One-on-one with a former PR director of Sony Music
As a former director of Sony Music Australia - following roles at Warner Music, Festival Mushroom Records and EMI - Frank Varasso knows music publicity well. He's worked with artists from Prince to Usher, and Armin van Buuren to Sia.
Nine years ago, Frank launched the independent promotions and publicity company Varrasso PR in Melbourne, Australia. Among the acts the company has helped kick-start is Kimbra, who later won a Grammy.
Thanks for sitting down with us, Frank. Before we dive in too deep, can you tell us about your early days and where your musical seeds were planted?
I grew up in an Italian family in Melbourne. Mum and dad, back before they met, travelled out from Italy with their families, who settled across the road from each other in Carlton.
I remember wanting to play drums as a kid. But the family was doing it pretty tough and we couldn’t afford a kit. So, I smashed my Walkman with cassette tapes and hung around record stores instead.
What were some of the first records through your ears – and not just the retrospectively cool ones?
Fair call. I was a big Billy Joel fan. I listened to a lot of Kiss, Eagles… Foreigner. Is that uncool enough? But then I moved onto indie rock like The Cure, The Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen.
I worked in street press in Melbourne for a weekly music mag called InPress. It was free and went into all the bars, clubs and venues. I sold advertising space, it had a very good following, and everyone was taking ads.
I got to know a lot of influential people – publicans, promoters, record labels, managers – and I developed a black book that was worth its weight in gold.
Then a job came up at Warner Music in Melbourne as the promotions manager for Victoria and Tasmania. I met great people – international artists and local ones – and had a lot of fun.
What were your next steps?
Over the course of the next decade I worked for EMI, Festival Mushroom Records – which was an independent but worked with artists like Muse and Kylie Minogue – and then headed national promotions and publicity for Sony Music.
Why’d you set up Varrasso PR?
Rather than running a big team – with 20-30 acts at a time on the go – I wanted to give acts individual attention. It was nine years ago and it felt like the independent cycle that was prevalent in the 90s was coming back.
The way I see it, the artist is in the centre of a bicycle wheel. And they and their management want to surround themselves with the right people, be that radio pluggers, online promo, booking agents, merchandise, whatever. That’s the path the industry has gone down in Australia – absolutely.
Every song is different, every band is different, and you want to match the right people with the right artists. You can’t do that with broad strokes.
What makes a good music publicist?
The ability to maintain contacts and have relationships will always be most important.
Given that everyone is time-poor, I’m finding that a lot of young publicists are buried behind emails, text messages, messenger and the like. Nothing beats face-to-face contact, though. It allows you to read body language. And email can be very ambiguous.
I try to sit down with whoever I’m pitching a story, album or song to.
While there is less focus on traditional print outlets nowadays, written articles are still really important. People’s opinions are really important. Opinions generate conversation. It’s a boring world if everyone just agrees.
I remember one album we released got a one-star review and we used that as motivation to try and make the record huge. And it was. That was Moby’s Play.
What does Varrasso PR do?
We’re a music promotions company, with radio and TV our focus. We work with artists to create a brand and then maximise exposure so they become bigger and bigger. We do all sorts, including plugging songs at radio and getting coverage on other platforms.
We work with a number of artists, both local and international, with many signed to major and independent labels. We see ourselves as a kick-starter.
Who are some of the acts you’ve ‘kick-started’?
A couple I’m especially proud of are Kimbra and ZHU.
Kimbra released her first record through us and was then signed to Warner Music in the US. And ZHU was one of our favourite projects, because we got a deep house track across commercial radio. That was symbolic for us.
We’re not genre-specific. We work with people we want to work with and whose music we love. I’m not interested in taking on stuff that we’re not passionate about.
For many artists, media interviews aren’t where they’re most at ease. How do you navigate that territory?
For starters, we want the media to know as much – if not more – than we do. That’s really important to me. So, we load them up with bios, articles, press releases…
Then your artists might get 15 mins in an interview to get across their 3-4 key points without getting side-tracked. It’s a real challenge, especially in radio. We book and record all our artists’ phone interviews through an application called Blinder. It lets journalists ring our artists directly, without the need to share any personal contact details, and call recordings mean we can go back and say: ‘Can you see how you got side-tracked here? Can you see how you didn’t really answer that question?’ And there was your window to bring the convo back to your album.’
Streaming has been one of the big changes in the industry in recent years. What’s your take on that space?
Streaming is really interesting. I do a bit of lecturing outside Varrasso PR and kids are moving away from radio and just streaming. Radio still does well with many markets and when people are in cars, but even then the auxiliary button is a threat.
Streaming brings the big bonus of affordability and catalogue. I think it will have a massive effect on radio. It’ll be interesting to see how radio reinvents itself, as doing stuff how it’s been done forever is no way to survive.
Music moved from vinyl, to tape, to CD, to download and now streaming. It’s always evolving, but it’ll never die.
Streaming has its detractors, mostly around the money returned to artists, but the analytics that come with it are priceless. Radio is becoming safer and safer in its song selections, but we now have a really good way to analyse what is happening in the market and can provide a case to radio as to why they should be playing a song.
In the current landscape, how do artists maintain a strong connection with their fans?
Content is really important – and the quality of that content. People don’t want to read a re-hashed bio. That’s boring as batshit. So, you need to look at ways to keep things interesting and give people the ability to understand your artists better.
I think fans today miss tangibility and access to artists. For example, ‘meet and greets’ at record stores, where fans would have their albums signed, used to be a big thing. But with changes in music consumption, fans aren’t holding music in their hands – and looking at it in the eye – like they used to. It can sometimes feel like live shows are the only tangible experience nowadays – and that’s why so many acts are touring and people are paying big dollars to see them.
At a live show, you feel, you hear, you taste, you smell. That’s the closeness that people want. It’s our challenge as an industry to find ways to keep delivering that.
If you’d like to know more about Varrasso PR’s use of Blinder, just click on the link below:
Caley Wilson writes about entertainment and sport. He is a former media manager of New Zealand Rugby League and netball's Northern Mystics and has worked on festivals from Rhythm & Vines to the Big Day Out. He is a co-founder of Blinder.
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