My Music Row Story: UMG Nashville’s Stephanie Wright
The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Stephanie Wright has been an integral part of Universal Music Group for more than 20 years. As Senior VP, A&R, she aids A&R initiatives for Capitol, EMI, MCA and Mercury, including talent recruitment, artist development and oversight of respective recording projects for UMG artists Sam Hunt, Jordan Davis, Maddie & Tae, Parker McCollum, Little Big Town, Mickey Guyton and more. Her artist signings include Hunt, Davis, McCollum, Kacey Musgraves, Kassi Ashton, and Catie Offerman. She was promoted to her current role in 2018.
A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright came to the music business through her cousins, the Platinum-selling sibling trio SHeDAISY. Since, Wright has been instrumental in critically-acclaimed albums, including Lee Ann Womack‘s Call Me Crazy, Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park, and Hunt’s Montevallo. She serves on the T.J. Martell Foundation (Southern Region) board of directors and is a member of the ACM, CMA, Recording Academy and N.O.W. In addition to Rising Women on the Row, Wright has been honored multiple times as one of the Nashville Business Journal‘s Women of the Year.
Wright will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow’s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Utah in a town called Magna that’s about 20 minutes outside of Salt Lake. We called Magna the armpit of Salt Lake. It was close to the Great Salt Lake and the Great Salt Lake stinks. It’s sort of centered in between the lake itself and then this big copper mine that’s there. Copper smells and the Great Salt Lake smells, so we called it the armpit.
What did you want to do when you were growing up there?
I didn’t really know. After graduating high school, I started college to be an interior designer. The creative side of that was great. My cousins are the girls from SHeDAISY. Kristyn and Kelsi had moved [to Nashville]—I don’t think Kassi had moved there yet—but they were pursuing a career and trying to get a recording contract. Kristyn and I were really close. She would call me and tell me all about what was going on here in Nashville. We had a lot in common in that I was the kid at the record store that would go in Tuesday to find the albums that had just released.
The reason I ended up moving here was because my starter marriage. My son’s dad wanted to come to Nashville or to Iowa. He wanted to become a dentist and he wanted to go to Meharry [Medical College School of Dentistry], so that’s the reason we ended up here. We ended up buying a house right next to where my cousins were living. My first trip into Nashville was the weekend Kristyn signed her record deal. I flew in and she said, “I have a busy schedule, but we can at least look at a few different houses.” I met Dann Huff that weekend because they were in the process of recording. I met Randy Goodman, Shelby Kennedy, Connie Harrington, Bonnie Baker and more. I didn’t know who any of those people were, but looking back on the magnitude of what that is, I had no idea what a blessing it was.
Did you join the music business when you got here?
When I got here, I ended up going to work for a company that was buying up small mom and pop heating and air conditioning companies in Maryland Farms. I had a young son, so I needed to figure out how to make an income. I took that job immediately but really hated it. I started going to some of Kristyn’s business meetings. I really did not know anything about the background of what happens in the music business other than what she was doing, but the more I was in these meetings, I started thinking maybe management would be kind of cool. I also thought working at a record label seemed pretty interesting. But I found out really quickly that if you did not go to school here and you did not go through the networking process of meeting people, you were definitely an outsider. I would go into interviews and they’d be like, “So are you trying to be an artist?” [Laughs]
I probably went on 10 or 15 interviews. I got to a place where I felt like this must not be the right path for me. No one wants to let you in if you’re not already in. Then I saw this advertisement in the newspaper for an executive assistant position for a CEO of a major record label. At this point, I’d had at least enough experience to know that is not how those jobs come about, but in this particular case, it was. I had to go through a staffing agency. I had to go in and take a type test and go through several interviews. The job was to work for Capitol Records for Pat Quigley. I think the only reason I got the job is because I talked fast and he wanted someone that had not been in the music business. He wanted someone that had really just done executive assistant work outside of the business. It was a big blessing and a really great overview of structure of the label, how it all worked, and all the different departments. He was an interesting person to work for. He was also an outsider and he relished in that.
How did you become interested in A&R?
I found myself really watching the A&R department at the time when Larry Willoughby ran it. Molly Reynolds was there as well. Larry was really good about coming in and playing songs. He would say, “Wait until you hear this new Keith Urban track we just cut.”
One day Pat came in and said, “There’s a meeting happening. I think I’m going to be let go. I have a contract, you do not, so you need to go find another job.” I didn’t know enough about the music business to know that this was not uncommon, so I was completely panicked. Larry came to me and said, “You should probably reach out to Mike Dungan because that’s who is going to take this job.” I felt like that would be a betrayal to Pat—I didn’t know how to navigate that.
Haley McLemore had been working with me at Capitol under the finance department. I called her and she said, “I think there might be a job opening in the A&R department. Why don’t you come over? I’ll introduce you to Gary Harrison and Carson Chamberlain and you can see if that’s something that might be interesting to you.” Gary Harrison and I spent the afternoon talking. I came back in for an interview and they offered me the job, thankfully. It was a lot less than what I had been making, but I needed a job and I didn’t want to not be in this anymore. Little did I know how that would greatly affect the rest of my life and where I am today.
What was one of your most memorable experiences from that time?
I was in the studio when Alan Jackson recorded “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” It was so fresh. We were finishing up the Drive project and it was the second to last song that we recorded that day. He came in and said, “I want to play this for you. I woke up last night and finished this song.” We all sat there just completely blown away by what it was. Then the musicians all just quietly and very reverently got up and started playing music. Right after we cut that song, he forgot he had to do a song for a ZZ Top collaboration record that they were doing. We were having to shuffle from this big reverent, somber, heavy moment to ZZ Top. (Laughs)
What was next for you?
There’s been several mergers that have happened and different labels that have been brought under the umbrella of Universal. Gary and Carson left and they brought in Mary Martin. I got to work with her for a year and a half, which was extremely educational and very helpful. Then we merged with MCA and at that point, David Conrad came over. I was his executive assistant, but I found myself liking more of the recording admin. and I also was starting to like the creative stuff. At that point I had been divorced and I was a single parent, so I looked at the person that was in the spot I wanted and they’d been there for 28 years. So I really dug into what that process was and following up a project from start to finish. David was great about it. He said, “As long as you can take care of me or train someone to take care of me, I’ll let you have some of this.” I was still going to the studios. I was still seeing how Mark Wright, Richard Marks, and Byron Gallimore worked in the studio.
Next, we merged with DreamWorks. Then it was James Stroud and Luke Lewis that were the head of the label. James came in and said, “I want everybody in here, no matter what you’re doing in this department, to be creative.” So I started begging people to come in and play songs for me. People like Jeff Skaggs, Kerri Edwards, Cris Lacy and Cyndi Forman who I’d met booking appointments for David or for whoever else at the time. I even reached out to someone like Brandy Clark, who was just starting to come up through the ranks. I had her pitch group—which was all songwriters—come in and play for me in my little tiny office. I would have them all take turns at the CD player. I was taking notes and was really dedicated to trying to figure out how to make it work.
When did you start to have success as a creative A&R executive?
During that time, Erin Enderlin came in and played a song for me called “Last Call.” It was a song that her and Shane McAnally had written together that Lee Ann Womack eventually cut. I remember being really brave that day and I walked into Brian [Wright]‘s office saying, “This is a really great song for Womack. I know she’s looking.” It ended up getting cut. Through that, I realized I really loved this.
During that time, we had changed buildings again. I think we had moved downtown at this point. I had met with Alicia Pruitt one day and she mentioned something about Kacey Musgraves. They had just signed her. She played me a couple things and I knew I had to reach out. I cold called her one day. I didn’t really have the ability to sign anybody at that point. I went and met with her and we had a great conversation. I came back to Brian and I said, “I don’t know what goes into signing someone, but I know that I sat across from someone today that’s magical and mesmerizing. If there was a sheet of things that you should probably have [to get signed], I think she has all of those things. She has vision. She’s unique.” It took a long time to convince people that I was serious, but I finally talked Brian and Luke into meeting with her and signing her.
It comes full circle back to Mike Dungan. When we merged with Universal, Mike and I went to breakfast one morning, which is what he was doing with everyone when we merged. He said, “I think you should be doing creative full time and not the other stuff.”
We will be honoring you tomorrow at Rising Women On the Row. If someone were to ask you what success meant to you, what would you tell them?
Where I feel like the success comes in is when you see the satisfaction of an artist when a crowd reacts to a song. You see that crowd sing a song back to the artist, and them get emotionally overwhelmed at what’s happening, that’s pretty magical. I still live for those moments. Those moments are super precious and the ones that keep me interested in trying to continue to do this for other people.
I think I take the things that I don’t have success at a whole lot harder and they stick with me a lot more, so I think learning from the mistakes I’ve made along the way is so much more of a motivator for me. I don’t do a lot of thinking on success, so that’s why these interviews are a little bit difficult because, while there is a lot of that, I think that there’s still much more to accomplish and more people to help.
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