Catching Up With Former Taylor Swift Manager Rick Barker

This article was originally published on 11/20/2014 by Joe Reinartzon on Pollstar here.

Now that Taylor Swift has gone from being one of the biggest stars in music to one of the most recognizable names in the world, period, it got us thinking: What happened to the manager who helped her get here? 

Swift has had plenty of people who can lay claim to her success, from the executives at Big Machine Records to two major agencies and a sharp promoter to an active publicity network to her own mom and dad. But back in 2007, when we talked to her and her then-manager, Rick Barker, it was Barker who built a business plan that seemed concise, but just really hard to do.

It laid the groundwork for what Swift would become. When Barker was the West Coast regional rep for Big Machine, he told Swift if she wanted to sell 500,000 albums, she’d need to meet 500,000 people.

“He was the first one to ever say that to me and it sunk in,” she told Pollstar. She played everywhere – from an ACM board meeting to Pollstar's office (or at least tried to) – and did marathon meet and greets long before she held that famous daylong event at Bridgestone Arena

“One of the things that Taylor is insistent upon is that they’re not rushed,” Barker told Pollstar at the time. “You know, they obviously can’t spend five or 10 minutes individually but she never wants to make them feel like it’s a cattle call.”

Even then, Swift would sign for nearly four hours after a show was done. “One time, they shut down the venue and we brought everyone outside,” Barker said. “I held a flashlight to her face so people’s camera phones would work. There were 300 people lined up. If she starts something, she doesn’t stop until it’s completely finished.

“Basically they leave there with that picture, that autograph, that memory and they share it with everybody that they know. If they have a bad experience with it, they share the same thing.”

Barker quietly became Swift's manager but, within a year after we talked to him, the two parted ways. Over the years, we've heard compliments from industry professionals about him but he didn't seem to reemerge. After contacting several people for information, we had no choice but to type “Rick Barker” into Google to see what came up.

He was the first result: the founder of “Music Industry Blueprint,” an online course in career building for anyone interested in the Music Industry. So we called him.


Anything you'd like to say, right off the bat?

Just that I don't take any credit for Taylor's success. She hasn't changed her strategy from the first day she and I sat in my red Suburban, along with her mom, and started our radio tour in San Diego. She told me, “I want to be the biggest star in the world.” Her strategy was to go out and meet as many people as she possibly could. She says in the liner notes of her first CD, “Everything I learned about radio I learned in the back seat of Rick's truck.”

I'm so proud of her for staying true to who she is and staying true to her plan.

There has been discussion here in the office that her mom was her real manager.

In reality Taylor has always been her own manager, and as I had the “title” of manager, I was blessed to be a part of a great team. I can tell you one of the coolest things ever was having Taylor thank me from the stage after winning an award and watching my email and phone light up with people asking if I was really that Rick Barker.

But everybody would love to lay claim to some of her success.

Of course they would. You know what's funny, a couple years ago when there was a lawsuit and the headline read, “Taylor's first manager is suing her,” everybody was calling me, asking me if I was crazy and what happened. I told them it wasn’t me; there was this guy named Dan Dymtrow who used to be with Britney Spears that was actually her first “manager” before she was ever signed. The funny thing is, the articles would say his name, but would link people to your article, with my name in it! I was teasing Scott [Borchetta of Big Machine], saying I should sue the people who were making everyone think it was me.

So what happened?

In 2007, I was gone 185 days. I was managing her while living in California. I would drive from Santa Barbara to L.A., catch a plane, land in Nashville, and catch a bus, tour for four days and then fly back. My kids were 4 and 2 at the time. I thought, “Holy crap. I'm about to make more money than I've ever made in my life but it's going to go out in alimony and child support if I continue with this schedule.” When we started, neither one of us knew the business. We learned this as we went along. I learned touring from Louis Messina. I learned everything about being a manager, by actually being a manager and by being out on the road.

And as Taylor's star was continuing to grow, I realized that ship wasn't slowing down. It was actually going to be more than I could handle. The plan was to build this team around her but in the end I decided I didn't want to be on the road and, honestly, she needed somebody with more experience. It wasn't the right fit for where I was in my life. I didn't want to end up divorced with kids who didn't know their dad. So, in 2008 after the Grammys, we parted ways. In June of that year, I relocated the family from Santa Barbara to Nashville. I felt that if I got here I'd have a chance to do something special and I also wanted to raise my kids in the South.

I was immediately contacted by Joe Galante at Sony and was blessed to have been offered a job as a consultant at Sony Music for a couple years. At the same time I opened a management company. I signed some artist and then I realized there is so much work on the front end as a manager and there may never be a back end to that. I had artists signed to publishing deals, signed to major labels, and I even had artist signed and dropped from Big Machine. I had an inside view of what was happening. Labels starting asking for control of the artist online properties, as the artist saw that as a way of freeing up their time.

I, on the other hand, saw that as the start of the separation between the artist and their fans. Since Taylor we haven’t really seen an artist authentically connect with and maintain touch with their audience through social media. So now I'm teaching people how to do that and to remember why social media was invented in the first place – as a way for friends to stay connected. It wasn't a place to sell stuff, but that's what happened. The labels realized they could promote to the artists' friends and handed that off to the publicity department. All of a sudden, people ran from MySpace.

The same thing happened at Facebook, and people stopped engaging there also. I am not blaming anyone; it is just we need to spend more time learning psychology and less time digital marketing. All I'm trying to say is, “OK, artist. Look at the biggest star in the frigging world right now and what does she continue to do? She uses her social media as a way to engage her fans and maintain the trust and friendship she has kept over the years. Learn from that.” But it pains me when they all want to chop her down.

Can you elaborate?

Yeah, everybody likes to think her daddy bought her this or, because they had money, that happened. It's all bullshit. There's no shortage of daddies with money with daughters who sing. If that's the magic pill, why don't we have a 1,000 Taylor Swifts?

Right. That company – ARK Music Factory – that attracts Rebecca Black and others …

And that's the thing! If that's the secret, if it's, “Well, she has Scott Borchetta on her team,” then great. Not every artist on Big Machine Records has gone on to Taylor's success. “Oh, well, she had the best players on her record.” Great. Well, those players have played on other people's records, too. So why don't they have Taylor's success? Why? Because they don't have Taylor Swift's work ethic. You cannot teach that. Everybody thought, “Oh, shit. We'll just show up to Nashville with our daughter dressed in a sundress and cowboy boots. That's the secret!” That wasn't the secret. The secret is Taylor cared so much about her fans and she used her music as a way to do research, then sold that music to her friends. Most other artists record an album, try to sell it to strangers, then wonder why it doesn't sell. That's because people forgot how to build relationships. Not Taylor!

So talk “Music Business Blueprint.”

I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I'm a great observer. I've never known an artist that was dropped for selling too many records but I know many who had Top 10 songs followed by their next single that didn't perform as well and got dropped. If chart position isn't the end-all, be-all, why is it the main focus and where all the money is being spent in this town? If the fans make everybody happy, why are they the last thing we build?

We're the only industry that will send an unqualified person into the marketplace with a $500,000 investment and that person gets fired when it doesn't work. It's absolutely crazy. Everything starts with the music but we need to start falling in love with the person who is going to deliver that music. We need to prepare them for these opportunities, to find out if they have the work ethic.

That's where I put my focus. We are in a business that creates more content than any other industry in the world but we are getting our butts handed to us online. I wanted to find out why, so I learned from the best online marketers in the world that had nothing to do with music. I found out there were these real estate marketers building massive email lists by giving away free white pages on how to close your mortgage in seven days.

Then they sell their weekend seminars and make millions. I thought, “Wait a minute! We've got content. We've got people who can build relationships. Why don't we start doing that?” But nobody seemed to understand that side so I started focusing on it. I've made it my mission to go out and become a great resource for the managers, labels and independent artists. I want to be the guy who teaches artists how to be artists, how to engage their fans, how to build relationships at radio. How to take advantage of the opportunities that they may have. That is my place in this crazy business. I'm not out looking for the next artist where I do a lot of work on the front end and they decide they don't want to work anymore, or money wasn't coming fast enough so I never make a dime. I'm providing education.

So you are focusing on education.

People are spending $150,000 to come to some of these schools to get degrees for jobs that don't exist. They're spending hours learning theory and history of an industry that has changed. More time needed to be spent on how to survive in the digital age in my opinion. So I decided to create an education platform where I will teach people from my real-life experiences. I will teach them by doing. I'll go out and create case studies from independent artists.

And you know what? Yay, I was with Taylor Swift. Congratulations to me. That's why a lot of people will listen to me but ultimately they want to know what I can do for them. Taylor on my résumé will get them to pay attention but I better be able to deliver for them.

And that's what I pride myself in: being able to deliver. Music Industry Blueprint has 300 clients in 16 countries in nine different genres of music. Artist-to-fan engagement is the same no matter what genre.

I don't teach people how to write; I find great writers. I don't focus teaching people how to perform; there's Tom Jackson for that. I don't want to be the expert on everything; I want to know the experts on everything. One of the big problems in our industry is there are a lot of unqualified people calling themselves artist development experts who have never developed an artist. They've never had success in this digital age. A lot of parents and kids were getting taken advantage of. It begins with the first person you meet, so I created a path with free content to warn people about pitfalls. I ended up doing a video blog called “25 Minutes To Nashville” that became a book I co-authored with Wade Sutton, “The $150,000 Music Degree.”

Who are your students?

Some of the artists I'm excited about are people like Maddy Newton. When I met Maddy, she was doing makeup tutorials online. Now she's killing it online. She's beautiful, she's a great singer, she's a hard worker, she's consistently doing her YouTube videos and she's engaging on social media.

She’s positioned herself for the right opportunity. Another artist I’m excited about is Jessta James. Jessta is brilliant. This guy is an amazing writer, rapper and is building his own fan base.

I am also very excited about a young artist named Cali Rodi. She is the real deal. I’m just putting them in learning situations, in small groups, where we can prepare them for the opportunities that become available. I’ve been able to make great relationships with the publishing and songwriting community. Publishers are critiquing the songs of Blueprint members. We have No. 1 award-winning songwriters contributing. I don’t agree with “being in the right place at the right time.” I’ve watched too many unqualified people be in the right place at the right time and miss out. I want them to be the right person at the right place at the right time.

Do you believe in the standard model of getting a record label, an agent, a manager and … ?

I think the days of getting in front of the Star Makers has passed us by. There was a time when, if you had the right producer, manager, attorney, you were guaranteed a shot. Not anymore. The fans are the Star Makers! It's not hard to get a record deal; it's hard to keep it. At the beginning of your career, everybody looks at the chart that comes out on Monday, the BDS chart. But, ultimately, it's the Wednesday chart – Nielsen SoundScan – that saves your career. If you've got great radio success and no audience to purchase the music, the numbers won't add up.

And we have seen how that movie ends. I say you grow a hungry audience first, then feed them.

You just tweeted links to Swift's Time magazine article.

I read that article yesterday on MSN. I thought she made many fantastic points, like, “Hey, I'm sorry I haven't disappointed a lot of people by being a knucklehead.” She said, “I was more afraid of letting down my mom, my dad, my team, my kids if I ever have them.” She has always been a badass and I am still a huge fan. Every time she releases a CD, people will call me and ask what I think about it. I say, “Does it matter what I think? The fans are loving it.” Create what your fans want. And if you're having conversations with them, you'll find out what they want.

That's what I liked about that particular article. I've read about three I've really enjoyed, even posting the Pollstar article on Facebook as part of Throwback Thursdays. It's amazing I'm still teaching things we talked about in the article. She wanted a gold record, so she met 500,000 people. People laughed at her and I in the beginning. Here's this 16-year-old kid and a guy who came from small town radio. But they weren't laughing in the end. Now she's changing the game. I'm so proud of her and I don't take any credit. We both wanted to learn and we taught each other a lot of things. She was amazing to learn from and I'm honored to have been a part of it. She did the work.

You're a consultant for Big Machine.

I'll help get some of their artists ready for radio tours. I love it. Scott and I have a great relationship. He needs something, he calls me and vice versa. When Big Machine started, I think we had like14 employees. Now they have around 90. It's been fun to watch it grow and to see the changes he has brought to the industry as a whole.

Do you think country music does some things better than other genres?

I would say in giving the fans access to the artist. Country music is not a phase, it is not something you grow out of, so your fans have the ability to stay with you longer. What attracted me to country music was the fan engagement. At the CMA Music Fest, people would just converge on Nashville and the artists would get to hang out and get to know their fans. Taylor said in a recent article she loved starting in country because she learned fan interaction.

Do you think there's anything in country music that is going in the wrong direction?

Not just in country music but in music in general. Too much emphasis is being put on the contest shows. These shows are contests, the only people capitalizing on the exposure and making money are the judges and sponsors. It is time to take the millions of views and these 16-week commercials and break more artists. I'm a huge fan of “The Voice.” It has the best coaches teaching vocal stage and performance and unbelievable opportunity for indie artists, but why isn’t anyone teaching the contestants how to take advantage of that exposure before the show starts airing?

As we have learned, having Carson Daly send people to iTunes every night has generated a tremendous amount of downloads but, once that luxury is gone, we have seen what happens: Sales stop and the artist has no one to reconnect with that audience. I would love to meet with the producers and share with them an idea I have that I think would be a win/ win for all involved. I'd do it for nothing. I'd sit down with every contestant and show them how to take advantage and build email lists and relationships from the exposure and how to turn that into a career.

Final thought?

This is the best time ever to be in the music industry. You have access to the consumer 24/7/365 with no gatekeepers. Let’s teach the artist about the business before they get their record deal, not after. I know what my role is in this business. I would love to be that option for labels and executives in helping determine before they make a substantial investment in an artist if they have the mindset to do the work it is going to take. And then if they do, show them the next steps to being an artist. I have met too many folks that just want to be famous. I always tell them “If you just want to be famous, do a sex video, put it online, it might go viral, you might wind up with a fragrance, a reality show and marry a rapper. Who knows? But if you want a long career in the music business you need fans, and it will take time and it will be hard work, but it will be so worth it.”