Executive of the Week: Big Loud Partner/CEO Seth England

Seth England
Delaney Royer

Seth England

This week, country music singer and songwriter HARDY reached No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart with "One Beer" feat. Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson, his first chart-topper as a lead artist on any of Billboard’s charts. But more impressively, the Big Loud Records signee replaced himself atop the rankings -- where he had led as a songwriter on Morgan Wallen’s "More Than My Hometown," one of a string of writing credits HARDY has amassed with Wallen, Florida Georgia Line, Chris Lane, Blake Shelton and more.

The ascent of "One Beer" to the top of Country Airplay marks a significant milestone for HARDY, who has now gone some way towards completing the tough transition from songwriter to frontline artist in his own right. And it comes at a point where he’s experiencing a high point in his career overall -- not only is "One Beer" his first Hot 100 hit (currently at No. 33 on the chart), it’s his sixth writing credit to top Country Airplay and is one of four songs he’s written that is currently in the top 20 of the Country Streaming Songs chart, in a genre that has been slow to embrace the streaming format in general over the past decade.

All of that helps make Big Loud partner/CEO Seth England Billboard’s Executive of the Week, for helping guide HARDY’s ascent through the Nashville ranks to these current chart achievements. Here, England discusses HARDY’s recent success, how working songs to radio has changed during the pandemic, the difficulties of transitioning from songwriter to artist and streaming’s growing role in country music.

HARDY got his first No. 1 on our country airplay charts as a lead artist this week with "One Beer," replacing himself as a songwriter with Morgan Wallen’s "More Than My Hometown." What key decisions did you make to help make this happen?

We launched HiXTAPE, Vol. 1 in 2019 as a way to service a larger volume of HARDY’s music to fans, an approach not typically seen in country music. “One Beer” was kind of an odd duck in this batch of songs in that it was the only non-big, anthemic lifestyle-type country song that HARDY prefers to write for the HiXTAPE brand. After we released the project, we watched the data and fan reactions very closely, and over the first few weeks it was obvious that “One Beer” was a bit supernatural. We quickly shifted our focus track and the song was off to the races, setting many records within Big Loud Records. It was special to watch HARDY go two weeks in a row at No. 1 with one he wrote for another artist and one he wrote for himself. I couldn’t be more proud of his writing career, as that is an important focus to him, too.

"One Beer" is HARDY’s biggest radio song to date as a lead artist and first to crack the Hot 100. What is it about this song that has resonated?

I remember how I felt the first time I heard the song. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Every word mattered -- and mattered big. The story is relatable and clever. I feel the fans connected in a big way to it as well, because everyone knows someone who’s lived the “One Beer” story. Let’s also not forget the power of adding great collaborators to an already powerful song -- Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson are great friends of HARDY’s and understood his idea for this song. They were on board immediately and lobbied their own record labels to approve radio rights. Thank you Warner, UMG, Trisha [McClanahan] and Todd [Ramey] for working so well together.

How has working a song to radio changed, or not, during the pandemic?

My answer might not be the popular opinion, but my view is “the way they should be worked.” Country music has such a deep-rooted history in artist-radio partnerships that are rarely replicated in other genres. There are so many aspects of that relationship that I appreciate, having come up in it. But as I networked outside of Nashville, I learned that the majority of other formats were accustomed to responding to reactive records and then exploring partnerships, mutually beneficial events and promotions with the artist.

In my view, the main difference in the two is that country artists absolutely exhaust themselves trying to be everywhere at once, and then basically spend Sundays doing laundry before heading back to the airport. The worst call I remember getting was from a young artist on a radio tour with an unreactive song, and we stayed on course because it’s “what you did.” I saw firsthand how it drained the creative life from this artist. That was our fault. Had we taken cues from other genres and put our efforts more into the marketing plan, it might have allowed more time to write, try new things and find an authentic sound before entering the ultimate testing ground.

During the pandemic, all in-person events went away. Even with that strategy not available, the music business still moved forward. I hope it taught us all a lot about artist development and what steps go in what order.

How difficult is it for a songwriter to make the transition to being a lead artist?

We have an inside joke with myself, Joey [Moi] and HARDY for when he sends us new music. We’ll ask him, “Is this Michael or is this HARDY?” I think it could be incredibly tough to compartmentalize an artist mentality and a professional songwriter mentality and do them both at a very high level. He does just that, and to me that is rare.

There is a story that [Big Loud co-founders] Craig [Wiseman], Joey [Moi] and I often reflect on. The truth is that we signed HARDY to a record deal on his songwriting ability and his voice. We didn’t have any expectations initially of a set timeline, because we hadn’t witnessed a “HARDY” show. We all attended his very first live show together, at which point he’d hardly received any developmental help. He was an absolute natural and frankly a rock star of sorts. It also doesn’t hurt that he supplied himself with incredible songs that were so engaging live.

HARDY has now written six songs that have topped the country airplay chart. What’s been your strategy in building his career?

Kudos to [Relative Music Group's] Dennis Matkosky and Jesse Matkosky who have been his music publishing partners since the beginning. The strategy of placing outside cuts belongs to them, and the strategy of launching HARDY music is Big Loud’s. When we decided to sign a record deal with HARDY, we asked to meet with Dennis and Jesse immediately because we knew the A&R strategies had to be cohesive, and they are. These guys are brilliant, creative minds in their own right, so we make sure they have room to operate and the results are showing.

With "One Beer" and his co-writes for Morgan Wallen, HARDY has four songs he's written in the top 20 of the country streaming charts. How much is streaming growing in importance when it comes to country, which has traditionally been a radio-driven genre?

An average country radio station might play anywhere from 18 to 25 current records per week at varying spin levels. Streaming has no limit, and never will. The possibilities and growth are limitless.

My humble view in 2020 is that streaming is perfect for developing and radio is perfect for proving. We shouldn’t develop at radio. Radio will remain for the superstar records and the rookies of the year, and streaming will house every song available in the ether. I sense some folks in our industry see them as competition, but Big Loud doesn’t. They’re both complementary and necessary pieces to truly break an artist.

The debate in my mind is in what order to do those two things when the artist is brand new. If we miss at radio, it’s our fault, not the artist’s, just as long as we have our timing and priorities in development correct. In the coming years, I think we will help break a lot of new, young acts and credit will be given equally to radio, streaming and many others. We need them all.

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