Before Randy Goodman officially took over as the chairman/CEO of Sony Music Nashville on July 13, 2015, he sat in on one of the company’s meetings. The executives at the table didn’t know it, but they were helping him sort out some of the ?decisions he would ultimately make when he started retooling the artist roster.
“What was really obvious to me was an artist would be talked about, and you could see people going for their phones underneath the table and diverting their eyes, or they’re leaning back,” recalls Goodman. “And then another artist was talked about, and everybody leaned in.”
It wasn’t the only input he used, but the staff’s body language influenced how Goodman leaned in many of the roster decisions he made in the ensuing months. A number of acts left, including Sara Evans, The Henningsens, The Swon Brothers, Josh Dorr and, most recently, Jerrod Niemann.
Meanwhile, staff excitement has helped as Sony signed three new artists under the new regime, paced by Maren Morris. Her debut single, “My Church,” has performed like a song from an established act, reaching the top 10 on Hot Country Songs in a scant six weeks.
That creates additional anticipation for the other two new acts, which are just getting out of the gate. LANco, a five-piece band produced by Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), sent its bright, gurgling debut, “Long Live Tonight,” to radio on Feb. 11. Kane Brown, who rode digital downloads and streams of “Used to Love You Sober” to a No. 15 peak on the Hot Country Songs chart dated Nov. 14, 2015, signed his deal on Jan. 27 and sent a remixed version of “Sober” to radio on Feb. 16.
Redesigning the roster hasn’t followed some of the precepts one might expect. Goodman hasn’t banked on a specific sound that he believes will follow the recent bro-country and soul-tinged country trends. He also hasn’t fallen into the awards-show trap of discounting an act because it might compete with an existing artist on the roster in specific categories. If that had been the driver, Morris never would have been taken seriously, since Sony already had the two most-impactful women in the genre’s post-Taylor Swift era — Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert — plus Cam, whose “Burning House” was already showing signs of becoming a major hit when Goodman joined the company.
“The way I think about it is there are different lanes,” says Goodman. “Miranda has got a lane, and it’s a different lane than Carrie sits in, and Carrie’s got a lane, and it’s a very different lane than where Cam is. Maren comes along, and I think she’s unique. Each one of them have their own lane, and our responsibility as the label is to help articulate that lane, that brand, that message for them.”
But Goodman also wanted to send a message to the rest of the country music industry about the new Sony regime with his first signings. Previous division chief Gary Overton was dogged by persistent rumors that he was going to be replaced — the job was actually offered to Sandbox Entertainment president/CEO Jason Owen, who turned it down — and Goodman suspected that the company’s uncertainties undercut its ability to land new talent.
Morris gave him an opportunity to change those perceptions. She was about to sign with another label — Warner Music Nashville, Billboard Country Update has learned — but Sony Music Nashville vp A&R Jim Catino wanted Goodman to hear her, just so he would know what musical direction Catino thought the label should follow.
Goodman was moved by Morris’ music, as was the rest of the staff, and he pulled some strings to get a meeting with her. Before she ever arrived on campus, numerous departments had built marketing plans to show her how they could assist her in upping her presence, which had already been established on Spotify. The proactive approach won her over.
"It was a very aggressive offer," says Morris. "They promised a lot of amazing things to us, and luckily everything has pulled through. We’ve not been shelved or waited for a single release date. Everything has honestly been moved earlier, so I feel like everyone over there has been really great about holding up their end of the bargain."
Goodman was similarly aggressive with LANco, making an offer backstage at a showcase that every other label in town had likewise attended.
"We’ve got to be urgent about it," says Goodman. "When we show up, it needs to be, 'Wow, the Sony guys are here tonight. They may sign this act tonight.’ So that's what we did. I think I freaked my entire staff out, as well as the band, but for the staff, I wanted them to see that if they tell me they’re excited about this, and I'm excited about it, I’m willing to walk backstage and just throw down."
Standing up for his staff figured into one of the roster dismissals. ?Goodman had wanted to take his time to assess parts of the roster, but a ?manager for one of the artists became a gadfly.
"They weren’t being patient, and they weren’t being respectful,” says ?Goodman. “They kind of decided to take it out on my assistant, and I could hear what was going on. I said, 'Give me the phone,' and I said, 'You know what? You want to know? I'll tell you. [Your artist is] gone. Today. Because of you. Goodbye.' And that was it."
That was the only split that ended on a sour note. In fact, Goodman expects some of the same managers whose clients lost deals will have new acts to pitch in the future. And he’s hoping Sony’s aggressive approach to the roster — and its quick success with Morris — will make it an attractive place for managers and publishers to bring young, unique talent as Sony changes its trajectory in preparation for the future.
"We've got Carrie and Miranda, who are still young but they’ve been around for a bit, and Kenny [Chesney] and Brad [Paisley], who've been around a bit, and those acts over time — like all acts will — will have some decay," says Goodman. "We haven’t been able to break any acts through to help offset that decay. That, to me, is the most urgent thing that needs to be done."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update — sign up here.