Last December, UMG Nashville president Cindy Mabe climbed aboard George Strait’s tour bus, which was parked outside Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena and serves as his home during his residency in the city. Strait had turned in an album in October and wanted to put it out before year’s end. But Mabe knew it needed more setup time, and she arranged a face-to-face meeting to break the news.
“Listening to these songs reminded me of how important George Strait is to music,” says Mabe in late April, sitting in UMG Nashville’s office on Second Avenue, overlooking the Cumberland River. So she presented Strait with not only a new rollout plan for the album but also a multiyear initiative for his back catalog that tied in partners like Spotify. “We spoke a lot about why we needed him to keep creating his musical perspective, because he is our North Star,” says Mabe.
Strait has accumulated 44 No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart -- more than any other artist -- and he’s UMG Nashville’s third-most-streamed act, behind Chris Stapleton and Luke Bryan. But Mabe’s decision was about more than just the bottom line -- it was an opportunity to right an industry wrong. “In the same way we are doing [campaigns] for The Rolling Stones, Queen and Elton John, why are we not doing it for our core country artists?” she says. “This was a chance for us to start that.”
Her plan worked: Following its release in April, Strait’s Honky Tonk Time Machine became his 27th No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, and another in a long line of No. 1 albums (including seven in 2018) for UMG Nashville.
Mabe’s approach with Strait exemplifies why she’s one of Music City’s most respected industry voices: She proves that executives can be simultaneously shrewd and empathetic, attentive to analytics and data but focused first and foremost on artists and music. “Cindy is the quiet oracle,” says Keith Urban, whose Graffiti U was one of the albums Mabe helped top the chart last year. “She has her antenna tuned in to things I often can’t see at the time, but she proves time and time again to be spot on.” Or, as Dierks Bentley’s manager, Mary Hilliard Harrington, puts it: “She can cut through all the bullshit to the heart of any matter.”
During the last 18 months, Mabe oversaw groundbreaking album launches for unconventional artists like Kacey Musgraves and Stapleton, Billboard’s top country artist of 2018; helped superstar Bryan retain his dominant position in the industry; took rising stars like Lauren Alaina and Jon Pardi to new chart heights; and broke such budding acts as Jordan Davis, Billboard’s top new country artist of 2018. Last year, UMG Nashville sold 4.8 million albums and garnered 12.1 million track downloads and 10.4 billion on-demand audio streams, adding up to a 2018 country market share of 26.73%, the most of any Nashville label.
But Mabe doesn’t measure success only by the numbers. “I am trying to build artists that make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame -- people who change culture and belief systems,” she says. “When that is your mission, it changes how you are playing the game.”
It’s a perspective that the 46-year-old Kernersville, N.C., native says helps her keep a level head in a fast-moving industry. “To be honest, my personal life is even crazier than this,” says the married mother of three kids, all 12 and under. “I am an introverted human being, so it is better for me to sit back and listen to what is happening so I can make a decision. It is how I was raised, frankly.”
After graduating from Belmont University in 1995, Mabe worked as promotion coordinator for Nashville’s RCA Label Group and eventually rose to product manager. In 2007, then-Capitol Records Nashville head Mike Dungan offered her the position of vp of marketing. Mabe, four months pregnant at the time, declined. But when he asked again five months later, she said yes -- and they soon forged a powerful partnership. Mabe says she and Dungan, now UMG Nashville’s chairman/CEO, are well-suited teammates because of their complementary styles: She’s the serious one; he’s the jokester. Says Mabe: “We bring the best out in each other.”
As Nashville’s highest-ranking woman label executive, Mabe has been a beacon of support for female artists at all career levels. In 2018, Carrie Underwood -- who the previous year had left her longtime home at Sony Nashville for UMG Nashville in part to reunite with Mabe -- scored the biggest debut week that year for an album by a woman of any genre with Cry Pretty. This year, new signee Caylee Hammack earned raves for first single “Family Tree.” “I want to relate to what I am listening to,” says Mabe. “You have to hear a woman’s perspective however you consume music.”
Still, the highlight of her year was the overwhelming response to Musgraves’ masterwork, Golden Hour, which won album of the year at the Grammy Awards in February, as well as at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April and the Country Music Association Awards last November. “We got a wider audience of real tastemakers that built a really loud noise around this album -- the press and the Grammy circles and gay outlets,” she says. “A lot of those things weren’t traditionally something we would do, but it was where this record fit.”
Bringing an artist’s creative vision to fruition is, says Mabe, her greatest joy -- and also her biggest responsibility. “I have always felt like songs are gifts from God. Music is the most powerful thing in the universe, and it changes people more than words or actions,” she says. “When someone puts that in my hands, I take it freaking seriously. That is the No. 1 thing.”