In The Tank #5: with Mike Dungan

Mike Dungan; Chairman/CEO Universal Music Group Nashville

Mike Dungan leads the most successful country music record label in the world at Universal Music Group-Nashville. He came there a couple years ago after having led Capitol Records-Nashville to its position as an industry leader. Prior to that, Mike was the head of Sales at Arista-Nashville, which is where I met him when I worked for a label acquired by Artista. At that time, Arista was the leading country label in the world and so success seems to have followed Mike wherever he’s been.

He started his career as a regional radio promoter handling rock radio stations, and eventually moved from his hometown of Cincinnati to Nashville. He’s universally liked and respected as a leader, an insightful businessman, and a champion of a diverse array of artists.

And while it’s no surprise to me that Mike places such an emphasis on the empowerment, happiness and fulfillment of those he leads, his commitment to his team holds great insight for any leader. Whether it’s a member of his staff or an artist he’s working with to build a successful and sustainable career, Mike’s focus on creating environments that inspire people to excel is instructional for anyone working with or leading teams.

Q: You got your start in rock radio promotion and now lead the biggest country music label in the world. How did that experience shape your career and inform what you do now?

A: Radio promotion is just a somewhat less tangible version of sales. In business, and in radio promotion, anyone with a brain realizes quickly that you must practice win-win. I learned to understand radio’s issues, and the issues of the people making music decisions at those radio stations. I was always on the lookout for what each station needed to succeed, and then it’s easier to show them that by programming your records that can fill those needs. Invaluable experience, it has helped me be a better partner with radio, and set a culture and a tone within my team to be on the right side of that relationship.

Q: You’ve moved from Arista-Nashville to take over at Capitol, and then to Universal. What are 1 or 2 of the most important things you’ve learned as a leader in terms of taking over the leadership of a new team of people?

A: Empowerment is everything. In all of my moves, I have made it clear on day one that I respect everyone as a professional, and as such they are in charge of their domain. They understand the mission, and with very little tethering, they are free to go forth and just get the job done. I usually only step up when I see someone off point, or about to step off a cliff. Everyone is free to screw up. Screwing up is part of being aggressive (although if you screw up too much, we have a problem). You are free to do the job your own way… and you are also accountable. But if you are lazy, or if you point fingers, or if you practice “cover your ass”, you will lose your place on this team.

Q: Your label dominates country music. How have you gone about putting together a team that can excel so consistently?

A: My people come first. There is transparency at all levels. Accountability at all levels. I will never ask you to do anything that I would not do myself. I will never give you a project, or an artist, or music that I do not firmly believe is competitive. Together we are unstoppable. Do you want to really accomplish something? This is the place to do it. The personal happiness of my staff is of extreme importance to me. Not only do I love every single one of them, but happy people do great work, and the feeling of accomplishment is the biggest contributor to happiness. We have flamethrowers at every level of this company – people who kill to give these artists careers, and put return on investment to our shareholders.

Q: What are the things you’ve found to be most important in building and getting the most out of your team?

A: See above

Q: You’ve championed some artists that weren’t part of any trends at the time they were signed, like Darius Rucker and Kacey Musgraves. What makes you most confident about the risk involved in someone doing something outside of the prevailing trends?

If you want to move the needle, you’ve got to stand apart. I never give any thought to the “fans” that wants to hear the same old -same old. Complacent, middle of the road music from artists that are simply the 2nd or 3rd copy of someone else goes nowhere, except to clog up the middle. Those artists will never sell enough music, or enough tickets, or enough anything to keep our interest. It’s just strategically dumb. If someone else is happy to have a business that is “just ok”, then by all means, have at it – there is plenty of that shit out there.. We aim at the audience that wants to participate. The audience and the consumer that I am talking about are crying for music that makes them want to lean in. I have a saying inside this building – The Difference Makes the Difference.

Q: Your artists include legends like George Strait and Alan Jackson, and newer, less traditional artists like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt. How do those legendary artists respond to newer, less traditional artists? I ask this in the context of organizations that we work with who have some long time employees who really built something, and who don’t always see eye to eye with the way younger co-workers work or view the world. It’s never an either-or, but do you ever find yourself bridging a musical or aesthetic gap?

Everyone has their own personal taste, and when that lines up with the music you represent, there’s no question that you get “more”. But everyone here is also a professional. As a collective group, I would say that we are aggressively realistic. Success is at the forefront of everyone’s mind here, and I think we are all smart enough to realize that changing times require changing methods...and changing music. Right now, the newer artists are the ones that we know we can knock out of the park. But we also represent a few incredible legacy artists who continue to make great music. That music may no longer be flavor of the month at radio, but we are dedicated to bringing everything we can to the table to help keep those artists viable and relevant. We are honored to work with every artist on our roster.