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STATE OF THE STATE: MIKE DUNGAN

Mike Dungan’s got bronchitis. He’s not sure where he picked it up, but the UMG Nashville head sounds very Barry White. Laughing about having to reschedule and still not being better, Arista Nashville’s onetime secret sales/marketing weapon acknowledges he can’t slow down.

Dungan has a thing for chainsaw bear sculptures. He’s a Yellow Dog Democrat who spends a great deal of time face-palming over how the South runs. He has a thing for the Opry’s long-ago Bologna Lady and has had random encounters with very famous people. But in big-picture terms, he’s the guy who folded Capitol Nashville into UMG—and minted star after star, seemingly without ruffling anyone’s feathers.

Whether it’s musical groundbreaker Keith Urban sweeping the CMA Awards; straight-up superstars Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood maintaining their velocity; critical standard setters Eric Church and Chris Stapleton dominating the road, sales and nominations; or Kacey Musgraves’ triumph at the Grammys, Dungan maintains, “If you look for different, don’t change it—you’d be surprised by what happens.”

With Jon Pardi’s third album poised to launch him into mass stardom, George Strait’s ongoing monarchy and Vince Gill’s deeply personal Okie, it looks like somebody better call a doctor, because Dungan’s got stuff to do.

You’re drowning in stars.
When there’s competition on the streets over artists, I know that’s what they say. But I always tell them, “Here’s a list of our artists who’ve had success for 15 years, who’ve had success for five to eight, who’ve just started to have success and who still haven’t. Pick up the phone and call them. See if they’re happy here.”

You genuinely love artists, and your roster covers a lot of ground.
My desire is to turn a profit to maintain a 90-person staff and return a profit to our shareholders. But I really want our artists to be big, and I mean “artists.” They’re great at pushing back and smirking when we get “too record company.” I think the difference is the difference. The minute you start to change them too much, you fuck it up. So, honestly, I’m less concerned about style than I am greatness.

Everything I’ve had success with since taking over Capitol has been outside the box. I didn’t sign Keith Urban, but he was languishing. Radio said, “We don’t get him. He’s different, and we don’t have room.” But the public did. And he’s really good about not duplicating himself.

You can make great music, then figure out how to get it through the system. That’s how you really win. Luke Bryan could be the first bro-country artist: There was nothing like him, a frat guy including all different kinds of music into having a really good time. Even with Lady A, radio said, “We don’t get what you’re doing. This just feels kinda pop/AC.”

At the end of the day, I don’t want to win doing the same thing over and over. After Stapleton broke, I couldn’t believe the number of mountain men who came out of the woodwork; a bunch could sing, but only one guy writes those songs.

The other thing is the dreaded and deplored research most radio stations are employing, because in that Xerox world, the copies will research. It’s what killed rock radio in the ’70s and ’80s. Burkhart/Abrams came in, and that was the beginning of the end for AOR.

Is streaming helping?
People can look at those numbers as a form of research, but the only people engaging are the young fans. If you’re an older fan, you’re left out in nowhere land. The 38-year-olds, the 45-year-olds, even the 29-year-olds have not embraced streaming—in large part because these services aren’t marketing to them. I think we’re losing a good portion of our audience. They’re backing away, because they’re busy people who don’t want to learn or invest in anything else. Maybe they’re listening to the talk radio or podcasts. But once they’re gone, they’re hard to get back.

I know Spotify and Apple are marketing to the first adopters; I get it. But they’re leaving so many people behind. They can say they’re committed to country, but it’s a campaign for Eric Church or a campaign for Kenny Chesney for four days before their album comes out.

Nobody wants to talk about this.
Country music has made its way by appealing to that 34-year-old housewife with two kids, maybe even a car seat in the van. Do you think she’s streaming? No, she’s given up. And our biggest superstars are 39 years old. Think about that.

Truth is, Garth caused the American populace to look over here, and they discovered Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, Patty Loveless. People in the suburbs were our consumers; instead of Billy Joel, it was John Michael Montgomery. From that moment on, our big bucket of profit shifted to the suburbs. For the first time, country music was respected by everyone in this business.

I’d gone all in: Got a mullet, red cowboy boots, was buttoning my shirt up to the top. But the music made me think about how early rap was all about the struggle in the street, the everyday occurrences on the street. When I was at the Arista national convention, coming from the pop division, where I’d worked with all the urban guys, I had Brooks & Dunn performing. They were all like, “Damn, this stuff is wild. The only music that’s really real like this is rap, because it’s telling it like it is about the people making the music.”

What’s the solution?
When I spoke to Oliver Schusser from Apple recently, I was like, “Please, please, please, give us a campaign that’s a tutorial on how to use the service.” I mean, get Aaron Rodgers after the game, sweaty. He’s got a towel around his neck, but he’s smiling and laughing. He holds up his phone and starts talking about how he uses the service. That would help.

Seems simple.
I’ve told it so many times. It’s the difference between retaining many of the people who’ve been listening to music for 10 or more years, people who love music. And it’s not just country, it’s jazz, Michael Bublé, John Mayer, Santana or whatever kind of rock music you want.

You know you’re gonna hear Kendrick Lamar and Chingy; you can hear all that listed as America’s Top 25 songs. But actually, it’s just what this service’s people are using—the subscribers—not really America.

Let’s talk about your artists. Kacey?
I think she’s a renaissance artist, but people want to make her a country artist. She’s Norah Jones on steroids, or Adele. Her music immediately pleases you, but it’s absolutely impossible to define. She has appeal across the board. Lots of middle-aged people love her, but there are a ton of young people who are there too.

Jon Pardi?
The moment I signed him, I took some serious criticism from inside and outside the building. “He’s too country.” But there’s nothing like him. He’s Buck Owens pumped up. And each record has gotten a little more aggressive. His second album was better than his first, and this next one that’s coming? Success emboldened him to play to his primal nature.

Should I even ask about girls?
Well, we have Caylee Hammack. Three of my last four signings were women. It’s not ’cause we’re gluttons for punishment, but those three women were the most interesting artists I’ve seen. You know, if you can cram that square peg in that round hole, you can make things happen.

You’re also a big advocate for your icons.
We all consider their music timeless. When you’re a successful operation, there is room to honor those artists. It means so much to everyone on this staff—and the roster—that Vince Gill is here, Alan Jackson, George Strait. I always think, “You guys are the giants.” We’re all standing on their shoulders, so I’m proud they’re part of UMG Nashville.

Obviously, you knew Vince’s deal had lapsed.
When he played benefits, he’d get up and say, “I don’t have to play my new single, because I don’t have a record deal.” It hurt to hear that, so I called him and asked if we could sit down. I told him, “I have a staff full of people who adore you and respect you, and they’ll work really hard for you. I hate to see your new music come out on Coffee Cup Records. I want you to be here, but here’s the deal: Don’t make me look stupid to my boss. I can give you the same deal I gave some kid whose name I don’t even remember. But this is your home, and we will honor your music.”

That’s awesome.
As long as these artists focus on making great music, they’re going to feel rewarded and have impact. If they focus on radio, they’re always going to be bitter and upset.

So what else annoys you?
The click track. Every track coming out of Nashville has a fucking click track. Whatever happened to the drums? I have one of the most inventive bands in Brothers Osborne. They just bring it every time; everything is brilliant, and they don’t conform. But you know what? They play their instruments, come together like a band. Pretty radical—and pretty awesome.

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