A Powwow With Sony Nashville’s Power Trio

When Randy Goodman was tapped as Sony Nashville’s new Chairman/CEO following month after month of uncertainty, everyone at the label group heaved a huge sigh of relief. That relief became elation as soon as this smart, experienced and engaging executive walked in the door. Goodman wasted no time defining his vision for the company by bringing in two key executive team members: EVP/COO Ken Robold and EVP Promotion & Artist Development Steve Hodges. Sony’s three new Nashville cats recently elucidated the primary points of their shared vision as they sat down with HITSTodd Hensley, who dusted off his Texas drawl for the occasion.

How has the first month been?
KEN ROBOLD: Actually, it’s been really invigorating. Randy, Steve, and myself all came from different areas, and the first few weeks we’re like drinking from a firehose, as Randy has been saying. You have to meet all of the artists and managers, sort out the artist roster and all of that. The staff is really fired up to have a team of leaders in the building now, given what has been going on with Sony—the rumors and all of that. We feel like the doors are open and it’s immediately paying dividends—we’re getting a bunch of artist pitches. So it’s going great as far as I’m concerned.

STEVE HODGES: What we didn’t know was how we would be perceived walking in the door; would they throw darts at us or would they hug us? It’s been a big hug fest. We feed off of the momentum from the staff, and it’s a great two-way street internally. There are smiles on their faces, music is playing loud, people invigorated about music and the music industry, specifically, Sony Music Nashville.

KR: The three of us just had an interesting meeting with the staff, because we have a lot of music that we’ve got to figure out. The staff is more invested in certain things than we are because we’re new to it, but we’re looking at all of the things we’re listening to right now and thinking about it as large as we possibly can, in a global way. That would mean some kind of crossover, and I think the barriers are coming down as we become more of a streaming base. 

Randy, what made you want to come back to the label side of this biz?
RANDY GOODMAN: A lapse of reason [laughs]. You know, this is where it all began for me, because I started at RCAJoe Galante hired me and I was in New York with him. These kinds of jobs don’t come along very often, and friends and family were saying, “Look, you should do this. This could be a great capstone to your career.” But personally, it was the opportunity to come back to a great aggregation of labels and the place where I started and to be able to do this with world-class guys like Ken and Steve, it just hit at the right time. We’re still trying to figure out sales and streaming, obviously, as everybody else is. What are the revenue streams, and what are the revenues going forward? But still, the excitement of being involved with the new artists as well as the superstars—the iconic acts on this roster—it was a hard thing to turn down. I come to it with a great deal of excitement and vigor because of all that. 

What are some of the challenges that you’re facing specifically associated with Sony Nashville?
RG: The big thing for us right now is that, for whatever reason, this has not been a place where new artists have been broken during the past several years. So for Steve, Ken and myself and the rest of the group, it’s really important that we prove to everybody that (A) we can bring new music in here, and (B) it’s music that we can break through at a significant level. A part of that is making sure that we have the right people on the bus, so to speak, and that we have exciting music. You can get into this rut with music where you’re following what’s already out there, and then you’re sitting there with a brand new act saying, “Can you sell a stadium like Jason Aldean? Probably not.” But are we getting some new music out there that can create its own lane and its own franchise? I’m excited, because I think we do have some of those things coming in the pipeline. At the same time, we have to figure out the things that we have ahead of that and really be strategic with how we lay this out. Once we lay it out, we’ve got to be all in to commit to breaking these acts, because this town’s looking for us to do that. And if we don’t do that, then there will be another year of rumors and innuendo, because I’ll be gone and they’ll be talking to somebody else. The most important thing for us is to continue to maximize and grow the potential of superstars where possible, but we’ve really got to be about new artists and breaking new music. Two things that we came into—Cam and Old Dominion—are both records that we believe we’re going to go break, because they show every sign of that. But once we push those guys through, what are we going to come with next that’s as exciting as Cam and Old Dominion have been? 

Sony Nashville has a roster of established stars; how do you balance your attention and bandwidth between these superstar artists and breaking new artists?
RG: Steve and Ken have great experience, and we come together with other people in this office as well—Paul Barnabee has been here for a long time, and we have some great promotion staff—but for the three of us, the first order of business was just drilling down into our music and into the artists. Every weekend since we’ve been here—the last three weekends in a row—the three of us have been on the road with somebody, seeing one of those established artists. So a lot of our time has gone into meeting with the artists, meeting with the managers and trying to assess what we have. You have to look at it and say, “OK, we need to go out and see what Kenny [Chesney], Brad [Paisley], Carrie [Underwood] and Miranda [Lambert] are doing, and we’ve really got to get in there and wade through the new stuff.”

SH: Superstars got to a superstar level because of the support of the label. They were able to build a huge fan base, and they took care of the music. Radio realized they get a lot of attributes in the music that they deliver. So it’s not like they’re on autopilot, but we’ve walked in and they’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting and building relationships. So they’ve laid the ground work, and now it’s up to us to help those superstars maintain that and grow it, whether it’s internationally or just getting better at what they do, if we can add to that. At the same time, we’re challenged with the new-music aspect of the business, not just the catalog and the existing release schedule. We’ve got to put some new business on the books and that’s what these last few weekends have been dedicated to. The staff, I think, is genuinely excited to see our enthusiasm and our work ethic.

KR: We have three imprints: Arista, Columbia, and RCA. What we do from a strategic perspective, the three of us along with everyone in the building, is to say, “OK, you’ve got your superstars on each one of these imprints—in some cases they have two—you have your midlevel acts like Jerrod Niemann, Jake Owen and Chris Young—that we’ve got to get to the next level.” To Steve and Randy’s point, then comes the new artist. So you look at each imprint as sort of a portfolio, and when you have superstars, that provides Steven with leverage at radio to get some of the newer acts going—and if they’re explosive, the hope is to obviously grow these new acts to the next level as quickly as possible so that we can keep feeding more and more artists into the machine. So it’s a really delicate balancing act—you don’t want to try to break too many artists all at once because you don’t want to miss. You want to give each one of them the best opportunity to succeed. So it’s a delicate balance of superstar, mid-level acts getting to the next level, and new artists coming in. Balancing that right is what we’re all charged to do as we guide the company moving forward.

SH: And kudos to Jim Catino and Taylor Lindsey in A&R. They were sitting on a bunch of artists and projects, just waiting around to see what would happen—and the minute that Ken, Randy and I walked in the door, they immediately marched down the hallway with this great stack of music and pitches from artists, managers, and publishers in town. We took it all and digested it as quickly as we could, and Tyler Farr is one example. When we got here, they had a single out called “Withdrawals,” and it was a spectacular piece of art, but it was really slow—not depressing but dark. They had just come off a single, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” which was his third #1. So we had “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” and “Withdrawals” and Ken, Randy, and I immediately looked at each other and said, “We could do better by the artist by giving him a chance to get out of the corner that he was painted into.” Here we are in the middle of summer, it’s a lot more female-friendly with tempo, and we wanted to come with something energetic and fun that he can play live. So we switched the single to “Better in Boots,” and it was received at radio with open arms because they would obviously rather play something uptempo that’s female-friendly. And Jim was all in; he couldn’t have been a better team player. So Jim and Lindsey deserve some credit for keeping the A&R staff intact and focused while continuing to take meetings with different artists, publishers and managers in town. They made our job easier.

KR: That’s a great point. I mentioned those three midlevel artists, and Tyler Farr fits right into that. That’s a big art of our long-term future here, because we feel that this guy has a lane. If we string some more big hits in a row with Tyler, who’s a really intelligent, thoughtful and strategic guy that we’re wholeheartedly behind, that’ll get him to the next level.

Back to the A&R point, one of the things that hampered their ability to get acts in here was the rumor mill. And now, with the excitement around Nashville, we’re getting those meetings and a chance to sign some acts that our guys may have not been able to do two months ago because of what’s been going on. It’s exciting for us. You might have some perceptions of what this place is and was, but then you come in and find out why some things have gone the way they have, and we’ve found out that there’s a great team of people here, and it’s just us maximizing this team and getting this company to its rightful place, which is a #1 label.

SH: We also sat down with Tyler because we’re messing with his art. We were on his bus before a show where he was going to play for 8,000 people in Louisville, and the average time to the top of the chart for Tyler was 34 weeks. If we continue on that path, it’s going to take 15-16 years for him to have 10 songs to play live and do a full-band show for 75 minutes. So he’s got to get off of that cycle. We’ve got to get the stuff that we can get up and off the charts quicker and get the audience exposed quicker. That was really one of the main reasons for that single switch. It had nothing to with how dark “Withdrawals” was; it really had to do with how we are going to give him a better chance to succeed quicker. 

How have you seen the country marketplace change over the past few years?
SH: I think we’ve seen, at least from airplay statistics, a lot of newer music played a lot more often. There are programs that exist inside broadcast chains that are allowing newer music to be exposed a lot quicker, giving them critical mass earlier in the process. So it gives us an idea of what we have, what we don’t have and what we need to work on—what we need to do better. On the other side of that, we’re expected to deliver an artist to the marketplace who’s 100% ready to go. You don’t get a training ground anymore—no training wheels. We’re on the 10-speed right out of the gate, so we’ve got to put on our elbow pads and kneepads and make sure we prepare, but we accept that challenge. I think that the artistic community in Nashville realizes that as well.

RG: Steve really hits on a good point. Some of the new acts that we’re getting now—and even Old Dominion was like this—are just better prepared. We had a meeting with a new artist who’s a college graduate and understands the social-media world. Also, there’s a complete democratization with these new acts that are coming along. They’ve got home studios, they’re on their laptops making records and they’re also doing their own social media. They’re going through the artist-development process that historically we would have done once we got an artist in the marketplace. They’re already out there on tour, they’re on their social-media tools, they’re really developing. Whether they know it or not, whether they talk this way or not, they’re really creating viral branding all on their own, they’re coming to us and what we’ll hopefully be able to do is blow that up into a whole bigger thing, turn it into the critical-mass airplay that will drive sales and revenues beyond that. That’s been a really interesting thing for me coming back into it and just seeing the level of self-awareness of these young artists. I mean, you’re talking to 25-, 26-year-olds—even younger—and they’re asking us questions, and I’m sitting here going, “Wow! Those are very, very smart questions and they’re very deliberate.” A lot of that is because they have access to more information. So they’ve got a lot of it figured out by the time they get to us, and I think that’s really exciting. 

Ken, did the experience of working for Southern Ground change your perspective on the business?
KR: Coming from UMG, where I started my career and worked for 22 years, and essentially going to a family-owned independent business was, as you can imagine, an eye-opener in a lot of really great ways. Zac had hired his own promotion staff, and he had signed four or five artists. The big task was going through those records, figuring out where they had a lane and doing it independently, because we didn’t yet have a distribution deal in place. One of the benefits was getting to know guys like RED’s Bob Morelli and Alan Becker. I value the experience; it was only a year, but I took a lot from it, and it helped make me a better executive. 

What do you see as a path to break country music more on a global standpoint?
KR: Kenny Chesney is out there playing a sold-out Arrowhead Stadium to 60,000 people, and he’s not going to be able to go over and tour that way in Europe. That’s just because in those days, they didn’t take artists over there earlier. I mean, the O2 thing that’s going on with the CMA and the festivals that are popping up become another springboard. Some of the artists we’re visiting with now think globally. In their discussions with us, they’re asking us questions like, “Who does international? I’d like to meet that person.” So it’s now a global discussion from the very get-go, and we have to say, “OK, here’s how we get there.” We’ve got to get this market first, but I think the key to it is going to be getting some of those artists over there sooner so that they’re playing the same kind of clubs internationally that they might be playing here. It’s very difficult because we’ve got an act like Cam and, as you know, very few female artists have broken through or in a significant way in our format. We told her, “Look, you need to be full steam until we get this single done and this album launched.” But then the other side of that—and it’s exciting news—is that there are so few females right now who are breaking though. I mean, she’s got her whole next year pretty well filled up with some heavy-duty touring slots, so once again it becomes, “I need to go out there and hit these markets, and I need to make some money,” but how do you carve out that time? We’ve got to be more strategic about that than we’ve ever been. A lot of it, as you know, is the music. There’s going to be certain artists who will understand what has to happen in the international market, while other artists’ music doesn’t have that potential to translate. 

Interesting that Cam is in the Top 50 Country in the U.K.
KR: Yeah, “Burning House” is a phenomenal record. Again, you think about all of the different cross-sections and about Cam writing it, and how her music came to our attention from Doug Morris and RCA Records in New York, starting with Jeff Bhasker bringing it to Peter Edge. Jeff’s focus isn’t usually the country format, but the music he co-produced on Cam has a sound that belongs in our format as much as any other record we have. So that’s exciting. Those associations with the New York label and with different producers will allow us to cross this thing internationally sooner than we normally would. 

Is it possible to set up a radio strategy from the beginning with plans to cross to other formats?
SH: One thing I tell my staff is that it’s our job to burn a record in a marketplace. If we can get a record to a thousand spins, then I think we’ve done our job. There’s a couple of songs that have had crossover airplay this year that didn’t make it to the top of the Country charts yet are still the artists’ biggest-selling single of the year, like “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town. If a record burns in a marketplace, that means we’ve done all we can do to represent that song and artist to our partners in radio, our video outlets and even social-media and streaming services. At that point, we’ve milked that for all it’s worth and we’ve gotten our artist in a position to where at least they’re familiar and their song is familiar. I know “burn” is a bad word, but it means, for the most part, that you’ve done your job. 

How do you see streaming changing how you market and promote records?
KR: I think if anyone had the answer to that, we’d all be geniuses.

RG: That’s why I deferred to Ken [laughs].

KR: At the end of the day, record companies are charged with taking artists to the masses and breaking them. Radio is still a key component of that. To Randy’s point, you have artists now who are in some cases touring, developing a following and marketing themselves to Spotify before we sign them. Then they come to us and say, “Help me get to the masses.” So part of what we’re challenged with is not just revenue streams, but how do we better market on a global basis in terms of those streaming services? We feel like this format is more accepted not just on a national basis, but in some cases a global basis, so part of what excited us is the prospect of these streaming services ultimately gaining traction to where people are paying for music subscriptions, which will hopefully be the next growth or inflection point, while also marketing on a more global basis. We don’t have the answers yet, but we’re certainly excited about working towards them.

RG: Taylor Swift is arguably the most ubiquitous artist in the world right now. She’s a little over 4 million albums, and the last person to have a diamond-award album was Adele. So there’s no doubt that the classic sales model continues to erode, and the revenues from the streaming haven’t anywhere near caught up with that. Back to a term that Ken used earlier, it’s a balancing act of us having to evaluate what are the real critical services that a record company needs to provide to get artists to the level that Ken was talking about, while at the same time not being so bloated from an organizational perspective that you can’t make money. At the end of the day, we’re charged by New York and a publicly traded company, so we’re all trying to return value to our stockholders and shareholders. That’s a bit of a trick right now because we’re in a transitional period, and it’s going to continue to evolve, but it makes us have to be even more aware of the services and the overhead that we have.•

What's the big deal? I.B. Bad has the answer. (5/24a)
Biz bats come alive in May (5/24a)
A new chapter begins. (5/24a)
Numbers don't lie. (5/24a)
Steve, Max, Nils and the rest know what they're doing next year. (5/24a)
Who's next?
It's Comic-Con for numbers geeks.
Theories of evolution from 30,000 feet.
A&R in overdrive.

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