Seth England’s Big Loud has emerged as a bona fide Nashville powerhouse over the last few years. He’s currently enjoying not only the year’s biggest album in Morgan Wallen’s monster One Thing at a Time but also a major breakthrough with HARDY and action on Chris Lane, Jake Owen, ERNEST and Hailey Whitters, to name a few. In this wide-ranging, candid conversation, the native of Marshall, Illinois, who built his multifaceted company with songwriting legend Craig Wiseman and hot producer Joey Moi, reflects on the story of Big Loud, the Wallen saga and much more.
How did you meet Craig Wiseman?
I started coming to Nashville to do internships and met Sara Knabe, who was Sara Johnson then. She’s now our head of A&R at Big Loud. Fresh out of college, she landed a job at Harlan Howard Songs. I interned for her for a summer, and she taught me about Nashville publishing and A&R. She had a friend who was working for Craig Wiseman at a boutique publishing company, Big Loud Shirt. They connected me with them, and I was set to come back the next summer.
One Saturday, I was pulling weeds at Big Loud. I was a farm kid from Illinois, so no big deal to me. Craig pulled up in his Range Rover with a cigar flopping out of his mouth and looked out the window. He’s like, “Hey, you’re not my gardener!” I laughed and said, “I know, I’m your intern, but you don’t have a gardener because you told your painters to do it.” He saw a kid out there pulling weeds and working hard. He sat there and stared at me for a second, perplexed, and was like, “Get in the truck, kid.”
We rolled around Music Row for an hour or two, talking. He asked a bunch about me. Our relationship grew over the years. Even when I went back to finish school in Illinois, Craig would send me demo tapes and ask me to do things for his developing acts, and I’d book them on shows and tour support. He was impressed and asked me to come back. After I graduated, I started working for him.
All I wanted to do was pitch songs, but for the first nine months, he thought I should help three or four aspiring artists on his roster. It was such a thrown-to-the-wolves moment for me. I was managing, booking and going out on the road with them. In the office, I would be around the publishing teams and the songwriters.
About nine months in, Craig announced to the company that he was going look for his next head of A&R over the next three months. I pulled him aside and said, “I want to put my name in the hat for the job. This is what I want to do.” He liked my attitude about it, but he said, “You’re not experienced enough.” I said, “What about the next three months? What’s going to happen while you’re looking?” He said, “You know what? You’re right; feel free to pitch a few songs and that’ll be your interview.”
So I start pitching. I knew I had to get his attention in the first three months somehow. There was the song “Hillbilly Bone.” It had been sitting around for nine months. Craig thought it was special and nothing had happened with it. I knew he loved that song; I took it and wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept beating people’s doors down with it. Blake Shelton and Trace Adkinswould go on to make that a big hit. Sometimes you’ve got to take your shot.
Sometimes people will accidentally “cc” everybody on a group email instead of blind copy. That happened one day during those three months, and there was Kenny Chesney’s email. At that time, only Craig would pitch to Ken. I wrote an email to him, nobody else copied: “Hey, I heard this one, I thought of you, hope you take a listen.” Put in my name and cell phone number, hit send and shut my laptop for the weekend.
I send him “Ain’t Back Yet.” I then went out with my friends that night. The next morning, my phone started ringing. I pick it up and it sounds like someone’s on an airplane. And he’s like, “Seth? This is Kenny Chesney.” I did the classic, “No it’s not.” And he’s like, “No, it is. I’m on my plane back to Nashville from St. John and I just pulled your email up on the flight and I listen to this song. I’m going to cut the shit out of this song.” I’m sitting up straight on the couch like, “Oh my god, it happens this way sometimes.” And he said, “Thank you for the pitch. If you got any more songs like that, send me more things. Tell Wiseman, good song.” And I said, “I think Craig would love to hear that from you—make sure you tell him where you got the song from.” He goes, “Say no more, I’ll call him right now.”
Ten minutes later, Craig calls me, “I just got an interesting call. Meet me in my office Monday.” I could tell he was happy. I guess I chose the right song that Kenny needed at the moment. It was a key moment for Craig and me. He was looking for someone who went after it and hustled and would play the song for the bus driver if their opinion mattered. Craig came back around and said, “Maybe the right plugger was right under my nose.” And he gave a young kid a chance.
How did the label come about?
In 2010 we meet Joey Moi, who was moving from Vancouver to Nashville. Craig and I knew we had the songs but needed artists. We wanted a passionate producer we could partner with and create a record label.
I was trying to sign Joey to a publishing deal, and SXSW comes around. [Kevin] Chief [Zaruk], who was Joey’s manager and one of our original business partners, says to me, “Meet us at the Austin Ferry down behind the Four Seasons. We’re going to go cruise around this barge for a while and everyone will take their turn.”
It’s young me, basically with Craig Wiseman’s personal checkbook, and Ron Perry [then at SONGS] and Rich Christina [then at EMI]. We all get on the boat, and I overhear Ron say, “I’ve been approved to offer you a quarter-million dollars.” I’m thinking, “Oh no.” They were getting lost in the conversation with the companies they were likely going to go with. We get off the barge and I can see them shaking hands, laughing. I’m like, “I’m out.” I walked up to Chief and Joey, “Hey, you forgot about me. Where’s my meeting?” Chief says, “What are you proposing?” I said, “Let’s start a record label together.” And Joey pops out of his seat, puts his hands out for a handshake, “Deal, done.” Chief who was also brokering the deal and commissions, was like, “Wait, that’s a lot to talk about!”
I didn’t realize that he’d be a decade-plus business partner. It wasn’t about a publishing deal. It was about the bigger play. We ended up doing a formal agreement with him. Each of us threw $20,000 bucks in an account and we started.
Florida Georgia Line was the third band we signed. It was a production deal; we’d eventually partner with Republicand Big Machine. This is 2013. I was keen on the coming of the streaming world. We felt it’s going to be a while to get built, but let’s get ahead of the game. Craig stepped up more and we launched a full-service record label; Chris Lane was the first signing there. Morgan was number two.
You threw out the rulebook from the get-go. Do you still employ some of the traditional Nashville music business in your company?
Yes. One of which is the song. I know it’s a cliché, but everything starts with a hit song. Maybe we’ve been nontraditional on the marketing and promotional side of things in the last five years. We’ve been trying to be progressive, to think critically and differently. Our songwriters are walking the hallways all the time here and it’s one big family.
There is a camaraderie both at your company and with your artists. Where does that come from?
Myself, Craig and Joey. The three of us are reflections of camaraderie and appreciation for each other and culture and how much we care about it. We hang out on the weekends and treat each other like family. That was the way it was from the start.
When you see acts take each other out on tour, there’s no business behind the scenes that causes that. Our acts don’t always take in-house acts on every slot because they have friendships outside of our building, naturally. But most who came through this building got help getting built by touring with other acts in the building.
Most people want to give back. So, it’s not awkward for me to text Morgan or Hardy or whoever’s going out. I did it last week. I saw Stephen Wilson Jr. playing at CMA Fest and I knew he was amazing. This guy’s going to be an entertainer for some time. I texted Hardy about it. It’s not, “Oh, you want me to take Stephen because you’re affiliated with him somehow.” There’s trust, and if he wasn’t into it, he’d say so. Unsurprisingly, he was already well aware and loved Stephen’s music and was looking for a time to integrate it at some point. That’s not uncommon here. Artists break artists. Fans want to know who other artists like.
You’ve embraced diversity and have a vibe… a sound. Is that what makes something Big Loud?
Joey is proud of the evolution and variety of sounds we’re now creating. Early on, no pun intended, it was a big and loud sound. Joey would use the translatable elements of his rock productions and mix them with country. It was fresh and different, and it dominated a decade. Joey is so smart and has this rare ability to read the times, the evolutions of new sound, and not let it affect what he’s doing in the studio. He had a new and interesting challenge; he’d meet Jake Worthington from Texas. A traditionalist. He’d meet Hardy, who wanted to rock and roll. So, we started a rock label. Now Joey’s starting to help produce some rock bands. He’s now evolved. He didn’t stick with a Joey sound. The biggest compliment he could get right now is “Wow, you guys have diversified sounds.”
Morgan is a unicorn. Doesn’t matter what genre, he’s a unicorn. What is it about Morgan that people respond to?
His authenticity. What you see is what you get. He’s truly who he is and fans love that—and, of course, primarily, his talent. He’s been going through some vocal strains and troubles. I’m trying to keep him in top-notch form. But when he’s at his best and strong, I’d put him up against nearly any singer. He’s as good as it gets. And he’s got some unique tone. The minute it comes on you know who that is.
He can get as passionate about an outside record as the one he wrote. That’s rare. Morgan, like all our artists, has a talented set of ears. I’ve said he could be an A&R guy if he wanted to. He’s been a sponge and learned a lot from his relationships—some of his best friends are songwriters, so he’s in that scene all the time.
There are definite hip-hop influences in Morgan’s music…
Morgan is a rap fanatic. If Moneybagg Yo puts an album out, he knows all 20 songs within the first two hours. He likes alt rock; he loves The War on Drugs. He is a real music fan, but hip-hop is an absolute love of his. When you watch him listening, he’ll giggle every four bars at the wordplay and clever imagery—that comes from a songwriter-appreciation place, lyrically. He also loves beats, and it crept into his music.
He was becoming friends with Lil Durk and daily message friends with Moneybagg Yo. Some of these rappers were reaching out to him. They liked his music, and it caught him off guard. Of course, country and hip-hop have had collaborations before, but mostly with Top 40 rappers. But most of the rap that Morgan loved was harder, not as pop. He loves Southern rap, Memphis rap in particular.
Durk and Morgan like each other. They come from opposite backgrounds, opposite worlds, really, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s hilarious and genuine. This [year], Durk called Morgan on the “Stand by Me” record. Morgan loved it, so he jumped on it. The kid loves a challenge: “Let me try to make a piece of music that’s accepted by the hardcore country audience, yet they’re listening to a new artist they’ve never experienced.”
As a manager and label, how do you balance beyond the music when it’s about the music?
Control what you can control. No one in our organization flinched [when the Ring camera incident broke]. We said, “Wait a minute, something’s off here. Let’s talk to this kid and see what’s going on.” There were a lot of deep conversations behind the scenes, [acknowledging that] we control what we can control and holding each other accountable every day to do that. Making music, writing songs—you can control that. It’s a form of release when you’re feeling frustrated and things aren’t going right. When you go through what he did, it takes patience after you start doing the right things.
He’s happier now. He’s making a lot of music behind the scenes with friends, and it lights him up. He gets genuinely excited when anybody sends him a demo that he’s fired up about. Naturally he’s one of the most transparent storytellers and singers. Nothing’s off limits. He’s written songs like “Livin’ the Dream” and talked about some tough stuff in verses.
The song “Dangerous” says, “Hit my head in the back of the cop car window.” It was a true story. He wrote it the day after he had gotten a disorderly conduct charge and had to take a ride downtown. He got out the next day and went home and was sitting on his back porch. Most people would’ve picked up their phone and called their friends or family. He picked up his guitar and wrote about it with Ern the next day.
I’m not glorifying him for getting in trouble. Morgan’s ability to be transparent in his music, including sharing his struggles—fans go crazy for that. I admire it. It’s a relief telling who you are.
The second point is this is what you do, not who you are. You hear athletes talk about the commitments they have to make and their public image. With artists it’s tougher to know the difference, because the biggest artists want to be celebrated for authenticity.
Maybe there’s less space between, but still, this is what you do, not who you are. You are Morgan Wallen, my friend. HARDY might have it easier because he goes by HARDY. We call him HARDY sometimes when we’re hanging out, but often you’ll hear “our friend Michael.” Ernest, God knows we got plenty of nicknames for him. If you really know him, you call him Snow.
Morgan’s not worried about the outside world. I’m talking to my friend Morgan from Sneedville, who I met a long time ago, before this happened. All artists deserve and need that separation. A lot of people can’t fully grasp and comprehend the difficulties that come with a public image. Going out for a burger and fries now takes a second thought.
Over the past couple of years, is there anything you would’ve done differently?
I’m sure there are, but I try not to regret the decisions you make in the moment. I knew I had two equally important hats to wear. One was as Morgan’s friend. When the world came down on him, who was going to care about him, believe in him? But then there’s the company-leader hat, to set the standard for what’s right here. Even though the process was tough, our company came out stronger and better.
We celebrated Juneteenth, marched in the Pride parade. We’ve never had a moment of questioning—that’s who we are. Over time people will realize that everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that’s the end of their story. Those who knew him understood that. He was dealing with the world coming at him a mile a minute and it’s a hard thing to relate to.
It’s about tough love and belief. There were tough conversations within the industry—including with folks who project their opinions without much knowledge. I didn’t maintain professional composure every time, but we got through it and learned a lot. Sometimes I get calls from people who get in some trouble and feel hopeless. My experience has been able to give people hope. It’s okay, breathe. Tomorrow will come. Make a new decision tomorrow.
What’s on the horizon for Big Loud?
We are aggressive entrepreneurs and our expansion into rock has gone faster than our country label did. We hired Nate Yettonand Sara Knabe. Nate, who has a deep love of Americana and folk, has signed four acts. We’re branching out in that space. I’m absorbing, on a macro music-business level, how Latin and Afrobeat, along with country, are genres that are increasing the frontline. I’m eager to meet entrepreneurs in these spaces and learn more about the emerging subcultures, because that’s what country is, in a way.
How do you recognize “special” in an artist?
One of the hardest things to do is intellectualize creativity, but you know when you hear it. I once heard somebody say, “A&R is like showing up to work every day and having 60 pieces of steak laid out in front of you. They’re all amazing, cooked near perfection. But then you take a bite of the special Wagyu and go, Wow, now that’s a steak.” I want the whole thing even after I just ate 50 of them. It’s the same wading through a folder of songs—there is truly a difference between good and great.
Has the streaming world changed the importance of touring in any way?
Yes. With algorithms today, we can find that fan and tell them about our new merchandise drops, new touring plans and when we’re coming to your city and have so much information on those people. But touring needs to be there from the get-go. You can see it in data. Who knows, in five or 10 years maybe there’ll be some technology that’s makes it silly to go on tour, because fans can put the headset on and watch you whenever they want. For now, live music reigns supreme in terms of validating yourself with the fans. We’ve seen acts who’ve never set foot onstage get record deals. When it’s time to go do something, they don’t know how to do it.
Hardy and Ern are making bank as writers. Is there any temptation for them to stay at home and write songs?
I don’t think the motivation is financial. Their artist careers and touring careers from a financial standpoint could churn more because of the nature of the business.
They’re both married. Ernest started a family with Delaney. He has a son, Ryman, and he’s a good dad. Hardy’s a great husband. But they do both enjoy being on stage and they have support from home. It’s a healthy balance. It’s who they are. They both came up as Nashville songwriters. They each own their own publishing companies now, so we’ll be talking about them for a few more decades to come.
I see so many country acts opening bars, creating booze lines, clothing lines, etc. But all your acts have stayed focused on music and touring.
Be patient. The partners at Big Loud are avid venture investors and all about private-equity deals. We’re managed by Plus Capitalin L.A., and we’ve ushered our bigger clients in with growing profiles. We don’t always approach that like a cash grab. Less can be more. There are a few things coming, so stay tuned. There could be some fun moments ahead for a few acts on the roster. Those don’t come around often, so patience is required on both sides to get to that point.
You have some fine folks at Big Loud.
I’m far from the smartest person at Big Loud, and that’s the way it was meant to be. Our SVP crew, [SVP Marketing] Candice [Watkins], [SVP/GM] Patch [Culbertson], [SVP Promotion] Stacy [Blythe], Sara and [Big Loud Rock President] Greg[Thompson], they’re absolute killers, and the crew they’ve recruited are too. Just like our artists have camaraderie, our staff does too. That’s the secret sauce. Artists have to love each other; staff, as much as possible, needs to intertwine. I’m thankful—I’m getting ready to take some baby time. Two years ago, I would not have been able to do it and feel good about stepping away. But as solid as our artist roster is, our staff roster is equally as solid. I want to give them all the love in the world, and I wouldn’t be having this interview if it weren’t for them.