Big Loud Record Label Hits the Ground Running With One Artist and a Motown-Like Philosophy

Grant Halverson/Getty Images for iHeart Media
Chris Lane performs at Macy's Hanes on May 16, 2015 in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

Big Loud Mountain co-founder Craig Wiseman can pinpoint the room in his building at 1111 16th Ave. S. where Garth Brooks allegedly signed his first recording deal when the place was owned by Capitol.

But as the management/publishing company best-known for developing Florida Georgia Line launches its new Big Loud record label, it's looking more like the self-contained structure of '60s R&B hit factory Motown as a model than the typical country major. The majors are noted for large staffs and deep rosters, and while they maintain in-house creative departments such as A&R and creative services, much of the artistic process is farmed out to other sources.

By contrast, Big Loud -- which welcomes Clay Hunnicutt as label president when he wraps his role as iHeartMedia executive vp/GM of national programming on July 23 -- has a smaller roster in mind as the imprint forms as an outgrowth of already successful endeavors. Manager/partners Seth England and Vancouver-based Kevin "Chief" Zaruk guided FGL from a hopeful indie act to a multiplatinum Republic Nashville deal in approximately 18 months. Producer/partner Joey Moi (Nickelback, Jake Owen) ranked as country's top producer on Billboard's year-end charts. Big Loud Shirt Publishing maintains a small stable of songwriters, but they're prolific talents including Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins, Sarah Buxton and Wiseman, whose collective recent works include "Dirt," "Bartender," "Drunk on a Plane," "Sun Daze" and "Boys 'Round Here."

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Much like Berry Gordy Jr. in his early years, the top brass at the self-financed Big Loud label is unencumbered by stock-price fluctuations, focused instead on making decisions about the product with an eye toward long-term investment.

"We only have to answer to ourselves and not to a board of accountants who are like, 'If you don't make your fourth-quarter sales, you're in trouble,' " Zaruk says.

Big Loud is opening with just one act, Chris Lane, who kicks off a radio promotion tour with Hunnicutt and England on Aug. 3. They won't be pushing a single, simply laying groundwork for an EP toward the end of the year with radio expected to have a voice in choosing the first release from that batch of titles.

Lane exemplifies the Motown-like philosophy. Working through their own Hitsville Studios in Detroit, Gordy's roster had a constant supply of material available from his in-house writers and had a team of instructors to coach them through their wardrobe, choreography and public presentation.

Lane is focused on "groove-oriented country," England says, and because he was able to express that to the Big Loud writing staff, he has found a big core of his material within the same building where he's cutting his songs.

"Two writers took it upon themselves to make him their project and didn't take brand-new songs to the top of the pitch list," England says. "They took them right to Chris and said, 'I think this is what you mean.' He's hearing it and saying, 'That's exactly what I meant.' "

Meanwhile, as Lane goes through his development process, the team is experiencing it with him.

"When Chris went to vocal lessons, Joey went to vocal lessons, too, just so that he could learn the same vernacular and talk to Chris," Wiseman notes.

While the Motown model is an influence, Big Loud won't be replicating it entirely. Where the Hitsville crew was its own outpost in Michigan, Big Loud is in the center of Music Row, and the team has no intention of isolating itself from the rest of the country community.

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"It can't be a closed-door society," Hunnicutt says. "This is not a cult, you know; we're not shutting everybody else out."

Hunnicutt was invited in for some obvious reasons. His radio background is a big advantage in a genre that relies more than most other formats on broadcasting to expose new material. But iHeartMedia -- through its iHeartRadio digital platform, live events and TV specials -- reaches beyond radio. That knowledge base, combined with his management skills, made him an attractive executive to lead the Big Loud label foray.

"We needed somebody of his skill set to come in and kind of rein it all in," Moi says.

While Hunnicutt has hit the ground running -- he's already in decision-making mode, even though his iHeartMedia tenure hasn't ended -- he's being judicious in the process. He's in the market for a promotion vice president and staff, though the label won't rush its hiring decisions. Since there's already a Big Loud team in place, the label can rely on some of the existing staff for some functions while it makes prudent and timely personnel decisions in other departments going forward. And, since those quarterly income statements aren't the driving force in the company, the marketing tail isn't wagging the dog. The number of artists on the roster is never likely to be huge, and the company's executive size will ultimately be determined by the label's output.

It's a reverse-order process from many of the country indie labels that sprout up, most of them closing their doors after a brief run.

"A lot of them come to town, every [executive] is getting paid a lot of money, and they just find some kid walking by and throw something out there," Wiseman says. "That's not how we work."

"We're on our time table," Hunnicutt adds. "We'll do the right thing with the right people for the right reasons to make sure we have it right."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.