There’s no better indicator of chairman/CEO John Esposito’s success rebuilding Warner Music Nashville than the results of Nov. 13’s CMA Awards: Blake Shelton, the only artist still on the WMN roster from when Esposito took over in 2009, won single of the year for “God’s Country.” Dan + Shay, whom WMN signed in 2012, captured vocal duo of the year, and Ashley McBryde, who released her label debut in 2018, snagged best new artist.
On Wednesday, the same trio of artists nabbed a total of five Grammy nominations.
The wins come as Esposito has signed a new contract to continue running the label for several more years. He wouldn’t specify for exactly how long, saying only, “I had a couple of years left on my contract and let’s just say they wanted to keep me around for a couple more.”
Esposito, known as Espo, took over Warner Music Group’s Nashville label in 2009, after seven years at WEA Corp., where he served as president/CEO of WMG’s sales and marketing division, as well as overseeing Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) and Independent Label Group (ILG).
WMN has taken 16 albums to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart under Esposito’s reign, and, according to the label, quadrupled its airplay chart share, helping nine artists, including Brett Eldredge, Dan + Shay, Cole Swindell, and Chris Janson, achieve their first No. 1s. In 2018, superstar Kenny Chesney signed to WMN, leaving his longtime home of Sony Music Nashville. Year to date, WMN’s country market share is 10.93 percent, according to Nielsen Music.
In a wide-ranging interview in his spacious WMN office two days before the CMA Awards, Esposito reflected on his first decade and looked ahead.
When you took the job, did you expect to be here 10 years later?
I would have bet on myself, but I doubt there were many who would have bet on me: “What’s the New Yorker from Distribution with no proven country skills going to do?” But I loved the town and I thought we could make hay if I had the right A&R team and thank God I did. My job was to get the rest of the building in order.
What steps did you take to get the label on its current path?
The first step was to say “A&R, I’m going to live and die by your skills and I’m going to tell everybody else they don’t have a choice.” As my buddy Lyor Cohen told me, “A&R picks the singles because if everybody else does, I don’t know who to shoot.”
The second thing I had to do was I had to replace a number of people….Ten years later, there are only three people who were here the day I got here: [sr. vp/radio & streaming] Kristen Williams, [executive vp, A&R/creative advisor] Scott Hendricks and [executive vp, A&R] Cris Lacy.
The third thing I had to do was start replenishing the roster. We were always the last stop for every artist visit of all the labels in town. I had to get that switched around by giving them confidence we could win together And God bless, Brett Eldredge was the first one I signed.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you’d turned the label around?
I’m not sure I feel that way today. How about that? We’ve got more work to do.
Dan + Shay, who signed seven years ago and have exploded in the past few years, have “10,000 Hours” out now with Justin Bieber. They toured with pop star Shawn Mendes in Australia. It used to be country radio would sometimes punish an artist if they tried to do something outside the genre. Has that gone away?
I don’t know that I could say it’s gone away completely, but there’s a difference in the first three or four years that I [was] running this label and since Sam Hunt definitely allowed this genre to open up with “Body Like a Back Road,” and FGL did too with “Cruise” and Nelly. If it’s massive, why are we going to fight it? There are, funnily enough, about 10 reporters who aren’t playing “10,000 Hours” because it’s too pop, and meanwhile it’s No. 14 in six weeks, so I applaud their being geniuses (laughs) Great music is all that matters and Dan + Shay have been crystal clear that they are country artists. [Editor’s Note: The song is now No. 12 on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart].
“10,000 Hours” set a record for highest-charting non-holiday country song in the history of Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart, but in general, country lags behind other mainstream genres in streaming, accounting for only 5.7 percent of the streaming market. What do you as a label and as a community need to do to get those numbers up?
I will tell you that it’s frustrating to us because we should be back to our rightful place of 11-to-12 percent of the [overall] marketplace that this genre ran at for a long time. Ten years ago, physical was still nearly 70 percent of the business and, for us, it’ll be 3 percent of our business next year. We’re seeing signs that there are two ways we get that streaming number up: One is we have more stuff that can appeal internationally because that market share number does not recognize that while we have 100 million Dan + Shay streams, which alone is an extraordinary number, 250 million are coming from outside of the United States.
And we see the burgeoning older demographic now paying for subscriptions, which is buoying our catalog, like Blake Shelton’s catalog. It doesn’t mean I’m not anxious about it and want to keep pushing to get us there. We’re growing faster than the rest of the streaming market, but the pie has gotten so much larger, it’s harder for country to have that share today.
“God’s Country,” Shelton’s 26th No. 1 on our Country Airplay chart, seems to have put some new wind in his sails. What’s that song’s impact on his career?
We have the blessing of a format where artists can have very long careers, but what comes with that, because they all still want to be on radio, is the need to reinvent, the need to [themselves.] Blake — kind of out of a frustration because his last single didn’t make it to the top of the charts — went through a [period] of, “I don’t know if they care about me anymore,” to which I said to him at a dinner, “That’s crazy talk. They care about you.”
He got motivated and he started accepting songs from Scott Hendricks to listen to. Four days before he was to go into the studio, the publisher sent “God’s Country” and it turned all of our world upside down.
Blake is the funniest fucker on the planet earth. He’s sending the most amazing texts: “I want to blow shit up. This thing’s making me feel amazing!” And it became the first song we recorded that Monday.
When did you realize that one of your artists, Devin Dawson, was a co-writer?
The next day I heard it. Scott said, “You won’t believe it, but Devin is a co-writer.” And I said, “Devin’s going to get mailbox money.” It did have the effect of rejuvenating Blake in a wonderful way.
With Devin and especially with Ashley McBryde, your roster includes artists whose early success hasn’t been contingent upon radio play. Has that shifted who you sign to the roster?
The very straightforward answer is no. A&R is trying to sign geniuses. Hell, signing Devin was not a no brainer. Certainly Ashley. You can probably point to a number of [artists] on our roster where we think they’re geniuses and if we have the right management company, which in both of those cases we do, who know how to get them on the road and selling hard tickets, we’re going to build an audience. It may just take a little bit longer. But I hope every artist on the roster can have radio success. That doesn’t necessarily mean No. 1 records, [but] I’m not going to tell A&R it’s okay now to go sign somebody I could never imagine on radio because our hope is we keep expanding the boundaries of radio.
Earlier this year, you promoted Ben Kline to exec vp/general manager and Cris Lacy to evp/A&R. Are you thinking about a succession plan?
The answer to that is yes, and I’m crystal clear and I’m putting all sorts of weight on their shoulders. And the great news is since we did that promotion, they both have risen to an even higher level. And they were already operating at an impressive level. But I’m not done and I’m freaking happy. I’m happy knowing I can give them so much to do so they can become as much the face of the label as me. And that has taken a weight off of me. If I walk in the room, [people] assume I can make the final decision. Now they know that either of them can make a decision [too]. That’s a very comforting, wonderful place to be.
So this may not be the last contract for you?
I don’t ultimately want to get in people’s way, but I have to be involved in the entertainment business until the day I die because I like the action. Another quip from Lyor — he was my boss 20 years and I picked up the best stuff from him — is “I’ve worked my whole life for an all-access backstage pass. I’m not about to give it up.”