I’m Buzz Knight, the host of Takin’ a Walk, and we are in Nashville for this episode. I hope you’re going to follow our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, or wherever you find your podcast. And if you enjoyed this episode, please share it with someone who needs to hear it.
Our guest is someone of tremendous influence in the music business here in Nashville and across the country. Jon Loba, the president of BMG Nashville, will be our guest. Jon is well-respected among his peers, and he’s on a tremendous roll with his team and his artists.
Earlier this year, he wasn’t already busy enough. He added publishing to his roster of responsibility. And he has a powerhouse label with Jason Aldean, Dustin Lynch, Jimmie Allen, Lainey Wilson, and Jelly Roll among his standouts. Let’s go take a walk with Jon Loba.
Well, Jon, thanks for being on the Takin’ a Walk podcast. It’s so nice to be with you.
Thank you so much for having me. Excited.
You’re on quite a roll here. What are you most proud of in your role as president of BMG Nashville?
Number one and most important, I think I’m proud that we are a home for artists who want to paint outside the lines. There are definitely places that give artists a chance to do that, but I’m proud that we’ve proved that doing so cannot only be artistically rewarding, but profitable as well. That painting outside the lines can be a mainstream proposition if you fight for those artists who have unique voices and unique perspectives, and hope to connect with a large audience. I think a lot of times there’s fear in doing that.
And I’m actually more afraid of working with artists who don’t have that unique perspective, and who are a little more safe. I’ve never really been overly successful with that, so I’m really proud of that.
That we are, I think in this town, looked at as the place to go if you’re wanting to do it a little bit different. And knowing that there will be an entire army in this building fighting for you, and who will follow your lead. We’re not dictatorial in any censor form. We are continually saying, “Artist First, Artist First, Artist First.” And I think in hope that we back that up in actions, not just words.
But that didn’t happen immediately in what you were up to.
That took a while to get to this, right?
Without a doubt, without a doubt. I mean, when BBR was born; and I was fortunate enough to be here in the early days; we knew that we had to be incredibly focused and not take many shots. We had to pour everything we had just into one or two, three artists. And we were just, by the sheer sense of having success with Craig Morgan, who was the first artist we had a Top 10 hit on, that was painting outside the lines.
Even though Craig had come over with me from Atlantic Records, the fact that we went to an independent; who, for decades, independents had had no measurable success; it was painting outside the lines to think that we could have success.
And as we started to get on a roll with Craig, then a young man by the name of Jason Aldean, who two other labels had thought were too country or were too rock for the format and had released; and Jason was ready to go. The story’s famous: ready to go back to Georgia and drive a Pepsi truck. He came floating into our world. And there was just something incredibly unique.
And I think in signing Jason was born the DNA of this label: of fighting for an artist with a unique voice who most did not consider mainstream country. And now he changed the genre, and is thought of in that way. That was a pivotal moment in that growth you speak of, or that change that you speak of.
We had varying degrees of success, but this new iteration of BMG, BBR, where we are really taking some chances, was allowed to occur when we were acquired by BMG. They very much were a company that, deep in its DNA, preached Artist First, preached being a home for artists who had no other homes. And it was specifically one of the reasons we chose BMG as our acquisition partner because of that ethos, because of those values.
And in that moment, when I officially became the head of BBR and BMG, I wanted to send a signal to the community that things were different. And even more so, we were a home for special artists who had a voice, who had a brand. And I had made a statement: I didn’t care if I signed another solo male for three or four years, because there were so many of them there. I wanted something different.
And a postcard of a guy came floating across my desk that was wearing Converse. He looked like he was doing the splits. And it was Jimmie Allen. So I went to Showcase, was blown away. Then sat down with him, heard him acoustically. And as important, heard his story and said, “I want that to represent what the new BBR BMG is.” And it’s just grown from there.
So we had that success, it gave us more success. And probably as important, our partners more success. In going on the journey with us and saying, “Okay, they’re not afraid to tackle something different, and they’re going to back it up with tenacity, with resources, with passion.”
And each time you do that, you’re asking them take a little less of a chance themselves, because we’ve delivered before. I’m very proud of that as well; that our partners see us as that, and give us the benefit of the doubt where maybe even five years ago they didn’t.
I have chills, you telling the Jimmie Allen story. I mean, that is so marvelous of a moment.
I have to think before you reached that moment, though, there were probably some dark moments where you weren’t sure where this was all headed. Is that correct?
I always had a confidence when BMG acquired us that we were set up for success. Before that acquisition, we had two Achilles heels. We didn’t have representation in other genres. We were strictly an independent country label based in Nashville, and we had zero international presence.
So as we were trying to sign acts, our competitors, all they’d have to do is say, “Hey, do you ever want to have a crossover hit? If the answer is ‘Yes,’ well, BBR is not the place, no matter how good they are at country.
“And oh by the way, artists, do you have any international intentions? If the answer is ‘Yes,’ then BBR is not your place.” And whenever we lost out on artists we wanted to sign, it was always one of those, or a combination of the two.
So I was actually really optimistic when we were acquired. The fact that they really believed in what we were doing, believed in this Artist First stance, and believed in strong relationships with managers and following an artist and a manager’s lead.
I can’t say overall there was a dark moment. There were several close executive friends in this town; and in fact, the label head or two. When they knew I was going to sign Jimmie, who said, “We love you, and you’ll forever be on record as Jimmie being your first signing. That is a massive risk.”
I said, “Why?”
And they said, “Because of the track record, how difficult it is to have success with Black artists in the genre.” And they meant it in the most loving way. They’re like, “Maybe that should be your second or third signing.”
And the former owner of BBR even had said that he had signed a Black female before he even had the label; just was an investor with her and talked about all the challenges a few decades ago that he had. He cautioned me as well.
But I thought, “If I go down swinging, I want to go down swinging making a difference and taking chances.” I didn’t care what it ultimately would be. I still wanted that to be the legacy of BMG going forward, and my legacy.
There were definitely a couple of moments, because I respect some of those people that were giving me advice so much, where for a minute it scared me for a bit. But what scared me more is always is not taking chances. Whenever I’ve played it safe, it’s never been the right move.
Oprah, years ago, I remember watching her. And they asked about what she attributed her success to. And number one she said, “The amazing teams I’ve always had around me.” That really made an impression on me.
Then she said, “The other thing is the intuition. Listen to that inner voice. Even if that inner voice doesn’t lead you to success, at least you’ve not sat there and wondered if it was wrong.” And then in her case, the inner voice was always the right thing, it turns out.
Well, you’re a guy that likes data; I know that.
I love data.
How do you balance the power of science and data with gut instinct?
Yeah, it’s a balancing act. As I’ve matured and been through this over many years, it’s become an easier balancing act.
In the early days of BBR Music Group, we had no leverage of big artists. We had very limited financial resources. We had two things: we had the relationships of our staff, and we had some data, along with some really compelling music.
There was a individual back in the day after I had been to BBR for five or six years. He said, “I don’t think there’s a better storyteller than your label, because you always back it up with facts.” And at that point in time, it was SoundScan, ticket sales, merch sales. Again, we didn’t have anything else but relationships and the stories. So we really had to make use of those, and really leaned on them.
As an industry in general, the record community is really good at educating our radio partners, and then partners beyond, in what matters. When I got into the business, I was a coordinator at Warner Brothers. And I remember the discussion then: “Does SoundScan matter? Should only radio research matter?” a lot of radio executives said. And they came because the record community en masse kept trying to show why SoundScan mattered. They eventually said, “Yeah, we should look at that damn data. It’s a tool; we should look at that.”
Then it moved into iTunes, downloads. There was not really acknowledgement of that for a long time. But through Country Radio Seminar and many articles and just talking to our partners, we educated real well there. Then it moved on to streaming.
And at each point in time where there was not much weight given to those specific data points, the record community and the radio community got together and educated each other. And I think the pendulum swings from not making any difference to solely making decisions, based on that. Neither of those are the most beneficial worlds, in my opinion, to live in.
So right now, over the last year, what I’ve been trying to do is talk to our radio friends about taking chances, paying attention to that gut. If you love an artist, if you love a piece of music, it doesn’t mean you have to play everything that doesn’t have a streaming story or a touring story. But recognize the role. Radio should recognize that role as thought leaders, opinion leaders setting the agenda. Because if you’re only magnifying streaming hits, what is the real function there?
A lot of times when you’re magnifying streaming hits, you’re on the back of something that is maybe six months old. And if a station’s going on air saying, “Here’s the new song from Hardy,” and it’s been played for six months, there’s a good percentage of that audience that says, “That’s not new.” Now you’re a dinosaur. A big part of what I’ve been talking about is just that very balance.
And I think there’s not a better example of that balance than Lainey Wilson. We had a decent streaming story, not spectacular. We had some critical press, not en masse. I don’t believe we even had any major TV appearances. But radio had started playing Things a Man Ought to Know.
We had put Lainey Wilson on the iHeart label meetings one year. Then the very next year came back and put her on again to say, “She’s important. We haven’t had success yet, or the success that we want, but she’s important. Forget the data. This is an important artist.”
And Rod Phillips called me up two days later and said, “Hey, you obviously put her on for a reason, and you’re obviously committed to her. Do you think you can get this current single that’s out there?”
And I said, “With iHeart support leading the way, I promise you we will.”
Because whenever iHeart has given us the chance on an On The Verge act; it’s kind of inside baseball; but their featured act for a period of time, we’ve always delivered a number one on that act. And always followed it up with a top five. So they gave us that chance.
The rest of radio had confidence and built this story. They they created the data, because they followed their gut. We followed our gut in putting her back in that spotlight. Radio followed their gut in that this was an important artist.
There’s some labels that sign primarily based on streaming data, “Sign new X.” There’s some labels, primarily smaller, that sign just based on gut. When I’m signing X, it’s a balancing act. Jelly Roll is the perfect example.
He had significant streaming data, so I was interested from that perspective. But then as I got to know him as a person and his art, and his desire to reach an even wider audience, the data was there. But it took gut to go, “Let’s go larger than your traditional audience.”
I rambled a lot. I don’t know if I answered or not.
I think you did. And I think it’s fair to say that every format of some type goes through this quagmire where the science overwhelms the gut.
Then it becomes a bit of a stagnation problem. And it just takes someone, frankly at a radio position, not being afraid to lose their job and to believe in their brand and how to navigate their audience.
Without a doubt. I could not have said that better. Again, Jelly’s a beautiful manifestation of that. He had a rock album called Son of a Sinner, and we had a number one record at RockRadio with a different track, and there were country programmers that …
We were just introducing Jelly. I wanted to warm them up for this country album. And there were three or four programmers that went, “Hey, this song, Son of a Sinner, that’s a country song.”
And I said, “Well, yeah. We always thought it, but we knew we couldn’t shove it down anybody’s throat. We had to warm you up to Jelly, get to know him.”
We weren’t even pushing that record at the very beginning. It was three or four stations at Country Radio who embraced it on their own, created that story, and accelerated our entrance to the genre, our connection with the genre. Another great example.
Isn’t it true that the great programmers tend to assess their marketplace, especially if they’re in a head-to-head battle? They look at playlists … Gold, Current … and say, “Wait a minute, we both can’t sound identical”?
Without a doubt.
And then the ones that step out are the ones that lead, and as you say, set the agenda.
Without a doubt. I mean, legendary stations such as when Brian Philips was programming in Dallas and that whole dynamic … so very true.
The wannabe radio guy in me always sees those situations, and is so jealous. Or sees a stagnant market where two stations are just going through the motions and doing the same old, same old. I go, “Man, I’d love to …” I think if I’m ever filthy rich, I’m just going to go buy a station in one of those markets and try to go up against that person.
I wanted to be in radio in college. And the dean of my school said, “Your content is great, kid. Your voice sucks. You’ll never make it in radio.” And I didn’t know any better. I’m like, “Okay, well, I got to figure something else out.”
Then fast forward; I see Howard Stern and some others. Not great voices, but amazing content. And I think, “Man, I really missed it.”
You missed the opportunity.
I missed that opportunity. So I feel in some later iteration, I want to own a radio station. I really do.
We’ll have to talk about that offline.
Yeah. Where did you go to school?
Central Michigan University, out in the middle of a cornfield in Michigan. I knew I couldn’t get into too much trouble there. I was a finance and economics major, because I wanted a business degree. I thought, “Well, marketing, I can sort of figure that out.” I was terrible in math and wanted to challenge myself. And it turns out I was really good in finance.
I was going to go to New York and get in investment banking. And I helped with a graduate-level course even at Central. Somehow, something clicked, and I was in.
When did you first know, though, you were hooked on the music business?
There was a man who we always thought was a family friend. In fact, he lived with my grandparents; and they owned a restaurant together in Southern California. After my grandmother died, we found out he was not a family friend. He was my grandfather. And his whole family was from Cookeville, Tennessee.
So when I graduated Central Michigan, I drove down and spent a week getting to know the family, and discovered Music Row. I had always wanted to be in entertainment, but I thought; and completely wrong, by the way, as I’ve learned; I thought, “Well, the entertainment industry, it’s backstabbing and it’s full of politics and you have to sell your soul.”
And in Music Row I found this beautiful, warm, supportive community. I mean, just from driving around … I drove around three days, three different days. My mom and stepdad own a farm in Michigan where I grew up. And I left and went back up to the farm, and was really conflicted.
My parents were great. They said, “Just go do what makes you happy.”
Because I said, “I have no skillset, I have no training, anything. But I just feel this desire to be in the music industry in Nashville.”
So I was out on our riding lawnmower. I had earphones in and I said, “God, I’m so conflicted. I know I haven’t been to church very regularly. I’m a hot mess, but please just talk to me. I need a signal, and I need a very strong signal.”
And not 30 seconds later, Garth Brooks’ The River came on. I looked up and I’m like, “Okay, that was strong. I gotcha.” And walked in the house and said, “Hey, I’m going to move to Tennessee.” So I moved down here with 500 bucks, and made it work.
Of course, I told Garth that story. And as wonderful and warm as he is, he didn’t take credit. He’s like, “Did you tell Victoria Shaw, the songwriter, that story? She’ll love it.”
I said, “No, but I certainly will. But it was your voice bringing that song to life. So I have you to thank first for my music industry career.”
How special he brought it back to the songwriter.
He did. He did. Absolutely.
Which is so cool. So in the A&R process, what’s the typical length of time, from discovery of something, to pursue, to final signing?
We move really slow, comparative to other labels. And we’ve missed out on some things in that. Once in a while I’ll sign really quickly; Lainey and Jimmie were on-the-spot signings. And it’s becoming faster, because all the data is out there. I just have to move faster.
But in general, I want to get to know the music. I want to get to know the person, get to know their heart and their dreams, to figure out if I think … if I think … we will be a good fit. And the same goes for and our department; they go through that same process.
Once we go through that filter, then I want to bring in the entire team, and get a sense if the artist feels like they fit with that team, and if the team feels like they fit with that artist.
Once in a while I’ll just throw the sword down and say, “Hey, we’re going.” And luckily, they trust and follow and really believe. But more often than not, it’s getting entire team or the majority of team buy-in.
And that can take, I mean, I’d say on average it takes two to four months in that process, sometimes longer. There’s been instances where I’ve said, “Hey, it’s not a no, but it’s not right now. You need to develop a little bit more.” Then I always say, “If you have other opportunities that you think work, certainly take those.”
There’s an artist right now who two or three different labels are talking to and wanting to sign. And I said, “I don’t want to hold you up.” I said, “I want to make sure we have the bandwidth to give you the attention you deserve.” And they’ve now held on for four or five months. They said, “No, if there’s a chance within the next 12, 18 months, we’ll wait. We want to be with you.”
I said, “I can’t guarantee anything.” That’s more rare than not. I mean, I encourage people if they’ve got something on the table, and it’s going to be a while for us, to take it. But once in a while, they will wait.
How do you provide an environment with your team where you give them the room to voice their opinion, even though you have a strong opinion?
I try to take a check on myself and have the team tell me … I hope that they feel that security to, even outside of signing, always raise concerns or bring up ideas and speak truth to power.
Because you look at any organization, any empire that has fallen, usually it’s because those at the top surround themselves with yes men. And those organizations who have longevity have a very strong ethos and a very strong set of values and organizing principle. But they encourage really robust conversation and dialogue. It makes everybody better, and you get to different decisions that way. Even if it is going back to the original hypothesis or original intention. Everything else has been flushed out, everybody’s had a voice. And that happens quite a lot.
I was on a call earlier … Once this podcast comes out, it’ll be public information. But Capitol Records, over the last 13 years, has been the number one airplay label in Nashville. And this year, BBR was able to ring that bell.
It was a massive moment for us, because that Universal team … I mean, those are our brothers and sisters. They win, and they do it with class. I mean, we love them. So to be able to ring the bell after they’ve done it for 13 years meant so much to us.
Country Aircheck was asking us about it, and about the team dynamics. I said, “It’s beautiful. It is like a family. They all fight, they all get mad at each other. They all have vigorous conversations and challenge each other.
“But then they’re also there to wrap their arms around each other, to support each other, to lift each other up. And I think that dynamic where everybody’s in it together, and we can mix it up inside … But once we go outside these walls, it is a united front.” I think that is one of our core strengths, and another thing that I’m so proud of.
I’ve always said, “There are absolutely two things that will get you fired. Number one, lying. Number two, not having each other’s back. It’s enough of a fight outside our walls. We can fight inside. But when we go out there, the minute I hear anybody saying one thing negative about a member of this team, they’re done.” I don’t have many rules, but that’s one of them.
Congratulations on that. My God, that’s amazing.
It’s obvious your family members have had a great impact on your leadership. Outside of your family, who have been influential folks on the leadership side for you?
From the very beginning, Rick Baumgartner, who was at Warner Brothers, he gave me my first two jobs in the industry. He was the VP of Promotion for Warner Brothers, and his mother-in-law was a family friend. And he goes, “There was no way I was going to hire you, but my mother-in-law would’ve worn me out for six months if I didn’t give you the shot.” And so gave me the interview, and I got a coordinator job at Warner Brothers. Then he hired me at Atlantic as a Southeast regional. So he had a big effect on me.
It’s not like we have a lot of in-depth conversations regularly. But whenever I speak to Mike Dungan, there’s always a nugget of really important truth with him. I’ve studied him, I just watch him. I’ve watched how his teams interact and how he’s that built that same family atmosphere.
I left BBR for three years to start Valory Music with Scott Borchetta. Taylor was breaking at the time alongside Jason. So there were no independent label success stories; then there were two at once. I had told the owner, “I’m going to leave for three years and go over there and figure out what he knows.” And at the time, he was considered the best. I wanted to run with the best, and prove to myself that I could. And there’s no doubt that he sharpened my sword.
When I left there and came back to BBR … There’s something about the number 13. Brad Paisley had had 13 number ones, and it was CRS Week. And Jason Aldean was going for, I think his second or third number one at the time, maybe fourth. And Skip Bishop was a legendary VP of Promotion. They had things set up every single night at CRS. They had people out at Brad’s house I believe, at Skip’s house. They had the boat. I mean, they had everything stacked in their favor.
And before I had worked with Scott Borchetta … I don’t like to think I would’ve rolled over, but I would’ve potentially made an excuse to myself on why maybe we wouldn’t get it. But leaving that building, I said to our staff, I said, “Here’s the thing, guys. That streak of 13 comes to an end now. Every time they punch us in the mouth this week, we’re going to punch right back.”
I usually don’t speak that violently or forcefully, but it was Scott’s intensity and Scott’s never-say-die that I think I saw up close, and did. I’m a very emotional guy. And in some senses, I think I was soft. Scott toughened me up. So I give him credit for that.
Joe Galante, a legendary record executive, has been so instructive for me since the BMG acquisition, because he knew the German culture well. He knew the BMG systems well; and he, for most of his reign, was considered the absolute best. And he’s always been so gracious with his time. He’s been a very trusted advisor.
And then beyond that, pastors and friends. JoJamie Hahr, who is our EVP; we really create accountability for each other, and are really strong sounding boards for each other. Where we always know we can get the real truth, the unvarnished truth from each other.
Jim Ed Norman, I’ll never forget. Again, when I got to Warner Brothers, where I started my career, they had seven platinum acts in one year. And so he was incredibly busy. I had more interaction with him after Warner Brothers than when I was there.
But I will never forget. I was there about six months and I got in the elevator with Jim Ed and his general manager, Eddie Reeves. I was talking about all these great things over the first six months that had happened with Faith Hill and Travis Tritt and Dwight Yoakam and Jeff Foxworthy.
And as we’re going up to the second floor, the general manager said, “That’s why we hire young kids like you.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “To remind us how great this business is.”
I said, “You’ve got to be reminded how great it is?”
He goes, “Give it 10 years, kid. You’ll understand what I mean.”
Eddie got off on the second floor, and Jim Ed and I went up to the third floor. He looked at me, he said, “Don’t listen to him.” He goes, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If you love music, if you love people, and you love creating moments, memory moments, you’ll love this business for the rest of your life.”
And I swear to you, every single time I leave my house, every morning when I head to Music Row or head to the airport to get on a plane, I think of Jim Ed saying that. Because I love this business now more than I ever have. And every day, it just keeps increasing.
I am so damn blessed … I can’t believe that I get paid to do this. To go fight for others’ art, and in the process, create moments for an audience that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
Thank you for creating a memory moment here. Thank you for the amazing music, your leadership, and your generosity being on Takin’ a Walk.
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Enjoyed it very much.
Takin’ a Walk with Buzz Night is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.