Executive of the Week: Universal Music Nashville President Cindy Mabe

Cindy Mabe
Courtesy Photo

Cindy Mabe

"Being real and making sure the music is an extension of who you are and what you are about is the formula for a successful song."

This week, as Luke Bryan's "Waves" rose to No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, the veteran singer from Georgia joined some elite company: he is now just the sixth artist to notch 25 No. 1 singles since the chart debuted in 1990, joining luminaries like Kenny Chesney (31), Tim McGraw (29), Blake Shelton (28), Alan Jackson (26) and George Strait (26) atop the all-time rankings.

The single, off his 2020 album Born Here Live Here Die Here, comes off the deluxe edition released this past April, and marks his second album to spin off at least five No. 1 country radio singles, after 2015's Crash My Party. It's a significant feat for Bryan and his team at Capitol Nashville, where he has spent his whole career, and earns Universal Music Group Nashville president Cindy Mabe the title of Billboard's Executive of the Week.

Here, Mabe discusses the place of radio in the overall music landscape, how deluxe albums can keep fans engaged and extend the life of a project and how the pandemic has affected the playing field. But overall, Mabe explains, "Artist development is the key to all of it."

Luke Bryan’s "Waves" became his 25th No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart after reaching the top this week. What key decision(s) did you make to help make that happen?

We released a deluxe album version of Born Here Live Here Die Here in April. Luke recorded six additional tracks for the project and “Waves” was one of those new tracks. We debated the choice, but ultimately all leaned into “Waves” as our lead radio track. It just felt like the perfect song rolling through the summer with everything our world has been through. We released the deluxe seven months after the original album to keep the fans engaged and listening to his music as touring was coming back. They needed a reason to be excited again after such a heavy 18 months. Luke was also in the process of releasing his IMDb documentary Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary which told his full life story and “Waves” was a great lead in while we introduced heavier content and music through the documentary.

This is his second album with at least five singles that reached No. 1 on Country Airplay. Setting aside the quality of the songs, what strategies have you used to help maximize his tracks at radio?

Radio works in conjunction with the overall marketplace. Songs have to stay loud and relevant across the board to cut through. It does all start with the song and the narrative behind the story the artist is telling. So, keeping content fresh with videos -- both long and short form -- creating newer versions of songs, feeding the DSPs with more music or versions to keep them driving, keeping Luke accessible through the tour, interviews and appearances, then bringing in media and social media to help tell the story and linking it to where we are going next, helps it all feel connected. The fans want to be along for the ride with front row access, so all of those pieces really help drive the excitement across the board. It’s never about just one song in one platform anymore if you want to accomplish rolling that many No. 1s together. It’s a much bigger strategy and the fans sit in the front and center.

Why do you feel deluxe editions are becoming more and more common these days?

Streaming is moving at a much quicker pace than radio. Die hard fans want to listen to music heavily in a concentrated time period and then they want more. Radio is working at a much slower pace, but is so very important to amplifying the music to a very broad base at one concentrated time. In order to keep the really engaged fans discovering and interested we have to give them music in quicker time frames and, vice versa, we have to make sure we give radio enough time to feed a broader audience to maximize a hit song. Deluxe albums give us a way to service two fan bases and still keep a focus on the artist's music while making hits as big as they can be.

How has the pandemic changed the formula for a successful song?

The pandemic has sped up the need for content and access. It opened people’s eyes to music discovery and streaming. As people spent so much time streaming music, movies, books and general content, the artists who kept creating music and those who spoke [directly] to their fans won. You saw that through artists doing livestreams, new music drops, TikTok audiences engaging, artists speaking on socials and letting the fans have a glimpse into their lives. It took the barriers down as people were struggling for a norm.

The music was the center of that conversation. Keeping music relevant to what people are seeking is the key to all of it, but being real and making sure the music is an extension of who you are and what you are about is the formula for a successful song. People just want to connect and that has never been more true than through the pandemic.

What is one key aspect about how to succeed in the country music business that many people seem to overlook?

Artist development is the key to all of it. We as an industry expect too much in too short of a time and we are losing career artists to short-term hits. There is so much content to sort through on radio, television, digital and streaming platforms. Cutting through the clutter will only happen when you stand out and play to the particular strengths of an artist and their message by making sure the music follows. Having a hit song is only one piece of the puzzle of developing stars.