As a middle infielder for one of the nation’s top high school baseball programs, Doug Fraser hoped to make it to Fenway Park and other legendary venues. Did he ever.
Fraser has made it to seven Super Bowls, the Kentucky Derby, Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, and Major League Baseball World Series, too. As president and CEO of The Art of the Game, the sharp guy with a business degree (marketing, 1983), has devoted himself to making sure prominent recording artists are at home plate and the 50-yard-line for major sporting events.
His event marketing, sales support, and brand development company, launched in 2000 and based in Franklin, Tenn., has worked with artists such as Taylor Swift, Alison Krauss, Lady Antebellum and LeAnn Rimes and connects the performances with corporate sponsors.
How Was The Art of the Game’s concert production group created?
Doug Fraser: I basically created my business from scratch, moving from Atlanta to Franklin, Tenn., seven and a half years ago. I had been working on the production team for the CMA Awards and the president of the CMA felt that there would be a niche for someone with my background -- high-level marketing and event production. I created the business model as a small, niche marketer and small, niche producer.
What was your company's first big event, where was it and which artist did you work with?
Doug Fraser: It was at the 1994 World Cup soccer's closing ceremony at the Rose Bowl in 1994. The headline musical artist was Whitney Houston, and the legendary sports guest was Pele. You have an integration (mixing sports and entertainment artists) that is solid, unique and powerful and it was being watched by a billion people. That's why I do what I do.
Who are clients of your company? The event? The artist? Or sometimes both?
Doug Fraser: Our clients can vary from major event to major event. We have been contracted by leagues, organizing committees, television and cable networks, teams, venues, corporate partners, etc.
How do you retain clients?
Doug Fraser: That’s one of the major obstacles of our business – client loyalty. All we can do is the best job possible when we’re executing a marketing plan for a client. What we try to do is always assess the effectiveness of a program and make sure it achieves the client's goals.
We like to retain clients for long periods, but sometimes we have short bursts of activity, whether it’s marketing or production. The short bursts are consistent with the way our industry works. The popularity of events and artists can be short-lived. We have to work within that window.
We compete in an industry that is continually changing and it’s very unstructured and we compete as ladies and gentlemen and we compete in a very forthright way. We communicate with our prospects and clients to the nth degree, but because the industry is not very structured, we can take advantage of that. My clients like the fact that they are working with the CEO, me, whereas I compete with a $2 billion company and they’ll send mid-level managers to call on clients.
How does The Art of the Game land contracts with big events, such as the Super Bowl or Daytona 500? And how do you compete with other producers?
Doug Fraser: The Art of the Game is unique and it helps very much that I was a chief marketing officer and that training assists me when I speak to senior executives to those organizations. Also, we know in advance what they are looking for. We have a very educated idea what the criteria are. I was in New York City recently with most of the professional leagues and I knew that one of the leagues was looking for a less expensive alternative to a multi-million-dollar production. Because we have low overhead and we are a boutique firm, we competed with 32 years of experience, but we are less expensive than many national production companies, so we took that approach.
Do you approach performers for events, or do performers come to you? How does that relationship work?
Doug Fraser: We always start with the goals of the event-sanctioning body, and those of the television network. Viewership, revenue, brand enhancement, and fan experience enhancement may all be part of our selection process. Of course, our targeted fan or viewership demographic is also very important. Most times, we hand-pick artists who will fulfill our criteria. I reach out to the artists' managers to check availability and engage the artists.
How does the choice of the artist -- country, pop or R&B -- impact the event's marketing plan?
Doug Fraser: The events' target market, marketing plan and objective effect the selection of the artist. The artist's musical genre dictates their followers for the most part. In 2016, the artists' social media presence is very important. The musical artists often have larger Facebook, Twitter and Instagram followings than the iconic sporting, corporate or prestigious cultural events they perform at. So they are very powerful co-branding partners.
What challenges do you face and how do you overcome them?
Doug Fraser: In our industry, cost is always an issue. Costs of staging and event, producing live music, television and production and so forth. People are continually trying to streamline production of marketing programs and integrated events. We have to adapt to that and work within that. I basically am a cash company. We don’t have large credit lines or investors to fall back on. I rely on getting new business and having our customers’ cash flow my business, which can be very difficult. Most companies in the music and entertainment business are actually loss leaders for billion-dollar holding companies. I am not. We have to be profitable from day one or we can’t operate.
Are elite artists demanding?
Doug Fraser: Entertainers always want more to be a part of events and want national television. They want impressive social media numbers. They not only want to be paid, but we might have 15 different deliverables for the artist to attract them to perform at a major event. You have to deliver an integrated marketing campaign to convince brand-name artists and younger artists to come. Every one of these artists are at the absolute top of their industry in terms of their talent and musicianship. However, they have ascended to the level that they are because they treat people well and they are team players.
What has made you a better CEO than you once were?
Doug Fraser: I’ve learned that I have to compete harder. When I am not getting business from a client, I have to dig deeper and learn more about their business, why other companies have gotten the contracts. I continually have to compete harder and then I have to present our company in continually better ways, whether it’s a proposal in a board room setting, or digital, social media online. I have to present relevant content to these clients and to the market. I have to position myself as an opinion and market leader because that’s what we are. We’re a market leader. But because we’re small, it doesn’t matter. We have to present ourselves as a market leader. If one of our prospects feels comfortable with larger firms, then I have to build their comfort level in any way I can by presenting case studies from our company that gives them the comfort level to choose us.
How has the industry changed over the years and what changes lie ahead?
Doug Fraser: In the music and entertainment side, the distribution channels have changed from physical distribution to digital and online distribution. That’s presented some challenges but it’s also opened up some opportunities. The challenges are, people have the opportunity to not pay for their music, which is not right. That’s done by file sharing and so forth online. Consumers should always pay for music because it has value. It’s given businesses like me real opportunities because we have created a new distribution channel for music and entertainment: the major sporting events, the major television events, and integrated marketing programs. That’s why we have a shot at really flourishing because of an unstable new distribution for market. I also think that co-branding is a major emphasis of our business because if our clients, which may be Major League Baseball, become affiliated with an entertainer who may perform four songs pregame at an Atlanta Braves game, that’s co-branding, using the Braves’ tremendous brand in that market area, and the entertainer. By default, that causes revenues to be driven to the entertainer. These days, television is everything. And social media is everything to those artists. Those are big focuses with us. For a Pittsburgh Steelers game, they may have 75,000 people in Heinz Field, but they have 6.5 million Facebook followers that an image or video of that performance makes all the difference and you might have 28 million people watching on TV. While the in-person crowd is a big deal, by far the television and social media is a bigger impact.
What makes for a good day at the office?
Doug Fraser: When we book a very nice performance for one of our clients. When I win a contract over a $2 billion company. When all of our bills are paid for the month. When I feel like we are better presenting ourselves more competitively in the market and we’re packaging and re-packaging our brand and our brand is what we’ve done. It’s a portfolio. When I have a better portfolio to present to our clients and become more competitive, that makes a good day.
How do you maintain employee satisfaction?
Doug Fraser: They have to know that the payoff is maybe not apparent to them as they’re working 16 hour days, but the payoff is to, as a young employee, maybe 24 to 26, to be helping to produce a national television appearance. The payoff has to be in terms of creating and executing a marketing plan for a Grammy winner. Often, that’s just a matter of handling details and doing the work. That’s incredible payoff for an employee. Employees in a small company have to wear many hats. They have to be prepared to do that. We don’t have 9 to 5 jobs. Our jobs go and go and go. That’s my expectation. We have the opportunity to make money. But for a small company, it’s not the same money one could be paid at a law firm or something like that. We have to combine compensation with elite opportunities that no other young person gets to do, whether it’s working at a Super Bowl, or working the World Series. We have to combine tremendous experiences.
If you could have done anything differently over the years, what would it be?
Doug Fraser: We like to shoot high for opportunities and I would broaden our company’s marketing program. There are many opportunities that we see for small and medium-sized projects, and I would make sure and always reach out to small and medium-sized corporate groups because they have the capital that we need to grow. I would have a better funding base for my company. In 2016, we are attempting to raise more capital for growth.
How are potential mistakes during live performances addressed?
Doug Fraser: In our productions, we will rehearse up to 12 times for one 12-minute performance. Or we will rehearse in detail for a one-minute, 30-second national anthem and we work to the nth degree. We always have backups. If a battery goes dead in a performer’s mic or ear monitor pack, we replace that very quickly. If something were to go wrong with television, my production team or the artist, then we rely on the 20 to 30 years of experience to solve that issue.
Please discuss one time where technical issues nearly impacted a performance.
Doug Fraser: Working with Leann Rimes at the 135th Kentucky Derby – and she’s the consummate entertainer – and she was going to sing the national anthem in front of 16.5 million people on NBC. She was sequestered away in a pagoda that’s at the start-finish line at Churchill Downs. We’re about to go on live television and the Kentucky Derby trophies were being unpacked in front of the pagoda and they were being put on their pedestals to be awarded after the race. The gentlemen unloading the trophies left the very heavy anvil cases in front of the door that Leann was supposed to come out of when she was announced on television. She couldn’t get out of the pagoda door. The anvil cases were still there. We had to move those on live television, and after 21 seconds of live television she finally made it out of the door. Then she sang flawlessly. Not too many people know about that, and we had to react quickly.
Have you had a favorite artist?
Doug Fraser: Lady Antebellum has been a favorite. I think Rascal Flatts are good guys. Emily West has been a 13-year overnight success. I have the ultimate respect for her and her vocal abilities. She’s worked with us at the Major League Baseball Opening Night this year and the Kentucky Oaks. I really respect many of the artists that we have worked with. I am not the producer for the Super Bowl halftime shows, but I hope to be one of these years. I have the ultimate respect for Madonna. To see her essentially produce and direct her own show at 53 years old. She’s in shape and there’s a reason why she’s succeeded. She’s been around the block and she knows what she wants and she is to be doing her dance routines on stage at 53 with dancers half her age in front of 117 million people live on television, it takes a really special person.
Fans see these performers on television or hear them on the radio. What are things that the general public will never know?
Doug Fraser: I have the ultimate respect for artists who have succeeded over time. People don’t realize that artists are very rarely overnight successes. Some of the artists that we have worked with have been performing since they were 3. Now, they are 25 and you’re finally starting to hear about them. They make significant financial sacrifices. Time and family sacrifices, as have I. I invested $1,600,000 myself to fund our company. In terms of stories about artists, our artists, they will do amazing things just to get to performances. Some of the younger artists will drive 10 hours to perform and right after the performance, drive 10 hours to Nashville to go to a recording session. They do this regularly. It’s no big deal to them. Some of the Grammy winners are on such tight schedules, they will leave their national tours and will fly on private aviation to perform on national television, then a plane will be waiting for them and they will fly right back out to meet their tour for the next day or night. They are all very tough. They are all very committed and focused. People don’t know it, but artists like Taylor Swift, whom I have been very honored to work with, she’s a CEO of a 200-person organization.
Are there certain events that you won’t do?
Doug Fraser: There are. We’re a healthy active lifestyle company. I shy away from events that present brands that are not healthy active lifestyles. We’re an extremely conservative company in a business that’s traditionally been non-conservative. Our entertainers, we ask that they share those values, or we feel that there is not a good fit in working together. They have to share our viewpoint, our values. They also have to share the values in what the clients are looking for. I’m not selling records, or video downloads. We’re selling brand. We’re building brand by doing what we do, whether it’s my consulting practice, whether it’s producing or directing a show, or building entertainers’ careers. We’re building brands and we’re serving elite brands that tend to be very conservative groups. When I have a national television performance, we know that we’re being regulated by the FCC. Our performers are being viewed by stockholders of the organizations we work with and the advertisers of the broadcast. We’re pretty buttoned up about the way we work. That’s why very rarely does something go awry during one of our shows. There’s a lot at stake. There are tens of millions of dollars on the line when we work.
What’s new for 2016?
Doug Fraser: I’m going to be focusing on our corporate clientele. Corporate advertising campaigns and sales support initiatives. Business to business sales support. Consumer brand ad campaigns are important as well as social media.