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BMG’s Nashville Chief on Country’s Race Reckoning and Jason Aldean’s Success: ‘He’s Paid the Bills for Years’

When Jon Loba graduated from Central Michigan University in 1996 with a degree in finance, he planned to move to New York for an investment banking training program. Then a visit to Nashville left him longing to pursue a career in Music City. “My heart said, ‘Nashville’; my head said, ‘New York,'” recalls the president of recorded music for BMG Nashville. “I was mowing our yard on the family farm in Michigan, and I said, ‘Lord, I know I haven’t been in church much and I’m not always the best, but could you help me with this decision and make it a strong signal?'” Within seconds, “The River,” Garth Brooks’ ode to following one’s dreams, starting playing through his headphones. “I looked up and said, ‘That’s pretty good. Got it.'”

Loba moved to Nashville with $500 in his pocket and started out working for BMI, then did radio promotion at Warner Bros. and Atlantic. Then in 2001, he joined Broken Bow Records, a scrappy independent imprint founded by Benny Brown, where Loba helped sign Jason Aldean in 2005. “A couple of labels had already dropped him. I went to the showcase at the Wildhorse Saloon with my arms folded, ready to shoot holes in everything,” says Loba. “By the third song, I said to Benny, ‘I think we better run back there and sign him before everybody realizes what they’re missing.'”

In 2017, BMG purchased BBR Music Group, which by then included the Broken Bow, Stoney Creek and Wheelhouse imprints, for over $100 million. In February, Loba, 51, was promoted to his current title, reporting to BMG CEO Hartwig Masuch.

From The Desk Of Jon Loba
This photo was taken to commemorate Wilson’s signing to BMG. She sent an autographed copy to everyone in the shot. Loba says that’s when he “realized fully that she had the heart, work ethic and attention to detail necessary for a special career.” Photographed by Diana King

It has been a powerful year for BMG Nashville, with six No. 1s on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The success from its 34-act roster has been across the board: Superstar Aldean landed his 24th airplay No. 1 in October; Elvie Shane’s chart-topping “My Boy” made the label one of the few to break a new artist during the pandemic; Chase Rice, Lainey Wilson, Parmalee and Blanco Brown have also topped the ranking; and reliable hitmakers Dustin Lynch and Jimmie Allen, who was named best new artist at the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 10, have had strong years. Loba talked with Billboard over Zoom while in Los Angeles for Wilson’s late-night TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Allen’s appearance on Dancing With the Stars.

When the pandemic put a halt to in-person radio tours, BMG funded a high-tech studio that enabled Elvie Shane to perform virtually for over 120 individual stations. How did that work?

I thought that while everyone was zigging, I want to zag. I’d seen enough Zoom performances. I didn’t want to present our artists that way. Leadership in Berlin said, “We will give you the resources to do this right.” [Producer] Ron Fair had a wonderful studio set up with video capabilities, and then we tricked it out. It was about getting the streaming tech right. We brought in Jason Aldean’s team, and they were able to do all the camera switching and helped us with the lighting. There was some discussion about “Let’s invite an entire [radio] chain,” and we said, “No, we want what makes those radio tours so special,” which is that one-on-one interaction with the station personnel. Costwise, it rivaled taking an artist out on a physical radio tour, but it was worth every penny.

Will it take the place of in-person radio tours?

We can do both, but [the country radio] format is based on that personal relationship, so we will continue doing in-person tours.

From The Desk Of Jon Loba
A fidget spinner that Loba compares to “Tom Cruise’s baseball bat in A Few Good Men. It helps me think,” he says. “I fiddle with it and, once in a while, have a revelation.” Photographed by Diana King

Lainey Wilson is the only female country artist to reach No. 1 this year with her first chart entry. How hard is it to get women up the chart?

It’s getting better. For sure not enough, but it’s trending in the right way. Even the toughest gatekeepers — those who in the past would point to metrics on females — seem to want a balance. As I listen to various playlists on radio and streaming, the female voice doesn’t sound like such an anomaly anymore.

What does Jason Aldean mean to the label, and what percentage of your overall sales comes from him?

He is the one who broke the door down for us, and he has paid the bills for many years. We are so thankful and fortunate that both times his contract expired, he stayed with us and — I know for a fact — stayed with us for less than he could have gotten elsewhere. He does have a [joint-venture] agreement with us now. I can’t give you that percentage, but there was a time where if Jason coughed or got a cold, you worried. If anything had happened to him, we would have been in deep trouble.

The first half of Aldean’s new album, Macon, Georgia, arrived Nov. 12 with 15 tracks. The second half, another 15 tracks, will be released by April 22, 2022. Why are we seeing so many supersize country albums now?

Streaming companies have changed the game a bit. We live in a world where attention spans are shorter, where there is a voracious appetite to binge, and there is the ability in a very economically feasible way to give core consumers more of what they want.

From The Desk Of Jon Loba
BBR Music Group swag and a model of the former company jet. “We are spending that money more effectively now with BMG,” he says. Photographed by Diana King

Aldean was criticized recently for declaring it the “coolest thing” that no one was masked at one of his shows and for defending his wife’s Instagram photos of their children wearing anti-President Biden shirts. Do you ever talk to artists about the pitfalls of polarizing behavior?

As with any business situation, you evaluate what the ramifications of that could be so you’re not surprised by anything. As a capitalist, would I rather have 100% of the audience? Sure. But he has every right to express his opinions, and we will stand by those rights as long as they are not hateful or promoting something illegal.

BMG is known for artist-forward deals where acts license their masters to the company but retain ownership. Does Nashville operate the same way, and how does that give you an advantage?

It’s an advantage, [but] it’s never what we lead with necessarily when talking to artists, because I think they have to have faith in the machine that is going to bring their music to the marketplace. It’s a nice bonus to say, “Hey, we believe in fairness. We believe in artists owning their masters.” And I think you’ll see even within BMG in Nashville, we’re moving toward that same model.

You recently partnered with Warner Records in Los Angeles to take Parmalee and Blanco Brown’s No. 1 country hit, “Just the Way,” to pop radio. Does that partnership come from Warner Music Group’s Alternative Distribution Alliance distributing BMG’s releases, and are you obligated to use BMG’s pop promo team?

It’s another beautiful construct of BMG. We are really allowed to line up with whatever partner we think will be the best for that piece of music or that artist. I could go to Universal; I could go to Sony — I have the freedom to make the deal with whoever is best at that moment. Warner’s pop promotion had been involved with [Brown’s] “The Git Up” at [top 40 radio], and I felt like they did a good job, so I wanted to give them another opportunity with the Parmalee-Blanco song.

From The Desk Of Jon Loba
Chase Rice “was incredibly hesitant to sign a label deal,” says Loba, who explains that this plaque for the artist’s No. 1 Country Airplay hit “Eyes on You” represents “the trust Chase put in us at the urging of the team around him. He gave us a chance, and I’m proud to say our team delivered on its promises.” Photographed by Diana King

Country music has been experiencing an overdue reckoning on race following George Floyd’s death and Morgan Wallen using a racial slur. You have Brown on your roster and launched Jimmie Allen in 2018 with consecutive No. 1s. Does it bother you that some people still consider country a racist format?

It absolutely bothers me, and it’s something that I’ve been very purposeful in trying to change — not just because it’s the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. I’m a capitalist, and it’s the right thing to do from a profitability standpoint. I want 100% of the population to feel like there’s something there for them. It’s the thing I’m most proud about since BMG has acquired us. [Before], we had a very narrow roster. We had no international presence. BMG immediately said, “We believe this is worldwide music, and we want you and your team to bring that music to the world.”

As soon as I was officially leading the company, I wanted to do something that signaled things were different with us. Thankfully, at that time, Jimmie Allen came into my life. No. 1, he’s an amazing artist and individual, but No. 2, I wanted him to be my first signing to say, “I believe in this. This is important. We are changing, and this genre will accept a more diverse artistry.”

When I’m retired, I want to look back and say, “I did right by my company financially,” but hopefully we also helped broaden this genre and let others dream that they could have a place in this genre and touch an audience that maybe thought there were no themes or stories here that related to them.