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Kai Elmer Interview 12-15-16

interview-kai-elmer2016Kai Elmer
Director, National Promotions
Fair Trade Services

Career Capsule: I first caught the radio bug listening to Dave Niehaus do play by play for the Seattle Mariners.  I interned at PRAISE 106.5 in Lynden, WA my senior year of high school… just before I headed off to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago to pursue a degree in radio broadcasting.  While a student, I was station manager at Moody Campus Radio and started part time at 90.1 WMBI.  After I graduated, I spent some time working in the promotions department at mainstream 101.9 FM The Mix before I took on the role of National Music Assistant for Moody Broadcasting Network.  A spot on the radio promotions team at iNO Records (now Fair Trade) opened up in 2007, and this coming June will be my 10th year at the label.

Kai, tell us about what’s new with you, your latest adventures, happenings at Fair Trade Services?

Personally, my wife, daughter, and I welcomed a new son – Collin – into the world this past August.  Forget multiple number MercyMe number ones… this was hands down my highlight of the year.  Through my church (Grace Community Church), I lead a community group of young families every Thursday night.  My first responsibility of being a husband and father doesn’t leave bandwidth for much else!

Professionally, I truly consider it a privilege to be a part of the team at Fair Trade.  Each year brings both surprises and disappointments, and this year was no exception.  We’ve spent a good chunk of the year launching Micah Tyler, and I really think we have reason to be encouraged by the early results.  Our team is in the process of introducing another new artist named Jasmine Murray, and all signs are pointing towards good things there as well.

Right now, our team is working on some fun ideas involving The Afters, Laura Story, Hawk Nelson, Phil Wickham, Citizen Way … and a few surprises up our sleeve that we’re not able to talk about quite yet.  We’ve had a strong fall at radio, and early 2017 is looking like we’ll pick up right where we left off.

2. What are some significant changes in the Record Industry recently?

Next June, I’ll hit ten years at Fair Trade.  In promoter years, that makes me, what… something like 70?!?  When I first started, we were still sending out singles on physical CDs and music videos didn’t make sense because they couldn’t even break even financially.  We live in an instant gratification digital world now, but here’s the deal… radio is still king.  Generally speaking, most projects live or die by the amount of support radio gives.  Radio remains the number one source for new music discovery – both for new and established artists.  Radio dwarfs all other mediums of music consumption.  That’s why Fair Trade is committed to serving radio and partnering with artists that are artistically excellent, culturally relevant, and spiritually significant.

3. Complete this sentence: The best way to get a new artist recognized is to____________?

…have not one, but a handful of hit songs up your sleeve that will connect with listeners on a deep level.  Easier said than done, I know.  From my experience, if you’re a brand new artist with a hit song, you’re going to get a shot.  But the turn from flavor of the week to legit new artist only happens when you slingshot that early momentum toward singles two, three, and even four.

While that relationship with radio is growing, a little bit of good ol’ fashioned hard work doesn’t hurt either.  Tour smart.  Visit stations… large and small.  Be yourself.  Be kind.  Be genuine.  Engage your fan base in a creative, honest, and endearing way.  Write thank you notes.  Wake up early to do interviews.   Surround yourself with people that share vision in a real, yet humble way.  Doing these things will build a foundation that’ll sustain a career for the long term, rather than set you up to crash and burn.  It’s all about the long game.

4. Generally speaking how do you see the state of Christian radio?

In most regards, stronger than ever.  I talk with more stations than ever that are seeing record ratings, giving, and growth.  In the midst of that though, I do see a few things that concern me.

Mainstream AC radio has the luxury of cherry picking established hits from multiple formats.  Christian AC radio doesn’t have that luxury, yet too many stations program like they do.  Our format not only needs to perpetuate the hits, but nurture, build, and grow songs that will become established favorites.  That task shouldn’t just be relegated to small market stations that can’t afford testing or a consultant either.

We all need to continually be investing in the future of our industry.  If you’re a label, that means partnering with new artists and pushing established artists creatively as well.  If you’re a radio station, that means investing in young air talent/staff members and taking calculated musical risks.  If you’re a consultant, it means empowering your stations to have more than just 12 currents in rotation.  If you’re a booking agent, it means booking an artist that maybe hasn’t been a “headliner” yet.  We all have a role to play in the continued growth of our industry.

Who will be the A lister… the program director… the rock star morning show team… the festival headliner of tomorrow?  We’ll never know if we don’t start investing in them now.

5. Regarding record sales how has it changed… please explain?

I know this question is usually a place for someone to point to decreasing physical sales revenue and slowing digital revenue that isn’t covering those losses, but I choose to look at things through a more positive light.  Let’s be honest… music consumption is at an all-time high.  The avenues for music offering the hope of Jesus are limitless.  What an opportunity!

So while I definitely pay attention to sales numbers, my primary objective is to get songs on the radio and better connect Fair Trade artists to stations and their listeners.  While sales definitely play a huge role, that’s often only a part of the story.  In our format, significant radio play is a key part of a significant sales story… not the other way around.

6. What promotions with radio have you been involved with personally that are most memorable?

A truly successful promotion is one that everyone involved can walk away from feeling like they benefitted.  When we launched “Battles” by The Afters a few months back, we sent out old school Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots to practically every station in the country.  Stations started posting pictures and videos of their air staff battling it out on their social media pages, and the response was overwhelming.  We followed that up with The Afters actually hitting the road for a round of station visits to personally battle programming staff members.  Stations won because they got some fantastic original content and The Afters won because programmers were engaging with the song in a far more interactive way than just listening to it on PlayMPE.

7. Do you feel the record/radio relationship is still as important as it has been in the past… explain how it’s the same/different?

I do think the relationship between label and radio is as important as ever.  At Fair Trade, we have always really tried to treat everyone the same… whether you are a big market, national network, or tiny station.  On the flip side, it grieves me when stations don’t communicate with us.  Here’s the deal… we need each other!  No one station or label can survive in a vacuum.  We all loose when we operate on an island.  This is an industry where you need every friend and ally you can muster.  We’ve got to think outside the box together and keep pushing the format ahead to ensure its’ continued future growth, and that’s only going to happen when we listen, respect, and serve each other.

8. There are still some big markets without a CCM station, why do you think that is?

That’s not really a question I can answer with much authority.  But I’m always going to be an advocate for new stations in markets both large and small.  The more the better!

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