Andrew Stone shares the inside story of Sheppard’s triumph over America’s biggest names
Their manager Andrew Stone shares the stories and secrets behind their continued success.
Sheppard has had an incredible journey to #1 on the ARIA Albums Chart – what has been the priority of their team in the lead up to the release of Watching The Sky?
Absolute priority was getting the songs and the live show right. The band had the chance to work with the best songwriters and producers in the world, but we ultimately went back to their roots and made most of the album at home in Brisbane.
I also think it has been a case of refining their identity and what they represent in the Australian market. There aren’t many bands who speak to the commercial audience that Sheppard do in Australia, and that maintain a unique voice while doing so.
There is a demand for catchy commercial music that isn’t trying to be ‘too cool’ or only appeal to triple j, and unfortunately, that lane is cut off to many new acts, unless they break out via YouTube or a reality show. I think that can change, and Sheppard are the example of how to do that.
When you first started working with Sheppard, what were some of the biggest challenges of getting a new Australian pop-rock act in front of the right people?
It was the breakout moment of getting ‘Let Me Down Easy’ onto commercial radio back in 2012 – which only came after we’d taken the band over to the US for a few showcases and a station in Portland added the song.
The track became #1 most requested for four weeks straight, which was when we really knew we were cooking with something special – so we did whatever we could to tell that story back here in Australia and finally had a breakthrough on Nova nine months after the song came out.
We’d also built up goodwill at radio (even though they weren’t playing us) by going around and meeting key programmers and familiarising the band with the people that matter.
Who were the key players in their rise?
Our radio plugger is Russell Thomas at KAOS. He does things old school and really values communication and relationships.
Stephen Green has been our publicist since the start and really understands how to position and maneuver the band at media and is responsible for TV appearances and other key press moments along the way.
In the radio/TV landscape, it was David Campbell noticing the story in the US and having us on his Mornings show, which then lead to us getting our first radio add with ‘Let Me Down Easy’ on Nova.
I also should give huge props to the programmers at Nova and Hit105 in Brisbane (Georgina Ingham-Myers and Jack Ball respectively) who see the value of supporting local artists at commercial radio and the latitude from corporate to do it. They’re often the first on a new Sheppard song.
Do you think Australian radio is doing enough for local acts? How integral has radio support been in getting Sheppard to where they are today?
Radio has been key for Sheppard, since commercial radio aligns so closely with Sheppard’s core audience.
I think commercial radio could be taking more risks on developing and Australian bands, but at the same time it’s incredibly competitive for playlist additions on these stations with only one or two new songs being added per week.
These slots are often taken by huge international acts with the streams and chart position to back it up, which is a terrible indicator of whether a song is good or not – since a big international act will have access to streaming playlists via international priority distribution that smaller local acts just can’t compete with.
Was there a particular turning point in their career?
If ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was the spark, then ‘Geronimo’ being added to all radio in Australia on week one and it becoming the #1 Australian single was the pouring of the gasoline.
Again, it all comes down to the band having written a couple of songs in a row that proved to react (in terms of radio feedback and sales), and then having the live show and personality to back it up when put in the spotlight.
In regards to Watching The Sky, talk us through some of the main strategies to get the album to #1?
We knew we were going to be up against acts like Post Malone and Shawn Mendes who just have such massive streaming numbers, that the only way we were going to cut through is by reaching out directly to fans and selling records the traditional way.
It was also crucial we lined everything up so that we had as direct of a voice to their core audience as possible via direct marketing, radio interviews/advertising, TV appearances, and a promo run that had the band visit four states and play to a few thousand fans who then lined up to buy a signed copy of the album (all within the charting week).
Have you noticed more of a balance between airplay and sales recently?
Barely anyone is buying music, in general, these days – but airplay is still a huge driver of sales and streams. As the team behind the release, we push for these big media moments to build a story around the band and then use that story to push through to the next phase.
What do you feel their chart success says about the current demand for Australian music?
It shows that Australians are making music that can compete with the best records anywhere in the world and that it should be celebrated.
What do you think it is about their music which makes it so commercially successful here and abroad?
At the heart of it is great songwriting, but also not being afraid or ashamed to go out and make great pop songs.
The band are also very close to the production and final output of every song they release, so their attention to detail and unwillingness to release anything substandard is the final 5% that allows them to operate on a level with big international acts.
‘Edge Of The Night’ was a Top 10 hit in Latin America – what do you attribute to their success in that market?
Following on from the success at festivals and our own shows in Spain, Mexico, and Brazil, we had the idea of collaborating with a Latin American artist, Sebastian Yatra, to open up some future opportunities in that market.
It seemed like a funny idea at the time but when we pitched it, their team was into recording a ‘Spanish Language’ verse of the song – which then was pitched to radio and press in the region.
Off the back of Sebastian’s following, and it being a pretty cool song, it reacted in a way we didn’t see coming, but we were very happy with the outcome.
What’s the key to their ongoing success since 2014, and their avoidance of second album syndrome?
The band had such a whirlwind of a promo and touring schedule off the back of the global success of ‘Geronimo’ and Bombs Away that by the end of it they were just looking for a break to unwind and rediscover the reason that they wanted to make music in the first place.
Of course, all the industry around the band were pushing them to write and record something as soon as possible, but they were creatively exhausted and keen to move on from that phase and the expectation to write another ‘Geronimo’.
As a team, we made the call to take the pressure off, give them time and space to be creative, but also to throw them in the deep end when the time was right with some challenging creative opportunities that pushed them to discover new sounds and approaches to songwriting.
Chuggi had spent most of the time on the road growling “Beware the dreaded second album” and this became a kind of call to arms and source of humour for the band.
This process got tense at times, but once things settled the band had the makings of a great second album and the response from the audience speaks for itself.
Do you agree with Chuggi’s comment that their career is an example that there is no longer the need to sign with a major label to find success?
I agree with everything Chuggi says at all times. But yes, it’s obvious – so many indie artists in Australia are killing it right now. It comes down to striving for excellence and attention to detail.
Navigating the media and release landscape is a key part of the puzzle, so you need to have a team behind you that has a few runs on the board – but with a great product and an artist willing to work their socks off you can do anything.
What are your recommendations for independents looking to follow in Sheppard’s footsteps?
Make sure that the music is up to scratch, that you’re offering something genuine, that there is a hunger for the songs in the market, and then stoke the fire with everything that you have once there’s a genuine spark for what you’re doing.
Work with good people who have integrity. Market and promote your records with a core demographic of fans in mind and let them serve as your champions.