Steve Smith has spent time in a lot of bars in Los Angeles. He’s hit the honky tonks in Nashville and dove into the dives of New York—all in the name of work, of course. It’s a rough job, he admits, but someone has to do it. Smith is vice president of artists and repertoire for the Chicago-based Aware Records, the person in charge of scouring the country and finding today’s top young musical talent.
And while enjoying the nightlife in cities around the nation on the company credit card may seem like a dream gig, it’s not the part of his job that Smith loves the best. Nothing, he says, is better than helping a musician put together an album. It’s always new, always personal.
“I get to sit there and be an active participant while someone fulfills their vision of art,” he says.
Smith did just that recently as singer-songwriter Matt Kearney put together the album Young Love. There are no guarantees in the music industry, Smith admits, but Kearney’s song “Hey Mama” could be one of the season’s runaway singles.
And if anyone would know, it would be Smith. He joined Aware Records just a week after graduating from Xavier in 1998 with a degree in communication arts, and in the last 13 years, he’s had the chance to work with some great talent. Early on, Aware had a joint arrangement with Columbia Records, and was able to pull in rising stars like John Mayer, Train, Guster and Five for Fighting.
Nowadays, Kearney is Aware’s only signed artist. The company collaborates with Universal Republic, and they are selective in their scouting. “We put ourselves in the position that every band we sign has to be successful,” Smith says. That means a lot of traveling and a lot of networking with booking agents and managers.
He looks for a broad scope of music, from pop to emo to indie rock, but all of it has to play well for radio. And in an age of file-sharing websites and free downloads, the music business is getting more challenging. “Radio station playlists are smaller,” Smith says. “There are more bands going after fewer slots. The trickiest thing about this business is there really isn’t a foolproof way to break an artist. There’s no formula.”
To compensate, record labels now have to be innovative to be successful, Smith says. “You have to be adaptable. People are buying less music, so there’s less income.”
Take Kearney’s new album, for example. Smith plans on adjusting the marketing strategy for Young Love by the week. If one avenue isn’t producing results, he’ll try another. “It is a business at the end of the day,” he says. “We’ve got to sell records to pay the bills and keep the lights on.”
But for Smith, the bottom line is still the music. “Especially when you work with great people,” he says. “They’re really talented, but good humans too. It makes your job a lot easier.”