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MAKING PEOPLE FEEL

 

 

 

Brian Wright, head of A&R at Universal Nashville, laughs when he remembers his big break. “I took a thousand-dollar pay cut to go work at Mercury under Keith Stegall, basically making tape copies. Billy Currington was one of my best friends; we were both flat broke, and we’d go do things together.”

Today, Wright oversees A&R for a cavalcade of country’s biggest stars: George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Sam Hunt and Carrie Underwood. Having apprenticed as a rising A&R force with Mark Wright, David Conrad and Luke Lewis, Wright’s fundamentals are solid—and so is his sense of repertoire that endures.

“We live in a disposable society, and things can be gone at the touch of a button,” he explains. “Where an act could have a 30-year career, today’s young acts should be praying for a 10-year, no, a five-year career, because that’s where cutting ‘hits’ instead of being strategic will get you.

Jon Pardi leans traditional. It’s a lane. He’s not afraid to be who he is, and that makes a difference. Or Chris Stapleton—that’s as pure as it gets. Someone pitched me a song of his that was 10 years old; I picked up the phone to take Chris to lunch, just to catch up because I’d known him since he came to town—and I walked away offering him a record deal.”

UMG Nashville VP of A&R Stephanie Wright recognizes the place of the unconventional. She sees it as a strength, citing Sam Hunt’s tremendous success. “People were really frightened when he came in: His appearance and his songs were so different; the setup wasn’t what they were used to,” she says. “But the songwriting was undeniable, and with social media, SiriusXM and streaming, when he got to terrestrial radio, there was a groundswell. We could show people it was working.”

Those analytics—and even independent artist development—can be a big boost for an artist looking to get signed. Jim Catino, who runs Sony Nashville’s A&R department, explains, “We’re always looking at analytics, because they are a great indicator, not just for what’s happening, like a Kane Brown, but what’s bubbling under. Analytics and socials are a big piece of our philosophy, because you can read the tea leaves by how people are responding, what they’re saying. But it’s also about gut, which is about emotion. If we’re moved, we listen to that too.”

Even in the competitive marketplace, Catino, whose father Bill was a promotion exec at Capitol during Garth Brooks’ dominance, refuses to look for guarantees. “I don’t see signing things as risks.” he says. “We’re aggressive and putting things out there that may be unconventional, but they fit the genre and the global marketplace. We can be both and win. And those things were important to Maren Morris, Cam and Kane too.”

Big Machine Label Group A&R domo Allison Jones, who came up under Richard Landis, James Stroud and Joe Galante, also leans into analytics, but she laughs about being a song junkie. “Someone asked Reba what she listens to, and Reba said, ‘Song demos.’ I agree,” she says. “When I was working with Richard, he didn’t take a lot of meetings, but he had these philosophies, like, ‘If I don’t hear a guitar hook, a snap or some hook before the first chorus, I don’t even listen, because hits need that.’ So I try to listen with open ears and an open heart. Any day could be the day I hear the next ‘I Hope You Dance,’ ‘Bless the Broken Road’ or ‘Cruise.’ Because a song like Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Cruise’ did make me want to roll the windows down and feel good. That’s as important as killing people with sadness, and the results speak for that too.

“Signing Florida Georgia Line was a gut thing. I’d seen and met them a couple of times, but we were already down the road with them when it blew up. I just believed how they made people feel was important.”

Pausing, the woman whose been involved in varying degrees with FGL, Thomas Rhett, Taylor Swift, Steven Tyler and Band Perry cites this year’s breakout female Carly Pearce’s dark-horse explosion. “I’d been meeting with Carly for six or seven years and really believed in her, but didn’t hear that song,” Jones says. “She sent me ‘Every Little Thing,’ right before it went to [SiriusXM’s] The Highway, because J.R. Schulmann, was going with it. I left her a message, saying ‘Girl, you just found your three minutes.’ It was a ballad with no electric instruments, but the soul, and the passion, and the emotion? You can’t make that up.”

Relationships helped Sony’s Taylor Lindsey scoop an almost-signed Maren Morris to a label where Chairman Randy Goodman was so new, he still didn’t know all his staff’s names. “I first heard Maren singing demos when I was in publishing, and every time, I’d go, ‘Who is that?’ She’d been writing at Big Yellow Dog, and I got to know her.

“When we knew we were getting a new head, I told Randy how badly I wanted to sign her, and he said, ‘I hear your passion. Let’s try.’ He recognized that in me, and we went for it. We had had cocktails and some lunches over the years, but I got serious. We even had her come into the building for a full marketing pitch with a timeline—because we knew what she had, and we wanted to make it happen.

“Part of our job is to help groom and educate artists, but the artist has to stay true. I like to say, ‘We don’t sign artists to change them. We sign artists to give them a world stage, and then support them as authentically as possible.’”

Ben Swank is the A&R and 
marketing consigliere at Jack White’s ultra-hip Third Man Records, which has been responsible for everything from Margot Price’s indie triumph to a Supremes box set. “We don’t traffic in mainstream country, though we hope the mainstream will come to us with Margot,” says Swank. “But there’s an energy around roots music—classic blues, folk, country, jazz—that doesn’t exist anymore, and when you find it, you respond. Lillie Mae (who was in RCA’s Gypsi), or Joshua Hedley, who’s not saying, ‘I’m just a classic country guy,’ but who’s doing it and singing about things that are modern—that speaks to me. It’s vintage, but it’s also authentic to who these artists are today. And we recognize that our artists have a sense of themselves. We’re here to help, to make suggestions, but if they want to pick their singles, that’s fine.”

Motown is an unlikely influence on Big Loud’s Seth England, a key architect behind FGL’s success, who co-founded Big Loud Records in 2015. Since then, the label has been picking up steam on Chris Lane, Jillian Jacqueline, Morgan Wallen and recently signed good-time country star Jake Owen, as well as yodeling sensation Mason Ramsey.

“I think the past matters,” says the man who grew up working his grandfather’s farm in a town of 300. “I’ve been reading the Motown story as we’re building this. It’s a lot about putting the best songs forward, having those writers on staff. Craig Wiseman gave FGL a lot of his best songs, because we’re committed to our artists. We want them going forward with the best songs, because we know one song doesn’t break an act—it takes a lot of great songs.”

England also cites not being afraid to be different as a key element. “When Luke Bryan cut ‘Drunk on You,’ a few artists had passed because of the line, ‘Makes the speakers go boom-boom.’ But every time you hear that song live, people are yelling it out. It’s that moment where everything gets bigger than the song.

“When Chris came to us, he loved all the fun parts of Kenny Chesney, so we used that as a barometer. Morgan came in, just played us a song on guitar, and we felt it. Very different artists, but as the corners of country music can be as wide as all the subgenres of other kinds of music, there’s room for it all. The difference, though, is pop music is a genre that’s typically here and gone. Country you’re building to last, so we don’t push artists out before they’re ready—and we really focus on the songs.”

Like Jones and England, songs drive Warner Nashville’s Cris Lacy, who spent a dozen years in publishing at Tommy Collins Music and Island Bound and working with Muscle Shoals legend Rick Hall. The woman who’s invested in Cole Swindell, Devin Dawson, Ashley McBryde, Chris Janson and Chesney recognizes that a well-written song can serve many masters.

“To me, some of the best stuff is a mixture of authentic and commercial,” she explains. “If it makes you want to drive fast, cry, fight, hook up, drink or call your mom, those things are telling; they’re what a song needs to do. In a world where streaming is easy, these are the kinds of songs that make you want to download, buy, gift and know every bit of information about the person singing it.

“And I find that usually it’s the true writer artists, instead of the artists who co-write, who really dial this in. They know who they are, what they feel, and it can’t help but be in their songs.

“Chris Janson didn’t want to put ‘Drunk Girl’ on the record, because he didn’t think it would be a single—and it ended up being the song that showed Nashville this is an artist to take very seriously. He’s not just a good-time guy, he’s someone who’s thinking about the world and understands how to put it in songs that make the listener also think about their world.”

Connecting in the white-noise din of every distribution platform and look-at-me celebrity-seekers working socials with a vengeance is harder than ever. As the business changes and monetization gets trickier, it comes down to the A&R people to figure out what matters in a world of far too many feeling they deserve deals, while genuine stars are harder to find in the pile-up.

As Brian Wright says, 
“You get all these songs about a dirt road with a drum loop, and it starts to sound the same. I remember when Luke gave me this job, I moved into Tony Brown’s office, and every Thursday at 5, Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton and Morgane when they first started dating, and Dean Dillon would come by. We’d drink and buy every old country song we could think of off iTunes and really dig in. That kind of thing endures, and we can’t lose it chasing moments.”

“Every act we sign,” adds Stephanie Wright, “we look at for the long term. It makes a difference how you approach the music, and how we take them to the world.”

Taylor Lindsey concurs, recognizing both the opportunities and the realities. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” she says. “The daily challenge of our industry right now is like the Wild, Wild West: how to navigate all these changing things, maintain the emotion people want and not lose sight of what we see working. It’s making sure all our artists have their own lane, then giving them songs we know are hits and every opportunity—whether it’s streaming, SiriusXM, radio, touring or something else—to get to the fans.”

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