Sony Music Nashville has signed hot new artist Willie Jones in partnership with The Penthouse.
Jones’ music “sounded very fresh and different to me,” Sony Music Nashville chairman & CEO Randy Goodman tells Billboard. “It caught my attention amidst a playlist of a variety of new artists from all genres.”
In January, the Shreveport, Louisiana, native, who effortlessly blends hip-hop and country music, saw his video for “American Dream,” a compelling, provocative song about racial inequity through the eyes of a young Black man, premiere jointly on CMT and BET, in a first for the networks. The song is on his new album, Right Now, which came out the same month via Empire.
Jones, who appeared on The X Factor when he was 17 in 2012 singing Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” is represented by Jonnie Forster at The Penthouse for management and CAA for booking. In February, he signed a global publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music Nashville.
“In just a few short years, Willie has earned the respect of the biggest publisher, the most powerful agency, and now with Sony Music, the hottest record label in Nashville,” says Forster. “This is a team sport, and we’ve assembled the Dream Team.”
For Jones, the connection to Sony goes back further than Goodman’s discovery. “The road here wasn’t a straight line at all but Randy was honest on how he ‘found me’ and that story alone earned my respect,” he says. “[A&R head] Jim Catino and his A&R department have been overly supportive since day one but it goes back further to Berlin and London with their [former] international guy Jon Cauwood. He came to a few of my C2C [Country to Country Festival] shows and just wanted to do whatever he could, which led us back to Nashville. Too many roads led back to Sony and too many good people.”
Jones says he also watched how Sony breaks artists, which led to his decision. “It’s how they commit and win. Kane [Brown] is collaborating with so many non-country artists [and] it just helps bring more people in to the genre. I love Maren [Morris] and I think we’ll get into the studio one day. But what’s extra dope is what’s going on with my boy Niko [Moon]. He’s not obvious, just got the vibes, great songs and now he’s No. 1 [with ‘Good Time’ on the Hot Country Songs chart]. That’s no accident. That’s hard work from Niko but also Sony. Big ups to that radio team!”
While streaming has fueled Jones’ career so far, Goodman sees him as a terrestrial radio and streaming act. “It’s no doubt an interesting time as we really need both. Streaming is obviously our revenue driver but there still is a high correlation between critical mass airplay and consumption tonnage,” he says. “I really see country radio for the most part becoming more aggressive with what they’re playing and so am confident they’ll see the value of Willie on their stations.”
Jones hints that he has more music at the ready. In the meantime, Goodman says Sony Nashville has yet to decide which imprint — RCA Nashville, Arista Nashville or Columbia Nashville — will be Jones’ new home.
“We have a lot of setup work to do, which is imprint agnostic,” Goodman says. “We’ll go with the imprint that, when we’re ready, presents the best opportunity [regarding] space and focus.”
Forster tells Billboard that Jones’ commitment to Empire was up, leading the way for the Sony deal. “We are ending with a bang: [Jones’ March 5] Grand Ole Opry debut, [Jimmy] Fallon [debut] and some other great stuff with DSPs,” he says. “We’re so proud of what we were able to build with the Empire team and helping them start Empire Nashville.”
Christian Barker of Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton negotiated the deal for Jones.