James Marsh is used to breaking down barriers. In 2000, after working as a DJ and in promotion at top 40, rhythm and alternative rock radio stations in Dallas, he became an artist development representative at Universal Music Group, where he says he was pigeonholed in the urban departments of MCA, Def Jam, Interscope and Universal. Then Mike Easterlin, an Island Def Jam executive at the time, suggested he interview for the label’s Southwest regional promotion post. When Marsh met then-label chief Lyor Cohen and Julie Greenwald, he recalls Cohen saying, “ ‘Wait, he’s Black and he knows rock?! That’s the f---ing future.’ And that was my first venture into the pop and rock side of the industry, which was very rare at the time.”
His career diversified from there. After promotion stints at Atlantic, Roadrunner and Warner Bros. Records, Marsh joined Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, where his friend Chris Stacey had been named GM of the revived Dot country label. “Chris always told me, ‘I don’t need you to live country. I need you to know country,’ ” remembers Marsh. As head of Southwest regional promotion for Dot, he “took that to heart: know the artists, the music, the facts, the consumption — and the rest is your personality.” Two years ago, he moved from Dallas to join Warner Music Nashville as national director of the WAR (Warner, Atlantic, Reprise) team, working with artists like Blake Shelton, Ashley McBryde, Chris Janson and Dan + Shay. Earlier this year, he was appointed national director of radio and streaming for Warner Music Nashville and sister Nashville divisions WEA and WAR.
Marsh, 52, acknowledges the mentors who helped pave the path for his advancement. But he’s also frank about the systemic racism he has faced along the way and says the Nashville music community needs to reach out to more people like himself. “I’m a big guy and give people the benefit of the doubt, but when I go backstage sometimes I’m still mistaken as security. I’ve learned to smile and block it out because I know my artists and executives at the label get it. But some people just can’t get it through their head.” During nationwide protests in late spring, concerned family members called to ask if he was OK, “like I was going to get strung up here,” he says with a rueful laugh.
As a high-ranking Black executive in the lucrative country music industry, Marsh knows he is still one of very few. “We have to spread the wealth and push the door open more,” he says. “Times are changing; we have to correct this.” His most notable peers include Big Loud Records vp marketing Candice Watkins, BMG Music Publishing creative director Rakiyah Marshall and Sony/ATV Nashville’s recently hired vp human resources Courtney Pender.
Watkins, 38, is a longtime Nashville resident, with posts at Red Light Management, Borman Entertainment (where she was Keith Urban’s day-to-day manager) and Universal Music Group Nashville on her résumé. In 2018, she was named vp marketing at Big Loud — the first company she has worked with during her 14 years in town where she says she isn’t the only Black person on staff, and the first that has asked for her perspective as a Black woman, both before and since the industry’s recent reckoning with racism.
“Before you can actually act, you have to listen,” says Watkins. Praising Big Loud’s approach, she points to having “a great network of people around me, supportive white colleagues and peers who do ‘get’ that the country music business is not diverse. Period.” As a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force that the Academy of Country Music (ACM) launched in 2019, she’s eager to erase the stereotype that Black people don’t like country music (one she says Black people can sometimes feed into) and to encourage her colleagues to speak out when they witness racist actions. Her own most painful and eye-opening experiences working in country music have stemmed from their silence, she says. “In all the situations that I’ve been in — being called the N-word or ‘colored,’ [hearing] racist questions and comments in front of my peers — no one ever called out the behavior,” she says. “No one has really said it was wrong, apologized, empathized or even acknowledged it — until now.”