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STATE OF THE STATE: JOHN ESPOSITO

John Esposito—affectionately known to all as Espo—is the first to tell you he’s as surprised as anyone to be running a Nashville country label. Right off the bat, he confesses, “I’m never shy about admitting on paper I have no qualifications for running a country label. I come from distribution, and other than a stint as GM of Island Def Jam, this is not what I do.”

He internalized the business philosophies of Mo Ostin, Ahmet Ertegun and Jac Holzman, then combined their perspectives, his passion for music and an uncanny ability to find solutions to take the label Blake Shelton calls home to new levels. One highlight was Dan + Shay’s bravura turn at the Grammys, where they won the Best Vocal Performance by a Country Duo or Group, then swept the Academy of Country Music Awards with Top Duo, Song and Single for the ubiquitous “Tequila.” Another was luring stadium-sized superstar Kenny Chesney to Warner Nashville. At the same time, Espo’s label is developing music-forward breakouts in the form of multiple Grammy nominee and ACM Top New Female Vocalist Ashley McBryde, double CMA Song and Best New Artist nominee Chris Janson and emerging songwriter/artist Ingrid Andress, whose “Lady Like,” “More Hearts Than Mine” and “Both” are catching attention.


You’re vocal about why you weren’t qualified, and yet it’s obviously working. What’s your strategy?
If the A&R people can sign great artists, my job is creating a platform to let the team all run in the same direction. The number-one goal I had was to not pretend to be a country A&R guy when I got here. I know my music passion, and I know that can fire people up. But really, I’m good at air-traffic control and hiring people—and that’s what I focused on. This place was known as the Artist Protection place, and I thought, “I’m going to have to fix that.” And it was hard.

How so?
Only four people are still here from when I got here. [EVP A&R] Scott Hendricks, [SVP A&R] Cris Lacey, [SVP Radio & Streaming] Kristen Williams and Rick Young, a regional who was tenacious, but no one would let him do his job.

So I went on the road—because I heard we were so shitty at radio—and I went to 85 stations. The message was loud and clear. “We put your records at the bottom of the pile because we know we’re not going to hear back from the Warner people.” These artists only get one shot. It’s easier for us, because we can—and must—move on to the next project. But for the artist, this is all there is. When you think of it like that...

And those artists?
Most of them are gone. Frankie Ballard is one of the ones who made it. But I remember thinking, “We’re gonna start with Blake.” I told the staff, “You all are going to march in the same order for Blake Shelton,” knowing we were going to have to put some numbers on the board to show ourselves we can do it.

And now?
We had historic revenues last year, and we’re on track to beat that this year. I thrive on this: a couple Grammy wins, the ACM success, artists breaking through, attracting superstars like Kenny Chesney—or Cody Johnson, who had a $5 million touring base in Texas and thought Nashville wasn’t for him; he’s just had his first Top 10 hit. This is very rarified air.

You’ve built a great team.
Now, we’ll win some battles because we’re so committed and so tenacious. People know we’re going to keep coming at you with passion. It’s throughout the building. And I’m proud of the makeup of this label: the right number of senior execs, but also really strong young people who are coming up and growing not just within the system but alongside this music.

It’s also safely been getting set up for the future. Cris and [EVP/GM] Ben Kline are now in place to drive our efforts on a profound level. Cris has as much credibility in the A&R world, not just in the U.S. but around the globe—and Ben knows which levers to push and press, when to heat things up. They’re an amazing team.

You’ve also merged your DSP people with the promotion department.
I was sitting on a beach in Nantucket, and I had an epiphany: 50% of our overhead was for terrestrial radio—and I don’t begrudge them—but that doesn’t reflect our revenue creation anymore.

Tim Foisset was our streaming person, and three years ago, I went, “Why would we not give him more support?” We wanted him to have more strength and be part of the larger picture. I was surprised we didn’t get more pushback from Country radio when we made the move, but it didn’t happen.

They may not have realized what it really meant. Plus, with the budgets for research shrinking...
Yes, now we hear, “I gotta look at the streaming numbers” from all the DMAs. And it’s working; “Tequila” was an amazing example of that. When it hadn’t cracked the Mediabase Top 50 and the streams were so massive, [radio] had to start adding it. That data we bring to radio is invaluable for all of us.

We have a two-person research-and- analysis team here; that’s all they do. And there’s nothing like the cold hard truth of the consumption numbers. We’re not looking for turntable hits. If nothing is happening, we get off the record. We’re not making people waste spins for the sake of a chart number.

That’s revolutionary.
You’re always three minutes away from being as genius. But I wanted our radio people to feel part of the story of streaming. Siloing all these things makes no sense to me, because working together they can create a stronger future. And they can use all this to help make informed decisions.

Radio agrees?
Some radio people embraced it immediately. At the iHeart Summit, there were 40-some reporters there. We showed them how we make the decisions and read the data. They gave us a standing ovation and said, “You’re the most transparent label we work with.” There are no steak dinners to get records played.

It sure worked for Dan + Shay.
We had such great expectations for them, but they went way beyond it. In 2017, we met with Jason [Owen, their manager] and said, “We need a plan to get people’s attention.” Then “Tequila” happened. The amazing vocals Shay brings to the party, then Dan’s production prowess beyond even the writing. We still have a long way to go with “All to Myself,” but we have a lot of plans to move them to the next level—because their music demands it.

Anyone new stand out?
I’m thrilled with how much traction we’ve gotten out of the box on Ingrid Andress, who’s writing from a woman’s place and driving her co-writes. She is very much her own artist, and a woman’s woman because of it. “Lady Like” is such a powerful song and video; we have 30 million streams for someone who’s had no real exposure.

Not to mention the build on Cody Johnson.
Eight years into a career with 300 million streams. Now he’s north of 420 million streams in the 10 months we’ve been involved. He felt “I just don’t need them” about the major labels, then he said, “I believe in Cris Lacy. I’ll try this.” His single just hit the Top 10.

And then there’s Blake.
When I heard “God’s Country,” I had the same reaction Blake did when he heard the demo. In its eighth week, it’s gold—and growing—consumption is up 90,000 every week. It’s on track to be his biggest song ever. I can spend a whole day talking about this. And I know what six songs we have in the bag for after “God’s Country.”

You have so much coming and so much going on.
We are having historic levels, and I feel like this party has just started. There’s new music coming from Kenny Chesney and Blake that will turn into albums that really matter. We have so many great young artists: Ashley’s ACM performance alone shows that she’ll go down in history as one of the most important voices in this format,

In my dinosaur days in distribution, we had 200-plus places we could get physical orders. Now we rely on five DSPs for a significant part of our business. But I believe water will seek its own level, and I’m ready for intrusion. If we focus on what A&R brings, I can categorically say I think we’ll release more music than ever. Maybe we’ll release more than two singles before we put albums out, or there may be four or five pieces of content.

There’s this idea that once an album is out or the music is released, that’s all there is. But I think the more music you release and build, you’re going to create a deeper bond where people want even more from the artist. To me, that’s the start of the real opportunity.

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