This story was updated on Feb. 24 to include comments from Sony Music Nashville chief executive Gary Overton, at bottom.
Love And Theft recently released their third album, Whiskey On My Breath, which debuted at No. 26 on the Top Country Albums chart. But getting this record out wasn’t easy: the duo comprised of Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles was more than halfway done with an album on RCA when the label dropped them. Love And Theft wasn’t allowed to keep any of the music they had already recorded, so they were forced to construct a second album without using any of the material from the first. Billboard talked with the duo about how Whiskey On My Breath came together — and about what’s happening to the songs that RCA is holding on to.
So you guys basically had to record two albums just to release one?
Gunderson: We recorded for RCA, and we had more than three-fourths of the album done. It was the most exciting music we’d ever been a part of and written and recorded. Out of nowhere, we got dropped by RCA. We’re thinking if they’re dropping us, they’re going to give us the music back, and we can go shop it to another label and get another deal. And it turns out that they want to hold on to that record for whatever reason. We could purchase some of the music back for a good sum of money. But we don’t exactly have hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash floating around.
Liles: We thought maybe it would be something reasonable, but it was definitely way out of our reach. We already had a lot of songs that we had written over all these years — two years we’ve been writing for the album. So then we were like, “Let’s go make a record right away.” Sony Red out of New York, they were, “We’ll give you some money to go make a record.” They were gung-ho. They do everything but radio promotion, that’s the only thing they don’t have a branch for. Our deal is just for distribution. We wrote every song on the album with a bunch of our friends. We co-produced it with Josh Leo, he produced Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Alabama, some of the Eagles‘ guys solo records. It was cool to get to be a part of that.†
Do the new songs that you wrote have the same feel as the ones that got held back, or is it a totally different direction?
Gunderson: A lot of them are similar. I think Stephen’s and my writing style definitely was showcased on the record that we made for Sony and on this new one. There are a few songs that are kind of reminiscent of the songs that got held back by RCA.
Liles: We’re still hoping they might do the right thing and work something out with us that’s a little more reasonable. Or else the music will be lost. We can’t wait five years. We have some of our artist friends that when they heard about it they were like, “Can we cut that song?” But we would like it for us — we wrote them. You know Reba McEntire put out that song “Going Out Like That?” That was going to be our song. We already cut that for Sony. There’s actually YouTube videos of us playing that live. We can’t tie down an outside writer’s song — and that’s bad karma too. We want those songwriters to give us songs later on. Our songs we actually can [tie down]. That’s an important thing. A couple of those songs were going to be career records for us.
So is this the first album you guys self-produced?
Gunderson: We were co-producing the record for Sony as well — this will technically be the first one released that we co-produced. We recorded the meat and potatoes of the music at Sound Emporium. And we did half of the rest of it at Josh Leo’s studio and half the rest of it at mine.
Did you feel like you had more freedom?
Gunderson: Yeah — we get to make the music that we feel like our fans want to hear, not the stuff that the A&R staff at RCA wants to put out for whatever reason they do anything.
Liles: When there’s so many people making decisions, it’s really hard to get a really clear answer of who’s actually making that decision, when it got made, why it got made. We’ll always be eternally grateful for the radio promotion staff at RCA. They got us our first No. 1. It was an incredible experience. We didn’t put out another song out though [after “Angel Eyes” hit No. 1] for how long?
Gunderson: I think they waited like four months. Enough time to lose all of the momentum.
Stephen: Most artists have another single ready to roll. That shows everyone, hey, this label really believes in us. We definitely don’t take it all for granted — we’re grateful for them signing us over there. Our timing was a little off over there, and now we got this new album and it feels right. Organically it doesn’t sound like anything else, but it’s still a good country record. It showcases our vocals. We’re excited about it. We got really good management — Vector Management is behind us. We are open to working with other labels. It’s just got to be the right fit. It’s exciting, it’s a fun place to be in, and we’ve had a lot of people help us along the way.‡
It seems like your last album was a couple years ahead of the way country sound was changing. Does that frustrate you or are you happy that it’s coming around your way now?
Gunderson: A lot of our career has been based around miscues and bad timing. Our first record, if it was put out now, would probably be considered to be behind the times. But when it was put out, everyone was saying, “Oh, it’s too pop-rock, it’s too progressive, it’s not going to work with the way the format is right now.” We got a top 10 out of that. Then moving on to Sony we recorded a record that we thought was going to be right in line with the curve and how everything was going and we kind of met the same resistance. With our song “Running Out Of Air,” they were like, “This is way too disco-pop.” And then there’s Thomas Rhett now with a hit song that sounds eerily similar. I don’t want to sound like we’re complaining — we wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened.
We didn’t put any electric guitars on this new record just to do something different. Everyone has these really slick, overproduced records, and we wanted to try to put something out that isn’t slick and overproduced but could still be played on the landscape in the current landscape. Hopefully people will hear that and give us a chance.
Liles: This is the first time we’ve been able to control what happens on our own. When you do that, it inspires you. It puts you in a different place mentally, it makes you write differently, it makes you make different business decisions — it’s exciting. We’re working on a new reality show based on Nashville and the music business and that’s something we couldn’t have ever probably done on either of our last two labels because there would have been too many rules and too many restrictions. And now we can do that, show the real music scene and what’s going on. Would we still love to have RCA putting our songs out on country radio now? Yeah. Would we love their votes for the ACMs this year? Yes, we would’ve. But that’s not our story. Now we got a new story, and we’re creating it, and we’re excited.§
Regrettably, Billboard did not offer Sony Music Nashville an opportunity to respond before publication of this article. Comments by chairman and CEO Gary Overton are included below and noted above.
† “When we released Love and Theft (which wasn’t a surprise to their managers, because we had been telling them for some time that we needed to have a hit and sell some records or we couldn’t go forward), after three failed singles and minimal sales of their first album, we offered that they could buy the new unreleased music from us at our cost. What they had spent to record it. Not a dime more. We also offered to let them license all or some of the tracks from us whereby it would only cost them something if they were able to sell it. And we certainly would have let them shop these new sides to another label and the new label pay us back. We made the offer to their managers and never got a response.”
‡ It might have been two months between “Angel Eyes” coming off the national charts and our follow-up single, “Runnin’ Out of Air,” entering the charts. When a single comes off the national charts, it is still being played in heavy rotation at many radio stations across the country. We wanted to give the first single time to recede on the airwaves before we began asking the radio programmers to start playing the new song. Nothing out of the ordinary about that.
§ We loved Love and Theft’s music and we still do. I don’t know why, after we were able to get them their first and only No. 1 single, listeners didn’t want to hear any more of their music. Our RCA promotion staff is one of the strongest and most successful teams in Country music. We released three more singles after the hit and could barely break the Top-40 on the airplay charts.
I don’t know why people didn’t want to buy anything but that one single. The subsequent singles sold next to nothing. The first album has sold less than 100,000 units to date.
We spent more than a million dollars trying to break Love and Theft. Obviously we have to make that money back with at least a small profit or it’s not a good business. They were making some great new music, but there was no excitement for them at radio or with the listeners. And if no one wants to hear it on the radio, and no one wants to buy it, we simply couldn’t stay in business with them. And I got the nicest voicemail from Stephen afterwards saying he understands, he appreciates everything we did for them, etc. It meant a lot to me. So much so that I still have it on my phone.