(This article first appeared in MusicRow‘s January 2021 Touring print issue.)
In college, MusicRow Publisher/Owner Sherod Robertson was enamored with the television show Dallas, which followed the saga of the Ewing family and their massive oil empire. The suits and the storylines inspired Robertson to want to pursue a career in business in Dallas so when he graduated magna cum laude from The University of Alabama, he headed west to start that journey.
With a business education and a major in accounting, Robertson took a job with the well-known Arthur Andersen & Co. accounting firm. A few years later, Robertson visited a fraternity brother who lived in Nashville. On that brief visit, Robertson immediately knew he had to leave Dallas and move to Music City. From that first visit, he knew this was home.
“I wasn’t trying to get a job in the music industry,” Robertson said. “I had specialized in oil and gas [accounting]. But through the way it often works in Nashville, I knew someone and that connection led to a career change by helping me secure an interview with Reunion Records, the boutique contemporary Christian music label. I landed the job and soon became CFO of Reunion. Reunion was acquired by Bertelsmann and Arista Records in the mid-90s, and that’s how I ended up working for Arista and that amazing and somewhat legendary team under the leadership of Tim Dubois and Mike Dungan.”
In 2000, the Arista Records label was merged as an imprint under its sister company RCA Label Group, and many of the Arista staff received pink slips, Robertson included. After stumbling around for a while, he parlayed some work with the Nashville Scene into helping to start a new company, SouthComm, with publisher Chris Ferrell. SouthComm became a media company that owned a number of alternative weekly newspapers and other niche publications such as the Nashville Scene and Nfocus, and eventually purchased MusicRow Magazine from its Founder, David Ross.
In 2010, SouthComm decided to sell off MusicRow. And Robertson decided to buy it.
“I often get asked what gave me the courage and confidence to make the leap from something like finance and accounting to buying a media company. I personally had no journalism experience and the only articles I had written were audit opinions and financial statement footnotes. But looking back, I honestly feel I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It wasn’t even something I needed to analyze or think about. When an opportunity presents itself that is so perfectly aligned with who you are and where you want to go, and most importantly, you are mentally in a place to accept it, taking that first step is ridiculously easy. It’s the execution that follows; however, where all the work begins.
“Once I acquired MusicRow, I became the apprentice. Since I was one of the first two people that started SouthComm and I had so much institutional knowledge about that company, I said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do as part of my deal with the acquisition: I will train someone so that whenever I leave on that last day, you won’t even notice that I have left. It will be that seamless.’ And so I would work at SouthComm for the first half of the day, and then on my lunch break, I would come over to MusicRow and work the remaining part of the day. When I was at SouthComm, I was training someone to take over my role, and when I came here, David [Ross] was doing the opposite and training me to take over his role. So I was very fortunate that after I bought the company, I was able to be trained by the guy who started it in 1981.
“Something I recently realized is that me being a CPA and an auditor at Arthur Anderson in those early days of my career gave me some incredibly useful tools for my role at MusicRow, particularly those I learned on the audit side,” Robertson said. “Knowing accounting is always a good plus when you’re running your own company. I think everybody would agree with that. I never dreamed that my audit skills would translate into any type of asset as a Publisher, but it has. One of the most important skills as a financial auditor is looking for inconsistencies, looking for errors, looking for things that don’t fit, and when you have a company like MusicRow that is generating so much content—whether it’s proofing or just getting that gut feeling that something doesn’t look right and it needs to be adjusted. Those are some of the skills that I brought here from my very first job many years ago.”
Since being at MusicRow, the publication has grown exponentially in value. Robertson took a well-built, innovative and valuable resource for the Nashville music industry, and expanded it, growing the publication’s digital presence. The print magazines have grown and strengthened under Robertson’s leadership, including the lauded InCharge Print Issue and Directory, and the valued Artist Roster and Publisher Editions. Robertson enhanced the MusicRow CountryBreakout Radio Chart, acquired the MusicRow Top Songwriter Chart, launched the MusicRow Weekly Newsletter, implemented MusicRow’s No. 1 Challenge Coins, and much more.
Robertson adds, “In the first few years, I had two major goals. One was to have a deeper footprint by penetrating the Nashville music industry in a more profound, meaningful way. And the second was to pay down my debt that I used to acquire the company. Looking back, that’s what we have done, and I’m very proud of that.
“There were two different paths I could have gone, and I thought seriously and strategically about both. I could have made the publication more consumer oriented. A lot of industry trade publications end up going in this direction but it often weakens the value for the industry it serves. I purposely decided that was not the path for MusicRow. I wanted to hyper-serve the music industry in Nashville, plant my feet deeper into the industry and become an even more important resource, not just for information, but for connecting people in the industry. As a result, in addition to the core industry members we serve, we also have thousands of country music superfans, who don’t work in the industry, but follow our content because of its integrity and value.”
Robertson also revamped the existing MusicRow Awards event to an invitation-only, ticketed gala with expanded categories; and he started the beloved, annual Rising Women on the Row honors ceremony.
“[Rising Women on the Row] has been an important event for me because it’s an homage to my late grandmother, so it has a very personal meaning,” Robertson said. “I love supporting badass women in our industry when they’re in the middle of their careers–and shining a spotlight on them and their contributions. It’s important for me to let them know that we all see what they are doing and we want to recognize and honor that. That’s what this event is all about.”
Likewise, MusicRow established the N.B.T. (Next Big Thing) Music Industry Directory in last year’s Touring Print Issue, which showcases Nashville industry members in mid-level roles, who are rising through the ranks.
“This is highlighting the top achievers in the next generation that are going to be the future leaders of our industry. They are literally the future of the Nashville music industry. Reinvesting back into the industry is such an important thing, and I think a lot of us do that. We know how important it is to invest in the next generation that’s coming up. So this is one way we can do that, by recognizing those individuals who are the Next Big Thing.”
Robertson has learned a lot in his 10 years at the helm of MusicRow Magazine. His hard work has paid off.
“The most rewarding part of this role has been the people and the experiences. When I think of the extraordinary people I have met and the amazing things I have been given the opportunity to do, I am completely humbled with gratitude. As I mentally scroll through the names and experiences, I jokingly ask myself, ‘Whose life is this!?’ I am truly very fortunate to be in this position.
“But it takes a tremendous amount of work to do what MusicRow does on a consistent and reliable basis. I’m very proud of our team and the content we generate. It’s exciting to have a group of team members that not only share my vision but have a similar desire to be their very best.”
As far as the next 10 years, Robertson remains focused on what the Nashville music business needs.
“I think it’s very important on the front end that I’m always looking, not just for new opportunities—because I’m very good at that—but also looking for opportunities where MusicRow needs to be and what we need to be doing,” Robertson said. “My daily philosophy can be somewhat exhausting, so I’m not necessarily recommending it, but on some level I come into the office every single day with the expectation that I have to earn it all over again today. I don’t get to rest on anything I’ve done before. With that mindset, as far as the next 10 years go, it’s being acutely aware of where MusicRow needs to be and how we need to improve and enhance our role of connecting this industry, especially as the industry gets more fragmented—whether it be geographically or the graying lines of the genre, or the expanding digital opportunities or as in this year, the way we continue to work and create during a pandemic.
“We have to always be looking at what we need to be doing. Whatever we do today may be great, but you have to understand that tomorrow, it may not be. It may need to be something else, something different. That’s the key to me, as far as going forward. Some people want to be big, but I don’t use size as a measurement of my success. I use quality of service, value of content, ability to connect all of us together and most importantly, the feedback I receive from industry people that I respect. Those are my metrics.”