By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 19, 2009 at 8:21 AM

Violent Femmes, BoDeans, Al Jarreau ... these are the kinds of names we think of when we think of Milwaukee's contribution to the music business on a national level.

But others contribute too. There are lesser-known members of other bands and people who work behind the scenes, too, like Milwaukee expat Cheryl Pawelski, who is VP of A&R at Rhino Entertainment.

But you've likely never heard of one of the most powerful Milwaukee-area natives in the music business. Peter Gray was born and raised in Cedarburg, went to UWM -- although he got his degree elsewhere in Wisconsin -- and is senior vice president of pop promotion at RCA Music Group, working with the likes of Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys and Kelly Clarkson, and hanging around with legendary music power brokers like his mentor, Clive Davis.

We took note in these pages when Gray was promoted to his current post back in May, and we decided you ought to know more about this influential Milwaukee fella who helps shape America's pop music tastes.

Gray was hired by RCA in 2002 as senior director, Top 40 promotion and became vice president two years later and was moved from L.A. to New York. 

"Peter is truly an exceptional individual, an inspiring music executive, and a good friend," Gray's boss, RCA's executive VP of promotion Richard Palmese, said when the promotion was announced. "His passion for music is complemented by his outstanding commitment to winning. Peter has distinguished himself as a leader in the RCA Music Group fold and has earned the complete admiration and respect of his peers. He is as intelligent as he is inspiring, and I am thrilled to now have Peter working alongside of me implementing and directing our promotion campaigns within all pop formats. This is an exciting moment for both Peter and the RMG family." 

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with RCA Music Group's Peter Gray. Peter, tell us a little about your Milwaukee-area background. Where did you grow up and go to school?

Peter Gray: I grew up in Cedarburg, and graduated from CHS in '92. I started college at UW-Milwaukee and finished at UW-Stout. My parents live in Mequon, and my sister's family is in Hartford.

OMC: How did you get your start working the music industry? Do you have a musical background or a business background or both? Maybe neither?

PG: I landed an internship at A&M Records in Hollywood out of college. I was home over the holiday break during my last year visiting family friends, and it turned out, quite randomly, that the host of a party knew someone at A&M. They introduced us over the phone, and I flew to the coast the next day to interview in person. I got the job and started in June after graduation.

Please forgive the indulgence, but I must add that while writing this, I learned that the host of that party, Hersh Rand of Fox Point, passed away. I'll always look back on that night as the first step in my career, so this feels like an appropriate place to say thanks one more time -- and God bless Hersh and his incredibly cool wife, Toot.

I certainly didn't have a business background at that point, but music had been a part of daily life as long as I could remember. My dad was a naturally talented saloon-style pianist, and my mom could sing the phone book. My sister and I grew up in a house -- and cars -- with a lot of music, and A LOT of singing. I picked up the guitar in middle school and still pick one up almost every day. I sang in choirs and musicals in school and played guitar in bands throughout college. 

My most vivid memories growing up all involve music, so clearly the musical background was a powerful and guiding force.

OMC: So, how did you get from that internship to New York where you are now senior VP of pop promotion at RCA Music Group?

PG: After the internship in L.A., it was off to Chicago to continue my work for A&M. I met my first mentor there who aligned me with a powerful independent promotion firm -- 'indie' as they say in the business -- in Cincinnati.  We packed our bags for Ohio, and enjoyed a great four-year chapter there where I really started to get into the game -- liasing between radio stations and record companies.

There we're many opportunities to join labels at that time, but I was focused on finding my way onto Clive Davis' team. Clive's long-time head of promotion, and dear friend, Richard Palmese answered my prayers with an opportunity to join the newly merged RCA Music Group -- RCA and J Records -- in 2002 as director of national Top 40 promotion West Coast.

So, my wife Amy and I packed up the cat once again and headed for Santa Monica.

I've been with RMG since, and have grown into several new roles, VP West Coast Top 40 promotion, VP Top 40 promotion -- which triggered a move to headquarters in NYC -- and most recently Senior Vice President Pop Promotion, overseeing and administrating all mainstream radio formats.

OMC: It sounds glamorous but I suspect there's a lot of very unglamorous stuff required. What's your job like on a basic level?

PG: There are indeed some glamorous and rewarding moments, but the primary function of a record label's promotion department is to secure radio airplay for its artists. We rely on our relationships with music programmers at all contemporary radio formats, nationwide -- Top 40, Urban and Urban Adult, Hot AC and Mainstream Adult, Rhythm, Alternative, Active Rock, Rap, Dance, College radio, Smooth Jazz, etc. Our partnership with radio is paramount to breaking new acts, as well as keeping superstar artists in the eyes and ears of their fans and the music buying public.

The daily grind of promotion is really two-fold:  First, you have to get the songs played on the radio. In some cases this is easy and in others a real chore. Second, you have to monitor your play constantly, which is a very competitive and strategic mathematical game.

Each radio station is monitored by some combination of satellites, remote transponders and human ears. Each song is 'fingerprinted' so that once any of the above monitors hears the hook of a song, that play gets registered as a detection, or spin. All the spins are tabulated two ways -- by station, so I can see all the songs one station is playing -- and by song, so I can see all the stations playing a particular cut. Finally, all the spins are aggregated into the weekly chart that shows up in Billboard -- that's the report card.

I work closely with a staff of regional and national promotion executives to ensure that our songs reach the top of the charts, a space that commands a wide weekly audience.

Aside from those nuts and bolts, there is a lot of time spent listening to new music with the A&R department, seeing new and developing acts as they prepare to be plugged into the mainstream, and of course, connecting our artists and their images and brands with their supporting radio stations.  

Most importantly, though, is a lot of time on the road listening to and visiting stations, a lot of time on the phones persuading programmers to play my songs.  This gig is all about hustle ... none of the other stuff matters if you can't close.

OMC: You helped make stars of people like Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, David Cook, Alicia Keys, Gavin DeGraw and Leona Lewis. Who are you currently working that you think has a long-term future and will make a big impact? 

PG: Kings of Leon are breaking wide open as I write this. They've steadily developed into one of the biggest bands on the planet, and are now enjoying a very powerful crossover from rock radio to adult and pop radio which will put them in front of a gigantic new audience.

Many are calling them the new U2.  Whether or not that will come true I can't say, but I will bet you a bratwurst that they'll end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

OMC: Hopefully, we'll all be around to see it! Are you a fan of the music you promote and is that beside the point?

PG: Sometimes yes, sometimes no; but it IS beside the point. We're not here to identify our favorite songs, we're here to amass audience for our artists and their music.  

We liken ourselves to the Marine Corps, as we're often the first boot on the ground in the fight for a new artist to be heard.  When we get our orders, we march into battle.

I try to follow the "don't get high on your own supply" rule, because they can't all be hits -- but it certainly helps when you legitimately dig a song or artist.

OMC: Who are your favorite performers, regardless of whether you work them or not?

PG: My all-time favorite band has always been, will likely always be Extreme. I just saw them last night here in New York City, and they just keep getting better and better as the years pass. I certainly understand that they are an acquired taste, and that many only know -- or recall -- them from the mainstream success of "More Than Words," but I can assure you that this is an absolutely ferocious rock 'n' roll band with vast songwriting chops and an undeniable live show.

Off the company pier, though, I would still wait in the rain to see Foo Fighters any day of the week.

OMC: How do you view the challenges that the recorded music business faces these days? Do you see iTunes and Rock Band and these new frontiers as, for lack of a better term, friends or enemies?

PG: I've always felt that the challenges our industry has faced over the last decade are simply exciting opportunities to usher the business through its most important and impactful revolution to date.  The public's hunger for music is louder than ever, and the people currently working in the business are responsible for navigating through the storm and delivering systems to satisfy that hunger -- whether it's a physical or digital buyer -- a 10-year-old or an 80-year-old -- we need to make the impulse buy that music has always been a consistent, effortless and enjoyable experience.

iTunes and Rock Band are friends, to be clear -- the enemies are the ones working to give music away without paying the toll.  We just need more of them.  Nothing energizes an industry like competition, and nothing sells music like music, we just need more places for people to go to easily purchase their collection in the format they choose.

OMC: I'm a long-time music fan and record geek, so I generally prefer to have a CD or an LP with artwork, etc. Downloading feels too ephemeral, too insignificant to me sometimes. Do you think there will always be a market for tangible recorded music product or am I from a disappearing breed?

PG: Sadly, it's possible that our generation could be the last to appreciate staring at an album cover for hours on end, or arranging CDs alphabetically.

Music is now a digital medium, and the scales are tipping further as we speak. 

The good news is that the "impulse buy" nature of music is getting easier and more impulsive than ever. Music fans have unprecedented access to their favorite artists, and can spread the good word and work of their favorite band throughout their community or social network in an instant.

The viral effect of the new word of mouth may be hard to properly quantify, but rest assured that it is growing exponentially, and globally. 

The bad news is that CDs and vinyl may be tougher to find in the future. Worry not, there will always be a physical market to some degree. Music retailers know that people like you exist, and the savvy ones will find a way to get it to fans.  Those fans will just have to dig a little deeper to find their specific fix, be it vinyl, CDs, etc.  Once the niche fans find their outlet, they'll likely develop a loyal and lasting relationship with that retailer.

OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much? What are some of your favorite things to do here? Favorite restaurants?

PG: We try to make at least two trips a year. One for Summerfest and Fourth of July, and another over the holidays.

My first order of business after landing is always a trip to Tomaso's in Cedarburg. The pizza is the best anywhere, and the guy behind the bar looks just like he did when he used to kick us out when my friends and I were middle school punks. I absolutely adore that place.

These days, it's mostly family activities when we visit. Lots of parks, pools, time at the lakefront and trips to the (Betty Brinn) Children's Museum Downtown, which is really impressive.

I still dig the vibe around the Brady Street / Farwell neighborhood. Great pubs, great live music clubs.

OMC: Would you consider coming back to live and raise your family?

PG: Amy and I talk about it every time we're home in Wisconsin. We really do love the idea, but along with the privilege of my work comes the fact that our offices are in Midtown Manhattan and Beverly Hills, not Milwaukee. We'll likely watch our boys grow up on the East Coast, then find a way to call Wisconsin home later in life (at least in the summertime!).

That said, I might head home if there was an opportunity to take an active role in turning Summerfest into the global powerhouse it deserves to  be.

OMC: OK, give us one big tip ... who is the next big RCA star?

PG: An amazing girl called KE$HA.  She grew up in Nashville and is breaking out of Los Angeles. She is a true socal free spirit, a touch dangerous, and quite simply the coolest girl I've met in years -- her star is going to rise very quickly. Tune into 103.7 KISS FM to hear her first single 'TiK ToK' very soon.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.