Mike Dungan plays a big role in nurturing those relationships, and he plays a big role in moving CRS forward. Here’s our cover story interview with UMG Nashville Chairman and CEO Mike Dungan.
RI: What’s it like running a record label in Nashville?
Dungan: We have four label imprints, 35 artists, and 85 employees. It’s challenging. It was a big adjustment for me after 12 years of running Capitol, which was a nice medium-sized record label. It’s challenging because our product has an opinion and a pulse. That, when it’s coming at you from 35-40 different directions, can really eat up your time and suck the life out of your head, emotionally.
RI: What’s your day like?
Dungan: I come in here every day with a nice agenda of the things that I want to accomplish, and I’m lucky if I can get a third of them finished because I put out fires most of the time. I constantly have people standing in my doorway saying, “Can I talk to you? I’ve got a problem,” or I have an artist or a manager that has a problem or something like that. I spend most of my time putting out fires.
RI: Sounds like a general manager at a radio station.
Dungan: I’ll bet it is very similar. I kind of look at it like I’m running a sports team. I’ve got players out on the field and I’ve got managers and I’ve got coaches, and I’m really just trying to keep all of it in check and make sure that the balance is right and that we have all the pieces we need to have a chance to have success.
RI: What do you see as radio’s role in the relationship with your label?
Dungan: Radio is key. It’s still the biggest driver that we have in our business and for our business. Things have changed; it’s not the only driver now, but it’s still the quickest way to connect the lines and connect the dots between A and B.
I recognize that radio has a different task. Their job is not to break records, break artists, or help me make money. Their job is to develop a listenership and draw revenue off of that listenership, and I try to give them everything that we can from our end to accomplish their goals. It’s very symbiotic for us. It can be frustrating sometimes, but for the most part, some of my best friends have come from the radio world. I started as a radio promotion guy in late 1979, and I still have relationships with people that I dealt with then.
RI: You said “frustrating.” What aspects of it can be frustrating for you?
Dungan: Sometimes we will have a record or a song or an artist showing every metric that we have available to us, showing that it’s a hit, or that the market is responding to it, and sometimes it’s difficult to wake people up to embrace the importance of all of those metrics. What I’m talking about is the various research methodologies that radio employs itself — streaming, track sales — all of the stuff that tells us pretty early on if it’s working or not.
And it’s been a little frustrating that there are still a lot of radio people that kind of dismiss the streaming world and the streaming numbers and look at it as competition to what they do. They look at it as a completely different consumer than the one they interact with. The evidence, quite to the contrary, manifests itself — the biggest streaming songs are the ones the radio turns into big radio hits. That should be pretty self-evident. I think the two work together really well.
I understand radio probably doesn’t like the presence of streaming, because it’s challenging to their world. But you can’t hold back technology, and you just have to embrace what’s out there and try to work with it, and I think it can be a very symbiotic relationship.
Dungan: Well, early on, I would say Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” was that way. It was kind of a slow song. We had a bit of controversy because there were a few misinformed listeners in little pockets around America that thought it was a message that was not congruent to their value system. But all you have to do is listen to the whole song, and you realize that’s not it. Like anything else in society, we can overreact to those things. But that song was showing every metric possible that the fans were going crazy over it. The fans wanted it. And it took a while to get entrenched. We had a similar situation with Chris Stapleton.
Just look at the numbers. Look at the metrics. You can see that the fans are going crazy over him. Now you could make the argument that maybe those aren’t the same fans that are listening to broadcast Country radio; however, this one has started to research and put it into a framework that everyone on the radio side can understand and embrace.
RI: So you can go elsewhere now. It’s not just radio. When you have to turn somewhere else, what are your choices? Where do you go to try to push the songs out?
Dungan: The Internet gives us a whole bunch of different opportunities. We pound those as hard as we can, just trying to connect the dots between the fans and the music and the fans and the artists. You can drown in those opportunities, there are so many. I literally have people that their whole job here is just to assess who we want to interact with, whose “new service of the day” — because we seem to get three a day — we are going to start to pay attention to or start to interact with or start to spend some money on.
There are a lot of different things that you can do to connect the fans and the music right now. But usually when we do so, we are trying to get the metrics to a point where radio will actually take it very seriously.
RI: It sounds like radio is still the best place to break an artist — is that accurate?
Dungan: Well, I would say yes. I value our relationship with radio and the dynamic between radio and our business incredibly.
RI: Do you believe artists should be paid by radio?
Dungan: Well, I would really rather not address that. We went through a period where we were pressing very hard for that. Just understanding that the United States was one of only four civilized countries in the world that did not pay a performance royalty, that alone was reason to take that issue very seriously. I don’t have any idea where our company’s stance is on this right now. But there are bigger issues out there. I think that has kind of cooled off for the moment.
RI: Is Country radio in a good place these days?
Dungan: I think so. I think, like any other genre of music, we got into a trick bag where all of our music, or a lot of our music, started to sound the same. We went through a bumpy period for about two years, where everything had kind of an uptempo, party, some call it a “bro country” feel to it.
The ratings were really strong, but you have to be careful how you balance that with everything else. I think it’s very difficult to discipline yourself to a point where you are indeed balancing things. But it’s not the first time it’s happened in music. It happens in music constantly. All types of music, all types of radio.
RI: Do you get tired of the question about whether there are enough women in country music? Or is that criticism accurate?
Dungan: Well, yes, I do get tired of it. However, I think we did kind of put ourselves in this position 15 years ago or so. I think if you look at that period in time, female artists were not really bringing it then. They were not, as a rule, making music that was as competitive as some of their male counterparts.
We collectively, or radio, got very accustomed to not hearing the female voices on the radio, and it was a tough practice to pull out of. In the meantime, those female voices were often supplanted by groups and duos and things like that. I say it’s a free market, and if you want to command attention, you need to be a unique artist and you need to make compelling music, and that’s all I care about.
RI: What do you see coming next in country?
Dungan: I never feel like I’m smart enough to predict any kind of a trend. However, over the last year, we have broken wide open a guy named Jon Pardi. The first single from his album, which not only was a number one record but Billboard’s most played country single of the year, it was a waltz-tempo shuffle. There are a lot of people when it was all said and done that looked at it cockeyed and said, “How in the world did that happen?” In George Strait’s heyday, he couldn’t have pulled that off.
I think the difference here is the difference: It was so kind of old school, modernized with Jon’s take on life, that it was fresh. I love the way history comes into play in making music. Because if we are not listening to our past, we are missing a big thing.
I think these artists, they each come to the table with their influences. Jon was not only influenced by modern country music, but also by Buck Owens. It’s evident in everything he does, and it’s working really, really well for him. People ask me constantly, “Do you think this means that we’re swinging back to a more country sound?” I have no idea. I just know that Jon’s created his own space out there, and those are the kinds of artists that I’m looking for all the time — the ones that can create their own space.
RI: So what do you look for in an artist?
Dungan: I am always struck by the difference of people when they really show it. When you look at my career from Capitol on, all of the superstars that we had were outliers at one point. They all challenged the system. They all came to the plate doing something that was a little uncomfortable. Not only did it work eventually, but they became the standard bearers. I’m talking about Eric Church. I’m talking about Keith Urban. I’m talking about Luke Bryan. Even Lady Antebellum, when we came with that first record, many of my friends at radio said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing here. This feels very adult. It feels almost AC.” And I would smile and say that’s exactly why I wanted to work with these people — because what they’re doing is very different from anything else out there.
RI: I was reading a quote from you in an interview where you also used the phrase “the difference is the difference.”
Dungan: The difference is the difference. That’s a regular catchphrase around here. As a matter of fact, we just had our annual staff meetings, and that was the title of the meetings. That was the theme of the meeting. The difference is the difference.
RI: What are the challenges you face in the digital world?
Dungan: Drowning in opportunity. I mean there are literally new technologies and new services being offered to us at an alarming rate. It takes a great deal of money to invest in those things, but it can also just suck the manpower out of here. You have to be very selective with who you work with and the products being put in front of you that you feel you’ll have a chance with. I saw something recently that unfortunately I can’t talk about, but it’s a totally new technology — and I don’t think country music is going to be on the front end of this, but I think it’s definitely something that’s going to impact our business in a really significant way.
RI: Wow. You threw that out there — now we have to know what it is.
Dungan: I can’t talk about it.
RI: You’ve been on the CRB board for years. You probably don’t have a lot of spare time, so why do you do that?
Dungan: I had just taken over Capitol and I got a call from Bill Mayne, who was at that point a member of the board. He said the organization had never had a label president sit on the board before. He thought this would be great for me, and this would be great for CRS. I thought this was the perfect way for me to get a little closer to radio. So I got on that board, thinking I would sit there for two or three years at most.
The truth is, I enjoy it so much. I enjoy the people on that board. I enjoy the event so much. I really feel like every time I show up to a meeting, I get something out of it and I contribute something to it, and we are actually influencing the business in a positive way. A lot of boards, you sit there and you just sort of rubber stamp, business as usual. That is never the case with CRS. The CRS event itself is just of utmost importance to keeping our format, our genre, very special and keeping us from falling into the trap of being corporate wallpaper, which a lot of these formats have become, vis-a- vis consolidation over the years. Just coming together and sharing ideas, enjoying the music, interacting with others who are faced with the same challenges is a tremendous benefit. I don’t think any other genre of music could do this. I don’t think any other business except Country radio could do this. When I share this with my pop counterparts, what happens and what we do and what we talk about, they are just blown away. They’re blown away, first of all, that people could get in a room and share their competitive secrets, because they just don’t think that would work in a pop world. It not only works, but it drives everybody forward.
RI: How has CRS evolved over the years?
Dungan: I got involved in 2000. What we have tried to do, and Bill Mayne in particular, is we have tried to interject other lifestyle elements into the conference itself. We have focused a lot on health issues. We had a heart lab in three or four years ago, and there were blood tests and everyone got their results e-mailed to them. That was free. We had COPD tests, and everyone had their results e-mailed to them. This year we’re going to have a free hearing test. We’ve also done money management.
Several years ago, we had Dave Ramsey as a keynote speaker. Of course, he has a radio show, but he also spent a great deal of time talking about just basic money management and how you get in trouble and how you stay out of trouble, smart things to do in your day-to-day life that everyone in that room could take away, and hopefully have a more solvent future.
RI: The show UMG Nashville puts on at CRS is probably the number one “must-attend” event. Talk about that show and what it means to CRS as well as UMG Nashville.
Dungan: It’s really special. It predates me. They were doing it for a year or two prior to my arrival. I had only heard about it prior to my arrival, but I knew it was special. The first one I attended blew me away. I constantly worry, “Are we wearing out the formula? Should we change this or that?”
This seems to be the one thing that simply does not wear people out. This seems to continue to have interest, and people still seem to come away feeling like it was a flagship event for all of CRS — and I am very gratified about that — and it’s a proud moment for me, who represents a lot of artists, to see the bulk of them get up there and do a song or two, and be a proud dad.
RI: Country music artists have great relationships with radio stations, PDs, and listeners, more than any other format. Do you think that is a big part of why the format is successful and has been for so many years?
Dungan: I do. You would be surprised how many of these stars have cell phone numbers of radio people and how many radio people have the cell phone numbers of the stars. There are friendships that are built upon over the years. It’s truly a human experience. It’s not so much about business, although I think everybody realizes it’s in their best interest to have a friendship between an artist and a radio person and vice versa. But it’s really, truly a friendship thing.
I laugh — a little anecdote. When I signed Darius Rucker, there was a lot of skepticism about this. He was a new artist. He had one song on the radio that was out for maybe three weeks. We kind of walked him through what was then the Bridge Bar. I kept my eyes on Darius to make sure he was OK. I would see him leaning up against the bar and people were coming up to him, and I could see him flopping his money down on the bar. He was clearly buying people drinks.
When I finally got over there and said, “Darius, you don’t have to pay for people’s drinks. I have a tab here,” he looked at me and smiled and said, “Dude, I’m unlike any other artist you’ve signed. I’m already rich.”
RI: If you had a roomful of radio executives in front of you, what would you say to them about making the relationship stronger?
Dungan: This is a constant with me, and I think that in any other industry, there is a great deal of emphasis applied to looking at your first adapters and making the assumption that the rest of your audience, the rest of your fans, will follow suit. I don’t know that we do that enough. I think there is still too much emphasis placed on what makes our core fans happy and comfortable. That’s a very safe way to play.
But when you want to really engage, when you want to drive your business forward, listen to those first adapters, pay attention to how they’re responding to things, and then just make the assumption that the rest of them will come along. That’s how they do it in any other industry, whether it be tennis shoes or ketchup or clothing or anything — that’s what they look at first. I would still encourage people to pay more attention to that.
Dungan: Well, we are still early on in Jon Pardi. We are only in our second single. But everything feels great. All of those metrics that I discussed with you before look really terrific. He feels very comfortable. He feels like he has arrived, or he is close to being considered a mainstay in the format. Any time you can get an artist to settle down and be comfortable, you’re going to get the best work out of them. They’re not playing defense. So it’s still early for Jon, and there’s a long way to go.
In the meantime, I have quite a few young kids that I’m excited about. We have one named Jordan Davis that we’re going to come into the marketplace with very soon. We have another one named Brandon Lay that we are going to come into the marketplace with very soon. We still have a lot of cleanup to do and a lot of
convincing to do on an artist named Clare Dunn, and I think we laid some really good groundwork a year ago. But you can expect a lot more from Clare Dunn.
RI: What else do you want to accomplish?
Dungan: You know, the entire time I’ve been in charge — I was the number two guy at Arista Nashville, and then I became president of Capitol in 2000. From 2000 on, my industry has been in decline, thanks mostly to the Internet. It finally feels like we’re getting our feet underneath us. I would love to know that this business is healthy before I walk away.