UMG Nashville Chief Rolls With the Changes and Shoots From the Hip

Interview by Todd Hensley

UMG Nashville topper Mike Dungan has had a truly extraordinary run of late, with huge records from Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Sam Hunt, Little Big Town, Darius Rucker and Chris Stapleton, among many others, not to mention strong, acclaimed sets from Eric Church, Dierks Bentley and Kacey Musgraves and a fresh breakout with Jon Pardi. He also recently added The Band Perry to his stable (in tandem with Interscope).

The gregarious Cincinnati native is a music-biz veteran whose charm and storytelling verve are well known; he’s also a remarkably intuitive record man who’s achieved true synergy with his team—notably president Cindy Mabe—in not only having hits but launching and sustaining careers. It’s all come together to make UMG Nashville the marketshare leader while constantly, in the man’s own words, “trying to do something different.”

In this wide-ranging conversation, Dungan reviews his roots and discusses—among other pertinent topics—the state of radio, streaming and the blurring of genre lines and their impact on the state of Music City. But after spending this much time jawing with our own Todd Hensley, he was undoubtedly in serious need of a cocktail.

How did you get on this career path?
I was the classic music-rat kid to whom music simply meant everything. I conned my way into a job taking out the trash at the coolest record department in Cincinnati—in a very funky mass merchant called Swallens. Despite the odd surroundings, this was THE place to hang and shop for music. I was only 16 years old, but I absolutely thrived in that music-retail environment. I went from there to a couple other places, went to school, got a degree in biology, but couldn’t give up the music thing. I went back to working in record stores, and then RCA called and offered me a job doing promotion. So I did that in Cincinnati and then went to Detroit for a while, and then to Minneapolis.

Who was the head of promotion at the time?
[John] Betancourt. So I learned the hard way [laughs].

Or the fun way, just depending on how you look at it.
It was definitely both. But over time that lifestyle totally burned me out, so I flipped over to doing sales for a couple of years. I attracted the attention of Arista and did marketing regionally for about a year. And in that time, Clive Davis started LaFace with L.A. and Babyface, Bad Boy with Puff Daddy, and Arista Nashville. I was working with all of them, but I completely fell in love with the Nashville people and artists; I’d never considered myself a country guy, but I loved everything that was coming out of there. Tim DuBois came after me three times to come down here and be part of his small team, and I finally said yes—I cannot ever thank him enough—that was 25 years ago! I was at Arista as the Head of Marketing and then became General Manager and spent about 10 years there. Then, when Clive got pushed out, we all got pushed out. In 2000, I fell upward into the presidency of Capitol, and ran that label until 2012, when I came here as the Chairman.

When you were growing up in the biz, radio promotion was the king. Is it still that way?

Radio is still the biggest driver, especially in country music. So, yes, it’s of paramount importance, but it’s not the only way you can break a record now. We put a tremendous amount of effort into so many other areas of the business on the marketing side, and I would say our marketing efforts are second to none. I’d put us up against anybody in this town, and maybe anybody anywhere.

This team is really good. And it starts with our President, Cindy Mabe. From the time we started to work together in ’07 at Capitol, it was evident that this was probably the best marketing person I’d ever seen in action. I was lucky that I had her standing next to me then, and I feel lucky to be standing next to her now. She blows me away in so many different ways. She has superior skills, and she’s tremendous at cutting through the bullshit and identifying what the artist is and what they’re trying to say and then keeping the entire effort on the same page consistently.

When we merged Universal with Capitol, the roster and the company were so large that I could not be as hands-on with many of the things I was used to doing, but all I had to do was cut her loose and watch her fly. I often say that she is the perfect yin to my yang, but honestly in saying that I am probably taking too much credit. Before becoming a president, I considered myself a marketing person, but I was nothing compared to her. She’s a monster talent with unbelievable focus and she makes me look good every day.

As country is now beginning to grow in the streaming space, how are you adjusting your marketing and promotion strategies?
Like losing your mind, it was gradually then suddenly. We’ve of course put a lot more resources into the streaming side, and just this week added another person in that department. It’s growing, but it’s growing too slowly. For the longest time country music has represented about 12% of the overall business, but last year it was only 4% of the streaming business. This year we’re up to a whopping 5%, so, it’s growing, but not fast enough. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the streaming services are totally focused on millennials—you can tell that in everything that they do. And when we have music that is of solid appeal to our younger fans, we are seeing dramatically bigger numbers.

The streaming services are frustrated that country music hasn’t come along as quickly as it should be, and I’m just as frustrated, but I think they need to invest more in speaking to our fans. Apple has done some cool stuff with Kenny Chesney, they/we did a cool thing with Eric Church and they had a massive Taylor campaign. Even though Taylor is now technically a pop artist, she still carries with her a great number of country fans, and I think as Taylor goes, a lot of our fans go. But for the most part, they’re still focused on those early adopters, who are always kids.

When the conversion to digital purchasing started, country was also slower to adapt.
iTunes came about in 2001, and at that point, we were more of an adult format. But we were starting to attract a younger audience, and the roster that I was building at Capitol lent itself to that. In the early 2000s, we’d go to Keith Urban shows it, and it would be all 22-year-old females. And then came Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and Eric Church, all of whom appealed to younger fans. It’s logical that older country fans would have been a little bit behind the time on the iTunes front; they were a little more suspect of a new technology and putting their credit cards into the computer and all those things that we now take for granted.

In your time there, you’ve grown up with Luke, Dierks and Eric, with Little Big Town. They’re now the core artists of the format How have you seen them change and grow?

From an A&R standpoint, I have always played from the fringe. With all of the artists you mentioned here, without exception, every one of them were outliers when we first launched them. Country radio looked at all of them as a little sideways; they went, “I’m not really sure what you’re doing here—it’s totally different than anything else we have out there.”

Even with Lady Antebellum, as strange as it may sound, there were a lot of people who thought they felt like an AC band. And my response was, “That’s the point—they’re different than everything out there. We’re constantly trying to do something different.” With each of these artists, not only did it work, but they went on to become superstars who affected everything that came after them. It’s a constantly morphing world, not only on the business side but the creative side as well. It’s changing as rapidly as it is on the pop side. And I think there are still too many people out there in the mainstream who think of country music as one thing, and I’m not sure what that one thing is, but trust me, it’s not what it was two years ago, much less what it was 10 years ago.

So, as the format lines get more blurred and gray, given those fringes that you’re talking about, what are you doing to cross records now?
First of all, there is a bias against anything that comes from area code 615. So no matter how cool the music is, I believe that a lot of Pop radio looks at it as a Nashville crossover. We’ve done really well recently with Sam Hunt and Little Big Town, but there is still, I believe, an aversion to playing too many “Nashville artists” on Pop radio at one time. They only allow us to get one, maybe two through the gates at any given time.

Dungan and Cindy Mabe pull the Ripcord with Keith Urban

It’s definitely a challenge. But I’ll tell you one thing: The young artists that we’re signing, the ones that we’re actively marketing, all come to the table very aware of pop culture in general. They relate to Rihanna, Panic! at the Disco and Drake just as much as they do to Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton or any of the staples of country music; they talk that game, and we strategically have to match that. These are the artists we want to work with, and they want to be worldwide stars, period. They want their home base to be country because country music represents something real to them. That desire for authenticity is the reason they came to Nashville in the first place. But they would also like to sit right up there next to some of their pop idols.

How are you and the company adjusting to that?
I think we’ll find ourselves doing more and more joint-venture deals with some of our pop labels just because some of the artists who come to the table are ready and they don’t want to limit themselves to just a country audience. And it’s interesting that now there are some pretty big pop labels that have A&R people here in Nashville, because our scene is vibrant for all kinds of music. I find that for a lot of the artists I’m looking at, the guy from Interscope and the guy from Warner Bros. are also looking at. They’re looking for authenticity just like I am.

How did the JV with Interscope on The Band Perry come about?
It was kind of by accident. First of all, this band does play out there on the edge—they have strong pop sensibilities about them—and one of the producers they have been cutting with is Benny Cassette. He asked them if they would come in and sing background vocals on a track he was cutting on an artist who is signed to our Universal cousin label, Interscope. Aaron Bay-Schuck, the President of A&R at Interscope, just happened to stop into the studio that day to check on the process, where he met the Band Perry, and was totally blown away by the sound that was coming out of them. A week or two later I got a call from their manager, Coran Capshaw, informing me that the band had gotten out of their deal, and that they would love to meet with us. No sooner had I hung up from that call, than I got a call from John Janick and Aaron, saying, “Hey, The Band Perry is out of their deal, and we really want to sign them and we want to do it together with you.” So that’s it—a true joint venture.

Do you think this joint deal is signaling a change in the perceived “closed circuit” of Nashville?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve always been a proponent of practicing A&R in a way that includes a lot of different styles. And while we have The Band Perry, Little Big Town and Keith Urban, who are obviously influenced by pop music, we’re also really excited about Jon Pardi, who just released his second album for us. The single is top 10, and the best way I can describe it is Buck Owens for the frat house. In today’s environment, this kid is a full-blown country artist. Period. I signed him four or five years ago, and he was completely different than anything out there. His voice was different, his swagger was different, and that’s precisely why I signed him. We’ve got another artist, even more to the right of center, in Chris Stapleton. The key is to engage with all of it. I think country music in general has been at its best, its profits at its highest and ticket sales at their highest peak when we’ve been really inclusive. And that’s how we do it here.

Love Pardi.
There’s a little bit of Elvis Presley under that cowboy hat.

But taller.
Yeah! [both laughing]

There are a lot of awards shows and festivals. It puts a lot of pressure on the artist’s time—not to mention the label and manager’s money. How much is too much, and how do you figure out which of these to do and which not to do?
It is too much—that’s the long and the short of it. And what it’s really doing is forcing us to make business decisions based on what is the right look for this television show and that television show. We should certainly consider that when making decisions, but it too often causes us to rip through our singles pretty fast on our biggest artists. I have this problem right now with Luke Bryan because he’s the hottest artist on the format, and the records run up the chart in eight, nine, 10 weeks and I worry that we are not getting all the value out of each single—I would like to get the recurrent play out of the tracks. But what happens is, I’ve gotta do this TV show and they don’t want us to do the song that we did on the last TV show just nine weeks ago. Somehow we’ve gotta get this in check. I love the look and the visibility, but we can’t allow the television properties to dictate our flow.

With the artists and their teams having so much control, how do you manage it?

We’re partners with all of our artists. They listen to us; they take our input and we make decisions together. I say that with confidence. But sometimes we all get a little anxious—we jump at the chance to put something new on the air.

I’m also concerned with all these music-based shows that we run the risk of burning this whole thing out. I’m very concerned about that. I’ve always believed that careers need to go silent from time to time, and none of this lends itself to that environment. It’s just one perpetual, revolving thing you do: single one-two-three-four, and then you’re right into single one of the next project. That’s how country music has done their business forever, but it’s even more at a frantic pace right now because there’s so much opportunity out there for exposure—and you can drown in that opportunity.

Trying to keep a hit on radio or a hit in the marketplace has to be one of your biggest challenges.
It certainly is, and we often see the biggest payoff after we’ve peaked at #1. That’s when it’s finally getting into the psyche of the listeners. We can’t be so quick to pull that ripcord and move on to the next one. Several years ago, there was a research study which said radio wasn’t getting enough value out of hit records. And predictably, the reaction was an over-reaction. All of a sudden, for the next three, four, five years, Country radio became very much like an adult format. There was never a time you weren’t hearing “Need You Now” on the radio. It went on and on, radio completely lost its fresh factor, and we as an industry lost our ability to break artists. I certainly don’t think that anyone is smart in playing to their most passive listeners, but I am also not a fan of running songs up the chart in ten weeks and then having them go away.

What are some of the other developing acts you’re excited about?
We’ve been working on Mickey Guyton for a long time, and this is an artist who’s very special—her vocal talent, her live performance and the way she relates to people around her. She’s bubbly, funny, on top of it, tuned in to culture in general, easy to talk to and is someone you immediately want to be best friends with. This one can be a superstar of the highest order. I’m anxious to get that one song out there that’s going to connect all those dots. We had an incredible song for our first single, but it was also a ballad. We sold a lot of tracks; it had great indicators for wherever it got played, but because of tempo, we were relegated to a certain place on the charts that we could never overcome. But the atmosphere seems to be changing and moving a little more in our favor. We can’t get to a point where we can’t ever hear down-tempos on the radio. Most of the best songs of our lives were down-tempo.

I love Claire Dunn.
Upon seeing her live for the first time, she was the most ready-to-go artist that I’d ever seen. She’s from a town of 30 people in Colorado, had for years travelled in a van with her band, gigging around that part of the country—she really got her chops up. She is a great guitar player, but she’s also an incredible performer in general. It’s not really what radio has been used to—once again, it’s coming from the outside in—but we’re gettin’ it. If you look at our sales-per-spin ratio on this single “Tuxedo,” we’re like #2 in that equation. We’re putting our shoulders into this, and she’s working really hard. I saw her open for Bob Seger; it was the first time I saw her with a full band, and I could not believe it. The crowd went crazy. She’s kind of a throwback to the good old days of rock & roll, when you’d just get up there and go at it.

The role of the label and music executives has changed. You’re dealing with meetings, corporate and group-wide initiatives, etc. How Do you balance all that with the artists and the music?
That is one of the biggest challenges we have, and again it comes under the heading of drowning in opportunity. There are so many opportunities in so many areas of the business that a record label should—could and should—be in, and we just have to continue to devote more resources to all these areas. It chaps my ass to read and hear that record labels aren’t what they used to be and don’t do the kind of artist development that they used to—because I promise you that this group is doing more than it ever did. There are some areas where we spend a little less money, namely videos, because the whole purpose of videos has changed, but we are spending more money, exponentially, in so many different areas: building brands, interacting with sync and television. The efforts with on-line marketing alone are unlimited and off the charts There’s a lot of stuff on our plate, and it’s really challenging.

You must have seen it all in your time there.
Now you make me feel old. I spent the first 10 years in Nashville under Tim DuBois at Arista, and we had so much success from an early stage that we didn’t sweat a lot of the things that a new startup label usually had to be concerned with. We hit Alan Jackson out of the park really quickly, and then we followed up with Brooks & Dunn, and then several others for which we had significant success, so from the get-go our business was always in a good place. We worked with Clive and we worked with the people in New York that had done it so well, and we learned so much from them along the way. Then I go to Capitol, which was under financial duress from the minute I walked in the door. But what I found was that the people who remained were completely dedicated to this little machine that could. The label just needed the right artists with the right music, and a little bit of common sense leadership. I kind of miss that underdog thing. And because Capitol Nashville was one of the few divisions that performed consistently well, often the changes that we put in place for practice and policy became the preferred model for EMI as a whole.

Then we got into the Terra Firma thing—that was a whole different can of worms. All I can tell you about that was that it knocked the spirit out of me completely. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was so dedicated to my artists and to my team, the people I had hired, I don’t know what I would have done. Coming over to Universal has been a wonderful thing, because with Lucian, and everyone around him, there’s a long-term vision and we get support at every level. It’s really enabled us to just focus on our business and not worry so much about how much the copy machines cost.

So I have to ask: Will we be hearing new music from Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton anytime soon?
The answer is not until 2017. That’s just the creative process. I would love to have new records from both of them right now, but these things take time. I’m in constant contact with both of them, and when they do come I expect that they will be massive. If there is one thing that I have learned, and I learned it a long time ago—I used to drive the powers at EMI crazy with this—it’s that the days of the very powerful record labels forcing artists to do anything are long gone. This is truly an era of partnership, as it should be, as it should have always have been, and sometimes there’s a little bit of a price to pay from a boardroom perspective on that reality.


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