By Holly Gleason

John Esposito is having a wild ride. This freewheeling label head, who’s renowned for defying the status quo, describes his life as “pretty freaking great.” And it’s just 3pm on a Wednesday.

With female artists still struggling at Country radio, Warner Music Nashville delivered back-to-back #1s with relative newcomers Gabby Barrett and Ingrid Andress, while Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s “Nobody but You ” hit #1 a week later. The self-proclaimed “sales and distribution guy,” who relishes his rise from retail, has watched the decidedly pop Dan + Shay destroy the Grammys, cross over with “Tequila” and “Speechless” and dominate the world with their Justin Bieber collab “10,000 Hours.” Espo also vanquished Drake with Kenny Chesney’s chart-topping Here & Now.

With Shelton’s 27 chart-toppers and Chesney’s ninth #1 all-genre album debut, Espo is setting a precedent. But he’s also committed to embracing both the future of streaming and supporting each of his artists’ individuality above all other considerations. “I don’t want the next anything,” says the man who’s as at home at The Galley in Nantucket with a Macallan 18 as he is teeter-tottering between Springsteen and Sinatra. It’s why Brett Eldredge’s soulfully organic “Gabrielle,” Ashley McBryde’s pro-working-class raw-country “One Night Standards” and full-bore Texas patriot Cody Johnson’s red-dirt oeuvre don’t just coexist but flourish in Espo’s world.

An innovator by nature, the Chairman/CEO merged digital into promotion early. He believes in metrics and analysis, but not over the power of an actual human connection, whether musically, or through the acute instincts of EVP A&R Cris Lacy and her team creative of ninjas, and EVP/GM Ben Kline, whose “take it to the streets and the streams” sales/product marketing/perception strategy individuates each project.

The latter fact is critical. Always eying the future, Espo—who’s not even thinking about thinking about retiring—is empowering WMN’s next-wave leaders. It’s why Barrett sits in the #2 spot on Nielsen’s Country On-Demand 2020 Year to Date Chart and is the first female country artist to notch over 10 million streams in a single week (she did 11m+). Dan + Shay are double billionaires (“Tequila” and “Hours”) as well as being the first country duo or group to debut in the Hot 100’s Top 5 (“Hours”). And Blake Shelton saw “God’s Country” became the second-biggest-streaming country single of 2019, while receiving CMA Awards and Grammy nominations.

Congrats on the unthinkable—not just two #1s with women artists, but back-to-back.
[Laughs] The coincidence was no planning whatsoever, I promise. “More Hearts” is platinum in terms of streaming and still growing; Gabby’s “I Hope” is double-platinum and starting to break globally. So a 40-weeks-to-#1 and a 41-weeks-to-#1. I’ll take it, because we knew what we had with those songs and those artists. And Ashley’s coming up right behind them.

Is radio starting to be more open?
[More laughter] Radio didn’t make life easier because they were women, that’s for sure. But I’m not concerned with that. I’ll say it again: We knew what we had. We kept coming back to radio week after week with consumption stories, with what we’re seeing with SiriusXM. The COVID crisis is forcing them to play even more familiar music, so it’s tighter. Twenty-two songs on a current playlist isn’t helping, but it doesn’t change the job we have to do, so YouTube, playlisting and satellite radio are all part of how we’re building.

Is it physical versus streaming? Traditional radio versus other platforms?
There’s that argument: A streaming consumer isn’t a terrestrial listener; they aren’t the same person. We can buy into that—or we can keep making music available to people in all ways, however they want to consume it. Radio doesn’t want to have to admit that people were going other places for music discovery, but look around.

You got in front of that really early by merging your promotion team with digital.
We get passionate about artists. If it means using the data like a hammer with terrestrial radio and some of the DSPs, so be it. Long before all this was a discussion—10 years ago—we hired Tori Nugent to run research and analysis. It was a great tool, so we hired her a sidekick.

I read a self-help book in my 20s that said, “If you don’t accept that change is inevitable, you’re going to trap yourself and become outmoded.” I wanted to expand the digital department before we had to. I saw one person streaming and 23, 24 people calling radio. I thought, “What if we shift some of those people, learn how playlists work, try to cross-reference all of it?”

We did, and the radio people became better-informed about what the data means.

That’s visionary.
Part of it might’ve been a little Scotch on the beach in Nantucket.

As the most passionate guy in the room always, if anyone can find something good in COVID-19 reordering everything, you’re the man.
For the music industry, I’m hard-pressed—especially for live, which is one of our biggest artist development tools. Dan + Shay had to cancel their arena tour; for those midlevel acts on the verge of being superstars, it’s tricky. I can see the efficiency of our meetings and fewer wasted hours from not being in somebody’s face. We’ve really slowed down and are in better touch. It’s the quality of how we’re interacting and having time for really digging into the music.

You’re so artist-forward.
I remember sitting at Country Radio Seminar at a session, and one of the radio programmers said, “Sam Hunt’s a hit, so you know how record companies are: They’re all gonna sign one of those.” If I ever heard somebody on my team say we’re signing the next anything, they’d be done.

Almost all our artists contribute a significant amount of songwriting, even those who don’t know what they want to say. When you come to my office, there’s a Springsteen section and a Sinatra section. I tell all our artists: “You can do it this way or that way, but whether you’re Bruce writing or you’re Sinatra finding great material, you gotta own the song.”

Ten years ago, Country radio wouldn’t have played Devin Dawson, Dan + Shay or Sam Hunt, but the writing makes things undeniable, adds something personal. Ashley’s “Little Dive Bar” happened because she was upset about Guy Clark dying and didn’t want to write, but her song’s all about what music means. Ashley’s lived every bit of it. “I Hope” was a real story Gabby lived; same with Ingrid and “More Hearts.” But even Blake seeks things that are him, not just musically, but spiritually they embody who he is.

And it’s systemic.
Cris Lacy is hands-down the best A&R person in town in terms of artists, but also songs and how they impact. We win so many artist battles, because once she talks to people—the artists as well as their teams—it’s obvious this is an A&R head who’s very committed to building the music to reflect an artist’s truth and sense of themselves. This company believes that if the music moves us, it will move others. That starts with Cris. When I promoted Ben Kline and Cris Lacy a year ago April, I was putting a stake in the ground for who I wanted to be side by side as we go into the future. This is about the future of these artists and their music.

When it was obvious it was going to be close between Kenny and Drake, Ben really dug in and brought that #1 home.
Ben doesn’t care how people want music; he’s going to get it to them. For Kenny, we knew how crazy No Shoes Nation is, and understand that they want a physical piece of his music. Kenny says, “As record stores disappear, I have to be my own retailer.” And Ben got that. When they realized how close it was, they put their heads together and found ways to increase visibility. Everybody talks about the bundle, but Kenny was also #1 at the iTunes Store. Not everyone has to “own” a piece of their favorite artist, but Ben got that reality. Just like Dan + Shay require something else. His attitude is, “How do we reach them? How do we deliver the music?” He oversees such a large part of the creative and messaging stuff too, so he’s really brought the reality of how we bring our artists to the people together, and it shows.

Brett Eldredge is another classic singer who, 10 years in, is making a turn.
Kristen Williams said to me, “50% think it’s amazing; 50% are ‘What is this?’” Brett’s on the verge of being the next big superstar with a body of work, but this is where he wants to go. SiriusXM came out of the gate in tandem, playing three songs; there’ll be five or six in the marketplace by release. We’re marketing by showing a movie of “Gabrielle,” this boundary-breaking song that will end up being very good for the format as well. We won’t watch the radio charts wholly for this record, but we’ll create opportunities for people to hear the music. iHeart is doing “Brett: Live From His Living Room” for an artist they believe they can take to a new level. They want to put their stake in the ground and be creative. So there are pockets of stations out there that are looking around. It’s an interesting time.

For country music, touring is so important at all levels.
A massive artist development tool has been taken out of our kit. We actually have a task force making plans for the worst if this goes on indefinitely. It can’t be “live from your living room” forever. How this sorts out I’m not sure. But we are trying to find alternatives.

Streaming’s grown.
As people are locked in their house, the biggest growing segment is 35+, and country has had the biggest growth of any genre. We started with 6.7% total, and in early July it was 8%. But more importantly, it gets our fans in the ecosystem, familiarizes them with the services and how they work. Streaming’s done an amazing job keeping recorded-music companies more buoyant, but with terrestrial radio only playing 22 currents—and with people not in their cars—this is a moment. Streaming and satellite radio are becoming ubiquitous without the 25-35 million people who listen to Country radio, so it’s building. With anywhere from 120-130 songs being worked at any given time, it also allows more new music to be heard.

It also opens up other creative portals.
Absolutely. Gabby was streaming north of 2 million a week before she even signed, but we unleashed a digital armada. We had videos and other things to show you who she was, because people didn’t necessarily know. We built her story, and they delivered it—and that helps. People invest when they feel artists are real. They’ve streamed and streamed the songs, now here she is.

Dan + Shay had had three or four #1s, but the video for “Speechless” was like a cannon shot. We did our first enhanced album for Spotify with Kenny, So there’s always an opportunity to expand the music in these places.

Here’s the big question: Springsteen says, “You’re sitting in! What do you wanna play?”
“Candy’s Room.” ’Cause I’m gonna play drums—just sit there and watch it all go down from the riser. It’s so fun to play “Wipe Out” for three minutes.

“Candy’s Room”? Wow.
There’s angst and insecurity in that song. There’s romance. And there’s the promise and the challenge: “Baby, if you wanna be wild, you got a lot to learn.”

Time to get the hell outta Dodge. (7/19a)
The score at the half (7/19a)
Hat trick (7/19a)
He's a one-man dynasty. (7/19a)
One titan salutes another. (7/19a)
Who's already a lock?
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
The discovery engine is revving higher.

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