Tim Gerst’s career road has repeatedly placed him where digital lightning is about to strike. Perhaps equally impressive, his last name has a family tie to a certain German beer haus on Nashville’s east side.
“The story goes,” says Gerst, “that my Great Uncle ran away to Evansville, Indiana and started the Gerst Brewing Company. The present owners are not my family, but it’s good beer and I will admit every time I go to the Gerst Haus I pull out my ID and manage to get something for free.”
At 24 years old, Gerst is still learning his way around the music industry and its politics, but he’s not shy about speaking his mind—loudly—when it comes to digital marketing, social media and engaging consumers online. Seated at his HitShop Records control center, you’ll find him multi-tasking, laughing, posting, building artist websites and interacting with fans. Just don’t ask him to tweet something superficial to his 49,000 @timgerst twitter fans. Unless it will cultivate his relationship with them or share an experience, he just won’t do it.
NEKST: Tell us about your career before arriving at HitShop.
Tim Gerst: I got lucky coming out of high school and landed a position interning for a small concert promotion company in Illinois doing social media marketing. That led to a job with the largest promotion production company in Christian music, Premiere Productions. Soon I was handling digital marketing for all their events. Back then (2007), almost no one in the Christian Industry was utilizing social media for promotion. Next I formed Gerst Marketing. I had gotten to know many of the artists and there was a large potential for new clients. Some of my consulting clients included Integrity Music, Rush Concerts, Creation Festivals, Winter Jam Tour Spectacular plus Thousand Foot Krutch, Hillsong, Hawk Nelson, Building 429, Everyday Sunday, Satellites and Sirens, RED, FM Static, and Jason Grey.
NEKST: And your career path collided with YouTube sensation Austin Mahone in Feb. 2012?
Tim Gerst: Yeah, Austin, who was still managed by his Mom at that time, was looking for someone to help him expand his social media reach. I got the opportunity to help activate that fan base. It was one of those magical mysteries that you look back upon and wonder how it happened? We met and Austin asked me to help out at a Chicago concert that was like his second ever. This kid who had never been there before sold out 1,600 seats by himself with no openers. I’m pretty sure I went deaf after the first few songs because the girls were screaming wildly. I had never seen anything like that. There was a lot of estrogen in the room that still dominates his sales today. Austin just appeared on the MTV EMA Awards with Fall Out Boy and Jason Derulo and his new single debuted No. 12 on iTunes. This little boy from Texas that I got to work with went from nowhere to opening for Taylor Swift and becoming a star in eighteen months.
NEKST: How did HitShop Records enter the picture?
Tim Gerst: During the summer 2012, I was handling digital marketing for the Boots & Hearts music festival in Toronto, my first country gig. I met a guy with this crazy hairdo and wacky rings. I Googled him and saw he had a lot of things going on so I gave him my card. Months later I get a call and its Skip Bishop saying, “What are you doing, get your ass to my office.” So I joined HitShop without really ever applying. Technically I am Director Digital Marketing, but it’s a startup label and we all have multiple roles. Basically I handle social media for our artist websites, oversee graphic and video development plus assist the promotion team with digital initiatives. We don’t have a big staff so we have to always be looking for fun, creative ways to accomplish things.
NEKST: As a 24-year old, “digital native,” what do you see going on with the music industry?
Tim Gerst: People are being discovered in ways we have never seen before. Artists like Austin Mahone, Justin Bieber or Tori Kelly are passionate about music and all they want to do is find a way to get their art out. They put their videos online without knowing how to promote or anything, but there is a magic that happens. The artists connect with their fans and it creates a movement. Labels and the industry really don’t know how to respond because these artists haven’t done the typical A&R. They have millions of views, thousands and thousands of followers and can sell records online, but they’ve never stepped out and even done a show, because that is not who they are yet. Then you have the country world where I haven’t seen that transition yet. People are still hesitant to embrace the digital world completely.
NEKST: Why hasn’t it happened in country?
Tim Gerst: Country fans haven’t completely caught up yet with the pop music culture, technology or current media. Look at your target demographics. Country is really in that 30-50 range and wants to move younger to 18-34 range. In the pop world they are aiming more at 13-25. So you see a lot of people in the country world starting to embrace Facebook, whereas in the pop world people aren’t using Facebook as much to discover music now. They’re using other mediums like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
NEKST: Let’s segue to country music strategies, tactics and tools for established and new artists.
Tim Gerst: The established artist fan base will be active with whatever you do. They won’t be upset if you take some chances because they already love the artist. New artists have to make it easier but can’t just follow the same mold as everyone else, either. They need to be innovative. The traditional model says pick the single, Impact radio, get adds and airplay which drives sales and then touring. But how would the model change if you could say to radio programmers prior to radio impact, “Hey here’s this artist with a massive online fan base. We’ve already sold units and can prove we have fans in your area.” Everything online has analytics. So I can look at any fan base see where the core is, how old they are, its gender, even what they eat for breakfast. And sharing that fan data with our promo team can be powerful.
Tim Gerst: Our new artist Weston Burt now has 38k Facebook fans. He started the year with 2,000. Now we have enough data so I can tell his booking agent or our radio team exactly where he has sold music and where he is engaging fans. I can pinpoint markets we need to target. To grow we’ve taken some chances with Weston and did a contest that revolved around him, even before his fans were fully active. We got lucky and it was ironic because it was called the “Lucky Sometimes Sweepstakes.” Fans were asked for their information and one lucky fan got to have Weston come to their backyard barbecue and perform. The key to great contesting is, don’t make it hard for consumers to enter. Especially for new artists because every step you add will chase away a percentage of people. They are not engaged enough to put pictures up devote lots of time and attention. But if it just requires the push of a button to enter—boom! Our new act Natalie Stovall And The Drive (NSATD) is another example. We’re trying to grow their fan base by doing an ACA Flyaway. The prize is two tickets to the ACA Awards in Vegas, round trip airfare, hotel, money to rent a car and tickets to see Natalie open for Dwight Yoakam at the Golden Nugget. But the the prize doesn’t just revolve around Natalie. Any country fan would be excited to visit the ACA Awards! To enter, log in with FB, Twitter or your email, but there is a twist. We offer ways to earn more entires and engage further by additional tweeting, posting, etc. What we care about is connecting fans with the band, getting their information and giving them the opportunity to win something valuable. Once NSATD gets bigger we’ll do something more specific to them.
NEKST: Email or social media?
Tim Gerst: Both are important, but you cannot live and die only by email. Artist emails are lucky to get a 12-15% open rate. So if you have a million people, you will be seen by 150k. If you have one million on social media you can blast them twice a day with a status update and 300k will see it. Engaging online is the start of a relationship. Fans expect ongoing communication and if you don’t work at it they’ll lose interest just like any relationship. With Facebook, for example, the more you cultivate that relationship, the more active, engaged and likely to respond they become. Email is more like a long distance relationship. If you blast someone every day they are going to get annoyed because that is their personal space. I don’t neglect email, but my primary focus is social media by far because I can grow that list faster and get people more engaged. If you know what you are doing you can acquire fans online for as little as .20¢. I can target females 16-35 who like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton then run an ad saying, “Looking for the next cute country artist? Here’s Weston Burt.” I can pay 20¢ to get their fans onto Weston’s page and then if I do the right job I can engage them and they will buy his music.
NEKST: Can a country artist break without radio support?
Tim Gerst: Right now radio is crucial for country success because that is where the biggest audience is. But before Justin Bieber, people in the pop world said it couldn’t happen there either. All it takes is one or two success stories to change the dynamic. Taylor Swift certainly had a big online fan base with MySpace and now Twitter. And it’s fair to ask, “Did her crossover fan base discover her on radio or online?” She started on country radio, but her audience has always gone wider. That may also be why Florida Georgia Line is having success. The music is country, but it also appeals to college kids and teenagers. And to be really successful in our industry don’t we have to appeal to fans outside the country world?
NEKST: Are you saying format lines are disappearing?
Tim Gerst: We aren’t seeing formats dissolve, it’s more like fans adapting. Ten years ago consumers might say, “I’m a country fan” or “a pop fan.” Now they might name songs from Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, Drake and Fall Out Boy because they don’t follow a format, they follow singles and artists. Genre is not important. When they like something they don’t download albums, they buy a single. A lot of the younger kids don’t necessarily have credit cards themselves, but are active buyers because they know how to get their parents to purchase the music they want which often results in the parents becoming fans too. When you hit this teenager group you get the parents and the kids—two fans instead of one.
NEKST: Artist tips for engaging online?
Tim Gerst: Fans want to reach up on stage and grab you, but security is there to say, “No, this is a celebrity.” But the moment you step off people want to know you are real and that they can connect with you and share your experiences. When you get on that level with fans and show vulnerability they respect and appreciate you more. Fans will have your back if they feel you have theirs. So the biggest thing about content is that it isn’t always about selling something. Fans want to peek behind the back stage curtain and see what is really going on. You can say, ”Please go buy my album,” if you balance it with a personal touch that connects. Never feel like you are too big to talk to somebody. Pick a few people every day and reply, retweet and message them on Facebook. Never be out of reach entirely because then they won’t want to buy your stuff. Even Taylor Swift or someone on her team actively retweets fans and responds. We recently signed 20-year old Kira Isabella who was just named Canadian Country Music Female Vocalist. On her socials I already see girls saying, “Kira, I look up to you, you’re beautiful. We talk about you at school.” Kira asked me, “What do I say to these people?” I said, be honest, have conversations with them. Show them that you are there. Don’t give them any specific advice, but say, “You’re beautiful too, thank you for supporting me.” Let them know you are listening, that you see them. When you are able to do that you create fans who will share everything you put out. That’s what Austin did. He was always online. When he wakes up he says, “Good morning,” so fans know he is available. He says random things like where he’s at, etc. They never know if he is going to reply to them, follow or retweet them. Sometimes he finds people online that are having a conversation about something he’s interested in and starts talking to them. When you are open like that, people will get behind you. That’s why artists like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have such loyal fan bases. Obviously we have to sell units to make money, but the biggest notes I write in all my notebooks are ways we can engage with people.