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Warner Nashville Co-Heads on the Label’s Big Streaming Year & Why Country is Due for a Latin Explosion

todayDecember 12, 2022 1

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When Ben Kline and Cris Lacy took over Warner Music Nashville (WMN) as co-presidents in June, they let the staff know that their disagreements would be hashed out in the open.

“I want the kids to see Mom and Dad fighting,” jokes Kline, but then adds, “These are two people that are in the middle of [problem] solving, and hopefully, everyone learns from it and sees how we get to a decision.”

The hope is that airing out conflicts in public “empowers the staff to disagree with us,” says Lacy. When the pair took the reins from WMN chairman/CEO John “Espo” Esposito, who will ascend to chairman emeritus in January after 13 years, the last thing they wanted was “people sitting in the room just going along with whatever we throw out there. We need everybody to come in with the big ideas and be disruptors.”

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Disruption is already happening at the artist level as the executives begin to put their stamp on the label: One of the first signings was Giovannie & The Hired Guns, the Texas-based band led by Mexican-American frontman Giovannie Yanez, whose breakout single, “Ramon Ayala,” spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock & Alternative Airplay chart. They are also seeing huge streaming numbers with nascent country rockers Bailey Zimmerman, who is co-signed with Elektra, and Zach Bryan, who is signed to Warner Records but co-works with WMN.

Kline and Lacy, who were unofficially touted as Esposito’s successors for many months, have been preparing for the changeover. “We both have coaches, and we’re working at this relationship because we know that it’s not as simple as, ‘Well, we love each other now, and it’s all great,’ ” Lacy says.

Cris Lacy, Ben Kline, Warner Music Group, Nashville
Kline’s parents gave him this Boston baseball, which he says is a reminder of his roots and love of the sport. “This is the one item that has sat on every desk I’ve occupied.”

“We had each done some executive coaching individually, but as this came about, we leaned in and the company was great, and they have offered solutions,” says Kline. “As new challenges and situations arise, it’s very reassuring to know that we have that type of resource. It’s an evolution, and what it is today probably isn’t what it looks like in six months.”

Kline, who was most recently executive vp/GM, started at WMN in 2014 as vp of revenue before becoming senior vp of global revenue and touring. Lacy joined in 2005 after stints at several publishing companies. She was most recently executive vp of A&R and has been responsible for bringing acts such as Kenny Chesney, Cole Swindell, Cody Johnson, Ashley McBryde and Gabby Barrett to the label. WMN, which ranked third on Billboard‘s 2022 year-end list of top country labels, also counts Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay and Ingrid Andress among its roster.

In their first joint interview since taking over WMN, the executives, who report to Warner Music Group CEO of recorded music Max Lousada, talked about their vision for the company, what they admire about each other, ongoing challenges at radio and what keeps them up at night.
 
What do you admire the most about the other?

Ben Kline: Cris is incredibly inclusive as a manager, at soliciting everyone’s opinion and coming to a conclusion. Her ears and her heart go into our signings and 25-plus years of relationships that are drawn upon on a daily basis. I cannot tell you the level of safety I feel knowing that’s what my partner brings.

Cris Lacy: Ben is very decisive. I have so much respect for how laser focused he is in a meeting. That inspires a lot of confidence. The other is his business acumen. That makes me feel confident to go out to be creative — to jump off a cliff knowing that he’ll help me pull the parachute.

Cris Lacy, Ben Kline, Warner Music Group, Nashville
A print from the 1986 photo shoot for Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., which fueled country’s neo-traditional movement. “The picture captures the spirit of Dwight,” says Kline.

In February, Robert Kyncl will replace Stephen Cooper as Warner Music Group’s CEO. What interactions have you had with him so far? And since he is from YouTube, do you expect a greater emphasis on technology?

Kline: Yes. Cris and I have had a chance to meet Robert virtually. It’s hard not to get excited when you look at the companies that he has helped build.

Giovannie & The Hired Guns’ new album, Tejano Punk Boys, leans more rock than country. What drove the signing?

Lacy: What we heard felt like the spirit of the outlaw movement: rebellious, visceral, urgent and honest. Toby Keith is one of Gio’s influences. Toby has said things that pushed the boundaries. Gio is pushing the boundary a little further into rock musically. We also heard unreleased music that is more classic country in its structure. As a label, we have to look past what is probable in the current moment and ahead to what is possible. We believe in what Gio is doing right now, but we also believe in his vision to release different music down the road to the country, rock and Latin audiences.

Cris Lacy, Ben Kline, Warner Music Group, Nashville

That signing was in partnership with Warner Music Latina and Warner Records. Is the country market ripe for a Latin explosion?

Lacy: Yes! There’s a lot of opportunity, especially for our genre: the storytelling, the cadence of the music, the swagger. When we speak with our partners in that space, it feels like a natural fit for us. There will be more.

Your other initial signings were Madeline Edwards and singer-songwriter Chase Matthew. What does that reveal about your A&R philosophy, and how is it different than it was under Esposito?

Lacy: I was here for all of Espo, so I would say the A&R philosophy has always been consistent, which is: It’s storytellers. What Madeline and Chase and Gio say when you put them all together is there’s no boundary for us. We don’t sit in a room and say, “We need one of those.” The artist that we want is an artist that we don’t know exists yet.

Kline: The marketplace has also evolved, so how we judge success, how we’re able to amplify artists and get their music heard has changed. As important as [radio] is for critical mass, we are seeing incredible breakout success for artists in our genre through avenues that weren’t available.

How does that change A&R if you aren’t as reliant on radio?

Lacy: Honestly, it feels like freedom because it was so frustrating to know that when an artist came to a country major record label, what they were saying was they wanted radio. So if, as an A&R person, you loved the music but you realize it can’t go to radio, then you cannot ethically say, “I’ll sign you.” You ended up passing on artists that you truly loved. Now there are all these other ways to develop stories and break artists. The handcuffs are off.

Cris Lacy, Ben Kline, Warner Music Group, Nashville
“I try to start every day in gratitude,” says Lacy. “The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo puts everything in perspective. The cross came from a meditation journey, and the candle is from this amazing artist counseling nonprofit, Friends of Porter’s Call, where I serve on the board.”

Are you rethinking the costs of radio? It can take a year to get a song up the chart and six months before you know if you’ve got a hit.

Kline: I don’t think we’d be doing our jobs if we weren’t rethinking how we spend every dollar. For a really long time, your marketing efforts began the day you went to radio with your first single on a new artist. That was when the clock started. If you’re doing that in 2023, I don’t know if that’s a recipe for success. There has never been more ways to do it.

It used to be you were only competing against your fellow Nashville labels for acts. Now you’re competing with the coastal labels as well. How do you deal with that?

Lacy: The last artist that we looked at had, according to Billboard, 18 labels interested. The New York- and Los Angeles-based labels are seeing something very exciting in this genre, so that’s good for the business. As much as we joke about, “Gosh, I wish they’d just leave us alone to do our thing,” it means that our music is traveling in a way that it hasn’t before. We have really good lines of communication with our sister labels, and we talk openly about, what is the native genre for this act? Having very good relationships is important to Max Lousada and to the philosophy of the company.

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Is the increased competition driving up signing costs?

Lacy: Signing costs are going up because you have data that is predictive. If you map out the next five years of an act who is streaming X, there’s no sense in offering them less than they’re going to be able to make if they never signed a deal. What we didn’t have before was a way to measure where something would be in five years.

Kline: There has never been more data available around unsigned artists, and everyone has access to generally the same data. The rosters in this town were [previously] built out of people going to clubs in cities where the only A&R person was from a label in Nashville. It’s a different ballgame now, and it puts added pressure on — and we’re up to the task — to prove why we add value for the artists that we’re talking to.

What keeps you up at night?

Kline: The weight of the responsibility for 80 people that work at our company and the impact that the decisions Cris and I make have on their lives.

Lacy: And also the inability to break an artist that chose to sign with you — if we still can’t make them a superstar after they’ve made all these sacrifices and worked their ass off. When someone signs to a record label, they’re really giving you the thing they value the most. And it keeps me up when I can’t help them fulfill that in the way that they always wanted.

Cris Lacy, Ben Kline, Warner Music Group, Nashville
“This is a photo of my mom, Andrea Cris Lacy — who was ahead of her time in a male-dominated industry — directing and producing a PBS documentary about a death row inmate,” Lacy says. “She also made the dress she’s wearing. She did it all. The belt buckle is a gift from Cody Johnson.”

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