Universal Nashville's Mike Dungan Talks Balancing Country & Pop for The Band Perry's 'Comeback'
Billboard's Nashville executive of the year explains the group's joint deal with Interscope, along with secrets behind the success of Chris Stapleton, Sam Hunt & Keith Urban.
There’s some not-so-veiled thematic resonance in The Band Perry’s brand-new single “Comeback Kid”: In the country world, the trio really is looking to make a splashy return after their previous single, “Live Forever,” barely cracked Billboard's Country Airplay top 30 and the group split with Big Machine to sign a deal with their enthusiastic new champion, Universal Music Group Nashville chairman Mike Dungan.
However, they’re not looking to make a comeback, but rather a first impression in the pop world, thanks to their joint deal with Interscope under the Universal corporate umbrella. In a recent interview with Billboard for his Nashville executive of the year profile, Dungan talked about how this highly unusual twofer came to be, while also addressing some of the label group’s other recent successes and future hopes.
“It was kind of an accident by which this joint venture between us and Interscope happened,” Dungan said. “The band had kind of an unfortunate falling out in their previous home and ended up leaving. And I don’t care to speculate on the ins and outs of that, nor do I really know for sure. But I got a call from their manager, Coran Capshaw, who said, ‘This band, who you know very well, is on the market, and I’d very much like to talk to you about coming over there.’ I said, ‘OK. This is a surprise! What’s the next step?’ So we set a date for like a week away.”
Simple enough, except that Dungan “hung up the phone and literally 30 seconds later Aaron Bay-Schuck and John Janick called me from Interscope,” he recalls, referring to the sister label’s president of A&R and chairman/CEO, respectively. It seemed one of the pop producers The Band Perry had been working with in L.A. for their abortive Big Machine project had asked the sibling trio to add vocals to a pop project he was doing for Interscope. “Aaron Bay-Schuck decided to just drop by the studio one day to see what’s going on, and he was blown away by The Band Perry and couldn’t get ‘em out of his head. A week later, they were out of their deal. So bing-bam-boom, he’s hearing them as a pop band.”
Beyond the intricacies of working out a joint contract, could they be viable in two genres? Since their initial success with the career-defining “If I Die Young,” The Band Perry had moved increasingly in a rock, then pop musical direction, albeit without ever officially venturing outside the genre that raised them. They haven’t put out an album since the sophomore effort Pioneer more than three years ago, a project that generated two Country Airplay No. 1 singles. So radio’s tepid response to what was supposed to be a third album teaser, “Live Forever,” in 2015 may not be the best indicator of their enduring popularity, especially given that they’re still a crowd-pleasing festival draw. Still: How pop are they getting?
“I had to sit down with the band and get a deeper look in the music to see if this was, in fact, country music,” said Dungan. “And I feel that it is. Is it going to be like Blake Shelton? No, absolutely not. But I don’t think this band’s ever been that, and they’re growing too. Our performance will tell the story, just like it did with Sam Hunt” -- whose country-ness lies more in the lyric than any remotely traditional sound. “I think it’s going to work, and I think we’re going to put this band back on the map in a really big way.”
Don’t expect a fall album launch, though. “It’s probably going to be next year,” Dungan said. “There’s no reason to rush this. The last thing I want to do is get into business with a high-profile band and rush it and fail. And they feel the same way. So while we always have corporate pressures to get business done in our calendar year, I’m not going to allow that to happen on a band of this status.”
Bruce Flohr, an executive at Red Light Management who worked with Capshaw on sealing the deal, said, “In the negotiations with The Band Perry, he told the band exactly why he wanted to sign them and exactly what he needed from them. That was refreshing. You need to know the guy leading the charge is on the same page but also isn’t just telling the band what they want to hear.” Dungan was a good fit for the group because “he’s not someone who’s concerned that country is evolving.”
That’s clear in some of Universal Nashville’s recent creative decisions. Although the label group has its share of traditional-skewing artists, from George Strait and Vince Gill to up-and-comer Jon Pardi, Dungan is perhaps even more notable for giving a long leash to artists who want to experiment with sounds from outside the genre, whether it’s Little Big Town doing a side project with Pharrell or Keith Urban working with EDM producers. “Sixteen years into this, Keith is in the studio all the time with the oddest of people, to a country guy like me,” Dungan says. “I visited him six months ago in a studio here and he was with a beat producer from Israel. That’s how he gets a completely fresh, different sound.”
As for the label’s biggest breakout artist at country radio in recent years, “Sam Hunt was very radical -- and guess what? Three to four months into our success with him, three out of four song demos that we were pitched from the publishers sounded like Sam Hunt productions. That’s how quickly they start to emulate things. It’s wonderful and frightening at the same time.”
The biggest non-radio breakout? Chris Stapleton, of course. “The thing that’s different between Sam and Chris is Sam had immediate and tremendous support at radio, and Chris was much more difficult to sell. It was seen as more old-school and perhaps a little too throwback. But watching not only the sales of this record but watching this guy come to their town and selling out an enormous amount of tickets in 20 minutes, people are starting to wake up and realize, hey, this is really happening, and if I don’t jump on it and claim it, I’m crazy.” (“Nobody to Blame,” his most successful single so far, peaked at No. 10 on Country Airplay.)
“Chris’ record was described when he went into the studio as a very old-school, throwback country record. What came out in my opinion was a blend of that with a tremendous amount of influence from the R&B sounds of Memphis and Stax, delivered with the voice of God. Sometimes the suits like me need to just get out of the way and let these guys do their thing. And trust me, there were many times when Chris and I had disagreements about what he was doing, and I was completely wrong. I’m proud and I feel very fortunate to have not only not allowed my ego to get in the way of this but also to stand next to him and be proud of it.”
The history of Traveller was slightly tortured before the happy ending that led to it selling 1.5 million units to date. “I tried to sign Chris at Capitol 10 years ago, and it didn’t work out, mainly because he didn’t want to have a recording career then,” Dungan said. “Right before I came here to Universal, he was signed by Bryan Wright. We sat down and listened to a really great body of [demo] work that befuddled me, and I looked at him and said, ‘Chris, I don’t know what to do with most of this. I’m not saying it’s not good. This business has never been about good or bad. It’s been about what works in the market. And I don’t know what to do with this.’ And he got very, very frustrated with me, and my comment to him over and over again was, ‘You’re one of the best songwriters I’ve known. Where are those songs?’ And he kept making a point: ‘I didn’t write those songs for me. Those songs don’t represent who I am as an artist.’”
Stapleton went away for a couple months and came back with three songs he felt were in the more commercial vein Dungan wanted, including “What Are You Listening To,” which was released as a single in 2013 and, despite acclaim, didn’t even chart on Country Airplay. Soon after that, Stapleton’s father died. The combination of that death and commercial failure led the singer to start from scratch and create the F-it-all record that has been the story in country music this past year. “When he walked in and played it, you could not deny that this was just flat-out great. And it’s wonderful to get to a point where you see greatness even though it might not obviously fit in the box.”
Although Universal remains by far the market-share leader in country, Dungan has plenty of reason to be a worrywart. “I’m very happy with what’s happening with Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, but it’s the kids that we signed three years ago that still haven’t found their groove that keep me awake at night. The other thing is, we have 85 employees here, and I’m very motivated by keeping that team in place. I don’t want to wake up one day and hear the words that I have to let five people go, because honestly, I don’t know how to cut five out. I don’t even know how to cut one out. Everybody in this building is killing themselves, working late-night hours and sometimes weekends. It’s a staff full of flame-throwers, and I can’t afford to lose one flame.”