Frank Varrasso, you’ve been in the music industry nearly 20 years. First as a Senior Director of National Promotions at Sony Music and then your own company, Varrasso PR. How the hell did you get into this game? Were you a musician first? Or how did it all begin?
No, I wasn’t. I guess I was a frustrated musician. I’ve never played an instrument apart from the recorder at school. As did everybody else.
I heard you were good at it.
No, I wasn’t, I was terrible, absolutely terrible. But to be honest, I kind of fell into it. I did an arts degree at Uni and just ended up doing a job that I didn’t really enjoy so I threw caution to the wind and moved out of home and did all sorts of crazy things. And then I ended up actually starting at the Evelyn Hotel booking, helping a gentleman by the name of Colin Moss book the Evelyn hotel and the club in Smith Street, Collingwood.
So I sort of fell into that sort of area first. And from there, found a job at Impress magazine which was a free street press mag here in Melbourne. I guess that sort of, selling advertising and writing stories gave me a really good black book.
And I knew a lot of the publicans and I knew a lot of the band managers, promoters, booking agents, record labels, et cetera, and then one day I was asked to put my hand up for a job at Warner Music for the Victorian PR managers position and I managed to score that gig and then proceeded to work with Warner. Warner went to EMI, EMI to Festival Mushroom and then Festival Mushroom over to Sony.
From there I decided that I was going to do my own gig.
That’s interesting because I had Andrew Parisi on the show last week and he had a similar path to you, through Impress Magazine and the Evelyn Hotel.
Yeah, well Andrew and I grew up together, literally, in the sense that Andrew was at Beat when I was at Impress and so we would often see each other at gigs, reviewing shows, interviews, all that kind of stuff. So I guess Andrew and I were in opposition but we were very good friends, which was bizarre for the times because both Beat and Impress were ferocious competitors back in the day.
I bang on a lot about this in the podcast, about the importance of that network and friends and that nurturing of that, and growing through things together. Because it is a small industry, isn’t it? And if things do go pear-shaped in any way, people are pretty unforgiving, aren’t they? So it’s nice to be able to have those long-term relationships as you go.
Yeah. Networking is probably … you know I would have probably never got into the industry had I have not networked. It is a small industry. As big as it seems, it is really quite small. So I cant put enough emphasis on networking.
Your extensive career with Sony saw you work with people like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, Green Day and even Oasis and more. What were some of your highlights? How many Oasis punch-ups were there?
No, Oasis were great. They were lads, you know? They were really nice guys, very intelligent guys. But we had a lot of fun. They enjoyed life to the fullest I think. They were very meticulous about their craft which was great and I think that’s what I loved about bands like Oasis and Foo Fighters et cetera. The artists that have longevity seem to blend having fun with being very serious about their craft very, very well. Artists like that are very, very successful because they can balance the two very well.
That’s a real balancing act, isn’t it? It’s interesting because I was just talking recently about one of my bands that played alongside The Mighty Mighty Bosstones back in the 90’s and in a live setting these guys were nuts. Completely off their heads bouncing around, as soon as the cameras were off, they were just businessmen through and through. It was a different beast. And it’s a real eye-opener because I think a lot of people don’t realise this and think “Oh, they’re mad!” But really, a lot of it is shop-front stuff, isn’t it? A lot of it is about giving people what they want to see, yeah?
Yeah very much so. I’ll give you a really good example of someone who’s really professional. I remember working with Madonna and there was an end-of-tour party that Michael Gudinski had put on at his wonderful Mount Macedon home.
Everyone was there, the entire crew, the label, some media, all having a good time, drinking, eating, recapping on their Australian visit et cetera. It was a really fun day. But Madonna spent the entire day in front of the TV watching her performances.
Yeah. And just really looking at the performances, seeing what she could do better, what wasn’t great, what was great. It was a real eye-opener for me.
That is amazing. So the whole time people are partying, she’s working out how she can improve her act?
Yeah, yeah. Amazing, you know? And that’s, to me, why she’s has the longevity she’s had.
Now I’ve got a big question for you which all of us would like to know the answer to. Publicist or plugger? What is the difference here, because I know one specialises in the radio thing, but is there a crossover? Can you explain to the uninitiated the difference between a publicist and a plugger?
Well, there really is no difference but if you have to make a distinction, a publicist deals with publicity purely based on print and nowadays, online, I guess. Whereas a plugger, which I believe is an English term, is someone that deals specifically with radio, called radio plugging. But to be honest I hate that word. It’s such a benign title, I hate using it. But sometimes you have to use it just for the sake of people understanding.
But yeah, I see my role as a publicist, just to be honest. What I do, airplay, really gives artists a lot of potential to be heard. So in essence really, I personally consider myself a publicist.
Well that said about the publicist in print – is print dead? What’s going on there?
Print’s just moving online to be honest. I think that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that printed newspapers are definitely on the way out. No one’s buying them anymore and if you talk to the younger generation, I don’t think any of them have ever even bought one.
So the thing with newspapers is, like the industry, they’ve evolved and they’ve moved online, which is just smart.
Yeah, and so you just adapt to that, clearly. And it’s the same format? Just moving it into the online world?
Yeah, exactly. It’s usually still the same people, it’s the same format, same ideals, same principles. It’s just moved from one platform to another. And it makes sense, it’s everyone’s holding phones nowadays as opposed to newspapers on trains, or tablets. It’s just a completely new … not a new format, but it’s the new format to replace paper.
I worked with a lot of publicists over the years in the 90’s and 2000’s it seemed almost compulsory to get a publicist on board with any new release you were doing. How relevant is a publicist for an indie act in 2018? Considering how much you know that’s changed the landscape so dramatically, or is it pretty much like you just said, it’s just a transformation into a different world?
Oh look, it’s just being adaptable really. I don’t think the role of a publicist has changed that much. Instead of newspapers, it’s online. The same with magazines. I think that publicists still have to have those relationships, still have to have a good network of people that they deal with. It’s simply, to me, that the platform from a physical product has moved over to an online product. That’s all it is.
But how important is it? I think it’s really important. I think bands need to understand that sometimes there are doors that they can’t open and using someone that has the connections to help facilitate those doors is really important.
Which brings me onto this next question about how your job is really about relationships, isn’t it? And the client is paying you for access to those relationships in some ways you’ve cultivated and built over many years. So there is a huge amount of trust there, isn’t there, between the client and yourself?
Yeah. It’s really important to have that trust and that faith. I find it really … it’s a really difficult part of my job. People don’t realize that people sort of sit back and look at it from face value and say they’re a client of mine. They’re not really, because at the end of the day, you are working closely with them.
Most importantly you have their career … It’s a really important role and sometimes that gets lost. It’s perceived to be just someone that you’re paying contacts and getting through the door, but it’s a lot more than that. You’re, in the case of my position, I’ve got to play God.
I’ve got to do the best I can for every goddamn release that I work because it’s someone’s livelihood at stake. And it’s about me creating a brand so that the next release is better and the media are fully aware of who the artist is by that second single stage, if not the first.
It’s tricky. I’ve always imagined how hard it must be. And coming from my stand point as musician, you always expect that your publicist is going to be able to see a fridge to an eskimo if required. So does that person you’re servicing need to be coerced into liking a product? Surely there’s some sort of a balance there because you’ve got to nurture that long-term relationship as well, don’t you? So there is a fine line for you to walk throughout this isn’t there?
Absolutely. Not a truer word has been spoken to be honest, because at the end of the day, you look at how many songs are released, how many actually make it? This is why I have good industry friends and colleagues that say, “Frankly, I don’t know how you’ve managed to do what you do for so long.” It’s the hardest gig there is. It’s trying to turn wine into gold but at the same time there is a fine line there as you said, about what is actually good and what isn’t. If I don’t feel that I can do something with that song I can’t take it.
I just won’t take it. And that’s because taking someone’s money and literally telling them that the song’s amazing, when clearly it’s not is just daylight robbery and I can’t do that. Ethically, morally and even from a business perspective, it’s not ideal. Because if I’m going to walk into radio with a song I don’t believe in or don’t think is any good, then what the hell am I doing?
Again, it goes back to that concept of dealing with someone’s life. So if there’s a song that I don’t like, I just can’t work it because at the end of the day, walking into radio with a crap song, after crap song, after crap song, after crap song, then my relationships will completely dissipate.
That’s what’s always got me interested in what you do because it is an ethical question between paying the bills, being selective, or being broke and walking that line. You must deal with that every day I’m sure, and if someone comes to you with a new batch of songs or a single, “I don’t like it, but I don’t have any money this week, I can’t pay the bills”, it must be a problem.
Look, it’s only a problem if you make it one. And this is where the good radio publicists or pluggers are different from the ones that are simply just there for the money. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of young radio pluggers now entering the market, which is great. It’s good for the industry, it’s good competition. But there are some that I know that are just taking money.
That doesn’t bode well for the image it plays for the rest of us out there who are doing it based on the music. I’ve never had that situation where I’ve looked at my books and gone, “Oh my God I need the money” It’s not about that. This is a job that you have to take very, very seriously and you can only use the good songs. Again, I’m sure there are pluggers out there that are thinking, “Yeah, I need to pay the bills so I’ll take anything” and that is a recipe for disaster.
Totally, and look, big question here. What is a good song in 2018? That must be tough, because there’s trends and flavours and all kinds of stuff going on all the time and I’d imagine that’s really tough.
Yeah it is. It is because every song’s different. That’s the hardest part. Sometimes I’ll hear a song and go, “Wow that’s going to fit very, very well within an alternative radio format or a commercial radio format”, and to me, that is enticing. But sometimes there are songs that you hear once and you go, “Wow this is really different and I’ve heard nothing like it for a very long time.” And I’ll do those songs, I’ll work those songs because it is different.
And the floors change … the floors are shifting quite regularly at radio. Sure, there are certain … at the moment there’s that whole electronic R&B kind of vibe permeating the airwaves. That’s all fine and dandy but occasionally I might hear a rock song that’s just outstanding and needs to be heard, and I’ll take it on.
So you’re right, it’s very hard to pick the song. Sometimes I’ll chose a song that I think is pretty good but you know … I might have this feeling of, “Yeah, this is going to be tough. This one’s going to be hard” It’s very difficult to convince people that it’s exciting, different and worth hearing. And other times I’ll pick a song that’s an absolute no-brainer and it works very well. But sometimes there are those songs that you take on passionately because you believe that people should be hearing this kind of music.
They work and sometimes they don’t. So it all depends. You’re right, that is the hardest question. What is the right song at this point in time?
Particularly when you have listeners that have a plethora of songs at their disposal. Going back 20 years, a very different story. There were few outlets for artists to take. There was TV, there was print, and there was radio and that was it. Today, the way people access music is vastly different and they have more at their disposal, so it’s a completely different market place. So you need to adapt or perish.
So that begs the question, how much per hour does triple J wield now? Is Kingsmill still seen as the most dominant pacemaker in this country? Can an act blow up without triple J?
Yes it can, yes it can. Look, Richard Kingsmill and Nick Finlay, Gemma Pike of the Unearthed team, are all very important players in the music industry. If you’re an alternative band then they are pivotal in terms of your career and there’s no doubt about that.
I need to stress that they take their craft very, very seriously. As much as you’ll have labels and indie bands and publicists infuriated by that fact that they might not add or play one of your songs, I can assure you these guys and women are very, very serious about every song they play.
I really admire that. As much as I can put the phone down, or walk out of the triple J office sometimes going, “Goddamn it, I can’t believe they won’t play this song.” The other part of me says, “I can understand why. They’ve explained it to me and I get it.” But sometimes it can be infuriating and frustrating as I said but they think meticulously about where the act is at, what the song is like, is there potential for better songs? All those sorts of things come into play. There are so many different variables and these guys think long and hard.
If you listen to triple J you don’t hear too many garbage songs. In fact, I listen to a lot of triple J, it’s part of my job. I listen to commercial radio, I listen to community radio, and triple J really, they are ground zero for a lot of aspiring, young artists. It’s an important platform to crack. But again, without being politically correct here, I honestly believe that triple J are extremely important, don’t get me wrong, but they are very, very good at their craft. Very good. And they take their jobs very seriously.
I really admire that because they have to. They really do.
I’ve seen some pretty extraordinary press releases over the years. How important is a band’s backstory to your pitch as a publicist? Does a little bit of colouration matter?
I think it’s really important. Very rarely can you sell an act into media without a decent story. Often it’s a good sign that the band isn’t ready yet. Every blue moon you will have an actually that has just started out and perhaps doesn’t have a great story to tell, because they’re still in their infancy, but they can have a killer song.
So what do you do then?
Well. You just go for it. You just take with it and you roll with it and you develop that brand and that artist as best you can. And they need to have songs for you to back it up. That’s just how it is. You can’t sell a band just on good music, and sometimes you can.
It’s a really fine line there because on that odd occasion you will come across an artist that just has the right song at the right time. The key then is to make sure they’re not a one hit wonder and so you’re hoping they have the chops to back up the very strong first single.
But a press release is very important, you need to be able to tell a story. You need to be able to explain who this band is, how they came about, what they’re about, where they’re at and where they want to move in future. There are so many different aspects that come across.
Sometimes it’s not just about the song. Sometimes it about the song and whether the band are touring. Whether the band is recording, with the right people, with the right songs and being serious about their craft. There’s no point radio backing an artist that just isn’t ready because that is a spot that could be taken by somebody else that is.
Again this is where this whole ethos of play God comes into it. Sometimes I can walk into triple J and the team at triple J will go “Wow, this is great, it’s not quite ready yet. The production isn’t quite right yet, or the lyrics aren’t as developed as they should be, or the structure of the song isn’t quite right, or the vocals just aren’t right. But God we love what you’ve brought in, we can’t play it, but jeez we want to hear the next track.”
Not give you feedback?
I demand it. Because if I’m having to go back with “Oh they’re just not going to play it” then that’s ridiculous. And this is where the whole relationship thing comes into and this is what I love about triple J Unearthed and triple J is that I can pick up the phone and go, “What is it that you don’t like about it?” or “What is it that you do like about it?”
You know, if you’ve got constructive criticism and then more often than not I can just … that makes me a better plugger in the sense that I’ll be able to realise and say, “You know what? Good call, you’re right. The production isn’t as good as it should be.” And that’s something that I can take back to the band where they can take on board and develop further for the next release.
There’s been numerous times I’ve taken songs into triple J that the team have just gone, “Look it’s not quite there” and the second single: “It’s still not quite there” the third single: “It’s on the money, this is great. We’re playing it.”
So it’s quite naïve for people to think that the first song you take in is the one that’s going to shake the world. It’s not the case at all. It’s about building a brand, it’s about developing as an artist and they’re really important things. You’re incredibly naïve if you think the first track you send into radio is going to be the one that changes everything.
Interesting you should say that. A lot of people throw in the towel after that first great rejection of their lives, don’t they. It’s like, “Oh, shit we haven’t got a turn up” But it’s about being consistent and moving forward and having that faith I suppose?
Developing, just developing. It’s no different to me working Regurgitator many moons ago. Back in those days record labels had a thing called artist development where they spent a lot of time developing young bands that they liked. Record labels knew that their first record and sometimes their second record was purely just to develop and establish a brand, a fan base, all those sorts of things.
But they knew that the third record was the one that would cross them over. And that’s what happens and that’s something that a lot of young bands don’t really understand these days. That if you’re serious about your craft, then you’ll do everything you can to get better week by week, day by day, release by release. And that’s the difference between … and that goes back to the very early argument when we were talking about Madonna, just how serious are you about it?
Because if you’re not, then throw in the towel. If it’s a sport for you, then forget about it.
That really is the essence of all this isn’t it. It’s about sticking with that goal and working forwards regardless of the knockbacks. And the knockbacks come aplenty don’t they?
Yeah, well it’s no different to being a soccer player, or a football player, or a netball player, or a tennis player. If you’re going to walk on the court and expect to win straight up then that’s really naïve. Particularly if you’ve only held the tennis racket for two weeks.
It takes time and this is the thing. A lot of artists need to understand that. Do you think Oasis, or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, or the Foo Fighters, or Enya, or Madonna or whoever, didn’t do the hard slog first? Come on. They all did.
Interesting you should talk about that sort of development period in record labels back in the day. What state is the record industry in now, do you think? There’s been that doom and gloom we’ve been hearing about for a long time. But has there been some kind of miracle upturn of what do you see is happening now?
I think labels are still in a very healthy position. They had to adapt, it’s as simple as that. It’s no different to a publicist adapting to online. They have to realise that CDs were on the way out, parallel importing came in. You know, record labels in Australia weren’t printing money anymore, they had to be more frugal with their money because they’re all competing with overseas imports.
So they changed. And like any business, if you adapt to change well, you’ll be successful. I think the industry is in a healthy position at the moment, I don’t think … there were some dark days there where a lot of labels were thinking, “What are we going to do? How do we change? How do we adapt?” I think they’ve done it very well.
What will Frank Varrasso be doing in 10 years time?
Oh my god. Jeez. I’d like to think I would hang the boots up and watch someone else … I’d love for someone else to continue my business and work hard to help establish young artists be heard on the radio. That’s what I would love. I don’t think I could do this in 10 years’ time, I think I’d like to be able to sit back and enjoy life because I really don’t think people understand how hard it is. It’s a relentless job and I’m working weekends, I’m working 7 days a week.
It’s tough because you’re always thinking, you’re always trying to find a way. You’re always assessing music and wondering whether there’s something you can really do with this or whether it’s rubbish. So in 10 years’ time, I’d love to be in a situation where Varrasso PR is still thriving and someone else has taken over the reins and I’m just becoming a passive listener. That would be great.
Maybe you’ll be promoting some kind of recorder act by then?
You could be leading the troop.
Maybe I should take up to recorder again. That’s a good call.
That’s retirement gig for you.
It was something I’d thrown the towel in, like many artists do!
Like we all did, don’t worry about that.
Oh God, we hated it.
Finally, if you could speak to the 18-year-old Frank Varrasso, what would be the one thing you’d tell him?
Look, I think I spent a lot of my years trying to discover who I was and what I loved. There were early signs there when I was 18 and there abouts. I loved music. I never played an instrument and my only regret was that I didn’t get into the industry sooner. As I said, I went to Uni, I waited on tables, I did all those sorts of things.
Worked in hospitality a hell of a lot and wished that I’d got into the music industry sooner than I did. So again, if I had my time again I would have spoken to myself and said just to back your convictions, you love music, go for it. Rather than-
Back your convictions?
Exactly what it is, back yourself.
Have faith in yourself. That’s to me, what I should have done, way back when. We all live and learn, it’s all easy in hindsight.
Absolutely. Frank, thanks for being on the show.
Pleasure, absolute pleasure.