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“It’s all about the song here. People want to hear things that speak to them. And that’s what country music is all about.”
—-Mike Dungan, Capitol Nashville
MAKING CAPITOL IN NASHVILLE
Label Ruler Mike Dungan Proves to be a Rainmaker for EMI Music, Thanks to Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker
A decade ago, when Ohio-born Mike Dungan left his post as SVP/GM of Arista Nashville to take the reins of  Capitol Records Nashville, the label boasted Garth Brooks and little else. That was then and this is now: Dungan’s roster now includes top sellers Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and Kenny Rogers. He hitches a ride to HITS’ own kosher cowboy, Roy “Oy Vaikin” Trakin.

You’re one of the best-kept secrets in the record business.
I like it like that. When I first got here, I focused the company on getting Trace Adkins’ career back on track and working with Keith Urban, whom I only knew as a guitar player. Those were the seeds from which the rest of this has sprung up.

What did you see in Keith Urban?
You could tell that he could do it all. Did he have the indefinable star quality? There were glimpses of that, but my philosophy of A&R is, anyone that I sign or work with, I have to, in my mind, see them as an arena artist.

What are the differences between country and the mainstream record business?
I started as a pop/rock promotion guy under John Betancourt. I did some time in sales and marketing before coming to Nashville. The biggest difference is the close relationship that the country labels have with the artist community. For the most part, everyone lives in this town. I see the same people all the time, so it’s easy to fall into a conversation that turns into a creative reality. Darius Rucker was astonished by the fact he’d come here to record, see Vince Gill in the gym, ask him to be on the album and have it happen. We don’t make appointments to see people here—we just get it done. There’s a shared interest in the artist and music from Country radio, although the downside of that is there can be a little too much protectiveness. You have to keep an eye out when you cross over that they don’t think you’re getting too big for your britches. Country radio by and large likes to see their artists stay country.

How have you managed to balance that with Lady Antebellum now starting to cross over with “Need You Now”?
That happened organically and fit perfectly on Country radio. The song has a universal sound, and it’s no wonder that Top 40 radio has jumped on it. As radio continues to consolidate, Country and Pop programmers are often not only next door to each other, it’s often the same guy doing both formats. That’s how Keith Urban got on AC and Hot AC.

Why did you think Darius Rucker would make a successful country record?
The whole thing was actually my idea. I had been thinking of him for a long time. I was never a fan of Hootie and the Blowfish, but every time I saw them, Darius just seemed like a country singer to me. He had those minute things in his voice that felt that way, but I never acted on it. I was at dinner with Doc McGhee, and had no idea he managed Hootie, and I told him every time I saw that lead vocalist, I thought he was a country singer. And Doc told me, not only does Darius love country music, he also grew up on it…and that I should make a country record with him. Four months later, while he was on the golf course with Darius, he called and hooked us up. The next day, Darius got on a plane for Nashville. We had dinner, hit it off and decided to work together.

Did you meet any resistance from the country music community?
I met resistance in my own building. I don’t think it had anything to do with the color of his skin, but more with the fact he was lead singer for a band that was so big, so long ago, that it was almost a joke. Here was yet another displaced rock guy who came to Nashville because there was no other place for his music. I told him to just go out there and be himself at Country radio, and that’s what he did. The biggest naysayers were calling me 20 seconds after he left to say, “Oh my—you’re right about this guy. I love the music. I’m in.” It gave him the confidence that he was a country artist.

Any other left-field signings?
I just signed Jennette McCurdy from the Nickelodeon show, iCarly. She’s the smartass sidekick, Sam Puckett, the Fonzi of the show. In my opinion, she’s the reason it’s so successful. She didn’t want to do pop music. Autumn House, who does A&R for me, stayed on it. Once I spent some time with her, I realized it was the thing to do.

Is she your answer to Taylor Swift?
Taylor Swift has brought in a younger female audience that can grow with us in the years to come. But more importantly, she’s very smart and a very, very good songwriter. And even though her songs are themed toward young girls, they are really universal messages. The difference between Jennette and Taylor is Jennette wants to do more grown-up music. You won’t be hearing songs about being 15 and breaking up with your boyfriend.

What can the pop business learn from their country counterparts?
Very simple. It’s all about the song here. People want to hear things that speak to them. And that’s what country music is all about. Which is the same with great pop songs, too. It’s not like country is all about the songs and pop music about the production. That’s not fair. But you have to have something to say in country. You can’t just come out there with a groove. It doesn’t work. And that’s what music offers the culture in general… and always has.

 

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