are at our best when we develop and maintain the proper perspective with that team so we can make the best decisions possible.

We are at our best when we stay true to who we are and “stand by our brand” in all we do. We are at our best when we honor tradition as a treasure and not a trap by balancing innovation with preservation.

In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate the Opry’s 84th Birthday. Our greatest motivation is to ensure that the 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years that our members and guest performers have given to the Opry are not in vain. It is our job to keep it relevant while staying true to the values that got it there. The same holds true to the bluegrass music industry.

I hope you seize this week as an opportunity to learn, grow, and discuss new opportunities, nurture new relationships, and celebrate the incredible achievements of your colleagues Thursday night at the historic Ryman Auditorium.

Thanks you again for this opportunity and have a great week in Nashville.