MusicRow welcomed several of Nashville’s top A&R executives to discuss the intense competition to sign new artists, the role of artist development, signing female talent, and more.
BBR Music Group’s Sara Knabe, Big Machine Label Group’s Allison Jones, Warner Music Nashville’s Cris Lacy, and UMG Nashville’s Stephanie Wright visited the MusicRow office for a discussion on the biggest opportunities and challenges labels face in the A&R arena.
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MusicRow: Nashville has such a tight-knit A&R community, and yet there is so much competition to sign new artists. If an artist doesn’t fit with your label for some reason, do you make a call to other potential labels?
Cris Lacy: The way it’s done now, if a manager calls one of us, they call all of us. An email introduction turns into, “This artist has heat.” All of a sudden we are all jumping around to try to sign them. It’s so rapid now.
Stephanie Wright: Early on Brett [Eldredge] came in and played for us and I was so in love with him and I couldn’t get everybody else as fired up…
Lacy: We were at a show, and Stephanie had been about Sam Hunt for forever, before anyone and that was one of those emails that came through. I remember being at a show and saying to Stephanie, ‘I don’t know why he doesn’t just sign with you guys. You offered him a great deal, but we have to get in this because it is awesome. And obviously he did sign with UMG and rightfully so. She put in the time and effort and was there from the beginning.
Allison Jones: We look at these artists and we always want to sign them, but our worlds are always going to intersect. With Cole [Swindell], he’s been a co-writer for some of our artists and he’s been on tour with our artists. I believe in music karma.
Sara Knabe: [Recent Warner Music Nashville signee] Cody Johnson is another one, and ultimately we both have the same passion level for it, but she’s [motions to Lacy] known him longer.
Lacy: I had been after Cody Johnson for eight years…
Knabe: I had been after him for about nine months. They had this relationship and even when Cody would talk with us about it, I would be like, “Cris is amazing and would be amazing for you.” That’s the part where you are competitive. I wanted that deal. I wanted it bad. But, I am really excited for him. You guys have that relationship and I understood it. But was I bummed? Absolutely.
MR: It is well known that female country artists have trouble getting radio airplay. Does that make you hesitant to sign female talent?
[All]: No. Not at all.
Wright: Being the hopeful A&R people that we are, we want to sign that girl who will break through. There’s a plethora of talent in the female space, too.
Jones: When I look back in my elementary school days, I literally wanted to be Crystal Gayle, and then one of the Mandrell Sisters, and then of course, Dolly and Reba and Trisha and Lee Ann Womack. Some of my favorites of any genre have been our iconic country women. Good Lord, I hope Carly Pearce joins those ranks, and everyone in our [BMLG] building feels the same way. It’s just about great music. I hope everyone at this table can find the next Reba or Trisha, because music needs it.
Wright: These new artists coming in are all supporting one another, too. They show up at one another’s shows when they have a day off. They are not afraid to talk about how great another artist is. I think there was a time period when females felt there was a scarcity—“If I’ve got this attention, it don’t want to share it.” But now, I feel they all support one another.
MR: Females make up the majority of top A&R executives at the main country labels. Does being a female executive affect how you approach A&R?
Jones: I have nothing but respect for my male counterparts, but I feel that women as a whole do well at this job because we’ve allowed ourselves to become immersed in their personal lives. We all live and breathe these artists. Tali [Canterbury] and Laurel [Kittleson] talk to their artists every day. I feel like not only do we do A&R, we live the lives of our artists, whether it’s getting married or having children or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. I’m best at my job when I know what is going on in their lives and their families, to know what they want to say and what they don’t want to say with their music. I think women have an innate ability to be more perceptive.
Lacy: Women are nurturing and that’s a natural fit for A&R.
Knabe: All three of these women have been mentors and friends even when I was a publisher. I have a huge list of women in the industry that had my back and taught me how to handle career issues. At Broken Bow, the majority of the staff are women. Looking at my career, I’ve been surrounded by people who support me, including Jon Loba and Kos Weaver.
Jones: Scott [Borchetta] always wants the most qualified person for the job, and we have quite a few female executives at Big Machine.
MR: Talk about the development work that labels do versus what publishers do.
Lacy: I think there is commentary out there that “Labels don’t do development.” The problem is when we do development, publishers are like, “Well, that’s been over here for a few years and nothing has happened with it,” and they move on instead of saying, “The label is doing development and this could be a two-, three-, or four-year process.”
The hard part is all the new artists are watching all the other artists on social media. So whether or not they are making smart decisions, and whether or not all this music is ready—and that only plays out in the years to come—they are watching all this and it makes them anxious because every artist wants to come out [with music] the moment they are signed.
MR: With such intense competition to sign one artist, does that hasten or delay the overall signing process?
Lacy: My joke on Cody [Johnson], and I said this to Cody and [his manager Howie Edelman] was, “Just get married.” I don’t care who you marry at this point but please get married because at this point I’m chasing you so hard I feel like…
Knabe: It’s almost like a relationship or going to prom, where you are like, “Please love me. I know there is another really good looking girl over there, but please pick me.”
Lacy: At some point, prom just needs to happen so everyone can move on.
MR: Any final thoughts?
Jones: I am really excited and positive abut this crop of new artists—and we’ve all worked together on them in some capacity. You guys [motions to Knabe and Lacy] pitched me great songs when you worked in publishing and we couldn’t do what we do without great publishers, so the two of you helped my career.
Knabe: And every time I got a cut, that helped my career…
Lacy: It’s all symbiotic.
Jones: We are competitors and we all want to win, but I am really protective and really proud of our community, because it doesn’t exist in other genres.
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