Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Frontman: John Crooke takes gift for commanding an audience into corporate music world

by Chuck Gordon

John Crooke ’90 has an impulsive streak. Or maybe he just knows when the universe is trying to tell him something. Either way, the trajectory of his life has been radically altered on more than one occasion by a nearly on-the-spot decision.

The moment thatCrooke realized his rock ’n’ roll dream was – if not over, then at least in need of a reboot – remains crystal clear, 16 years after the fact. Crooke and his band at the time, Jolene, had just finished a rousing set at the famous Borderline club in London, in support of their fourth album, “The Pretty Dive,” and he was feeling both exhilarated and pensive.

“We were literally on stage in London to a sold-out house,” he recalls. “In the bowels of the club, in the dressing room by myself after the last song – it was encore after encore – I just remember having the feeling that this is all I ever wanted to do, but I’m going to have to reinvent myself. This might be the last show that we play.”

Jolene had released one major-label album, had toured the world and had made some compelling, hard-to-pigeonhole southern alt-rock in the half-dozen years they had been together. But Crooke, by now approaching his mid-30s and a veteran of the music industry, could tell the band was at a turning point.

So, just like that, they called it quits.

“Nobody was mad,” he says. “It was just one of those things where the last thing that I wanted was to end up at 50, playing for 35 bucks on a Tuesday night in Gaffney. I could just feel it.”

Crooke and the band flew back to the States, and less than a month later he got a job offer with the Charlotte-based design firm Shook Kelley, at their new office in Los Angeles. It was an office job, but it came at a crucial point in Crooke’s life. He took the gig and, ever since, L.A. has been his home base as he has climbed the corporate ladder. These days, instead of creating the chords and harmonies and cryptic lyrics himself, Crooke is taking the music created by others and packaging it for a new audience: coffee lovers, clothes hounds and travelers.

As vice president for global brand development with PlayNetwork, a company best known for curating music and creating original content for global retail brands, Crooke helps shape the creative and music strategy for brands like Starbucks, Levi’s, Adidas, NYX, Gap and Marriott ,.

It’s a gig he has found himself ideally suited for. And in a way, he’s still performing – only now, his stage is a boardroom.

R.E.M. redux

John Crooke’s early performing days involved squeaky gym floors and no-look passes, not distorted guitars and catchy riffs. Crooke, who “grew up a sand wedge from Sanders-Sikes Gymnasium,” is royal-blooded Wingate. His grandfather was C.C. Burris, longtime president of the institution who helped save Wingate Junior College from financial ruin after the Great Depression.

Still, despite his lineage, Crooke had his eye on larger schools, where he was hoping to play basketball. He’d been a standout point guard at nearby Forest Hills High School, and he knew he wanted to continue playing at the next level. After making college visits and talking to coaches, Wingate appeared to be his best bet. “I wanted to play hoops, and I felt like at the time I probably had more of an opportunity to play at Wingate,” he says.

The transformation of Crooke the athlete into Crooke the musician is familiar to any fan of Hardsoul Poets or Jolene. As Crooke tells it, he was playing pickup basketball at Helms Dormitory one day during his freshman year when the ball sprung loose from the group of players. When the energetic Crooke bounded over to retrieve it, something caught his eye in a nearby garbage bin: A cassette of R.E.M.’s third album, “Fables of the Reconstruction.” He pocketed the tape and went back to playing ball.

From the first listen, Crooke was hooked. Essentially, he knew he wanted to be in a band, and before long he was in head coach Steve Hudson’s office, telling him he was quitting the team. Crooke called a few friends and formed a band called The Delegates, which morphed into The Beatnics, featuring Chris Michael, Brannon Helms and Tim Hilton.

Crooke had always had a love for music. He was a drummer in a band as early as elementary school. “He was second, third grade or something,” says Michael, who was in middle school at the time. “We had to put stuff over his snare because he played so loud.”

That band last only two gigs, but Crooke’s later creations had more staying power. The Beatnics eventually morphed into the Hardsoul Poets, a band much loved in Charlotte that stayed together for over 8 years in some form or fashion, touring up and down the East Coast.

Crooke was encouraged by his Wingate professors to follow his rock ’n’ roll dreams. “In my core of a clumsy 18-year-old who was trying to play basketball, I think (former communications professor) Walter Woodson recognized that there was an artist somewhere in there and encouraged it early on,” Crooke says.

Crooke persuaded Woodson to let him write an end-of-year paper on R.E.M., from a business standpoint. “I said a band is a business. A band has four people who are the board of directors, and they have a product and a service they have to take out to an audience, and they have to go on the road to do that. They have profit and loss and income and outgoings,” he says. “He was like, ‘Do it, man. Write it.’ You’re not going to get that kind of runway at a bigger school.”

Eventually, the Poets begat Jolene in 1995 – by which point Crooke was the only remaining member from the Beatnics genesis – and that band ultimately signed with major label Sire Records and cultivated its own loyal following.

Jolene was definitely a rock band, but whereas the Hardsoul Poets leaned toward pop, Jolene incorporated more country elements into its sound, placing it at least near the “Americana” genre.

Critics were for the most part favorable. “All I wanted was for someone to hear it and go, ‘That is awesome. I can’t articulate why that moves me, but I love it,’” Crooke says. “And there were a few of those.”

There were also a few detractors. And with a major-label album, In the Gloaming, on record-store shelves – yes, in 1998 there were still physical stores where CDs, cassettes and LPs were sold – the critics on both sides were more prominent.

“When In the Gloamingcame out, Mojoor Qor one of those Brit magazines compared us to the second coming of R.E.M.,” Crooke says. “The same week, in another publication, the opening thing was, ‘The worst thing about Jolene’s In the Gloamingis Crooke’s incessant caterwauling.’ Two extremes. They both were hearing the same thing, but this guy hated us to the point where we were so insignificant, and a quality magazine writes that these guys might figure out the next coming of R.E.M. ‘They’ve got the formula that no one’s doing.’ And really where it lies is somewhere in the middle.”

Office job

Jolene also lay somewhere in the middle sales-wise, never quite taking off the way comparable bands R.E.M., Wilco and even Hootie and the Blowfish did. Sensing that the tide might never turn in Jolene’s favor, especially with the advent of file-sharing services such as Napster, the band called it quits.

“There wasn’t a lot of opportunity beyond touring and making a record by a major label in the conventional way,” he says. ‘It’s hard to sustain a career. So it was as much a business decision as it was a life decision. It was just time.”

Michael is stumped as to why neither Hardsoul Poets nor Jolene quite made it to the big time. “He had the drive,” he says of Crooke. “He had the talent. He had the voice. He had the chops. He had everything. Why Hardsoul Poets didn’t push through, I don’t know.”

Crooke became a brand strategist for Shook Kelley – a job for which nothing on his resume should have prepared him. “I mean, my first job as an adult – my very first job that wasn’t washing dishes in Marshville at the Palomino restaurant – was when I took that gig in Los Angeles,” he says.

Shook Kelley was an ideal landing spot for someone who had never had an office job. Crooke had met Shook Kelley founding partner Kevin Kelley on the Charlotte music scene and had subsequently done side work for him, scouting out what was hot during his global touring and writing trend reports. Crooke says, “I would come back and say, ‘Hey, I was in East Berlin. This is what they’re listening to, these are the shoes they’re wearing, this is what’s going on. I went to this cool Indian martini concept.’”

Kelley knew that Crooke didn’t have a business background – Crooke majored in communications at Wingate – but he also knew that he was a leader and an artist. “I can teach you the business, because you know how to get in front of people,” he told Crooke. “You’re not afraid of a room. You know how to take creative thought and turn it into a lyrical idea that people can rally around.

“At the time I was just going on gut,” Crooke says. “Credit to Kevin Kelley. He knew that I had that. He wasn’t afraid of throwing me into a situation, because he knew that I could paint myself out of a corner, so to speak.”

Shook Kelley specializes in urban planning, design and branding. Twenty years ago, it had the vision of what Charlotte’s South End could become when the area was still just a collection of derelict warehouses. It even placed its own headquarters there and helped reinvent that section of the city.

In 2002, just as Crooke was parachuting out of the rock ’n’ roll world, Kelley opened a Shook Kelley office in Los Angeles, persuading Crooke to join him. Crooke completed one last rock ’n’ roll obligation – serving as tour manager for the band Longwave, which was opening for the Strokes in Europe – and then joined Shook Kelley, learning on the fly as Shook Kelley pitched retail strategies to national companies. “I was one day on stage at Brixton Academy with the Strokes tour,” Crooke says, “and 30 days later I was in a boardroom with the president of the New York Jets.”

Crooke leaned on the communication skills he learned at Wingate and on the confidence developed as a basketball point guard and rock-band frontman to relay Shook Kelley’s vision of a company’s brand identity. “I think I had that fearlessness and sort of blind confidence to make it happen,” he says.

Confident salesman

Eventually, Crooke tried to incorporate more of his true passion, music, into what Shook Kelley was doing. He proposed developing what he calls an “experiential music design element” at the firm, but it wasn’t a perfect fit.

So, he teamed up with some other musician friends and developed a small, boutique music-design firm but signed only a few clients. “We barely got it off the ground,” he says.

“That was my entrepreneur side,” Crooke adds. “That was me going, ‘I just want to start a band.’ I want to build. I have an entrepreneurial spirit I just tapped into. ‘I’ve got a band now. Me, Chris, Brannon and Reid (Mansell). What are we going do? Well, we’ve got to get gigs. I’m going to be the booking guy. Get a fake name, call from a different number and I’m going to get us gigs.’”

“John could sell anything,” says Michael, who was in Hardsoul Poets from 1987 to 1991. “He was always very influential. He was always the guy who you would go, ‘John, you talk to them.’ He was very confident. The rest of us, not so much.”

That confidence and willingness to take chances saw Crooke through a difficult patch early this decade. He left Shook Kelley for another firm, where he stayed for two years before the firm was bought out.

“Within about six months they shut us down and fired everybody,” Crooke says. “I had no job. I had just bought a house. My wife (Dianna) was pregnant. The competitive side of me said, ‘No. This is not going to happen.’ I told Dianna, ‘Not only will I have my next job in the next 30 days. I will have thejob in the next 30 days.’”

Crooke tapped into his network of contacts and wound up landing a job as an assistant producer at Channel M, which produced video content for retailers such as Macy’s and Nordstrom. Crooke didn’t know much about video editing. “I faked it till I made it,” he says.

Crooke was also dealing with record labels at Channel M and realized, from his brand-strategy days at Shook Kelley, that Channel M was lacking in a real defined content-strategy approach. “So I started drifting into driving content strategy for our retail clients on the video side,” he says.

A year or so later, Channel M was acquired by PlayNetwork, which saw Crooke as more than just a video editor. He quickly advanced up the company ladder.

“I knew retail,” he says. “I knew design. I knew the physical store environment. I knew brand strategy. I knew how to build a brand strategy around music and apply the same principals I used at Shook Kelley. And I had music chops. I knew I could get into a room and drive ideas.”

PlayNetwork creates the curated music collections you hear as you sip coffee in Starbucks or try on sweaters in the Gap. Its list of clients is a who’s who of global retail: Adidas, Levi’s, Hilton Hotels, Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret, REI, Urban Outfitters, Converse, Marc Jacobs, L’Oreal, Nike. “We have a group of guys and gals across the world and all day long they are ears in the headphones and speakers curating music for every single one of our brands,” Crooke says.

Crooke plays a couple of roles with Play. He runs A440, Play Network’s internal brand and content-marketing studio, which makes sure that a customer’s “brand experience” is consistent across a Play client’s stores, apps, digital channels, mobile and other outlets.

And as vice president of global brand development, Crooke is responsible for articulating the brand strategy for Play’s clients, finding himself in board rooms from LA to London and once again getting to play the frontman, 15 years after his rock ’n’ roll days ended.

“I get to go get on a plane and be on tour for a week,” he says. “I get to scratch that itch.”

And he jams occasionally with friends, former members of the Bangles, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Longwave. It’s not world touring, and it’s not dreaming of platinum albums and rock stardom. But Crooke is more than content with his life in Northeast L.A’s.

“I’m extraordinarily happy,” he says. “I’m immeasurably happy with my life.”

  • Alumni Spotlight