NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Major Changes Underway in Nashville

Record Label Upheavals Will Alter Many Music Careers

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Is this an indication that asteroids are beginning to hit the dinosaurs? Wednesday’s (April 14) upheavals on Nashville’s Music Row were the biggest since the wave of label takeovers and mergers and layoffs began in the last century.

Leaving will be longtime Sony Music Nashville chairman Joe Galante, the dean of Nashville record label rulers. Galante had been with the company for decades and built the Nashville division into a giant.

Disappearing will be Lyric Street Records, to be shuttered by parent company Disney. Lyric Street was formed in 1997 by Randy Goodman, who had been Galante’s vice president at RCA for years.

Galante began with RCA Records in New York in 1971 as a budget analyst, but soon turned out to be a music guy. He would go on to stay with the company until this week, running RCA’s national operations and then finding his true love in directing Nashville’s RCA label which — as Sony Music Nashville — also included the Arista, BNA and Columbia labels. His signings over the years ranged from Martina McBride to Wu-Tang Clan to Carrie Underwood to the Dave Matthews Band.

I must say that I find it somewhat disingenuous, if not outright thoughtless, of Sony to declare in its announcement that Galante would be staying on with the company to assist in a transition period while his successor was being sought. In fact, Galante’s replacement was announced in less than 24 hours.

Stepping in will be Gary Overton, head of EMI Music Publishing’s Nashville division since 1995. Overton is a very good music guy whom I’ve worked with in the past, and I wish him every success.

Lyric Street began with a showy launch in 1997 of the female trio SHeDAISY, three talented sisters from Utah. Alas, SHeDAISY never connected in a large way with an audience and left the label before the announcement of the label’s closure. Early on, though, Rascal Flatts came seemingly from out of nowhere to put Lyric Street on the map.

Disney does some things extremely well. Country music is not one of them. I have no doubt that Disney kept looking at the Nashville bottom line and kept seeing Flatts as the only major moneymaker at Lyric Street and grew impatient. And then finally decided to just pull the plug. Disney will move Flatts to another Disney Music Group label and keep a skeleton crew of present Lyric Street staffers on hand in Nashville. Good luck to Disney in running a country music label by remote control from California until they decide on the exact shutdown date.

From well over a dozen major and thriving independent labels in Nashville not that many years ago, Nashville now has two giants (Sony and Universal), one very prominent one (Capitol) and one still-competing major label in Warner Brothers. And there’re some thriving upstart smaller labels, such as Big Machine with Taylor Swift and Broken Bow with Jason Aldean.

And Rounder Records up in Massachusetts, one of the last thriving independent labels, was acquired the same day the changes were underway at Sony and Lyric Street. Rounder has always supported the kind of roots and Americana and slightly quirky artists who don’t want to be — and shouldn’t be — on a major record label. Artists such as Alison Krauss. The kind of artists who thrive in a smaller and livelier environment. Fortunately, Rounder was assimilated by a like-minded independent company, Concord, where Norman Lear is chairman. Concord has a very large catalog of significant pop, rock and jazz artists.

What does it all mean? These changes at Sony and Lyric Street will inevitably mean that some artists and label staffers will hit the streets, and some will end up at smaller ventures and some won’t. For Nashville’s labels, it means that absentee corporate control — exercised by executives in Berlin and Tokyo and New York and Los Angeles and London — have absolute and total say in anything the Nashville labels do. That has been so for years, but now it’s even more obvious that rule by bottom line is total and autocratic.

Do record labels still matter? They matter because they decide what music will be available and will be presented to a potential listening audience. In many ways, labels are advantageous to both artists and audiences. They are sometimes the most effective conduit between the two, one that might not exist elsewhere. Rounder, for example, has an excellent reputation for musical quality and for giving voice to artists who aren’t necessarily going to make it on a major label or online.

I’m sorry to see Lyric Street go. I have friends there and they have fought the noble fight. And they’ve been working hard to bring new music to the forefront.

And I’m especially sorry to see Joe Galante leave his command where it seemed that his would always be the firm hand on the wheel. It feels like I’ve known him forever, and he’s a good man and a good friend. Joe is ideal to be the kind of firm diplomat/dictator it takes to run a major record label in times as difficult as these. He’s been good for music and for Nashville.

If there’s one lesson that has been true for many years, it’s this: You can’t run a credible country music record label from thousands of miles away. And you can’t have a bean counter run it. If there’s not a genuine music person at the helm, that is communicated all the way through — from the company to the artists to the audience.