This is the eighth installment of Rolling Stone’s series At Work, in which we explore the fast-changing music business from the perspective of a different industry leader each week. Read earlier pieces in the series here.
While program director of alt-rock giant 99X in Atlanta, Leslie Fram was key in furthering the careers of artists like Matchbox Twenty, Smashing Pumpkins, and Shawn Mullins. Since moving to Nashville and joining CMT in 2011, she’s been doing likewise in the country landscape, especially with rising female talent. The senior VP of music strategy spearheaded the network’s Next Women of Country franchise and, in January, helped CMT commit to programming a 50/50 split of music videos by women and men artists. All of that is in addition to her role in overseeing music integration across all CMT platforms and curating series and specials like June’s CMT Awards, CMT Crossroads, and the CMT Artists of the Year gala.
While Fram may be one of country music’s biggest tastemakers, she hasn’t left her rock roots behind: “I have Sirius XM in my car and I’ll spend a week listening to a Top 40 station and then a week on Alt-Nation or the Spectrum,” she tells Rolling Stone. Amid the increasing genre meld of the music industry, “I still need to stay up with pop, rock and alternative.”
What’s the first thing you do every day?
I get up around 6:30, and my husband and I have coffee in bed. He reads to me several daily devotionals that he subscribes to. We have a zen morning and then we work out: either a three-mile walk around the neighborhood or some type of aerobics, just to do something before I get into the office. I start looking at emails, just to see if there are any emergencies. It’s not a 9 to 5 job; it’s fluid. So I make sure I’m up to date. There are usually 20 projects we’re working on. And I definitely have my old-school to-do list in a notebook.
Walk us through your typical schedule.
There are some days where there is no white space on my calendar. It could be a call with a manager or a team meeting, or we’re all meeting about an album launch. We’ve been putting together a pitch for Kelsea Ballerini [for her new album] on everything we feel that CMT can offer, and we’ll send that over to her team. We have weekly label calls, and that’s a great way for the labels to tell us about video releases, album releases, and tour launches, so on our end we can start thinking, “Where can we pipe them in on CMT?”
From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., it’s usually back-to-back. [After 6] there are events every night in Nashville. I’m trying to have a couple of nights where I don’t go out, so I can decompress and watch Netflix or something.
What’s the greatest hurdle you’ve had to overcome to get where you are?
I was in radio for a very long time. I was around when there was consolidation and radio started changing, and that to me was really tough seeing, and seeing how it is now. A lot of my friends have been downsized. iHeart has huge layoffs, Entercom is going through the same thing. It’s hard for me because radio was my first love, and in country music it’s still the Number One place for artist discovery. I miss what radio used to be, where it was one program director overseeing a station and you had all live jocks 24/7. It’s not a hurdle for me, but I’m concerned for artists who aren’t getting to go through proper A&R, where the process is so rushed.
“I miss what radio used to be, where it was one program director overseeing a station and you had all live jocks 24/7. It’s not a hurdle for me, but I’m concerned for artists who aren’t getting to go through proper A&R, where the process is so rushed.”
What’s the biggest threat then to the music business?
Artist development, or lack thereof. And it happens for men and women. We see a lot of artists get signed, and if something doesn’t happen on the first or second single, they don’t have time to breathe. Historically, if you look at some of our superstars, they didn’t break on their first record. I’m hoping that the paradigm is changing where the first thing isn’t to go to radio, but to give an artist six months to a year. Somewhat like Sony did with Maren [Morris], and what Maren was already doing: releasing songs to streaming services and building an audience there, so that there is some story before it goes to terrestrial radio. Luke Combs did it on the road first, selling out venue after venue. How are we going to develop superstars in the future? It’s pretty scary. I wish there was some sort of farm system at major labels, where you sign a development deal and then you really develop them for a year.
Do you see any parallels between how rock and country break artists?
It’s similar. A lot of rock artists were driving around in a van eating baloney sandwiches, trying to build a fan base before there was ever streaming. I guess it is different for every artist, but it’s really tough to have a conversation with an independent artist and they say, “Hey, I’m releasing this song,” and we say, “OK, what’s your plan?” There is no plan. They’re going to release it and they think magically something is going to happen. “Who’s your team? What’s your six-month plan?” A lot of those things have to come into consideration.
What can labels do to better serve their artists?
It has to be more than just doing a radio tour and seeing 40 radio stations. Artist development is not just that. It’s about going out and developing that person day by day. What about the art of a live show? You talk to someone like Michael Knox and he’ll tell you how he developed Jason Aldean’s live show. That’s a lot of work, going over to SIR or to the Wildhorse [Saloon] and playing night after night until you get the live show right. I think a lot of people are so rushed, and you see them and they’re not ready to be seen. That’s a part of the puzzle that’s missing.
We have great label heads and A&R in Nashville, but I think there is this mentality that we’re going to sign somebody so somebody else doesn’t sign them. And you end up signing a lot of new artists and they’re put on a backburner. Some of these artists were out there touring, and all of a sudden everything stops. You are part of this ecosystem and you might not even have a release date for a year.
CMT made news in January by pledging 50/50 gender parity for video airplay on both CMT and CMT Music channels. How has that initiative been received?
We looked at ourselves honestly to say, “What can we be doing better?” There is a thing about putting a Band-Aid on this situation, where a lot of people are saying, “Let’s do a Sunday night show of all female artists.” I think that’s great, but what female artists need is to be in regular programming, whether it’s terrestrial radio, internet radio or streaming services. We do play videos on CMT until 9 a.m., and then we have our 24-hour channel, CMT Music, which is in roughly 25 million homes. Viacom own PlutoTV and we’re working on having a video channel on that soon. But the response has been great, and I do feel like it’s given a lot of women a little hope that maybe this art that I made can finally be seen. That’s the first step. We want to reach out to our partners, other gatekeepers, and say, “What can you do?” It may not be 50/50. It may be 10 or 15 percent. Or a commitment for marketing or mentorship. But if everybody collectively moves a little bit, it’d make a huge difference. At CMT, we have so many strong women in leadership positions, and I’m proud to work with so many passionate and talented people on the Music & Talent team. Each person has their own area of expertise and live and breathe music 24/7.
“There is a thing about putting a Band-Aid on this situation, where a lot of people are saying, “Let’s do a Sunday night show of all female artists.” I think that’s great, but what female artists need is to be in regular programming, whether it’s terrestrial radio, internet radio or streaming services.”
What did you do to prepare to make the jump from rock radio to country music television?
It took me a good year, because I wanted to put my head down and understand what was going on, and I wanted to speak intelligently about it. I went to a lot of shows, first and foremost. Listened to a lot of music, and tried to learn the job at the same time. The first thing I wanted to do was the Next Women of Country [campaign] because I saw the lack of support for female artists. Viacom was 100% behind us. We wanted to be able to use the airwaves to tell those stories. I fell in love with Brandy Clark, and was like, “Why isn’t she getting any radio airplay?” I’m still wondering that too by the way.
What do you personally read, listen to, or watch to keep up with new artists?
I follow everyone on Instagram and keep up on Twitter, and with press releases. I try to listen to stuff on Spotify or Apple Music, so I’m at least familiar with their singles. Then on Saturday or Sunday, I’ll spend three or four hours listening to new albums, everything from the Cadillac Three to Carly Pearce and Aubrie Sellers. I’m listening to their full records. Obviously you can’t do that with everyone, but I want to be thoughtful about it, because we’re looking at artists to pitch to do things and you may hear a song that sparks an idea.
I have a ton of artists, publicists and publishers send me things in advance too: “I need your opinion on these three songs.” Or an artist may say, “Will you look at this video and tell me if you can do anything?” I thoughtfully go through those, send to the team, and come up with ideas. It’s a lot, but I feel like people are reaching out and I need to get back to them.
You’ve worked with so many different artists in both rock and country. Who has made a big impression on you?
I was in Atlanta, and Elton John lives there part-time. He’s a huge music fan and he’d always go to Tower Records. He knew more about new music than any of us, all genres, and he’d call the request line if he heard something to ask who it was. He’d come on our morning show from time to time and we’d have a keyboard in the studio and he’d hang out and play music and invite us over to his place. He was really gracious. The thing I can say about him, is A) He knew so much about new music and still does, and B) what he did for the community. He’d send a baby grand piano to a local artist. People don’t know those stories about him and how much he helped artists who may be struggling, because he was struggling at one time. I had an opportunity to see him last year in Nashville, and we went back and were talking about the old days in Atlanta, and the first thing he said to me? “Guess who my favorite album of the year is? Brandi Carlile’s!” One again, just on top of his game.