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Talking With Leslie Lewis, GRAMMY Nominees and Ted Soundtrack Producer

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Leslie Lewis has had an active role as a record executive, producer, manager, recording artist, marketing executive, artists & repertoire executive, advocate, motion picture music studio executive, soundtrack music executive, and as the Director of the Producers & Engineers Wing.

She co-founded and continues to produce the successful GRAMMY Nominees album series -- which has achieved gold certified sales nearly ever year since inception in 1995. The albums have continued their success, with the 2011 and 2012 GRAMMY Nominees debuting at #4, tying the highest debut in the history of the series. In addition to producing the Nominees records, Leslie oversees marketing and promotion for the series and launched a variety of web-based initiatives with The Recording Academy and its sponsors to promote the GRAMMY brand through innovative online marketing.

In addition to the Nominees recordings, Leslie consulted for 19 Entertainment working with the contestants on American Idol Season Six, and lead in the development and implementation of marketing campaigns for GRAMMY Award winners Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band, Third Day, Switchfoot, Corinne Bailey Rae and the Oscar-winning soundtrack, Once.

Leslie is producing a variety of projects including the soundtrack record for Seth MacFarlane's first feature film Ted on Universal Republic Records. (The podcast version of this interview is available at Arts+Labs Innovation Central.)

Chris Castle: Today we are talking with record producer Leslie Lewis. Leslie, tell us a little about what you are working on?

Leslie Lewis: Right now I'm producing the Universal Republic soundtrack for Seth McFarlane's motion picture Ted and I run a label called GRAMMY Recordings for The Recording Academy. I produce all of the Academy's consumer releases including the GRAMMY® nominees record.

Chris Castle: I know that the nominees record has to run on a tight time frame given that it's an event-based release. How do you produce it and what are the challenges that you have to overcome?

Leslie Lewis: It is a compilation album of the top nominated recordings for each GRAMMY Awards season via a partnership that we have with the big four distributors that rotates every year. It's a worldwide release and we feature somewhere between 18 and 22 tracks depending on how many categories we can fit that year.

Chris Castle: It always seems like you work on an extraordinarily compressed time frame, how does that work?

Leslie Lewis: Yes, we don't really know which artists we need to clear for the album until the nominees are announced, and that's usually at the beginning of December or the end of November. At that point we have about ten working days to clear about 15 different categories having usually five nominees each.

Chris Castle: You have to clear about 70 tracks!

Leslie Lewis: Yes, in 10 working days, songs and recordings. The concept of this album is to give music fans and professionals all five nominated recordings in each category so they can listen to the nominees. That gives them an educated "snap shot" of each nominated recording, not just the recordings that win.

Chris Castle: So from a production point of view, on Dec. 1, you have to clear them all in ten days and then what happens after that?

Leslie Lewis: I have to simultaneously clear everything, and then I start putting together my wish list of sequences while I am simultaneously clearing the nominated artists. I do several sequences. Depending on who actually gets cleared, I pull the trigger to master and go into production.

Chris Castle: Who makes the money from sales of the record?

Leslie Lewis: Two of the music industry's primary charities are the beneficiaries, which are comprised of The Recording Academy's MusiCares and GRAMMY Foundation. We are partners with the four major distributors, and 50 percent of the net proceeds of this album benefit those charities.

Chris Castle: You're really kind of a one-woman army working on the sales plan for the nominees record long after the GRAMMY Awards telecast. How have the sales been in terms of configuration mix between physical and digital over the last five years?

Leslie Lewis: The nominees record historically has been a physical sales release, but we have been very focused on the digital consumer for years now. It has been challenging to engage that digital consumer to buy the nominees record, especially when they don't get a great golden embossed package! Plus they may already have some of the tracks purchased as singles. We have consistently improved our marketing and distribution tools for GRAMMY Recordings, and this year we were effective in raising our configuration mix from an average of 10 percent digital sales to about 17 percent today.

Chris Castle: You have pretty much doubled your digital sales this year, that's great! What did you do differently this year?

Leslie Lewis: I think traditionally everyone thought of the nominees record as a soundtrack to the GRAMMY Awards. Historically, we release two to three weeks before the GRAMMY Awards telecast in February, so a lot of the marketing started in January. This year we decided to approach this a little differently. We have our special, "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live! -- Countdown To Music's Biggest Night"on CBS broadcast television in December where we announce the nominees. This year we created a campaign that launched during the nominations special on Dec. 1. At the same time I was learning who the nominees actually were for the album, we were already advertising a pre-order for the album that same day focusing on the album itself and not the artists who would appear on the album.

Chris Castle: What's your advertising message since you don't know the track listing at that point?

Leslie Lewis: We created artwork that's a generic version of what ultimately gets used, so it looked very similar except it didn't have any artist names on it. It reminded people that, no matter who's on it, the Nominees album will be the best music of the year. We created a campaign with that kind of advertising byline and then created tools that we added to the advertising of the pre-order. If you pre-ordered that album during that period you also had a chance to win tickets to attend the GRAMMY Awards. I also think it's about multiple impressions. We figured we would have a certain amount of press attention and also get focus from the audiences at home that watch the show, so we wanted to let them know that the album was coming.

Chris Castle: What were the social media or online channels you used to increase your digital sales?

Leslie Lewis: We did a number of things. Contests were a big help. Some of the contest companies we worked with said that the participation was unprecedented. We had quite a response! We had a great ratio of people who signed up for the chance to win tickets and who converted into a pre-order sale, so we were really happy with that. Secondly we used social media in a number of ways to engage the consumer, with an emphasis to engage a younger consumer as well. Traditionally with the physical market for the nominees record, we knew that our main demos have been in the 25 to 54 range. We wanted to try and engage a younger consumer who may already have a lot of these records. We tried to find ways to get them more excited about our record, so we created some tools for them.

Chris Castle: So you feel you are getting a good conversion ratio when you offer fans an opportunity to be more involved with the GRAMMY experience?

Leslie Lewis: In any given year, the nominees in certain categories obviously dictates a big portion of the shape of this album. This year we were fortunate enough to have diverse nominees like Skrillex. Having artists like that mixed in with Adele and some of the other favorites definitely helped us go into those artist's fan communities, where we have not been able to in the past. We aimed to get in front of the music connoisseurs as well as the general public. This is an industry charitable project and those professional communities of people are part of this. We list extensive credits so that people know who engineered or produced these albums as well as who the featured artists are.

Chris Castle: And you feel like you have expanded the demographic of the buyer of your record by your effective use of social media?

Leslie Lewis: Absolutely!