By John Arundel
With music so widely free on the Internet, it’s no secret that the music industry has been turned on its head, revolutionized by iTunes, YouTube, Pandora and digital services like Spotify which allow web surfers to access millions of songs on an unlimited live stream.
Using smartphone apps, free music is readily available to go. Between 2000 and 2010, record store sales plunged 76%, and CD sales declined by 50 percent. By 2016, record store sales are projected to drop another 77.4%, according to The Wall Street Journal.
So, with all that free music available at the touch of a computer mouse, how does a promising up-and-coming pop singer/songwriter like Stephanie Stack of Alexandria make her way through the all-you-can-stream jungle?
Intelligently. And with loads of talent and forethought. With smart research into contemporary music trends and test marketing her new tunes in different markets, testing the waters with a five-song strategy over several years instead of going for broke with a 10- or 12-song CD set at one time to see if it sticks with audiences.
Case in point: Bruno Mars’ sophomore new CD, “Unorthodox Jukebox” has one bona fide Billboard hit, Locked out of Heaven, which quickly exceeded two million downloads and seven million plays on YouTube, while many of the other the tracks were too naughty or expletive-laden for any respectable programmer to put into rotation on commercial outlets, like commercial radio or XM/Sirius. The rest of the CD? It’s been downloaded 187,000 times.
For pop-oriented traditionalists like Stephanie Stack, moding herself to the moment and tapping into the vein of what music audiences really crave with her five-song strategy and then selling each song commercially into the mainstream holds infinite promise, as all is not in freefall mode in musicland.
In 2011, digital music sales surged 8% globally, accounting for $5.2 billion in legal downloads, and a bit of a windfall for Stack, whose three hits have been downloaded thousands of times and have earned her a decent payday of ASCAP royalties. While more people may be listening to individual songs like hers, she learned before making the mistake that physical album sales are in perpetual decline and not the means of testing the waters with a full set of her feathery voiced, energy-fused, feel-good songs made for pop.
For Stack, a petite brunette whose powerful voice belies her small frame, entering the music business took years of battling doubt and indecision. After growing up in Alabama, New York and Paris (where she sang for the first time, in French), she graduated from Virginia Tech and moved to D.C. to become a producer and TV reporter for CBS affiliates and Court TV.
“I have always loved music, my entire life,” she said over coffee in Old Town. “But it was very much a personal thing, so I guarded it because I wasn’t sure how people would respond to it. So I wanted to protect it.”
But after years of soul searching, she decided it was a talent given to her she needed to pursue. “So I finally decided to face some of my insecurities and fears and go after it,” she added. “I felt like I needed to challenge myself, get out of my comfort zone.”
Five years ago, Stephanie decided that she was ready to plunge in. The first step was getting studio time, where she learned to become comfortable in her new environment, singing for the first time before sound engineers, backup singers and session musicians.
“I had written some poetry and a lot of times I looked at music as writing poetry where you create a melody to what you’ve written,” she said. “That first time it was more about getting comfortable with singing those melodies in front of people, so we did some acapella and I learned to become comfortable with hearing myself in the microphone. It was really interesting because when we played it back it was like I’d finally met myself. I’d never heard myself on a recording…Yes, I’d heard myself leaving phone messages, but it’s much different when you’re in a recording studio.”
After two sessions, Stephanie’s initial tracks captured the attention of producer, engineer and songwriter Jason Slater of “Third Eye Blind” fame, who invited her to California where she spent the summer getting her feet wet in the music biz. “There were a lot of things that I learned from that relationship,” she said. “I came away with about 12 songs which I later recorded here because the sound quality was better.”
Working with multi-Grammy winner Bob Dawson at Bias Studios in Springfield, Dawson helped sharpen up the music first recorded in California, including putting live strings to it, including the use of musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra.
“The first record was really just me discovering myself and deciding what direction I was going to move in,” she said. “A lot of people will look at the music I’m doing now and say how did you get to the first record and get to the record I’ve done now because the music is very different. It was really just starting out somewhere and getting going. A lot of people are like ‘I really can’t do this..I have to do research.’ Well, sometimes you just have to do it and figure it out as you go.”
Stack’s first 12-song CD was entitled “I Can” – as in “I can do anything I want…I can challenge myself and be that person” – which produced the breakout hit, Crazy Love, which charted # 34 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.
Stack’s second breakout hit, What I’d Rather Do, was produced in Nashville by producer David Groh and was released in March, 2012. It too quickly ascended the charts, landing directly on the BDS and Media Base charts and then getting several months of spins on Sirius/XM Radio’s Top 20 on 20 channel. “A lot of times with an artist you have to start at the first level and work your way up,” she said. “Since I’d already broken the barrier with two chart hits, I no longer needed to start at the college level, playing small college-town bars to get discovered.”
“I’ve abandoned doing full CD’s because people just aren’t buying them as much anymore,” she said. “We’re trying to look at this business differently, doing more research in test markets and targeting markets more. What we’re doing is trying to figure out what will work and being more focused.”
This focus includes targeting the Contemporary Hit Record, or CHR market with a research-based effort which includes taking her songs into test markets to see how they fare.
That “next song” was Veni Vide Visa, which Stack affectionately calls “V3,” and was produced in L.A. at The Village Studios, where Stephanie sung it and where all the instrumental accompaniments, background and mixing were done. “We’re taking it to several test markets to ensure it has enough popularity and pop score to promote it,” she said. “So when a lot of other musicians make 10-12 other songs and put it out and are not sure it’s going to make it, we’re trying to make our effort a lot more detailed and results-oriented.”
This entails putting the song on platforms like Radio Play and Jango so that audience response can be gauged before marketing dollars are committed to the song’s viability as a downloadable hit. “It’s a tool that a lot of industry folks have access to let people to get a preview,” she said. “It’s much like television in which syndicated shows are produced for TV they’ll first see how people respond. What people like about it, what people don’t like about it. This way we can target certain age groups and demographics.”
Stephanie is preparing to record another song, probably in LA, also with session musicians.
For Stack, who was born in Huntsville, AL. but grew up around the world the daughter of an IBM executive, her success in the music business is translated by personal triumphs, while also pursuing her once secret passion for creating hit music.
“A friend of mine called me while driving her car into Old Town and said she’d just heard my song ‘What I’d Rather Do’ playing on the radio…That was really thrilling,” she said. “Another called to say they’d heard it playing in the lobby of The W hotel in Dallas, and someone else called and said they’d heard it playing in Hawaii. Where it really came together for me was when I actually heard myself playing on the radio, driving down the road. It was pretty cool.”
One can only hope she didn’t drive off the road. “I almost did!” she laughs. “It was funny. It was really cool because up until that moment I didn’t know I could do it. I’m still battling my insecurities but it does feel almost like a validation because I really did want to prove to myself that I really do have a talent, and to be validated by some amazing people in this industry.”
Stack’s journey in the record business has also been one of self-discovery and pushing her limits as an individual. “It’s in one’s nature to stay within your comfort zone, but I have to continually challenge myself,” she said. “And I think that’s sort of the message I want to give people: You can’t be complacent in your life. You need to move forward and meet your challenges each day because otherwise you won’t meet your full potential.”