It takes grit to enter a music competition with 40,000 people. It takes talent to finish in the top 50! Jimmy Charles has both.

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I've hosted the Marketing Smarts podcast for five years, and never before has an interview made me cry, but listening to country music artist Jimmy Charles talk about his work on behalf of people battling cancer made my eyes well up.

In this special video episode, Jimmy talks about his beginnings in Ocean City, Maryland, launching his music career on television shows "Nashville Star" and "American Idol," and what it takes for an artist to rise above the noise at a time when every aspiring star can post their music online.

We also talk about his work as spokesperson for ZERO: The End of Prostate Cancer, as well as his new nonprofit, I Am Not Alone, an organization that supports people who are fighting all types of cancer.

WARNING: If you're a crier, keep some tissues handy. And even if you're not, maybe pull the box a bit closer.

Be sure to watch through to the very end to catch a glimpse of Hank, Jimmy's English bulldog!


Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

Sometimes, even when you lose, you win (01:30): "I remember that day, making it through all those different rounds, then continuing on in front of all those people. It was just such an exhilarating, exciting experience. And it really made me believe in myself. I watched all these musicians as I moved forward, and I saw the look in the producers' eyes, and I saw how close I came. Miranda Lambert was top 3, and look at her career. Chris Young, his career was sparked by Nashville Star. It just excited me. I started to believe in myself and I thought 'wow, this is something that I'm so passionate about.' But I never really believed that I could make it my living. But now I do. I was so proud to have made it that far."

Music distribution is changing, and success metrics need to change with it (02:46) "The game's definitely changing. It's constantly changing. Everything's going to streaming. It was downloads, at first, and now it's streaming, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora...and there's playlists. As I'm getting ready to release my next album, we're coming into it with a different approach, which is more streaming instead of downloading. Apple is pushing iTunes out the door and pushing everybody to Apple Music, so that's where we're going.

"It's great in one aspect—it's the ability for everyone to put their music out there and be discovered. But it also floods the market, and there's so much music out there now that sometimes it's hard to find out who's serious. But the bottom line is you have to step above the rest and continue to work hard, because you have so much competition behind you, every day."

Don't just talk at your fans, talk with them (04:44) "Staying in touch with your fans is extremely important, using social media. I can't tell you how many hours a day that I'm online promoting my events and also communicating with my fanbase. Not only letting them know what's to come and what we're doing and what's next, but talking with them, and keeping that relationship. Because without them, you don't have a career. It's super, super, super important. You hope to get on some great playlists and get your music out there so other people can discover it....

"It's really difficult, I have so many shows a week and I'm traveling. You have to promote those shows. If someone's in Maryland and I'm gonna be in California, why do they care that I'm playing in California? But you have to put it out there. But you also have to make sure you're making time to communicate if someone comments on it, you talk back to them. That's what your whole career is, it's [the fans]. You have to balance between personal things and promotional things and keep your audience engaged. If they don't feel important, they may stray away from you."

Nonprofit marketing isn't all facts and statistics: It's about people, and people have stories (06:18): "I have volunteered throughout my career at a lot of different organizations. I was volunteering with ZERO about four years ago, and I was going to help them with one of their big walk/runs in Baltimore that hosts about 5,000 people every year. They raise a half a million dollars or more every year for prostate cancer research, awareness, and education. They wanted me to come and perform. Then they called me back two weeks later and said, 'Would you be interested in writing a song that will bring awareness for men to get checked for prostate cancer?'

"I did some research and found a guy who was a mentor at Chesapeake Urology; his name's Phil Shulka [recovery coach and prostate cancer survivor]. I brought him to Nashville. I teamed up with my buddy Goose Gossett, and we sat down with him in a writer's room on Music Row and listened to Phil's story. What is it like to get that news? What is it like to find out that you have cancer? And he just talked for 45 minutes, and we took notes. And we came out with a song that really connects and tells the story of a survivor."


Research and awareness are key, but we also need to support people's emotional wellbeing as they battle cancer
(09:34): "What I've learned in my journey going to these walks and runs and communicating with survivors is that a lot of them hold a lot of stuff inside. As we continue to spend money for research, as we continue to bring awareness for education to help save lives, what I'm doing is reaching out to the survivors themselves and making sure 'Hey, while all that's going on, we gotta make sure that you're strong internally.' Because it's not just a physical battle. When they're getting the chemotherapy or the Lupron shots or the radiation, or whatever they might be going through, you've gotta be strong inside, emotionally, not just physically. So [nonprofit organization I Am Not Alone] is focusing on that."

To learn more, check out the JimmyCharlesMusic.com or follow Jimmy on Twitter: @jimmycharles92. Also be sure to support ZERO: The End of Prostate Cancer, and Jimmy's nonprofit, I Am Not Alone.

Jimmy and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.