EMPIRE was formed in 2010 by Ghazi Shami. The San Francisco-based company has been instrumental in launching the careers of multi-Platinum, Grammy Award-winning artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, DRAM, and Anderson.Paak.
In 2018, EMPIRE tapped former Black River Publishing executive Eric Hurt to start the Nashville office, which serves as an independent label, distributor, and publisher. Hurt had helped to secure a publishing deal at Black River for Willie Jones, who was signed to EMPIRE proper.
“Willie’s manager connected me with Ghazi, we actually met at SXSW,” Hurt, now VP of A&R, tells MusicRow. “We hit it off and then Ghazi just started talking his goals and desires of opening up a Nashville branch and getting more into country music and into Nashville.”
Ghazi was intrigued by the way country fans consume music.
“It started off with Kane Brown. EMPIRE released his first EP and it blew up, the numbers were great. So they were like, ‘What’s going on over here?’ Kane went on to do what he did and they signed Willie Jones to develop that out more,” Hurt says. “A lot of what this town is built on is radio, which serves a big purpose in our market and I don’t want to downplay that at all, but with that comes a lot of waiting. EMPIRE is really about content and super serving the fans first, getting things out on a digital level, rolling it out quickly, moving quickly and building up the value on that digital level first, and then going to radio when the time is right.”
Heather Vassar joined EMPIRE Nashville as VP of Marketing early in 2020. Vassar came to EMPIRE from Universal Music Group Nashville, where she most recently led Strategy and Research. She oversees day-to-day artist strategies and development, marketing and digital initiatives, as well as partner relationships with sales and streaming services for EMPIRE’s Nashville roster.
Now, country/hip-hop artist Jones, country up-and-comer Tenille Arts, singer-songwriter Waylon Payne, and newly-signed songwriter Nick Wayne make up the EMPIRE Nashville roster.
EMPIRE Nashville structures their deals a bit differently.
“To understand how our deals are structured, especially for the Nashville office, we very rarely put those tent poles down of like, ‘You’re just a distribution artist,’ or anything like that. It’s not defined that way. We’re super serving the town and investing in the town,” says Vassar. “We bring [the artist] into the family, then the goal is to essentially grow the family and grow all of the tent poles with them.”
Arts has a top-15 hit, “Somebody Like That,” was named part of the CMT Next Women of Country Class of 2021, and just performed as part of the prestigious CRS New Faces of Country Music Show. Last week, she was announced as a nominee for the ACM’s New Female Artist of the Year.
“Obviously radio is a huge player for her and have been big advocates for her. But it’s such an old school mentality, thinking you have to wait on one [single],” Vassar says. “We just dropped her most recent track, which will be her Canadian single. That will go for adds in a couple of weeks over there. [Our strategy is] being able to establish the U.S. single, but then also feeding the fans content and making sure the DSPs have content and music that doesn’t hinder the radio single, but instead adds value to it.”
Singer-songwriter Payne released his Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, to critical acclaim in late 2020. It hit the iTunes No. 2 spot on the country albums chart and No. 3 on the all genre albums chart upon release.
Payne is the son of country artist Sammi Smith and guitarist Jody Payne, who played for Willie Nelson.
“We rolled out his project pretty differently than we rolled out any other ones. We did it in four acts to help tell his story. He has such a compelling story with the narrative of his past and his life. I mean, Waylon Jennings as his godfather? There are so many layers there,” Vassar says.
“We’re all about trying new things, pushing the boundaries,” Vassar says. “It’s all the way from digital strategy, marketing, roll-out strategy, and then playlist placements, making sure that [Waylon] is in the conversation and that his story is being told in the way that they want it to be told.”
Genre-bending Jones caters to country and hip-hop fans with the release of his debut album, Right Now. Alongside his new record, Jones partnered with the newly opened National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) to launch the #IHaveAnAmericanDream initiative to coincide with the release of his single “American Dream.” Donations to the initiative ran through Black History Month, and went to the museum.
He was named to Spotify’s Hot Country Artists To Watch list, and currently hosts his own Apple Music show, The Cross Roads Radio, which serves as a sounding board for fellow production fanatics interested in how country and rap music intertwine.
Vassar says that the marketing strategy behind Jones crosses genres. “Willie is so authentic to both [country and hip-hop] that to only focus on one genre would just be a disservice to who he is at his core. To be able to captivate both audiences is definitely always at the forefront.
“It would not be authentic to Willie if we tried to say, ‘This is only who you are and this is it.’ In telling the story of who he is and maintaining that narrative, it opens up more doors in that realm. If it make sense, [we will pitch him] for a hip-hop playlist or a workout playlist,” Vassar says.
EMPIRE Nashville joins a handful of Nashville companies whose parent company’s success is rooted in hip-hop and R&B music, including Reservoir and Roc Nation’s Rhythm House. Hurt says that burgeoning lane is a testament to Nashville’s talent.
“I love seeing these kind of companies making an investment in Nashville,” Hurt says. “I think that it shows a lot of respect for the level of talent of the artists and songwriters that Nashville has to deliver. All genres are recognizing that there’s a lot to pull from here in this town that can spill over into other genres.”
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