10 People Who Can Help Break Your Country Music Career (Ranked)

Mike Dungan, Leslie Fram; Photos by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Mike Dungan, Leslie Fram; Photos by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
Mike Dungan, Leslie Fram; Photos by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

A lot of people ask me how to get started as an artist in Nashville, how to get their songs played or even how to get to the next level as an artist. These are all great/fair questions.

A little background on me: I have worked in many places, for a short time, as an artist myself. I also have a bit of management experience and experience working with record labels. Now, I am writing and working with streaming platforms and radio. I feel like I have a good sense of how to advise someone.

First, I would say that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. There never has been and there never will be. It’s art. But, I have compiled a ranking (I love ranking things) of people you should hit up to make it as a big star. I’ll start at the top and work my way down. These are the 10 people I’d try to get my music to because they have a history of changing lives of artists on all different levels.

1. Mike Dungan: CEO, Universal Music Group Nashville – He’s a whale in the industry and it will be hard to get anything directly to him. But why not shoot for the stars? If he’s ever at a restaurant, walking down the street or in the elevator in your building, it’s worth a shot. Also, I could list every head of every label or group here, but Mike Dungan is the only one I’d trust to actually listen if you somehow got it in front of him. He also has a great team that follows the same set of guidelines.

2. Rod Phillips: EVP/Country Programming Strategy, iHeartMedia – Another whale of Music City and he’s not the easiest to find. If you can get him to buy in, you are set to get some good exposure. iHeartRadio has several programs to get new artists first looks, from their On The Verge program to their weekend programming.

3. Jimmy Catino: EVP/A&R, Sony Music Nashville – If Jimmy finds you and likes you, there is a good chance that he will figure out a way to make country music fans do the same. You may not know his name, but I can assure you, he is one of the best and most respected. Find him.

4. Leslie Fram: SVP/Music Strategy & Talent, CMT – Leslie is notorious for giving new artists, especially female artists, a first look. Although she can’t break your career, she can give you a platform to be seen by others who can.

5. Darin Murphy, CAA / Jay Williams, WME – Do you want to tour? Do you want to grass-roots your career? Or do you simply want to make some money to pay the bills by living out your dreams playing music in front of thousands (probably way less at first)? If so, you must find these guys. They work for competing agencies, but are known as two of the “must-know” touring agents in town. They are also relatively easy to find.

6. Tom Lord: Head of Marketing, Red Light Management – Mr. Lord is one of the people who seems to know everyone and can match the puzzle pieces when most others can’t. If he likes you, he can find you a manager, a record label or the right touring agent.

7. Ben Vaughn: President & CEO, Warner/Chappell Nashville –  If you’re a songwriter, and you are kinda okay at it, find Ben Vaughn. Get him your music. Maybe get yourself a pub deal. Maybe get yourself some powerful co-writes.

8. J.R. Schumann: Senior Director of Programming, SiriusXM Satellite Radio – Any exposure is great and Sirius XM is known to give a lot of new acts a look, both on their weekday shows and weekend programs. He can’t break your career for you, but there have been a couple of examples of artists using Sirius XM to get a record deal or plays at terrestrial radio.

9. Charlie Cook: Program Director, Country Cumulus Media – Cumulus is the 2nd biggest radio company in the country. They aren’t known to take a lot of chances on new artists, but it’s worth getting to know Charlie if possible.

10. Brittany Schaffer: Head of Artist & Label Marketing, Nashville, Spotify/ John Marks: Global Head of Country Music, Spotify – There are a lot of playlists. Just get yourself on one. Try to get some streams and move to a bigger playlist (and then to a bigger one and a bigger one).

In the end, there isn’t one magic potion that will get you noticed, secure you a record deal or a publishing agreement, etc. The key is finding that one person who will champion you to others. This is a pretty heavy list if you want to shoot for the big guns! Good luck!