The full vision for Craig Wiseman’s enterprise is coming to fruition at 1111 16th Avenue South in Nashville.
That’s where the 2015 Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee oversees his Big Loud headquarters, offering a true 360-degree artist experience with in-house publishing, management, label, and music production.
“People might demonize 360 deals,” says Wiseman on a late November morning inside the plaque-saturated walls of his three-story office building. “Although this was our first venture together [with Joey Moi, “Chief” Zaruk and Seth England], every entity came in pretty seasoned. Nobody is riding anyone’s coattail in this instance.”
Now with a staff of over 20 in the 16th Avenue complex, the Big Loud Shirt publishing group encompasses the third floor with a songwriter roster that includes Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins, Joey Moi, Matt Dragstrem, Sarah Buxton and the Warren Brothers (Chris Laneand Florida Georgia Line’s (FGL) Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard are signed for publishing with Big Loud Mountain).
Wiseman thanks longtime friend and writer Sarah Buxton for helping him realize the current business structure.
“Sarah was the only artist I ever produced,” recalls Wiseman of a 2007 six-track EP. “We had 11 songs that we threw over the fence for the label to release in 2005. Everything I feared, overthinking and all that, happened. I stepped back from that saying, ‘Never again!’ If I ever contribute that much heart and soul again, it will be a situation I have far more control of. But when you say that, you’ve gotta get your checkbook out.
“The wheels were falling off the industry that whole time. For us, it came down to: if you want to fish, you better be running a hatchery. When Seth England came along to start this new publishing model—getting good bands in clubs—the old model started working like crazy with Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins kicking ass with Blake, Luke, Jason, and Carrie cuts. Though, we still had more great songs than we knew what to do with.”
Soon, the largest-selling digital country song of all time came knocking to not only change the trajectory for Big Loud, but the modern Nashville industry altogether.
“My mother could’ve told you ‘Cruise’ was a hit,” Wiseman says. “But we were lucky that FGL was our first attempt at the new model. Here were two kids starving to death, killing themselves wearing out a Chevy Tahoe. We figured if we put out one independent single, their club date booking price would double and we would recover our investment. We were just trying to keep things simple.
MusicRow: How did FGL’s success light the fuse for Big Loud Records?
Wiseman: The whole goal was to put good music together, pay for it ourselves and do our own thing because when you take outside money, you take an outside timetable, expectations, fears and overthinking. What eventually happened with FGL was supernatural. It’s a perfect storm of so many elements coming together that is unrepeatable. You just thank God that you’re lucky to be anywhere in the vicinity when lightning strikes.
Partnering with Republic Nashville allowed us to scale up. When we partnered with Big Machine, we sold 20,000 single downloads that week. We always wanted to do a label here, but FGL exploded so quickly, you really get acquainted with the phrase “easier said than done.” We could have got greedy, but it would have been a disservice to the guys.
After we got FGL on their way [with Republic], it was Seth’s genius to go after Clay Hunnicutt to run Big Loud Records with [flagship artist] Chris Lane. People aren’t pushing back as hard as I thought they would. We’ll probably get a few more acts out there. But this [enterprise] is more than enough for me right now. We’re at a point where I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission for anything. I’ll live and die by it, that’s fine—it’s my money. I hope to piss people off and make people smile a little.
Has your success sunk in?
Behind all this, I feel like I’m in the middle of the largest practical joke ever. I literally can’t believe it all. The weird thing was when I asked Tim McGraw and Ronnie Dunn to come sing at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, they both said, “You’re not already in there?”
That honor was amazing, as was the 2014 Heritage Award for the most-performed country music songwriter of ASCAP’s first 100 years. It’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” There are some real songwriters out there, and I’m just me.
What keeps you motivated?
I have been incredibly blessed. I spent my first week in town sleeping in a van. In 2000, Almo/Irving [where Wiseman signed his first publishing deal a decade prior] sold. Before I went to BMG, I sold my catalog for million[s], yet it was the most uncomfortable time of my life. I thought, “Is that it? I’m just going to make that pile bigger?”
I was in my mid 30s—didn’t have to worry about where my next house, meal or car would come from—but on an intuitive level I felt like such an ass, using these blessings to make myself comfortable. The story in the Bible about the three individuals entrusted with wealth and one buries it while the others invest it [helped decide the next step].
All I knew was I loved songs and songwriters. So I put $1 million in a business checking account and bought a piece of property on 17th Avenue South with the intention of throwing parties. I was watching all the old publishing companies fall away and I would love to go to these parties they would throw because they brought together a community.
I love watching new artists getting their dreams and prayers answered. And whether or not I help them, just to be around them—who doesn’t need to be reminded that prayers get answered and that angels fly low? I naively didn’t realize the people answering phones would advance and realize their own dreams. Our employees are given the opportunities and in return are given the rewards. There are so many dreams coming true and people working hard. To see the look in their eyes when they catch fire is great to be around. I naively didn’t realize that [in addition to songwriters’ dreams, the] staff would advance and realize their own dreams.
In 2014, you partnered with Round Hill. Why was that the right decision?
We sold a portion of copyrights but our business is still here. I still own every song. We more or less did a co-venture going forward and kind of a co-venture going back.
The brilliance of Round Hill is they partner. They have a very effective admin and sync organization of about 20 people—and I pay very close attention to admin. I owned my own for years. They just run everything through their pipes. Ultimately, I just wanted to be left alone and to be an extremely low-maintenance partner to make us both money. We’re looking at future areas to partner with them. Since, Round Hill has made some very aggressive moves in Nashville.
Are you part of the trend of publishers being the artist developers?
When millions turn into billions, lawyers and investors come in and screw things up and then it’s left to the creative people who love the music to build it back and fix it. Shane McAnally is having major success at development, as is Luke Laird. It’s great to see.
I’m of the old school Nashville publishers who think if you care about an act, you will do anything for them to get them somewhere. That’s where artist development comes in at the publisher level.