Business

Executive of the Week: BMLG Records President/CEO Jimmy Harnen

Jimmy Harnen
Courtesy of Big Machine Lable Group

(L-R) Jimmy Harnen, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, Scott Borchetta and Dave Haywood.

Over the past decade-plus, Lady A -- the trio of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood that went by Lady Antebellum until June 2020 -- has grown into one of the most formidable country music acts in the country, with three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and each of their releases charting at No. 1 or No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. And their latest release, Ocean, has continued a longstanding run of Country Airplay hits, with the group’s latest single, "Champagne Night," becoming their 11th Country Airplay No. 1, and their second since leaving Capitol Nashville and signing with Big Machine Label Group’s BMLG Records in the fall of 2018.

"Champagne Night" followed 2019's "What If I Never Get Over You" -- which topped the Country Airplay chart in January 2020 and was the group’s first radio No. 1 since 2014 -- to the top of the airplay chart, but charted a different course to the summit. Originally, BMLG had begun working the song "What I’m Leaving For" (which peaked at No. 39 on Country Airplay) as a single, only to realize, as the pandemic set in, that a song about traveling might not have been the optimal choice with so many people stuck at home. So, mid-campaign, and lifted by an appearance on NBC’s show Songland, BMLG Records president/CEO Jimmy Harnen shifted focus to "Champagne Night," and was rewarded with a No. 1 single -- and the distinction of being named Billboard’s Executive of the Week.

Here, Harnen discusses the latest feat by Lady A, the decision making process behind the single switch, the effect of the pandemic on radio and more. "You could feel that something special was about to happen once their fans heard the music," he says. "It was, and continues to be, a very exciting time."

"Champagne Night" just hit No. 1 on Country Airplay, giving Lady A its 11th No. 1 on the chart and second since signing with BMLG. What key decisions did you make to help make that happen?

Hillary, Dave and Charles wrote and submitted about 60 songs for the Ocean album recording sessions. The vision was simply to return Lady A to their original sound that made them international superstars. We said to them, “Just be yourselves and do what feels right for you.” The songs were rich in honesty and vulnerability. You could feel that something special was about to happen once their fans heard the music. It was, and continues to be, a very exciting time.

BMLG switched singles to "Champagne Night" from "What I’m Leaving For" after the song was on NBC’s Songland. How big of an influence do TV appearances and features like that have on a song’s radio performance?

Having the opportunity to be on NBC’s Songland was incredibly powerful for an ensemble of reasons beyond just the huge audience that the show reached. The single went to No. 1 at iTunes and remained there for many consecutive days after the performance. Combining those sales numbers with big streaming numbers confirmed our gut decision. I know Lady A found it to be a lot of fun having the chance to work with so many great songwriters (Patricia Conroy, Andrew DeRoberts, Tina Annette Gemza, Madeline Rae Merlo and Dave Thomson). When you watched the show, it was clear to see the talent and excitement that went into creating “Champagne Night.” Couple that with the opportunity to be in the company of music industry giants such as Ester Dean, Ryan Tedder and Shane McAnally and you have a wonderful recipe for success.

How difficult is it to switch singles mid-campaign?

Charles and I were playing golf right before the quarantine started. I somewhat apprehensively said to him, “I don’t want to jinx us, but if the country shuts down and goes into a quarantine it may be a challenge to have a single called ‘What I’m Leaving For,’" considering nobody could go anywhere. Shortly after, we heard the final mix of “Champagne Night.” We all got on a call to discuss switching singles and unanimously decided to make the switch. “Champagne Night” is such a fun and uplifting song. It took us a few weeks to regain the momentum and chart position of “What I’m Leaving For” but in short order radio and fans were all on board. “Don't need a crystal chandelier to have a real good time... We're drinkin' beer on a champagne night.” It’s impossible to not just sing along!

What effect has the pandemic had, both on how you guys promote songs to radio and on the radio programmers’ side?

It most definitely made a big impact. I told our promo staff on our first quarantine conference call in March that we were in unprecedented times. We needed to do our jobs, but first, we needed to be respectful, caring and understanding to our friends at country radio and what they were potentially going through with their families and friends. The first few weeks, we were operating in completely unfamiliar territory. As time went on, we learned how to work together to keep our business moving forward as efficiently as possible given the circumstances.

Radio has always played such a big role in country music. How much of a factor is streaming becoming in breaking songs?

Our partners at DSPs are very important. The number of playlists, either editorial or fan-made, provide us with more platforms to showcase our artists music. That said, radio remains equally important. The perfect storm is when streaming and radio come together, and we celebrate a hit song or break a new artist.

Thinking of Selling Your Catalog? How to Plan the Smart Way | Billboard Pro