The furniture in Benny Brown's Music Row office is covered with more than 30 neatly arranged stacks of song demos, each marked up with his hand-written notations about which of the artists on his large roster he thinks the songs might suit. For Brown, the business begins and ends with the song -- and the singer -- and he sees no shortage of talent out there.
It's for those reasons that the renegade entrepreneur and genial president/CEO of Nashville-based BBR Music Group is now launching a fourth country label imprint, Wheelhouse Records.
Billboard broke news in April that veteran country star Trace Adkins had been signed to the label group. Now, Brown reveals that Adkins will be assigned to the new imprint, along with newly signed artist Granger Smith, who records both as himself and as his comedic alter ego Earl Dibbles Jr. Adkins will have new music available in the fall. The Wheelhouse staff will take over promotion for Smith's current single, "Backroad Song," from an EP released in May in conjunction with Nashville indie Thirty Tigers.
Brown's successful enterprise, launched in 1997, has grown to consist of publishing company Magic Mustang Music and management arm BBR Management, along with three existing labels: Broken Bow Records, Stoney Creek Records and Red Bow Records. Like its sister imprints, Wheelhouse will be distributed through RED Distribution.
"We've got so many artists, but you can't step on one another," Brown tells Billboard, explaining his decision to launch the new imprint. "Otherwise, you're not doing the artists any favors. Even though you've got the great music, you have to wait for the right timing."
The new label is part of an effort to make that timing happen faster for more artists. Brown says it's a lesson he first learned in 2009 when he decided to launch his second imprint, Stoney Creek, to join the by then successful flagship Broken Bow.
"We'd reached a point where we had four or five artists on Broken Bow, and there was still a lot of talent out there," he explains. "But there was no way there was room on the Broken Bow label for more than four or five artists because you've got a staff of people that can only support so many. So that's when I opened Stoney Creek, and then Stoney Creek filled up and I had to open Red Bow [in 2012]. Now, they're all filled up, so I'm opening [Wheelhouse]."
Brown is pleased with his name choice for the new label. "We are always looking for a song that's in the artists' ‘wheelhouse,' meaning the song fits their vocal sweet spot and also fits their brand and image," he explains. "Since I've always referred to this as an artist's ‘wheelhouse' it seemed like the natural choice for our next label."
The new imprint's promotion staffers include vp/promotion Teddi Bonadies, a country label veteran who most recently was VP/promotion and strategic marketing at Nashville indie Streamsound Records. She previously held key promotion roles Arista Records, Show Dog Records and Universal South. Her team will include Midwest/Southwest regional Jennifer Shaffer, Northeast regional Brittany Pellegrino, Southeast regional Kimmie Trosdahl, West Coast regional Bill Snickers and coordinator Nicole Nehrbas, who will share the same duties at Bed Bow. In addition, Carly Ronayne has been hired to succeed Trosdahl as promotion coordinator for Broken Bow and Stoney Creek.
BBR Music Group relocated to 65 Music Square West in January 2014 after Brown purchased the spacious building formerly occupied for years by the administrative team at Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Earlier this summer, Brown took Billboard.biz on a tour of a vast, vacant floor in the building. It has since been built out as the home for the Wheelhouse team, with plenty of additional space for future expansion as well.
In addition to superstar Jason Aldean, who has been with the label since the beginning of his recording career, Broken Bow's roster consists of Dustin Lynch, Jackie Lee, Kristy Lee Cook and newcomer Jordan Rager. Stoney Creek has Randy Houser, Thompson Square, Parmalee, Lindsay Ell and David Fanning. Red Bow, launched in October 2012, now has a roster that includes Joe Nichols, Craig Campbell, and newcomers Chase Bryant, and Brooke Eden. (Red Bow is a partnership with RED Distribution, which has distributed BBR releases since 2002 and has a deal that extends to 2017.) Newcomer Adam Craig has also been signed to the label group, which plans to introduce him around next winter's Country Radio Seminar, Brown says.
Magic Mustang has 19 writers on its roster, including Aldean, Thompson Square, Campbell, Fanning, Ell and Eden, plus hitmakers Rob Hatch and the recently signed Vicky McGehee. The management arm reps Thompson Square and Parmalee.
Brown, 74, made his mark in the auto business before launching his country music enterprises, and continues to own seven new car dealerships in Northern California.