On April 19, the Academy of Country Music Awards drew more than 70,000 fans to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and 15.8 million viewers (according to Nielsen) to its CBS telecast thanks to superstars like Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and Brooks & Dunn. But that weekend Mike Dungan, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, was just as focused on bringing key radio programmers to nearby Dallas for showcases by eight of his labels' most promising artists.
Though Dungan, 61, says "radio is still the primary driver" for breaking new acts like the showcased eight -- newcomers Mickey Guyton, Canaan Smith and Joey Hyde, along with more established artists including Brothers Osborne and Easton Corbin -- he's exploring as many avenues as possible to expose his artists. Those include tentpole TV events and festivals like the 2015 Country Music Association Fan Fest (June 11-14 in Nashville) and CMT Awards (June 11), as well as streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and iHeartRadio. It's the latter category that Dungan credits with helping to break Sam Hunt, whose 2014 album Montevallo and such hits as "Take Your Time" and "Leave the Night On" have been streamed more than 200 million times. "Our streaming activity has rocketed over the last year, and we are not far behind our pop brethren in that respect," says Dungan. "This is a real business for us."
Hunt's modern take on the genre (country ballads sprinkled with EDM-like builds and rap-singing) brings a new wrinkle to an already diverse roster that includes white-hot heartthrobs (Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan), country legends (Alan Jackson, George Strait), thriving vets (Little Big Town, Darius Rucker) and critical darlings (Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton).
Dungan, a married father of two (with two grandchildren as well), was elevated to CEO of UMG Nashville just weeks before the company's 2011 merger with EMI. Since then, the Cincinnati native has helped the label group become country's market-share leader in 2013, 2014 and 2015 year-to-date, with 27 percent of the market as of April 19 (down from 33 percent during the same period in 2014). The view from Dungan's office looks out over downtown Nashville, and he tries to take a similar perspective on country's rapidly changing audience.
"Fans are into all kinds of things," he says, "and young people push back very hard when they sense that a suit like me is trying to brand it or label it."
UMG is often credited with bringing more diversity to Nashville. What's your A&R process like?
I came from Capitol Records, where every artist was an outlier at some point, whether it be Keith Urban or Dierks Bentley or even Luke Bryan or Lady Antebellum. I remember radio people saying, "I don't get what you're doing with Lady Antebellum. It feels like an adult-contemporary act." And look at them now. I use a phrase all the time: "The difference makes the difference." And as long as you don't go too far out on that plank, I think that's smart to do.
Sam Hunt took country radio by surprise, fusing many different genres. Does he have crossover potential?
He certainly could -- and in fact, "Take Your Time" shipped April 20 to pop [radio]. [The 11-week Billboard Hot Country Songs chart-topper is No. 39 on Adult Top 40.] You can't escape your influences, and you can't expect young people to have the same influences people had 20 or 30 years ago.
Did he also start an A&R trend?
We saw it immediately, not only in artists that were being put in front of us, but songwriters in town emulating the style.
Speaking of crossover, has Taylor Swift going fully pop widened the playing field for more new artists?
I think so. It took her music off of our country radio airwaves, but the fans still bought the record -- it's just one really big indicator of how the lines have been blurred. And if she decides to go a different direction for the next record, the fans will go with her.
Without her, there are only three solo females currently in the top 25. Does country still have a female problem?
This might not be a very popular thing to say in Nashville, but for the better part of 10 years, females really weren't bringing it. And I think the people responsible for writing songs that had more of a female theme were not delivering. But ironically the three new artists we're most excited about are all female: Mickey Guyton, Clare Dunn and Haley Georgia.
Kacey Musgraves is another unique female UMG act. And although she has crossover appeal through her friendship with Katy Perry, her upcoming sophomore set is defiantly old-school country. Is that a challenge for you?
What Kacey does fundamentally is very country -- if anything, it's a little right-of-center for the country radio format. But, this is another extension of how the blurred lines manifest themselves. It's really just an appreciation for the real deal. Katy hears Kacey's music and says, "This is incredible," and they form a bond. There's no thought given to, "Well, she's not like me." Kacey's going to be everywhere we can place her, and we feel we have the right first single [with "Biscuits"]. It just has an up, happy vibe, similar to John Denver's [1975 hit] "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy."
Bro country: Here to stay?
You know, bro country definitely continues to resound with the fans -- you can see it in the sales. Like anything else, it depends on the quality. As long as there are solid songs that perform in a compelling way, there's no reason to think it won't continue.
Has your company pumped the brakes on signing bro country acts?
We're very skeptical, let's put it that way. As a matter of fact, Florida Georgia Line was brought to Nashville and signed during the time I was on hiatus [between Capitol and UMG in 2011]. So everyone says, "You passed on Florida Georgia Line," and I say, "No, I never saw them." I can't say that I would have signed them. We base our business strategy on long-term career development, and we always will.
Country's global profile has increased dramatically thanks to the C2C festival in Europe and the popularity of the show Nashville. Would you sign an international country act?
I've got probably the premier Universal [U.K.] country artist, a band called The Shires, coming here in June. I have no projection as to whether we're going to sign them here, but we're trying to help them. This is expensive -- you don't get a small shot here. That's how this company runs. It's costing a million-and-a-half dollars every time we put out a release [with] three singles. So we can't just throw shit out there until something sticks.
This article first appeared in the May 9 issue of Billboard.