Founded 30 years ago, Leadership Music has become a mark of excellence in the Nashville music industry. When respected label head and producer Jim Ed Norman found himself inspired by Leadership Nashville, a broad spectrum program for leaders started by Nelson C. Andrews and C. Brent Poulton in 1976, he brought the concept to the figureheads of the Nashville music business community. At a small luncheon in the old Warner Bros. building, Norman proposed a similar program focused on communication and education within the Nashville music industry. The group agreed, resulting in the birth of Leadership Music in 1989.
The founding council for Leadership Music was made up of 12 power players from Nashville’s music industry, including Norman, Rick Blackburn, Tony Brown, Tom Collins, Bill Denny, Joe Galante, Bruce Hinton, Dale Franklin, Bill Ivey, Joe Moscheo, Tandy Rice and Roger Sovine.
Norman, Galante and Brown recently visited the MusicRow offices to discuss the establishment of Leadership Music 30 years ago, as well as its importance to the Nashville music industry with MusicRow‘s Owner/Publisher Sherod Robertson. The article appeared in MusicRow‘s 2019 InCharge, a directory of 388 key decision-making professionals within the Nashville entertainment community.
“We had a framework because of Leadership Nashville,” said founding council member and renowned music industry executive Joe Galante. “That was such a great program for us to follow. What Leadership Nashville does is cover the city–an even more daunting challenge than what we were about to do. This is probably the only town you could pull this off in. This is not, in my mind, an exportable model, not only because of the dedication of the founding council, but of everybody that came after.”
The goal was clear from the start: inspire camaraderie amongst the companies within the Nashville entertainment industry, provide an education of various roles, and improve communication up and down Music Row. The council went to work on creating program days and activities that would benefit the first class of attendees. “We had many new people moving to town. Some people had been friends for a long time, but there were a lot of new people coming in. Leadership Nashville had been such a great catalyst for bringing people together of diverse opinions and points of view,” said Norman.
Galante added, “You would think after all these years, we would know more about each other’s jobs, and that’s what Leadership Music does. Not only does it give you the ‘Rolodex’ and the introductions to people, but it gives you the knowledge that you didn’t have before. That was Nelson’s vision for Leadership Nashville. Jim Ed took up the challenge and then we all rallied around him. I actually think it’s helped strengthen the town.”
Creating significant change was crucial to the mission of Leadership Nashville, as well as Leadership Music. Norman recalled, “At the end of each year at the Leadership Nashville graduation, Nelson Andrews would say, ‘Okay. You’ve had this amazing experience. You’ve gotten a chance to meet people from different facets of the community. You see how it operates and works, and you’ve been inspired, hopefully, by all of that. What are you going to do with it?’”
When Leadership Music started, the music industry as a whole looked very different. Vinyl was on its way out, country music was fighting for its own charts and although artists and songwriters were making money, the genre had not gained universal acceptance or recognition outside of Nashville. This was about to change. The offices up and down Music Row, that were reporting to their parent companies in New York or L.A., were about to be heard.
“We were an island to ourselves to a large degree,” Galante said. “The reality was that it was a real investment in education for the executives in this town, which I think only strengthened us. We did have people here that were tied in, but this really strengthened that process to bring speakers in from a broad standpoint. We still were considered backwoods by most people. Maybe once or twice a year, you got a New York executive here but they didn’t come on a regular basis, and they couldn’t wait to get the hell out of dodge. When Country Soundscan happens, all of a sudden everybody goes, ‘Hell, you guys are actually selling music down there. When did that start happening!?’ But prior to that we were fighting on a continual basis to get the support, to get the charts to recognize us. All that stuff didn’t happen by itself. I think people forget, to a large degree, when we all started working together, this was largely a regional format.”
Leadership Music not only seeks to identify problems in the music industry, it addresses them and looks for solutions. “It was a male-dominated industry,” Norman said of the time Leadership Nashville was started. “All the stuff that you go through to make sure the class, in any given year, represents not only the particular disciplines, but all the other things that we’re trying to work on in our society and our culture, give the class the chance of becoming a microcosm of America.”
Leadership Music is celebrating its historic 30th year, with alumni totaling more than 1,200, including nearly four dozen current and former heads of record labels; executive directors of the CMA, GMA, CRB, CMF, Folk Alliance, Americana Music Association, International Bluegrass Music Association, International Entertainment Buyers Association and NSAI; executives from The Recording Academy, the National Endowment for the Arts, RIAA, the First Amendment Center, Nashville Symphony, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, MusicRow, SoundExchange, CMT, GAC; the Country Music Hall of Fame; Microsoft; Samsung, Twitter, Amazon, YouTube, Pandora, two Nashville Mayors, a U.S. Congressman, a past editor of USA Today; deans of three universities, attorneys, accountants, publishers, publicists, journalists, booking agents, artist managers, artists, songwriters, radio executives, entrepreneurs, record producers and engineers, video producers, musicians and bankers.
Getting into Leadership Music was no easy task. Candidates were already established leaders in their varied professions in the music industry, and getting selected was sought after, as Leadership Music quickly became a symbol of status and accomplishment.
“This was music’s version of the Masons, nobody knew what they did,” legendary producer and A&R man Tony Brown joked. “I think this was a great way of networking. If you could get into Leadership Music, you could network with the people you couldn’t get in to see. I loved the fact that it covered everybody from the soldiers up to the executives, and everybody in between. It became a real status symbol– if you could be in the program.”
Thirty years later, Leadership Music remains a symbol of status, and a sought-after opportunity. “There’s been so many organizations that people will poke at and say, ‘It’s been the same group of people for 25 years’,” Galante said. “This group continues to morph, and it reflects the general music business. It doesn’t get stuck, and that is the strength of Leadership Music. It just naturally evolves and adapts to its environment. And that’s the best thing that we could hope for.”
“I think the thing that Leadership Music does do though, is that passion statement,” Galante continued. “All during the program days, as you’re all aware, it’s not just business. It’s the creative and what it means for these artists, and I think people walk away with a newfound respect, because it’s hard. No matter what part of the process it is, everybody in this room signed somebody, believes in it, and you get the shit knocked out of you several times along the way.”
Inspiring leaders have been strengthened from Leadership Music, including the likes of Mike Dungan, Leslie Fram, Bart Herbison, Robert Oermann, Scott Borchetta, Jackie Patillo, Kyle Young, Sally Williams, Terry Wakefield, John Esposito, Dave Cobb, Barry Dean, Liz Rose, Mary Gauthier and many more. Participants make an extensive time commitment when they are selected to Leadership Music. The program lasts eight months, with the first and last meetings being weekend retreats. Within six monthly meetings, which average 12 hours each, the participants make on-site visits around the community, focusing on such subjects as Songwriting/Publishing, the Artist, Studio/Audio, Record Company, Live Music and Media.
“One of the things I had tried to point out over the course of time is following the money,” Galante said. “I really think part of our responsibility was to show people things like ‘What is a mechanical?’ Most people go ‘Mechanical? What is that?’ Still to this day, I’m always amazed at how often people say, ‘How does that work again?’”
“We have so many people that are coming in from other disciplines around the country, and it helps us stay abreast of the issues,” Galante continued. “I think bringing people in from YouTube and SoundExchange is all good news for us, as opposed to getting the news secondhand.”
Brown suggests that Leadership Music is crucial to the Nashville music business now more than ever. “I think Leadership Music keeps people in line with the fact that the business is so fractured,” he said. “I don’t know everybody at every label like I did back in the day, and I don’t think that’s because I’m not at a record label now. I read every magazine in the music industry, and I stay up on who’s going where. I think that Leadership Music now is probably more important than it was when we started it.”
Galante agreed. “Music still is under-appreciated,” he said. “We’re still going through the same conversation about being compensated and protecting the copyright. How many decades, and we’re still arguing about this stuff. We just include the term ‘metadata’ now, that we never used to talk about, which is an important issue.”
“I remember getting a call at the end of the year from someone who’d been in the business, who was well known, and said, ‘I’ve been in the business for 20 years. What are you going to teach me?’ to start, and at the end it was, ‘I’ve been in the business for 20 years, and I can’t believe what I learned,’” said Norman.
Norman, Galante and Brown are unquestionably in the class of excellence personifying Leadership Music. When it comes to leadership, the three have valuable insights on developing such an important trait.
Norman touts respected United States Army General Norman Schwarzkopf’s notion of leadership, saying, “Schwarzkopf had that wonderful quote on leadership about it being this potent combination of strategy and character and if you must be ‘all in’ on one, make sure it’s character. We would go into these [programs] and be strategizing about business and how to get better. People came to appreciate that we’re in this together and what it meant to maintain high character and integrity as you walk through this process.”
“And it’s a lonely job,” Galante added. “I think that character is essential because if your team doesn’t trust you, you have the basis removed. [This includes] being able to listen, seek as much council as you possibly can before you make a decision, and let people feel like they have been heard. You may not agree with them, but that’s your responsibility. And there’s the accountability–you have to be able to stand up and say, ‘I made that decision. Yes, I’m responsible for that. I’ll take the hit.’”
Brown referred back to his star-making days at RCA, saying, “I think the employees have to know you have a passion, and that you have knowledge about what’s happening and what’s going to happen, and standing up for the history of the music that you’re working in. They have to think that you know what you’re doing. You’ve got to have taste. You can have good taste, and good taste could mean commercial music that sells, but then you’ve got to have taste that is a little eclectic, to where they think you’ve got a set of balls and you have blind faith.”
“It’s really your ability to provide insight, inspire, to be there, available for counsel,” Jim Ed Norman summarized. “ I think it might have been Colin Powell that said, ‘When a soldier stops bringing you their problems, is when you stop being a leader.’ You have to build an environment that encourages people to feel comfortable and safe, to tell you the truth, and you have to be prepared to listen to the truth and respond to it as productively as you can. I think the number one trait is character and integrity.”
The three music industry giants also keep close to heart that even though the music business is a business, the music and artists must remain the prime focus.
“We can get consumed with the business,” said Norman. “It’s vital to remember that the business is built on the shoulders of artists, and they hold us up.”
“We are in the artist business,” Galante agreed. “I used to tell people all the time they are the ones in front of the microphone. Our job is to support them.”