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Warner Music Nashville Chairman/CEO John Esposito on Making It in Nashville as an Outsider and Blake Shelton Being the Ultimate Team Player

The man Blake Shelton calls "boss" on his new post, success, righting the Warner ship and making it in Nashville as an outsider.

As the captain of Warner Music Nashville, John Esposito has sworn a loyalty oath to Music City, but a wall in his office devoted to black-and-gold football ­memorabilia makes it clear that Pittsburgh owns a big piece of his heart. “I grew up in western Pennsylvania at a time when mills were shutting down and the economy was in the shitter,” says the self-described ­blue-collar kid, “and the [four-time Super Bowl champions] 1970s Steelers brought our spirits up and made us believe life could be OK.”

“Espo,” who was promoted to ­chairman/CEO on May 16, is working on a similar transformation for Warner Nashville. When he took the helm in 2009, WMN had a reputation roughly ­analogous to the one-win Steelers of 1969, with Blake Shelton as the only serious hitmaker. Now, although it is a long way from topping the dominant Universal team, Warner is very much back in the game, not only with Shelton’s record-shattering 16 ­consecutive Country Airplay No. 1s, but freshly minted stars in Hunter Hayes, Brett Eldredge and Cole Swindell (who all have won new artist of the year awards from the Country Music Association or the Academy of Country Music), with Chris Janson and Dan & Shay angling to join their ranks. Under his watch, Warner’s country market share has climbed from 3.4 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2015 (third behind Universal and Sony), including the Atlantic releases that Warner promotes.

And while the famously insular Nashville hierarchy isn’t without Northeasterners-made-good (former Sony Nashville chief Joe Galante and a willowy singer named Swift come to mind), Music City mogul wasn’t a course one would have expected for Esposito, 60. When he attended his first CMA Awards in 1993, he was COO of music retailer Nobody Beats The Wiz, which he ­followed with stints as president/COO of WEA (Warner Music Group’s sales and ­marketing division) and GM/­executive vp of Island Def Jam. Yet less than seven years after arriving in Tennessee, he’s not only at the top of Warner Nashville but also ­chairman of the CMA board — whose sprawling CMA Music Festival, a fan fair with dozens of artists from Shelton and Carrie Underwood on down, will take place June 9-12 — a governor on the Nashville chapter board of The Recording Academy and a board member of the Country Radio Broadcasters association.

John Esposito
“Nobody would wonder whether or not I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan,” says Esposito.  Cameron Powell

Billboard: When you arrived from New York, did you have any concern Music Row might be wary of an out-of-towner?

John Esposito: No. After I became president of the CMA board, [Sony/ATV Music Publishing’s Nashville chief] Troy Tomlinson sent me a certificate anointing me an official hillbilly — it meant the world to me. But for years before moving here, I’d been down all the time as the liaison between Island Def Jam and [its now-defunct Americana label] Lost Highway. So when [then-Warner Music heads] Lyor Cohen and Edgar Bronfman felt a need to make a change in ­leadership here, it took me half a second to say yes. I got on the CMA board within a few months, and it was an opportunity for me to pick the power ­players’ brains and show them I didn’t come here to be a ­carpetbagger. I went and met the head of every ­publishing ­company and every ­producer in town — and my competing-label brethren. Even they didn’t mind I had a chance to be a part of the ­rejuvenation of this label, because ­everybody wanted Warner Bros. to be at the level of ­success it had been a decade earlier. People were rooting for this to be another home, because there are so few slots if you want to be signed as a new artist.

Didn’t you send yourself on a massive radio promo tour when you came in?

I went to about 80 stations that first year. Getting into the trenches in those ­relationships with radio is a vital part of our ecosystem. I had to be on the road to learn about what we could do better. And when I looked at the roster, the best bet we had was Blake, who at this point had five number one records but also a whole lot of misses over eight years. I told people, “This is where we prove that we are going to deliver time after time for this guy, and it’s going to attract people to us.” It galvanized my crew, and it galvanized radio, and here we have 16 consecutive number ones in a row. All of a sudden we were not the last stop for every artist or manager or lawyer looking for a deal.

John Esposito
With Shelton. “When I started, I told Blake, ‘I’m about to build the building around you, and we’re going to work as hard as anybody has ever worked in their lives, and I need you 100 percent.’ He said, ‘I’m in, boss. Let’s get this done.’ ”  Cameron Powell

Only two artists are still on the roster from when you came in: Shelton and Frankie Ballard. And you’ve noted that 70 percent of the staff has turned over too – but not the A&R staff.

I’m not proud there are only two artists left on the roster from when we got here. But we gave legitimate shots to many of the ones who aren’t here — I won’t name the names. [Among the exits: Gloriana, Big & Rich and The JaneDear Girls.] There were hard decisions with both artists [and staff], but I had A&R stars who … with the way the reporting structure was set up, it wasn’t designed for them to either be a team or have freedom. So I said, “If you guys are up for it, A&R is going to run the company.” Left to that, [A&R vps] Scott Hendricks and Chris Lacey, who were here before me, have ­flourished. Also Peter Strickland, who was in ­marketing and is now GM — I got the ­clutter away from him. That’s what I do best: ­uncluttering, so people can just do their jobs.

Shelton’s new album, If I’m Honest, is being touted as a change of pace. What’s different?

Blake knew, after having two platinum albums and a platinum greatest-hits record, that it was not satisfying for his last record [2014’s Bringing Back the Sunshine] to be a 706,000-unit [in combined sales and track equivalent units, according to Nielsen Music] album. It wasn’t just the sales; he knew it was time to give us a whole new level. He hasn’t had a [self-penned] song on a record since I’ve been the head of the label, and he has three on here. Eighteen months ago I told him, “Take your time, and when you feel like we’ve got what we need, we’ll bring every ounce of energy and creativity to it.” It’s the best album he has ever made.

John Esposito
“People walk in here and just smile, because this shelf is filled with everything from awards and cans and laminates to a fat-lady-in-a-bathing-suit candle.” Cameron Powell

Between Shelton appearing on The Voice and dating Gwen Stefani, is it hard to make sure everyone else on the label gets enough oxygen?

He wants to help, because he knows that if I’m fortunate enough to run a record label that is successful with a bunch of artists, it benefits him. He has put so many of our artists in opening slots of his tours, ­including Chris Janson this year. Blake came in for a song meeting a few months ago and I saw Dan Smyers from Dan & Shay in there. He said, “Blake saw me and said, ‘Come on in, help me pick the songs.’ ” That’s an environment to die for.

Are you in Nashville for the long haul?

In any coffee shop here, you’re surrounded by people in the music business — in New York, you might be the only one. I’d rather be around ­creative people all the time. I’m more excited today than I was yesterday, and I was pretty excited yesterday.

This article first appeared in the June 4 issue of Billboard.