Cody Johnson on Why He Finally Decided to Sign to a Major Label

Cody Johnson
Cameron Powell

Cody Johnson

Warner Music Nashville recently made headlines with their signing of Cody Johnson, one of the biggest superstars on the independent label scene. The singer definitely had his share of fans in Music City -- one of those being A&R head Cris Lacy, who worked on a Johnson alliance with the label for over seven years. Once she was able to convince Johnson of the possibility that signing a deal could be the right next step, label head John Esposito finished the deal.

He said ‘What do we have to do to get this done? And I said, "Well, it's gotta be this, these are the stipulations,’” Johnson affirmed to Billboard. He said, ‘Done.’ He told them, ‘Just write it up. Whatever he wants, he deserves.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, that felt like 10 years worth of hard work paying off right then.'”

Johnson – a longtime standout in the Texas Music scene who has seen his music hit as high as No. 2 on the Country Albums chart without a national hit single – found himself in a bidding war between many labels in Music City. He detailed that process for Billboard.

“After ten years of being independent, it's kind of hard to imagine signing to a label. So whenever we had this record done, and that's something that I want to make very clear to everybody, is that this record was done. It was done and I was ready to put it out independently, when my manager, Howie Edelman, came to me, and he said, ‘Dude, this record's too good. We have to shop this. Why would we not shop this record?’ I said, ‘Well, if you believe in it that much, then I believe in it that much.’"

As good as being on a major label sounded, there were certain things that Johnson wasn’t willing to give up after doing things on his own so successfully for so long.

When it came to my publishing, my masters, creative control, the tour schedule we keep and how we run our operation, that wasn’t something I was willing to change."

After all, Johnson reasoned – he could survive without a label. “There was a certain amount of money that I had to make before I felt comfortable splitting it 50-50. And a lot of people offered us some deals, and they weren't quite as good as Warner. And it literally, came down to me and John Esposito, the president of the company, sitting down and having some margaritas and talking about the fact that he's the business owner and I'm the business owner, and if it fails, it's going to be on us.”

Johnson said that came close to clinching the deal, but Esposito’s next statement pushed Warner over the top. ‘We don't want to change you, Cody. We don't want to change anything about you. We just want to help you in the areas where you need help, to get you to major market radio stations outside of the Texas Regional Radio Report, to get your distribution to the level of the Dan + Shay's and the Eric Church's of the world." And so, I left it up to them to do what they said they were going to do. And so far, they have done exactly, if not more, then they said they were going to do. It’s been great.”

The first single under that partnership, “On My Way To You,” has quickly found a home on the Country Airplay chart, currently sitting at No. 31.

“I didn't expect it. First of all. I didn't really know what to expect. I just knew that it was a song that myself and Warner were both passionate about. It’s really cool to see a major label get behind a song so traditional country, and pushing it to radio. That was a huge thing. I guess I got so focused on that, that I didn't really even think about, ‘What's it going to do on the chart?’ We knew the reaction from the crowd was incredible when we started playing it live, and that was a huge, good sign. But never did I think it was going to be climbing the way that it is. It's amazing.”

Johnson said that when he and his team heard the song, he knew it was special.

“From the first time I heard it, I went, ‘Oh, my Lord. What is this?’ It seems autobiographical of myself, from my journey to my wife, to the career path that I've taken. It talks about the bumps, and the bruises, and the hard times along the way, and the negatives that wind up being the positives. And man, and it spoke so hard to me. I thought, I said, ‘Did Tony Lane and Brett James know that we were cutting a record? Did they write this specifically for me?’ Because it couldn't have been any more perfect. I mean, I can sit here and lie to you and say I wished I had written it. But if I had a hand in writing it, it might not be as good.”

The single is the first from his Warner debut, Ain’t Nothin’ To It, slated for a Jan. 18 release. He admits he’s counting down the days.

“I cannot wait for January. I've never been more excited about a set of music. It's different from any other record I've ever recorded. Ironically enough, you would think that the record that had the most songs that I wrote on would be the one I'm excited the most about, but it's not. This is the most excited I've ever been about any music. I feel like it's gonna change some things for me. I think it's going to change some things for the music industry. It’s always been a goal of mine, is to be able to make a mark, and to change the industry in a positive way. So, I guess we are about to find out, aren't we?”