On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.
Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.
For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.
Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.
Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.
Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.
Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.
More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.
Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.
Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.
From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.