BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Raised in small-town Illinois, Seth England was far removed from the bright lights and big city that he would one day call home in Nashville. After an adolescence that revolved around a love of music led him to pursue the business in college, England found himself promoting shows to pay the bills. It was then that Big Loud Shirt founder Craig Wiseman met England, and a partnership was born when England went to work for Wiseman in 2007. Bringing producer Joey Moi and manager Kevin “Chief” Zaruk in to the fold, the company expanded with the four founding partners adding management, production, and eventually label services to their publishing and A&R offerings. Following the success of signees like Florida Georgia Line and Chris Lane, the risk-taking partners have launched careers and built brands based around their belief in the music. Recently, the individual arms – Big Loud Shirt, Big Loud Mountain, and Big Loud Records – all elected to celebrate continued success and further growth by re-branding to “Big Loud.” Just before the public announcement of that re-branding, England sat down with All Access to talk about where he’s been, where he is now, and where he hopes to go as the Big Loud universe continues to expand.
1. Big Loud Records just celebrated its two-year anniversary and marked the occasion by re-branding the entire company – Big Loud Mountain, Big Loud Publishing, and Big Loud Shirt. Can you give us a little background on that?
Craig [Wiseman] started Big Loud Shirt in 2003, so for the publishing community, the record label community – at least from that time – Craig has had cuts in over four different decades. He started his big run over many years, but then sold a couple catalogs and funded himself to start Big Loud Shirt in 2003. I started working for Craig in 2007 as an A&R guy, and at the time, it was a standard boutique publishing company. He had some huge dreams about what he wanted to do, and we had to identify that we weren’t going to be able to do that alone. We knew we could cover a lot of it, but we were missing a few components to have the proper team. Joey Moi comes into our lives by way of Chief [Kevin Zaruk], who was Joey’s manager. Chief was managing a bunch of bands, and they had a company in Vancouver named Mountain View Records – that was a joint venture with Clive Davis at the time, when he was still at Sony. Joey decided he was going to stop that chapter of his life and move to Nashville. Coincidentally – call it divine intervention for all of us – at some point, Joey was developing artists in Vancouver and tons of successful bands throughout the years, but the component he never had was what we had: A&R and the songwriting. He had the production, and Chief had the live show experience, so their bands sounded great and performed great, and I think they would even tell you that sometimes the level of songs and A&R weren’t always consistent, because they had to do it on their own. There wasn’t a community in Vancouver that did that. It was like the classic, “Let’s make a Rock band.” When they came to Nashville, we also wanted them to feel welcomed, so that’s why we had the Mountain – that signified our artist companies. When the label started, it was just Big Loud Records. It put us on the road a lot more globally. We’re going to London this year with Jillian [Jacqueline] for Country Music Week, and as we go over and speak about ourselves, it was feeling so complicated. People were just like, “Wait, who does what? What company represents who?” And we just said, “For global branding of the company, because we were growing to that place in a few ways, let’s just do Big Loud. People will know who we are, and the local community will never forget Craig’s brand of Big Loud Shirt; that will always exist.”
2. Clearly, there has been a lot going on in the Big Loud world since it was originally formed. You’ve developed yourselves into a one-stop, all-inclusive company, from the inception of a song, to the production, to the distribution and promotion to radio.
Some of my favorite labels throughout the years, before me: Motown – the good parts of Motown, not the unfortunate, shady business that would happen to the creators. I love that mentality. And, in a modern-day sense, Rock Nation, which is a label and publishing, writer management, and artist management. They’re just Rock Nation – what service do you need as an artist to meet your goals? We decided that we wanted to have every element available to a new artist, experienced artist, and superstar artist – access to great songs and songwriters, and in-house producers, if they don’t already have those relationships. We’re trying to offer more on-site service than we’ve experienced in other places. That’s not to slight anyone else, it’s just one thing that we’ve found to be productive for us. When we can sit around a boardroom table with an artist and say, “What’s the vision?” They’re the CEO of their own project. So, we have photoshoot and music video capabilities on-site, studios on-site, writing rooms on-site, management office on-site, and label office on-site. My favorite thing about it is that I’d bet we have the highest percentage – out of any label or music company in this town – that the artists are in the building all the time. They love it, and I want to keep it that way. I’m very dead-set on keeping that family, fun, and creative environment.
3. You have management oversight at the company’s roster, among your other duties. When you think about advancing artists’ careers – and, since the music biz is such a moving target – are the metrics for success different now? Are there traditional methods that are still working for you? And what about non-traditional methods you use that are working to get artists’ music out to fans?
From my individual perspective, I’m a music consumer. I don’t leave the office and solely turn on Sports Talk; I love music. So, I pay attention to my own pattern, and I pay attention to how I become a fan of certain things. I don’t know that there’s one thing that works, and that’s the hard part. I think back over to the past six to eight months, because I’ve been kind of focusing on the same things; I want to know how I become a fan of the band and why. For me, it never changes – it starts with a song. That’s an easy answer. But, when you’re flipping through “New Music Friday” on Spotify, which has 40 to 60 songs on any given week, I try to make it through every song. I try my hardest to give it a verse and a chorus every time. If I like it, I hit the plus symbol and I add it to my personal collection, and on any other day of the week, I go to my song folder and put it on shuffle. If I really like the song, I give it a second listen and I want to know who it is. Or, if I’m like, “It’s not my thing anymore,” I kick it out of my song folder. Truly, that’s what the consumer is doing. Things that will never change: radio. I think the landscape of radio is changing, but what hasn’t changed is that radio provides true critical mass. I can actually look at our artists’ insights on a platform like Spotify, which gives us that data, and I actually know that if you really want to reach your goals and have fan relationships, they provide you metrics to help determine who has the most fans and in what city. I’ve noticed, on our roster, that if you have significant radio airplay, then you have more fans than if you don’t. That’s in this current format – that doesn’t mean that’s going to last forever, necessarily. I think as streaming grows, you’ll start to see roll outs like Jillian Jacqueline, or Ryan Hurd, or Devin Dawson in the Country genre. You’ll start to see where they can actually achieve similar critical mass before going to terrestrial radio. I don’t know if terrestrial radio will grow significantly, and I don’t know if it will decline significantly, but I think it will always be a very important component. The one thing we’re doing here that’s a little different is having visuals. Talking about the Belcourt [launch event here locally] with Jillian Jacqueline, we started filming seven music videos. We were creative with budgets, and we partnered with the artists to make sure it made business sense, too. But, my thought was, if you like a song, that’s the first step. And if you want to know more about the artist, then you’ll either take a few more actions and search them and see what you find on that artist. Do their pictures and socials match up to what you had in your mind? Does it compliment that? I think that the mistake some young artists are making right now is loading up on one song, which – by the way – we are just as guilty of. Like our plan for Morgan Wallen – we put out the EP, said here’s the single, here’s the video, and we introduced it to radio, and hoped for it to react. Now, I don’t think we always have to load up on one song, but certainly, critical mass hit songs are still predominant over any mode you can have. My thought is, let’s just build it along the way so that when we do roll out Jillian Jacqueline here at the end of the fourth quarter, I would like to think she’d be the least risky record on the table to consider. Kudos to her for being patient and embracing that – going out touring and building her fan base. I can see it. That’ll probably be the first thing, in addition with how brilliant her music is, we’ll just take the statistics to radio. It’ll be like going in front of a jury with whoever has the most evidence, wins. The other thing radio can do is actually build an artist. You see iHeart’s “On The Verge” program – the liners leading in and out of those spins are, in my opinion, critical in the building the artist’s name as opposed to leaving it up to the DJ to intro or outro, or chose not to. If you get the six- to eight-week runway, why wouldn’t you take it?! That’s a name-building machine.
4. With the A&R side, there’s a clear shift happening. You have artists like Kane Brown and Granger Smith, who have built a coalition of fans in a unique way – vitally – and whose fans then demanded radio’s attention. Do you think this organic crowd-sourcing type of A&R method will become more prevalent?
Yes, and I think each year, it will only grow. It will be very simple to figure out what the general mass is into. There’s so many ways to measure it; there’s no assumption anymore. There’s still some life out there of Program Directors making decisions on preference and gut – I mean, I still A&R off preference and gut, and I don’t ever want to lose that. I don’t ever want to be solely a ‘numbers’ A&R guy, just like I don’t want radio to be solely a ‘numbers’ decision, either, because I love when people get passionate when they hear a real song or a real artist. With that being said, I also have to be honest when I explain to all of our artists when they ask about radio – when they can’t understand why their song’s not moving faster. I’m like, “Guys, it is a financial equation from the top down. They need to sell more advertisements, and they want to beat the competitor across town, and they’re gonna look at the records and see what keeps people around the most to help their quarterly numbers to sell more and higher-priced advertising.” Break it down like that, and think about it. You see a lot of artists try to contrive their music to fit into what’s hot in the format, but I’m still into the trail-blazers; I love that Chris Lane wanted to come out with a Justin Timberlake-ish Country song. It doesn’t mean he’ll stay on that forever, it just means he was bold enough to try it. I give kudos to him, because it could have flopped – it was a risk! Jillian Jacqueline is embracing a massive risk right now with a unique vantage point – and sometimes unique arrangements of songs – but, she’s out there grilling it the hard way. I will be happy if we come around, full-circle, and prove it. I’m still somewhat of a hybrid – I think Nashville’s still hybrid with the A&R people that are still here, still gut-first.
5. This town is renowned for the songwriting skills. In a time where songwriters are being rewarded less and less for their creativity, do you sense that this is still a highly-desired craft for young, creative people?
I’ll tell you flat-out, I have somewhat of a limited knowledge of the negotiations that are happening. That being said, I saw a stat recently that Country streaming grew 33% in the last few months. Now, it’s more difficult to figure out the rate you’re going get from different territory versus the states, or North America, rather. I just think, in general, the entire industry shifting to on-demand streaming is actually going to make the songwriter a wealthier songwriter in the long-run, because I’m seeing the evidence in other genres – friends of mine in Los Angeles and New York who are making mechanical money off these incredible streaming records that may not even be going to radio. Historically, as Craig would say, “Man, if you just get a song on the Garth Brooks record, or whoever’s gonna sell ten million copies, radio airplay was icing on the cake.” I actually believe we can get back to that. Will it be this year? No. Next year? No. The following year? Probably still not. Five years? Call me naïve, but I think that there’s actually going to be a lot of power in mechanicals in the long-run. I’m always an advocate of protecting the songwriter, and they’re needed now more than ever – we can’t lose them! As a matter of fact, I’ll go as far to say that that’s what we built this company on. We did the publishing company first so that we would have access to the best songwriters, as partners to us, and the best songs. The best way I can say it: Craig and I, for ten years, have been a part of acquiring and selling catalogs, and in my opinion, the market has never been stouter. So, there must be some people that are a lot smarter than you and me, at the top level, that are able to read the tea leaves and the balance sheets and go, “Wait a minute. This is really worth investing in.” And, I think it’s getting overshadowed a little bit, to be honest with you. Maybe rightfully so, because the value of a Masters has never been higher than this, especially within the past 15 years.
6. Shifting to the label – Big Loud Records, soon to be called “Big Loud.” Two years in, you’ve got a #1 single with Chris Lane under your belt, Morgan Wallen is seeing traction, Jillian Jacqueline has a really strong buzz, and so on. In your minds, are you ahead of the plan, behind, or right where you want to be from when you first started it two years ago?
On the personal side of me, I’m never where I want to be. I’m driven, and so are the partners, that’s why we work together. I am as competitive as the person I know – people tell me that. I’m never satisfied, but that’s positive. From a healthy business standpoint, I think we’re right where we want to be. The four of us sat down – me, Craig, Joey, Chief – and we said, “Let’s make sure we self-raise enough money. We know if we don’t sell one song in four years – we’re going to give ourselves four or five years minimum of runway.” Coming up on our two-year anniversary, we’re actually about a year ahead of schedule from where we thought we might be, and that’s due to a lot of reasons. The industry’s growing, we’ve had some successes with Chris Lane and the Jillian roll-out, and actually, the Morgan Wallen is picking up a lot of steam right now, so we’re really happy. Now, I’m more invigorated with this than ever. We sat around the other day, talking about where the company’s going, and we actually now see a clear picture. We must be doing something right! The phone’s ringing a little bit more, even on the top-down corporate level; people are sticking their head into the building to see what’s going on and bringing us boxes of cookies a little more often. It’s not about bigger, but just working smarter, and being around really talented creators. We have three Country artists right now; we know this format the best, and so I want to sign methodically on that. I’ve always loved the labels in town – I was a part of it. You see it every day – you see guys like [BMLG Records EVP] Jimmy Harnen, who will sign very slow and methodically, and when he signs something, he puts everything he’s got into it. I’ve always loved that about Jimmy, and I wanna offer that same thing. That’s one of the takeaways I took from working with him for so long, is that it’s not about signing eight things at once, it’s about signing the things you’re really passionate about and willing to go to bat for, not dreading to support. That’s how you know you’re doing it right, and that’s how I feel right now. We’re finding so many cool things in Nashville that they didn’t have a whole lot of discovery, because there’s not a lot of people here currently outside of Country. There’s so many non-Country artists getting signed out of here, and I’m like, “Everyone, pump the brakes for a second! Why don’t we offer these kids services right here? Let’s keep them right here and develop it.” That’s exciting to me.
7. There has been a lot of ongoing discussion about female artists in the Country format and how hard it is to breakthrough for the ladies. How do you believe we create a stronger female presence in this format, moving forward?
To me, it takes knowing who you are as an artist, for both males and females. I’m certainly not shying away from the glaring statistics people are showing about males versus females in our genre; that’s not something someone pulled out of thin air – it is true. That being said, as a business owner, to me, Jillian was the first female who walked into our boardroom and knocked us dead. She played her first song, and it was really, really great. The second song was a song called, “Sad Girls,” which hasn’t even been released yet, but it’s probably my favorite song on the record. You could’ve heard a pin drop. It was her real story that she pulled from real stuff; I did not have to ask Jillian Jacqueline her story after hearing her songs. It was like, “Man, you just lived that for the past year or so, and you have a talent of writing that to words and melody to make me feel what you’re feeling. I didn’t live what you lived, I just felt it.” I tell our artists sometimes that I don’t want them to tell me how they feel, I want them to tell me what they went through to make me feel how they felt. Jillian will tell you exactly what she went through, and whether you know her or not, you went through what she did or know somebody who has. She’s never short on a lyric with great imagery and story-telling, combined with some anthemic hooks, which is just great for radio. On the female thing, I see a resurgence of females. There’s some trail-blazers in our industry – [CMT’s] Leslie Fram, who has put her hand up and decided to change the conversation, saying she’ll help these girls and give them a platform. I love it. None of the males are upset about it – let’s do it! We don’t have “CMT Next Men Of Country,” and that’s okay. I love what she’s doing, and she’s not the only one. There’s people that identify, and I think it takes a village to change that. With that being said, I wouldn’t want “Female Artist X” to be played on a radio just because they’re a female, I want them played on radio because they’re freaking great. There really are some great female and male artists that have come out this past year that are just great, and the ones that are breaking through deserve it. Their music’s connecting, and they deserve it. So, I’ve never really looked at it as a gender thing; I’ve looked at it as a “great” thing.
8. The rise of Florida Georgia Line seemed to trigger a stronger growth in the 18-34 demo for Country music and Country radio and has caused the younger generation to stick with the format. Do you see Country music belonging to younger fans now?
Well, it’s not really my say, but you know what happens to 18 to 34-year-olds – they become 35-44-year-olds. That’s really just what happens! When you look back, Rascal Flatts comes in, and all of a sudden, they captured those who were 18-34 at that time, who’s now the 35-44. Two thoughts on this: first, we had about a month-long battle introducing Backstreet Boys on a lot of realms – let’s put them on a song, on the radio, in stadiums. All of those involved were thinking that wasn’t going to work. I was like, “Guys, look! You know what’s happening to 30-40-year-olds right now? They’re having children, they’re getting married, and they start paying closer attention to what’s on their dial. You know what those people were doing when they were 15? They loved the Backstreet Boys, and they loved Nelly. And, they love all these current songs by Florida Georgia Line, because they can connect to it, for the most part. Or, maybe it’s something their kids listen to that makes them still feel young. And, it makes them say, ‘I’m gonna get a babysitter on Saturday night, because I wanna go see Florida Georgia Line!'” That’s what the Backstreet Boys have done; it’s a little current, and it’s a little nostalgia. Second thought: I am the last person to suggest this to radio, but when you look at every other format, you see Urban and Urban AC, Top 40 and Hot AC, and all of those. I thought [Big Machine Label Group President] Scott Borchetta was really smart with Cumulus when they made a radio effort for the Icon format. I really wonder if Country radio and their properties would experiment with a second station that was geared towards heritage acts. Cumulus did that, but I think it’d be interesting if iHeart and CBS and Entercom gave it a try.
9. Backing up for a minute, tell us where you grew up and how you gained a fascination for music. Were your parents influential? Were you in a band? How the heck did you get here?
It did start early. I wasn’t in any bands that I should speak of; they were just high school buddies in a garage on the weekends. I actually chose a college, because they offered me a music scholarship; I did the audition on guitar, and because I could play John Mayer’s “Room For Squares” and had jazz chords in it, I think they thought I knew way more than I did, and I was really scared they were going to ask me to play another one. It was truly the only one I knew. Then, I got a letter in the mail that said they wanted to offer a scholarship, and I thought, “Holy smokes. They are fooled!” I think the musical thing came from my mother. She was God-fearin’, church-goin’, Sunday school-teachin’, hymnal-leadin’, and I was the kid that would stand beside my mom. She also played drums in high school with the marching band, and when it came time to late elementary, when you could join a band, I was always in the percussion. I’m originally from Illinois, right on the Indiana state line, about 80 miles from Indianapolis right on I-70. So, it started there with percussion, and I’ll never forget that I had a limited music scope until about seventh grade. Then, my parents started letting me go to concerts with my first cousin, who was in high school. And by the way, I grew up in a town of 300 people. I drove 20 minutes to a town of 3,000 people to go to high school. So, my scope was super limited. I remember, every Tuesday, we’d drive to Terre Haute, IN once I started being able to pick my own music, within reason. We’d drive to Terre Haute to the record store in the mall, and I would buy whatever new album there was; I was really into Rock at the time. Then, I went through a Hip Hop phase like a lot of people do – same with Pop, but not as much at the time. I became a liner note junkie. I remember, in the seventh grade, we took Creed’s first album – the really good one, the Rock album before they crossed over to the Top 40 and started writing heavy riffs – I took it to school, and in my Social Studies class, I told my friends about the Creed album. I also took John Mayer’s “Room For Squares,” and when he came out with “Continuum” in high school, we’d trade CDs. I started to notice producers, studios, songwriters – especially when I got into Country music in college. I went to college near St. Louis, MO in a little town called Greenville, IL. I did it because I played football, and when I got there, I continued that fascination, and I called myself a liner note junkie. I bought every Country album that came out, because I wanted to know songwriters.
10. Based on where you came from, do you believe that has a lot to do with your belief in visualizing what the artist stands for? Does that derive from the idea that you love liner notes?
Absolutely. They say you get 10,000 hours to be an expert; I bet I had my 10,000 hours in before I graduated college, in that I had a close group of friends to trade music with. We’d listen to the whole album, and we didn’t do it because we wanted to be in the music industry, we did it because we were fascinated with it. We’d listen to the 12 songs they put on it, and we’d tell each other which ones were our favorite three, or which ones we thought were coming to radio next. I remember when I got Rascal Flatts’ “Me And My Gang” – I’ll never forget driving home from the Walmart with my college teammates and we put in “Me And My Gang,” and the title track came on, and I was like, “That will be an absolute anthem.” And, I never realized that, until once I got to college and studied the music business, that there’s people who do that for a job. To complement that, my favorite thing was going to live shows. I go to so many live shows; I love big choruses, big anthems, I love bringing people together to sing the same thing. I was always fascinated with that, and fascinated with how the bands would set up their stage and interact with the crowd. I loved the bands who were super tight in transitions and really prepared to entertain. I don’t think it was a coincidence that [Florida Georgia Line’s] Brian [Kelley] and Tyler [Hubbard] were the first two artists that I worked with. No one, in my opinion, gives as much energy and live focus as those two do. They want to make sure, and if they felt like, in that moment, they were supposed to get the crowd to scream, and it was half-assed that night, they’re mad at themselves. I love that mentality that they have the simple desire to entertain you, and the guy who makes the crowd scream the most, wins. That style is also not for everybody, but it’s a style I really identified with and I grew up on. I really enjoyed it, so I went to a lot of shows; I promoted shows in college – that was my job. Then, when I met Craig, I was doing that, and he saw some skillset with A&R and some live elements. Craig played drums for years – that’s no secret to his story. I just got this real belief that when great music and live intertwine, you’re gonna make some superstars. I joke around here with our A&R team, and I rattled this off one day: A big hook can launch a small name, and a small hook can kill a big name, but when a big name finds a big hook, that’s how superstars are made. That will never, ever, ever stop. That will always be the biggest artist in our format, because it’s the nursery rhyme mentality – when you turn on the radio, if it’s keeping your attention, and you wanna find out who it is, then they come out with another big one, and their name starts to resonate, that’s where it happens. You can’t ever assume that your name will make a song great. We preach that to our artists, which is difficult, especially for the people who write their own music. You gotta believe what you’re singing at all times, that’s what I tell the artists. I don’t want them singing something they’re not believing. Better is always better.