Nashville's Leadership Music Marks 30 Years of Building the Business and Its Community

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Nashville, Tenn.

When roughly 50 members of the music community gathered at Warner Music Nashville for a Leadership Music seminar on record companies on March 19, MusicWatch managing partner Russ Crupnick hit them with an eye-opening set of statistics.

Per-capita spending on pre-recorded music in the United States is $30 annually. By comparison, the average person spends $1,100 a year on coffee and $300 on lottery tickets.

With all of the hype devoted to songs and artists, it's easy to get complacent about music's place in the culture. Crupnick's stats (new information has raised per-capita spending on pre-recorded music to $37 per year) were a caffeinated jolt of reality, the kind of real-world info that has become a foundational part of Leadership Music. But he also showed how in a previous era, consumers spent $45 per capita on CDs alone, an indication that there's room for the music business to grow as the economic model continues to shift.

"We went from iPods to smartphones and personal assistants," says Long Island-based Crupnick. "Each one of those devices seems to create more incremental value for music and more engagement with music. It's obviously up to all the people in the room at Leadership Music to help monetize that."

That MusicWatch presentation is a condensation of what Leadership Music has done for three decades. Well over 1,000 professionals -- from artists and songwriters to executives, even civic leaders and politicians -- have graduated from the course, which gives participants a sense of the history and current status of the industry's sectors with an eye toward helping shape the business' future.

Leadership will mark its 30-year history with a June 20 celebration at Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium. The event -- which will include an interview with SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer, moderated by Billboard executive editor, West Coast and Nashville Melinda Newman -- is, in many ways, a celebration of the music industry itself. It unites all the pieces of the business -- studio executives, concert bookers, musicians, media, broadcasters and more -- representing a cross-section of genres and cities. A typical Leadership Music class might include members from New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin and Washington, D.C., in addition to Nashvillians, which has given it a far-reaching influence as the industry evolves.

"The program is presented to you to give you information and contacts," says Galante Entertainment chairman Joe Galante, one of a dozen music leaders who founded the program in 1989. "It may be 150 people you come across in your class, or 175 people. They're all really at the top of their field. If you don't do something with that, shame on you, but if you do, you're going to wind up connecting to people."

That networking ideal is at the heart of Leadership Music's mission. But so is the idea of providing a firm foothold on the history of the business while moving into the future. The program has placed key decision-makers in the same room to share knowledge as they confronted major hurdles over the last 30 years. As the studio business morphed from major facilities to home recording, as Nashville confronted the erosion of Music Row, as streaming upended the CD sales model, as the Telecommunications Act ushered in radio's consolidation and as the overall business formulated the Music Modernization Act, influential figures were able to gain awareness about how issues affected every sector of the business through Leadership Music.

"I'd like to think that we've at least started the conversation, got people talking, even maybe got people to listen," says Leadership executive director Debbie Linn. "I've been told that Leadership Music has helped, and I know that many who have authored the MMA and some other bills have gone through Leadership Music."

The premise is fairly simple. Each year, about 45 people are picked for a class that meets for a full day each month for eight months. Each program day is a deep dive into a specific facet of the business with insights from a stream of in-the-know panelists, plus experiential workshops, privileged views of real financial data and an end-of-day caucus where members discuss what they've learned and how it impacts their particular sector. They also confront what it means for tomorrow's business.

Members pledge not to divulge inside information from the Leadership cone of silence, and that commitment has been so well observed that participants feel free to share insights and opinions in ways that they're usually unable.

It's an A-list perspective, too. In the artist realm alone, attendees have gotten direct insight from Garth Brooks, Amy Grant, Martina McBride, Sugarland's Kristian Bush, Bill Anderson, Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley, Chet Atkins and KISS' Gene Simmons.

"I always used to say to make sure you follow the money," notes Galante. "If we're going to have a studio day, tell them how a studio works, how do you make money, because at the end of the day, we all need to understand each other's business to do a better job. You take away the mystery, and then there is no more angst."

That was part of the motivation to create Leadership Music. Curb | Word Entertainment chief creative advisor Jim Ed Norman convened a group
of Leadership Nashville graduates, believing that Nashville's music industry would benefit if its members had a better  understanding of people in other parts of the business and how they affected one another. The initial class
was mostly high-level owners and execs, and as they recommended the program to their employees, it became clear after three years that the program would work.

It may not work the same way, however, in any other city, though there have been discussions about forming other chapters. But Nashville's history as an enclave separated from New York and Los Angeles gave the town's workers incentive to pull together, believing that a rising tide lifts all boats. Additionally, the central geography of Music Row made it much easier to facilitate the program for the locals than it would be on the coasts.

Not that commutes are the only concern. Every class has out-of-towners who have to drive or fly in and out, book a hotel and be on site before 7 a.m. And that amount of hassle is still worth it.

"This is the best experience that I've ever had in my professional career," says Crupnick, who has participated every year since he graduated Leadership Music in 2009. "It's absolutely worth the investment and time and any inconvenience of LaGuardia Airport. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would do it over again in a heartbeat."

That kind of recommendation has made Leadership Music a sought-after experience. It's popular enough that some execs have had to reapply annually for a full decade before they finally got in. Once they have graduated, most view the business through a much wider lens.

"The majority of the people I see come through the program are people with passion," says Linn. "And they really want everyone to succeed."