Welcome to Industry Insiders, a monthly feature on Sounds Like Nashville that will give fans an inside look at the movers and shakers behind the country music industry. To kick off the first iteration of this series is our chat with Mike Dungan, the Chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville. Check back every month for the next edition of Industry Insiders!
For every song played on the radio, there’s a substantial team of people who helped put it there, including songwriters, producers, record promoters, managers and of course, the artists. At the top of the music business food chain are guys like Mike Dungan. As Chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, Dungan oversees a roster that includes such superstars as Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Darius Rucker, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves and Carrie Underwood, to name a few. Under his leadership, Capitol Records has been named the Top Country Label by Billboard magazine for 10 years in a row.
“People think it’s an ivory tower job where you sit up on top, make a bunch of money and you kind of control the world. It’s not like that at all,” Dungan tells Sounds Like Nashville. “The money isn’t bad, but it’s not as much as you would think it is. It’s a very much a stressful job in that every day I show up with an agenda of what I want to accomplish. If I finish the day having accomplished 10% of that it’s a miracle because fires break out constantly. We deal with artists and we deal with the creative process. It’s not predictable. As someone once said, ‘Our product has an opinion,’ and it definitely does. Because it’s unpredictable from day to day, I suppose that’s why I like it so much.”
A Cincinnati native, Dungan knew at an early age that he wanted to work in the music industry. “I had this pipe dream at the age of 13 that I would be somewhere in the music business,” says Dungan, a tall, jovial man, known as much for his friendly demeanor as his shrewd business skills. “It was a complete infatuation with what was going on inside the local record store, and also my first live performance experience, which was with a rock band called The Rascals. It jarred me so hard and so positively. I knew the minute I experienced that I was going to be involved in some way, and I knew it probably wasn’t going to be in a performance way.”
The first step on his career path was working at his hometown record store. “I begged for that job and I would have paid them to work there,” he laughs. “I started when I was 16, went on to college, but still worked part-time in record stores until I was 25 when I went to my first label job at RCA, which was rock promotion. I started in 1979 and did that until 1987, so I worked with Hall & Oates, the Pointer Sisters, Rick Springfield and the Starship. I spent time with some of the older artists that were delightful like John Denver and a gentleman named Perry Como, who I just completely fell in love with. There were jazz artists that I loved. It was all a new experience for me. The rock and pop artists were sometimes challenging, but the ones who had big careers and went a long time, there’s a reason they had those big careers. It was because they treated people with genuine respect. It was wonderful to be around John Denver, Perry Como, Roger Whittaker and Henry Mancini. They were awesome, absolutely awesome.”
Despite his enthusiasm and dedication, Dungan admits there were times things didn’t go according to plan. He recalls an incident working with Springfield that turned into absolute chaos. “One of my small claims to fame is I broke this Rick Springfield record called ‘Jessie’s Girl,’” Dungan says of successfully promoting the song to radio and helping it become a hit. “It was not a priority for my company, and I actually got fired for a day for going off the priority page and working it—just for a day—but that record went on to magnificent heights sales wise and on the charts.”
At the height of the song’s popularity, Dungan arranged a special promotion with Springfield at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio. “I pulled off a stunt where we had Rick Springfield WNCI 98 Day,” he says of partnering with a local radio station. “People got in for 98 cents and they could see Rick and ask him questions. He was on a stage and the minute the event started, it turned into a riot. The security gates were crushed and the stage was rocking and the police were shutting it down. We all had to run for our lives.”
Dungan had to stop a 12-year-old girl from tackling Springfield. “I knew if she caught him, we were all going to die, so I knocked her down. I had to,” he confesses. “The guy that was running the zoo was an unknown guy named Jack Hanna. Of course, he is now Jungle Jack Hanna on TV.”
Dungan enjoyed his days in pop/rock, but is happy he made the switch to country music. “I was working for Arista Records on the pop side. I was doing marketing with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead and Kenny G. [Arista Records founder] Clive Davis decided to expand his company and start a country division and he hired a gentlemen named Tim DuBois,” Dungan says. “I immediately fell in love with the personality, the warmth and heart of Tim Dubois. I love the way he approached music and I love the way he just loved music. He was sharing demos with me, which was something that no one had ever done. In the pop world, no one ever does that.
“Tim was sending me cassettes of Alan Jackson demos, Exile demos and things like that. I was flipping out,” Dungan continues. “I just loved this new found Nashville experience and it turns out Tim had the same feelings about me. He wanted me to come to Nashville and run a portion of his new company. I said yes and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
His passion for music, willingness to work hard and ability to play well with others have continually served Dungan well as he rose through the ranks on Music Row to his current post. “As far as what people think of a label head, this is not a job, this is a life commitment,” he says. “We give up some personal life when you chose this business and this business becomes a big part of your personal life. It’s not normal, but it’s normal to me and it’s really the only way I could exist. My wife often says that I’m not happy unless I have at least three crazy people around me at any one time. If it gets to five or six, I’m very unhappy, but if I have less than three crazy people I’m not happy, so that’s part of what drives me.”
Dungan is proud of what he and his team at Universal Music Group Nashville have accomplished. “I’m very proud of taking a guy from the clubs of Georgia, Luke Bryan, and turning him into one of the biggest artists in the world—and certainly one of the biggest live performance artists in the world—that’s gone on to sell millions and pretty much dominate country music for a decade. That’s huge to me,” he smiles. “Taking Darius Rucker, who was the lead singer of a pop band that was so big in the 90’s that it became a joke, and helping him reinvent himself in a way that brought both financial success, critical success and dignity back to what he does and what he’s all about. Keith Urban, the mastery that is Keith Urban, just to be able to work alongside that and take that art and make it valid in the world of commerce, that’s a huge point of pride.
“To take an artist that is different and aggressive as Eric Church and to help him deliver that to a point to where it’s very much in the mainstream and very relevant to the mainstream culture, that’s a huge sense of pride. Kacey Musgraves—and I don’t know how much I or we have contributed to all of this—but Kacey Musgraves has been a very rewarding thing in the sense that she is touching people at all levels. I don’t care who they are or what their musical preferences are, when you put Kacey Musgraves in front of them, just playing the music or taking them to a show, they walk away a fan of hers. That’s huge and very gratifying. Then there’s Little Big Town who are world class singers, world class musicians and world class creators individually. You put them all together and they are unbelievable. They are four of my favorite people on the planet, even if they didn’t have any talent. And when I see Dierks Bentley, he’s someone that I love very much and I feel the love back from him. I’m full of love these days because almost every artist that I work with, I genuinely love.”
Are there any artists he wishes he would have signed to a deal? “I really admire Taylor [Swift] and I blew it when I had a chance to sign her. I thought she was much too young,” he admits. “Scott Borchetta had a better vision for it at that age. She’s fantastic. And I love Rodney Crowell. I’ve never had an opportunity to work with Rodney Crowell but I love what the man does. He was very much a mainstream artist when he came on my radar in 1988 when Diamonds & Dirt came out. We’ve watched him transform into something more organic and more genuine perhaps, but I’ve loved everything from then until now and I admire him tremendously… I missed on Zac Brown. I thought it was too much of a jam band. These are all professional misses, but I don’t have a lot of regrets.”
Dungan says people are often surprised at the different types of music he enjoys. “I have such a diverse taste in music,” he says. “Everyone who listens to my playlist is kind of blown away how it goes all over the place. I love old school country. I love the Rat Pack era of kind of cheesy lounge music. I love 70’s southern California stuff. I love 90’s country music. I love really lush pop productions like the Carpenters. There’s no music to me that’s really out of bounds or embarrassing. You’ll find me listening to ‘I Think I Love You’ by the Partridge Family. People will go, ‘Oh my God! What are you doing here? Is this a joke?’ And I’d go, ‘Nope this is a great f***** song!’ That whole Motown thing and Philadelphia soul music has a massive impact on me and the acid rock and everything I listened to as a young man.”
As passionate as he is about music, Dungan is even more enthusiastic about the people he works with at UMG Nashville. “I love the people that I work with. We have 92 people here and I’m genuinely in love with each and every one of them,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll walk by someone in their office and just get a smile on my face. They don’t know I’m smiling because of them, but each and every one of them makes my heart sing every day.”