Business

Executive of the Week: Warner Music Nashville SVP Radio & Streaming Kristen Williams

Kristen Williams
Courtesy of Warner Music Nashville

Kristen Williams

Gabby Barrett has made history with “I Hope.” The song, which reaches No. 1 on the all-format Radio Songs chart this week, topped the Country Airplay chart in April, making Barrett the first artist to take a debut single to No. 1 on both charts.

The mid-tempo track with a surprising, sinister twist has also been boosted by a remix with Charlie Puth, that catapulted it to No. 1 on Adult Pop Songs, where it spends its second week. And its success at radio has helped it to its 14th straight week at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs, as well as a current No. 6 peak on the Hot 100.

The cross-format success of "I Hope" earns Warner Music Nashville senior vp radio and streaming Kristen Williams the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week for guiding the radio strategy, including bringing in partners on Warner Records’ pop side, that has set Barrett up for continued multi-genre success.

“With just one song, Gabby has proven that she is capable of delivering hits that transcend boundaries,” Williams says. “She is building a fan base that expects to hear her across all of their radio dials, no matter the format. She is solidly a country artist, but there is no question that we will continue bringing her songs to multiple formats, because her music is that good.”

Warner Music Nashville signed Barrett after “I Hope” was already receiving support from some DSPs. What were the keys to bringing country radio programmers on board?

Gabby Barrett went from signing her deal to radio release faster than almost any other artist I’ve experienced in my tenure at Warner Music Nashville. Because of her incredible voice and songs, she had early exposure at DSPs, as well as airplay on SiriusXM's The Highway, so it’s no surprise that every label wanted to sign her. We knew that if she was exposed to an even larger base, the potential was limitless.

Surprisingly, we were met with some resistance right out of the gate. In spite of the metrics we had supporting the fact that “I Hope” was soon to be a massive hit, many country radio programmers had doubts. They countered that the early consumption was inflated because of Gabby’s appearance on American Idol. It took many months of Gabby being on the road, meeting programmers face-to-face and us at the label presenting steadily-improving research and consumption due to radio airplay to convince them that Gabby was the real deal. But once they bought in, they bought in hard. It’s exciting now to see the support country radio programmers continue to have for Gabby. They know she brings incredible value to the format, and Gabby understands that those early relationships will carry her throughout her career.

The song topped Adult Pop Songs in October. What was the strategy in working with Warner Records’ pop division and how was that effort coordinated?

We at Warner Music Nashville are lucky to have great relationships with both of the “coasts” [Warner Records and Atlantic Records], and it turned out that Warner Records had the passion, expertise and availability to take on this special project. We’ve worked closely with Warner Records on Dan + Shay, so the conversation and transition was seamless. The effort is coordinated between and [Warner's executive vp promotion] Mike Chester and me -- we work well together. He understands that our artists are rooted in country, and I understand when we need to relax the reins and allow our artists to bend the genre. Crossing Gabby over and giving her the room to make relationships outside of the country format only helps all of our efforts. We are building artists that will be around for generations to come.

Barrett is the only woman to reach No. 1 on Country Airplay this year with her debut single. What was the strategy to break through the number of male artists at the top of the charts?

Frankly, our strategy with this was no different than with our male artists. We are in the business of breaking great artists and great music. It was clear from the beginning that Gabby was reaching fans -- male, female, young, old. The early data supported our hunch that this song would resonate across the country -- and resonate it did. The song researched through the roof and continues to test to this day. Gabby has proven that females can break down any artificial barrier put in their way.

Barrett is first artist to top both Country Airplay and Radio Songs with a debut single. How does this set her up as a cross-genre act in the future?

With just one song, Gabby has proven that she is capable of delivering hits that transcend boundaries. “I Hope” remains one of the biggest-testing songs in the country genre nearly 15 months after its initial release to radio, and what is happening cross-genre only proves that it resonates with all music fans. Gabby continues to form and strengthen relationships within the music industry while becoming a household name. She is building a fan base that expects to hear her across all of their radio dials, no matter the format. She is solidly a country artist, but there is no question that we will continue bringing her songs to multiple formats, because her music is that good.

How much do you think the song’s twist has had to do with its success? It takes a turn we don’t see coming at the end of the first chorus.

The twist turns heads and grabs attention. Perhaps that’s the first battle -- finding something that perks your ear and generates buzz -- but I’d argue that Gabby’s success is due to exceptional songwriting in general. She has a way of speaking to the heart of what people are feeling. There is a universal appeal in what Gabby has to say.

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