February 18, 2014
The atmosphere has to be upbeat at this year's CRS, going down now in Nashville. After all, Country music is riding pretty high these days, both at radio and at retail. Yet UMG Nashville Chairman/CEO Mike Dungan isn't taking anything for granted. Hot on the heels of breakthroughs such as Luke Bryan and Eric Church, Dungan expects the label to continue to be aggressive and adventurous in pushing Country's envelope. Here's why...
What made you decide to leave Capitol Nashville for UMG Nashville?
Very simple. It became real obvious that EMI was falling apart and I had to take care of myself. When I met with Lucian Grainge, he impressed me and I felt really good about our shared vision of what this could be and should be. I felt very comfortable that I was walking into an environment that was right for me. The tough part, the emotional part, was letting go of all the artists I had been working with for so many years and the staff I had built over the years. As fate would have it, it all miraculously worked out.
You had pop experience at previous labels. How much of what you learned there transferred to the Country world?
I would say not a lot. I came into it 23 years ago with perhaps a broader base view of how the business could work, but to be honest, when I came here, I was kind of smug. I thought I was going to teach these hillbillies how do business. But the reality is that Nashville taught me a completely different way to do business. A way that was just as good ... and in many ways, a lot better ... not to mention a Lot friendlier.
What, in general, are the greatest challenges UMG Nashville -- and any Country label, for that matter - faces in a digital music world?
The biggest question mark -- the elephant in the room -- is what the streaming model looks like once it really takes hold, and is it truly going to be a sustainable model under which we can continue to drive the business. There's no question people will pay something for streaming ... but are the economics right? The experts around the streaming services believe they will be eventually, and all I know is to trust them.
When it comes to signing bands and putting out music, however, there has been no change. Our focus is still to make the best music possible ... make records with the biggest, brightest stars ... and market the hell out of them.
How has radio evolved over the years, in terms of it being easier or harder to break hits?
Certainly radio is more centralized, so there's a lot more one-stop shops than there ever was. That's wonderful ... if everything goes your way. It is a little disconcerting to not be able to have regional breakouts of artists and songs. Records breaking out of one place and spreading nationally seems to have gone the way of the corporate conference call.
Does a more centralized radio environment prompt to you push more familiar "hit sounds" ... and push the envelope less?
No, we push the envelope because it's strategically the right way to run a business. If you're going to play right down the middle of the road, you're going to get middle of the road results, which is less than spectacular. Our goal is to get something new and challenging through the gatekeepers and onto the airwaves, then if the fans get their arms around it, that's usually when you realize your biggest successes.
Speaking of centralized radio, there has been a persistent criticism that there's a dearth of hits from female Country artists. UMG Nashville has Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Kelleigh Bannen, among others. How difficult has it been for you to get your female talent on the radio?
It's tough, but it's been tough for a long time. There was a time when females were not making the best music; that's what got us into this mess in the first place. Once that started to develop into a pattern, the cart got in front of the horse. Now we're definitely seeing, among some of our radio friends, a mindset that there could only be so many female voices on the radio at one time. I hate that notion, but the way to dig out of that is to come up with superior music. You come with the best music ... it's inevitably going to break through regardless of what sex the artist is.
The Grammys certainly thought Kacey Musgraves created some great music. Has that endorsement done anything to persuade radio to give her more of a shot?
It certainly didn't help this single. We experienced am immediate and massive uptick in sales, so the fans were affected in a substantial way, but Country radio did not respond. Why didn't they? Research, callout and Mscores. The song, "Follow Your Arrow," just wasn't researching. I hate it, but that happens to some records.
Do you feel Country is developing a parallel audience of sorts, one comprised of those who listen to Country radio and another comprised of those who don't and get exposed to artists through other ways?
I don't think it's any different than any other genre of music. Our primary focus is on radio. If a sizeable minority of the populace is crazy about something, that becomes the spark. Our job is to take the spark and blow it into a flame. It is our job to push and shove with the goal of getting the majority to buy in. But if the majority are too slow to catch on, or fail to catch on at all, that music is not going to have much success with radio. Country radio is in the business of appealing to the masses. As crude and crass as that may sound, radio needs a sizeable audience just to pay the bills. We get that, and we always aim to nail that bigger audience as well.
But radio is no longer the only driver for our business, and we think we are pretty skilled at going where the fish are. So yes, to varying degrees we can and do have success without airplay.
If research doesn't show support from radio's core audience, is it worth working those songs to Americana or Triple A?
That's an option, but they're very tiny formats when compared to Country. The #1 record in Country reaches 40-45 million people a week -- and none of those formats deliver a fraction of that. Those formats may be filled with rabid music buyers; but there simply aren't enough of them to drive the type of home run success that I am so addicted to.
On the other end of the spectrum, you just signed a Country icon in George Strait, who's doing his final tour. Radio has essentially moved on from Strait's music to younger, more contemporary Country acts. How do you plan on selling his music if he stopped touring and you can't count on radio?
There's no question that what George does is no longer in the middle of road of what's heard on Country radio. You could argue that it is to the right of center, stylistically. But George's music also has tremendous mainstream appeal, and I believe that as long as he continues to make Great music, it will find a place on the airwaves.
One UMG Nashville artist who certainly has pushed the envelope successfully is Eric Church. How did you know that radio was going to embrace Eric?
Radio has shifted. Eric was certainly out in front of that shift. It took one and two-thirds of an album to get to where we needed to be. Eric, in fact, helped drive the shift, by consistently pounding out great music. In the early days, most in radio who were afraid of what he was doing (and there were a LOT of them) had to admit that he was making great music, whether in their minds it fit what they were doing or not. I counted 23 radio programmers who "got it" and supported it from day one. They know who they are ... and I am forever grateful to them. The music, the artist, those magic 23, and my staff ... became "The Spark." And now look at him. Awesome.
So you weren't confident that, with the release of the second album, Eric would blow up at radio?
Oddly, it was last single from the second album, "Smoke A Little Smoke," with its not-so-veiled reference to smoking pot, that blew the doors open . You normally wouldn't think that to be a solid Country music theme, but his performance and the song was just so strong, you couldn't help but like it -- even if the subject matter made you uncomfortable. It blew up immediately, and scorched the chances that any amount of callout research could hurt it. You just gotta love that.
So the first time you heard that song, you immediately didn't think, "hit?"
No, we got to a point where we said to each other, "Oh what the hell ... what do we have to lose?" His previous singles didn't get him much with radio than "The Magic 23" (God bless them again), and everyone who heard this song responded so strongly to it. So we threw it out there to see what would happen. Bam. Justice.
Whenever an artist achieves success with a different type of sound or song, it inevitably leads to a lot of sound-alike songs. Are you concerned about that?
I definitely feel Eric's influence in many corners of the new music being made today. But I feel the influence of Luke Bryan's success much more. What Luke does is finding its way into the corner of a Lot of people's music.
You, of course, are referring to "Bro Country"...
I like to not think of Luke's music as part of whatever the "Bro Country" movement is that's currently dominates our airwaves, but you could argue that what he was doing had a big hand in starting it, for sure. He is really a multi-dimensional artist in all the right ways. From the start, all you had to do was see Luke live to know that if he got the right songs, or strung together the right songs, he could have one of the biggest careers ever. He is a fantastic live performer who gives the audience everything he's got -- and then some. There's a special swagger and personality about him that appeals to everyone. I look at him as a "Really Happy Elvis."
But could "Bro Country" overexposure negatively impact Luke as well as everyone else?
I'm always worried about that. Every time there's a new Country star, out come the copycats who can ruin a good thing - and you can't really stop that.
The thing in Luke's favor, though, is that he's a very talented guy and writer whose personal tastes run wide and deep. We're seeing that now with his current #1 single, "Drink A Beer." He didn't write that song, but it's really him. It's very different than anything else on the radio. He debated long and hard on whether to come to radio with that; my advice to Luke was that this could exactly be the curve ball he should throw in his career right now. He could be the only artist to pull a song like this off ... and it worked spectacularly in his favor. Now his career can take so many different turns.
But you knew from the get-go that this was a hit?
Honestly, yes, I think we all felt that immediately. You know you have a very special song when you feel it would appeal to fans across a wide swath. The only concern we had was obviously it sounded too soft and so slow -- especially right now, when our radio format seems to favor only uptempo songs with a happy, party-like atmosphere. You throw a song like "Drink A Beer" in there, it takes radio in a completely different direction.
When you say "appeal to fans across a wide swatch," does that mean you want Country artists to cross into other formats?
I don't know and I would never presume to forecast where music is going, but what I hope and ask for is for the music to continue to be great. Whether it evolves in one direction or another, if it happens to cross over to pop and attract a larger audience, that's wonderful. It certainly was wonderful for Lady Antebellum, What I'm concerned about is making sure, first and foremost, that it's a hit record in Country ... as long as the artist is real comfortable and being cared for within the confines of Country.
You're deeply involved in the Country Radio Seminar. Recently Bill Mayne came here and cited a CRS panel on how Country can keep its young Millennial audience. Does that concern you, too?
When it comes to youth appeal, we're certainly aware of its potential, short and long term. It is very attractive in many ways, but we are not necessarily looking for that type of talent. I'd love to have something that appeals to a younger audience, but I don't want to ever forget what got us to this dance. We just want great music that is marketable.
I always preach that this format is best when we are very wide, from pop, to rock, to very country, and everything in between. That's what we should be looking for. I remember when Randy Travis came on the scene in '89. Country radio was pretty damn pop then. It didn't play too well to be a traditional artist at that time. But his music so good, and his album was so deep, it literally kicked the doors down for what would be a resurgence of a lot of traditional artists such as Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth. I'm not saying I expect it to happen again, but I wouldn't say it couldn't happen again, either. And honestly, I would fucking love to see it.
Finally, what keeps you involved with the CRS?
To me, it's the singular event that keeps Country music and Country radio so special. Sitting side by side, learning essential information, sharing ideas, soaking up the spirit of the music, spending quality time with the artists, and celebrating all that quantifies and defines the "lifestyle." Yes, it is a big world out there, and technology lends itself to vast homogenization of our culture, but we still have a very unique and cool thing going on over here. You gotta love that.