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SPOTLIGHT ON NASHVILLE

Interviewed by Chris Willman
Gary Overton’s got a feeling he’s into "Somethin’ Bad"—the currently rocketing duet between Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, that is. As CEO of Sony Music Nashville, Overton can claim the only two solo females that are a sure thing at country radio right now, and putting them together on the same single constitutes a singular act of grrrl-power aggression. But if you think you’ll hear Overton complain about the "bro-country" that’s controversially saturating the country charts right now, you haven’t taken a close look at a roster that has new signing Chase Rice joining party animals like Jake Owen and Tyler Farr, not to mention the arguable progenitor of the bro movement, Kenny Chesney. This isn’t a label group that’ll be quitting its "Beachin’" anytime soon.

Overton took time out from alphabetizing Brad Paisley’s guitar cases to give Chris Willman his thoughts on the genre’s belated transition out of physical sales, helping steer superstars back to delivering "fastballs" after adventurous side journeys, and why a polarizing single like Jerrod Niemann’s "Donkey" can sell more records than a safe one.

The perception used to be that country music skewed toward middle-aged housewives. But if you go to the Stagecoach Festival, you’re hard-pressed to see anyone over 30. Now some people are complaining the music skews too young. That’s probably a good "problem" to have, given prior fears that the audience might age out of the format, right?
Rock and hip-hop are obviously very much a part of our newer country music, and we have the younger people coming in because of that. But when you go down to the River Stage at the CMA Festival and look at the lawn in front of you, you see the 16-to-20-year old girls with the shorts and cowgirl boots sitting next to people who are 50 and 60, having just as much fun. I’m close to those folks’ age; we’ve been listening to classic rock for 40 years, and we’re damn tired of it. So this is current rock for baby boomers, too. You’re serving both, and they coexist very well.

Country traditionalists aren’t crazy about the current wave of "bro country," but as long as research is showing the majority of the radio audience is liking it, it’s not something you’ll be in any hurry to fix, is it?
It has brought a lot of new people to our format. I think it’s fantastic. There are those that are disenfranchised—some of the artists, some of the industry, some of the fans. When music changes, there are always complainers. But it’s self-policing. When it hits its point of saturation, listeners are going to start reacting, and radio’s going to look at Mscores and say "Whoa! This music is starting to fade on us." But that’s nowhere in the foreseeable future. I really think the bro-country movement is very strong and great for our business. Mainstream rock is not happening, and I don’t think rap is very strong right now. So people are looking for music, and here we are, having a party—want to come to us?

What about the problem women are having at country radio? Is it because they tend more toward ballads and less toward the drinking songs that are in vogue?
It’s interesting, because females, historically, have had the widest berth. Except there’ve been very, very few traditional country females; it’s like the listeners won’t let ‘em go that far. But other than that, they can be rockin’, they can be sensitive, they can be incredible singers, they can be R&B-tinged; they can do all that. Males have always had a more narrow focus at any given time. So with the females, it’s not the labels dictating it, and it’s not radio. We are just reacting to what the listeners are telling us. And they’re telling us that with a lot of the females—all but really two on the country charts right now, Carrie and Miranda—they’re not interested in their music, at least not on a mass level. We just have to continue to find females that are unique and put it to ’em. I think we’ve done it with Leah Turner. Not many females can deliver the aggressive, edgy, rockin’ side of bro-country, but Leah can—yet her lyrics are very female-oriented, and that’s what people are picking up on, besides that musical edginess.
 
You’ve certainly got the bro side of things covered, with Jake Owen’s "Beachin’" bulleted at #3, Jerrod Niemann’s "Drink to That All Night" a recent #1, and Tyler Farr’s "Whiskey in My Water" on the edge of the Top 10. And then, with Carrie and Miranda’s duet, "Somethin’ Bad," you’ve kind of got the girl equivalent of bro country.
It’s rock. There’s a lot of energy in our music right now. People are not wanting to just sit in their car mesmerized or listen sitting in the recliner at home. We just signed Chase Rice, who was one of the writers on Florida Georgia Line’s "Cruise." He put out an EP and was selling downloads and selling tickets with nothing at radio. So we made a deal to take over the single, and it’s climbing the charts, and he’s selling over 20,000 downloads a week. He’s gonna be a monster.

Talk about Jerrod Niemann. It’s very easy to get dropped these days, and his sophomore album did stiff a couple of years ago…
Those are expensive mistakes, yes [laughs].

Then he came back with the third album and hit #1 again with "Drink to That." How’d that career get revitalized?
It was never a consideration for me to part ways to Jerrod. I loved his first album, and he’s a great performer, working all the time—I think 220-250 shows a year. Musically he’s had a lot of influences, and on that second album, he wanted to experiment. Taking those musical chances is where magic comes from, so we said, "Okay, we’ll support it." And it was not as commercially successful as we would have liked. So Jerrod and I talked about what to do next, and I said, "We need to hit them right between the eyes. "Absolutely," he says. And within four months, he called us to come out to the studio, and the first thing he played us was "I Can Drink to That All Night." At a time when not many singles are #1 for multiple weeks, he was a two-week #1. Now Pitbull has done a remix on it, and it’s just going to Pop radio. We’re taking a shot with another song on the album called "Donkey." It’s a novelty—it’s funny as hell, and you hear it and go "That’s crazy," but then you can’t stop singing it. I don’t know if it’ll make Top 10, to be honest with you, but those people that are playing it are getting great research and getting downloads. So we’re gonna go where it goes on the radio charts, but we’ll definitely sell some records on it.

Brad’s new single, "River Bank," couldn’t be more in the pocket for what people want from him. Did you try to steer him at all for his upcoming album?
I had Brad Paisley kinda experiment throughout his last album. He produced the record himself with a different sound and talked about some different things. Did not do what we wanted it to do. There were great songs in there; it just didn’t ring with the masses. We talked about it and he said, "Hey, I get it. Thank you for letting me go there, but I’m back, baby. I’m out there playing every night. I know what they want. I know what’s happening. And I’ll work towards it." He’s never going to be accused of being a bro-country guy, but nobody rocks better and talks about fishing and drinking and things like that than Brad Paisley. It’s a phenomenal album. He said, "Gary, I’m gonna give ’em fastballs." That’s a quote.
 
Miranda Lambert has had to deal with a level of celebrity attention few of your artists have. At least a little of that went into her new album.
She’s got a song on the album called "Priscilla," where she compares herself with Blake to being Priscilla with Elvis. It’s tongue in cheek; it’s not meant to be "Poor me, I’m married to Blake." One of the lines is "We had to put up a gate so we could go inside and procreate." Some of the tabloid bullshit that is totally made-up angers and hurts her, but she knows it’s part of the deal. She’ll tweet, "I think I’m having alien triplets here soon, Blake. I hope one of ’em’s yours." They have fun with a necessary evil. Miranda really enjoys everything about what’s going on in her life right now. And I don’t know anybody who takes making a new record any more serious than her.

Country fans were behind the times for a while in making the large-scale shift from physical to digital. Are they caught up yet?
Country as a genre was slower to adopt digital downloads, which was a blessing for us. We were still selling physical albums, and it gave us more time to react and learn what was going on in the marketplace and the change in that delivery system. Now we have the same challenge that all labels have. This is the first time that the numbers are coming in and digital downloads are down significantly. That’s scary. Just as digital downloads didn’t make up the difference in what we lost in physical, streaming is not making up the difference of what we’re gonna lose in digital downloads. The good news is, people want to consume music. I just always say, they’ll tell you how they want to consume it and how they want to pay for it. If you listen, they’ll tell you, and let’s go down that path—instead of saying "You’re gonna do it this way and this is how much it costs and this is what you have to do." That doesn’t usually work.

Should everyone just be prepared for diminished expectations?
Oh, absolutely. Transitioning into the digital era, we thought at least we knew where the bottom was and determined to base our business on digital, and now it’s more about streaming. So we’re going to have to adjust our business with our partners, not just our consumers. We’re smart people. We’ll make a business of this, there’s no doubt. The demand is there. We just need to figure out how to be compensated for it. And our partners by and large understand that, and some of them are more willing to help than the others right now. But we’ll get there. Because if we don’t sign the artists and put a lot of money to develop ’em and bring ’em to market and have hits at radio, tours don’t happen. There are no hits without all that. Historically, it’s always been that if a dollar came in, then one or two people made money from that and the others didn’t. If it was a concert ticket, then you had the artist, the manager, the promoter and the booking agent earning, but the publisher didn’t, the record company didn’t either…

Are these things just being renegotiated as people go along?
The conversations are had every day. Every time we sign an artist, a lot of the attorneys are still stuck back in the ’90s, with what they’re asking for and what they want to give, and it’s like, "Well, then I can’t make this deal. I believe, but I also believe in making money for all of us"—including, certainly, the company I work for.

The irony of it is, you can’t go to a sold-out Stagecoach Festival or CMA Festival and think for a minute the music business is in trouble, even though it is.
It’s not. It’s just certain areas. And it’s like the Titanic. Even if they saw the iceberg earlier, they had that small little rudder and a big-ass ship, and it’s like "Oh, hell." Our business doesn’t change very quickly, from the rights that we get from artists in the original deals to new deals we’re making now. And as soon as I make a new deal with a new act, something different in the streaming realm comes along. When I was the head of EMI Publishing in Nashville, I knew that, basically, if you heard music, publishers got paid. But the only time record labels got paid was when you sold one—not when you heard it, not when you saw it live. So, we’re trying to fix some of that. We have to be smarter about our business. You want to be involved with this artist? Put some money in, or let me get all my money back off the top. I personally think in terms of the movie business. It used to be, say, "Columbia Pictures presents the new Chris Willman film." Now, it’s "Sony Pictures in tandem with Roadshow and Gary Overton Films, produced by Schenectady Incorporated." Those are all funding agents. I think all these partners are gonna have to start divvying up.

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