Upon the announcement this week of Espo’s retirement, MusicRow celebrates his legacy by revisiting his journey to becoming one of the most revered label heads in Nashville’s music industry history. The below profile on former Warner Music Nashville Chairman & CEO John Esposito was originally published in MusicRow‘s 2022 Country Radio & Streaming Issue.
If you’ve been to a music industry event in which Warner Music Nashville Chairman & CEO John “Espo” Esposito speaks, chances are you haven’t forgotten him.
The Pennsylvania native stands tall, and dons glasses with dark, circular frames. He speaks with a slight accent, he’s hilariously witty, and is known for his colorful vernacular. In other words, he swears like a sailor.
Since he arrived in Music City to head up Warner Music Nashville (WMN) in 2009, he’s become unequivocally beloved by artists and industry folk alike. So much so that the powerful label head is affectionately called Espo by all.
John Esposito didn’t set out to be a high-ranking music executive when he started his career.
He majored in journalism at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but his passion for music occupied a lot of his time.
“I had no inkling to become a music executive or even make a living in music,” Espo says of his college days. “I was in two bands. I wrote the music editorial for the college paper, I was a disc jockey, and I booked the concerts and coffee houses at the college. Something should have clicked in my head at that point that that was my calling, but I only did it because I’m nutty passionate about music.”
After graduating and spending a few years drumming for a band in Pittsburgh, Espo found himself looking for a job in Washington, D.C. On his way to an interview at a radio station, he saw a help wanted sign at a record store called the Harmony Hut.
“So I became a clerk at a record store for damn near minimum wage. To my good fortune, the second day I was at the store, the regional manager came in and said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You wanna become the assistant manager of one of my stores and I’ll train you how to be in the record store business?’ And that was how my life took off.”
Espo rose through the ranks at Harmony Hut, continuously getting promoted to bigger stores. “The one thing I remember very specifically is I got free albums and free tickets, and that resonated with me, which I would circle back to years later.”
Soon Espo was recruited to work at Macy’s as a buyer. Years later, one of Espo’s suppliers, Mitsubishi, asked him to come work for them as head of sales for the east coast of their operation.
“I was making a really good living at Mitsubishi, but I was seven years in and was bored shitless. I said to my now ex-wife, ‘I have to get into the music business. That’s my calling. I keep spending all my disposable income on instruments, CDs and concert tickets.’”
Following his passion, Espo called up one of his big customers, The Wiz, to see if they could introduce him to music business executives. They, in turn, asked Espo to run their record department. Espo took the job with hopes that he would make connections at a major label. “Within two years I luckily had three different companies pursuing me. Again, no freaking plan.”
By 1994, Espo had his foot in the door of the music business, landing a job at Polygram where he would advance through high-ranking positions before leaving to become the founding general manager and executive vice president at The Island Def Jam Music Group in 1997.
In 2002 he was named president of WEA, Corp., the sales and marketing arm of the Warner Music Group, where he would spend the next seven years. But while Espo was building his career up north, his guiding light of passion caught an interest in Nashville.
“When I was running The Wiz, some people from Sony knew I was a Mary Chapin Carpenter fanatic and asked me if I wanted to go to the CMAs and see her perform. It was 1993, and that was my first trip to Nashville.
“I had no preconceived notions [about Nashville], but I had no idea I was going to enjoy that show so much,” Espo says. “That night I just fell in love with Nashville. I haven’t missed a CMA Awards since 1993, until the pandemic.”
In 2009, Espo was able to follow his love for Music City when he was tapped to become the first president and CEO of Warner Music Nashville.
“I said yes in a heartbeat. I came down here in September of 2009 and never looked back. I had no idea if I’d be successful as a country record label head, but I knew I was going to give it my all and that I was lucky to get that opportunity.”
At the time, Warner’s country music label in Nashville was struggling, with record sales declining. Blake Shelton had been at the label for eight years, and had seen modest success with five No. 1 records, but wasn’t hitting his maximum potential.
“I looked at the roster and the crew that was operating the company and I thought Blake was my greatest opportunity. I thought, I have to help this team make a statement by putting all our eggs in the Blake Shelton basket.”
It worked. Shelton, who is still a WMN artist, boasts 28 No. 1 hits and multiple Gold and Platinum certifications. Over the past two decades he has accumulated more than 8.5 billion global on-demand streams, 13 million career album U.S. sales, and award wins approaching the hundreds.
“I had to convince people that we could win. If we could start winning with Blake, we could win.”
With Shelton on his way to country superstardom, a refined label staff, and success with several key signings such as Brett Eldredge, Hunter Hayes, and Cole Swindell, Espo and his WMN team were in the game.
“Suddenly it felt like a lot of weight was off my shoulders. Everybody at the label was becoming prouder and prouder to be part of a team that was starting to get consideration,” Espo says. “I believe that success begets success. Momentum is so hard to create. When you have it, that’s when you hunker down and work even harder.”
While rebuilding the country label, Espo threw himself into the Nashville music business community, joining the CMA and ACM boards, Leadership Music, NARAS, the Mayor’s Music Council, and more.
“I wanted people to know that there may be people who work as hard as me, but there ain’t gonna be anybody who works harder than me. And I wanted them to know I was committed to being part of this community. I didn’t want anybody to think this was one step on my next path. This was it for me.”
In 2016, Espo celebrated a promotion to chairman and CEO of WMN, and Shelton broke a record for the label with 17 consecutive No. 1 songs on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. In 2018, Espo signed another country hitmaker, Kenny Chesney, who celebrated his 34th No. 1 in January.
“One of the good things I observed from New York before coming here is that, if they do it right, a country artist can have a much longer career than most other genres. But they have to be willing to work as hard after years of success as they did when they started. With Blake and Kenny, when we’re about to launch a project, they’re getting on airplanes and flying to visit radio and streaming companies. They display the same hunger they had when they were first trying to break.”
WMN has seen incredible success in recent years with Dan + Shay, who have garnered nine billion global career streams to date, 42 total RIAA certifications and achieved nine No. 1 singles at country radio.
Dan + Shay’s massive commercial appeal has been, in part, due to their embracing global opportunities—something that WMN is privy to.
“We were the first Nashville-based label to put a full-time international team in place,” Espo says.
With fans around the world taking more and more interest in country music, especially country music with pop sensibilities, Dan + Shay were able to harness this global opportunity.
“If an artist is willing to work—knowing that it’s a grind in the beginning just like the beginning part of their career was—and if they are willing to get on airplanes and go play small clubs [overseas] while at the same time they’re playing arenas in the U.S., they have an opportunity to open up markets. And Dan+ Shay were 100% on board, as was their management team, who understands that opportunity as well. They are the poster children with 9 billion global streams. They’ve topped the charts everywhere.”
In 2019 WMN signed another monumental artist, Gabby Barrett. Her now 5x-Platinum debut single “I Hope” was the most-streamed country song of 2020 and reigned atop the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for a record-breaking 27 weeks. Her follow up, “The Good Ones,” also achieved Platinum certification and spent three weeks at No. 1.
“It was an incredibly competitive deal,” Espo says of signing Barrett, who at the time was beginning to make waves with “I Hope” after leaving American Idol. “Every label wanted to sign her.
“I remember people interviewing me pre-pandemic, probably in 2019. We were having success with Gabby and Ingrid [Andress]. They hadn’t chart topped yet, although they were on their way. We were also getting traction with Ashley [McBryde]. And all the questions were about, ‘Did you purposely sign women? Are you crazy for signing women when it’s so tough to break women?’
“Then when we started having success, the questions turned into ‘Is radio making it easier?’ And my answer is, they never make it easy. You’re signing artists. I’m not looking at them as a female artist, a male artist, or a six foot tall artist. Our job is to sign geniuses and we just happen to be lucky that we signed those three.”
In his more than a decade at WMN, some of Espo’s proudest moments are signing his first new artist, Eldredge; Blake Shelton winning CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 2012; Dan + Shay releasing “Tequila” to massive appeal; welcoming Chesney and Zac Brown Band to the label family, and having Cody Johnson put his faith in WMN, resulting in his massive consumption growth. Just to name a few.
He’s also pretty stoked for WMN’s building remodel on Music Row.
“We wanted to be the major that put a stake in the ground and said, ‘We’re going to be on Music Row,’” Espo says. “[The renovated office building] is going to be so much more artist friendly, so much more inviting to people, and it will still allow us the charm of Music Row.”
When looking back on Espo’s career so far, and looking forward to the future, one thing is clear: he is led by a desperate passion for music.
“I had no plan other than just keep being successful at what you do so that they’ll keep paying me so I can keep getting tickets,” Espo shares. “[My former boss] Lyor Cohen had a big impact on my life. One of his expressions that I use all the time is: I’ve worked my entire life for an all access backstage pass. That’s the only thing I work for.”
So, how did Espo get his nickname?
“With John being the most common male name on the planet earth, I just decided that being Espo would be easier. When somebody yelled John in a room, a hundred heads would turn. When they say Espo, I’m likely the only Espo in the damn room.”
And with that, Espo has continued to turn heads in every damn room he’s entered during his career. His wit, tenacity, and most of all, passion, have set him apart in his nearly 15 years on Music Row.
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