Sony Music Nashville's Steve Hodges on Big 2016 Releases, Why Radio Thrives at Country

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BMI
Steve Hodges addresses the crowd at CMA Office on Sept. 17, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.

On July 13, Steve Hodges joined Sony Music Nashville (housing Columbia, RCA and Arista Nashville) as evp promotion/artist development following a 20-year stint at Capitol Nashville, including holding the post of senior vp since 2009. He stepped into his new role along with new chairman/CEO Randy Goodman and COO Ken Robold. Recently, Hodges sat down with Billboard and discussed his first 120 days in his new post.

You spent two decades with Capitol Nashville, ending in December 2014. Did you have any idea at the time of your departure what was next? Did you mull the possibility of doing something outside of the industry?

In 2014, as my contract was ending with Universal Music Group, there were a couple of exciting opportunities that I wanted to take a look at. After 20 great years at Capitol I felt that I was just ready for a new chapter. It all worked out in the end. And I did get a little much needed down time before I joined Sony Music Nashville.

Give us a Sony Music Nashville state-of-the-label snapshot of your first 120 days.

It was all indicative of day one when Randy [Goodman] loaded the entire staff into buses and all of us went to the Country Music Hall of Fame for a history of the company. Columbia Records is 125 years old, and RCA is almost as old. They have so much history, and Arista, which has not been around as long, has had great significance in our industry. We all learned a lot about the labels that we are serving. After that, it was like hitting a treadmill with Cam, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood and Old Dominion all active. I think it's been a positive, fulfilling and very eventful first 120 days.

It looks like you had a solid start, with a three-week Country Airplay No. 1 for Kenny Chesney, "Save It for a Rainy Day," and Underwood's Top Country Albums leader Storyteller. What can you say about your plans for 2016?

I think it was important for Kenny because ["Day" was] his fourth No. 1 off the [The Big Revival] album. He's really excited about a 2016 album. Brad Paisley has a new album coming, and Miranda Lambert and Jake Owen will also have new albums in 2016. I can't say exactly when yet. Brad is working the single "Country Nation" right now, and Kenny's tour starts in February. Miranda has been writing -- she's fired up and ready -- and of course, many, many people are very interested in what she has to say right now [following her split from Blake Shelton].

As digital sales and then streaming have blossomed, radio is still the priority platform for country. Why?

It's definitely the priority platform, and country listeners are still a very specific life group. For them, they use radio as their priority place to listen to music, and it's still a destination for our listeners, instead of being an impulse. Radio seems to deliver them the product that they want, so for us it maintains a great amount of importance. The music today is as important as it ever has been.

Sony Music Nashville was one of the first companies to have four labels under one umbrella, although that was scaled back to three. With some competing labels housing four imprints, is Sony looking to expand to that number once again? 

I think that every bit of our attention is laser-focused on our three labels and maximizing them, making them as great as they can be.

What are the biggest challenges in managing multiple labels? The internal competition must be both a blessing and a headache.

Yes, both, but I am lucky that all three labels are led by seasoned leaders: vps of promotion Keith Gale [RCA], Norbert Nix [Columbia] and Lesly Simon [Arista]. They're all pros, and, while maintaining competitiveness, they also understand the family umbrella. Very few times is it a headache. It's an enormous responsibility to nurture and grow such great labels.

The surprise release is a somewhat new development, dating to BeyoncĂ©'s self-titled 2013 album. You have artists that could perhaps pull that off, including Underwood, who was heavily marketed in advance of Storyteller. Did you think about using that surprise method for her?

We walked into the Storyteller project just as we were getting started here, and there was already a plan in process. Plus, the release of her single "Smoke Break" was only nine weeks off, so we wanted to really make the most of that launch. [The song debuted at No. 24 on Country Airplay in September and rose to No. 2.] All the songs on the project seem to be cohesive. I think we have four or more singles to come. 

On surprise releases, in general, there are so many factors: Is the artist strong enough? Can we keep it quiet internally? Additionally, Storyteller was going to be a major project to round out 2015, so it had great importance, along with album releases by Chris Young, Old Dominion and Cam.

You're in a dual role of radio promotion and artist development. How is your time split between those two worlds?

In theory, they are much the same world. The lines between departments are becoming blurred. Take marketing and sales; we're all marketing people. For me, it's an interesting dichotomy. My background is promotion, and promotion is the front line for breaking an artist. My job here is to take good care of the music, on all fronts.

Songs by superstar acts can rocket up Country Airplay and fall off quickly, while other artists can be worked up to 52 weeks. That must be frustrating. How do you keep your promo department motivated to maintain momentum for a full year? Chase Rice's "Gonna Wanna Tonight" hit No. 2 in its 50th week, ending up behind Luke Bryan's "Strip It Down." When do you finally decide "nice job" and call it a day?

A lot of times it's just about the traffic on the chart, plus we had stations at 2,000 spins on ["Gonna"], and they really needed to get off of it. I could certainly understand that. The audience loves the song, and it's a hit. I think on the topic of star acts that rocket up the chart and fall off quickly, there's a positive side to that. The artists would say that they'd like to get that next single going and maybe end up with three or even four singles from an album. Add that to the conversation and they're not really going to be too upset.

Finally, for what new artists are you predicting great things in 2016?

Look for Maren Morris in early 2016. She was our first signing since arriving here, and I have really high hopes for her. I also have high expectations for the group LANco. Brandon Lancaster is the lead singer. They are working with producer Jay Joyce, and we'll introduce them sometime in 2016. Aside from that, we have lots more coming in 2016 that I can't discuss just yet. One thing for sure: It will be an exciting year.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.