“We launched a decade ago,” recalls Centricity Music VP of A&R John Mays, “when the music industry as we knew it was crumbling. The established labels—and I had just come out of one—were trying to figure out how to get ahead of the cataclysmic changes that were shattering the old business models. In hindsight, it was probably not the best time for someone to launch a new label. It was almost certainly not the best time to launch a new label that would be built from the ground up on a vision for relationship and patient, long-term, artist development. Not according to the conventional wisdom, anyway.”
Now, ten years later, Centricity has grown into a lean and vibrant, three-pronged indie company with label, music publishing, and management divisions that operate cooperatively but autonomously under the same roof. Though they still boast one of the smallest artist rosters and highest staff-to-artist ratios in the business, they’ve fought hard to become a serious industry contender. The recent success of Centricity artists like Unspoken (two top 5 radio singles), Jason Gray (5 consecutive top 5 singles) Aaron Shust (14 straight weeks at #1), and writer/producer Seth Mosley (Billboard’s #1 Producer of 2013 with 28 charting singles), have proved the label’s ability to punch well above their fighting weight.
So much for conventional wisdom.
“Centricity’s mission statement is Enabling our artists to create life-changing experiences for the world,” says VP of Marketing, Steve Ford. “So what does that look like in practice? I’d say our biggest uniqueness is that because of our size we can stay with something a long time. Jason Gray is a great example of someone we kept believing in for years, with maybe a success here and there, until he finally broke through to that next level as an artist with a large fan base and a growing string of radio hits. We knew from the beginning that he could reach that point, but we had to fight hard early on to get any traction. Our marketing staff would still be working a Jason Gray single a year past the date it released to radio. That’s not normal. But our philosophy has always been that if it doesn’t work the first time around we’re going to take another run at it, try another angle, try another song, keep plugging away and see if we can get a better result next time. That kind of long-term commitment is a rare commodity in Nashville today.”
Centricity quietly waded into the industry in 2004, it’s philosophy of business and ministry centered on a desire to serve artists, to surround them with a support system that would guide and mentor them as they honed their artistry and sought to amplify their reach and ministry. The company launched specifically because the label owners (who had no previous music business experience) began to ask how they could help a talented young worship leader named Jaime Jamgochian expand the reach of her ministry beyond their local church. They contacted longtime A&R guru John Mays in Nashville, and began a conversation that would eventually lead to a retreat designed to serve and encourage hard-working indie artists, and shortly after that, to the official founding of the Centricity label.
“I really think the seeds of the vision for the label came out of that first retreat,” Mays says. “Centricity has always been about developing indie artists, about pouring into people first, and worrying about the profitability later. The generosity and heart for ministry that the owners displayed was infectious from the beginning. They were almost childlike in their approach; so joyful about getting to provide this experience for people. That generosity set the tone for a very different sort of label culture from anything I had been a part of.”
“We weren’t just looking for talent,” adds General Manager Caren Seidle. “We were looking for people who would thrive in the family-like culture we were hoping to build—staff and artists alike. We said from the beginning that we didn’t want to sign anyone we wouldn’t want to have as a houseguest. That’s still true. We weren’t looking to dictate an agenda to anyone. We wanted partners. We wanted to find and sign and serve artists who already had a vision, and who believed that our commitment to their vision would help them to realize it more fully than they could on their own.”
Centricity launched with three artists on the roster, and of those three, only Downhere had a somewhat recognizable name. No one was expecting overnight success. The fledgling label poured time and money into serving those artists and dozens of indie artists as well. It was a long build, a slow ground game measured not in yards, but in inches. But innovation was encouraged, and persistence was the rule, and in time, the counter-intuitive philosophy that the label was built on began to pay dividends. What had initially been widely regarded as merely the latest in a string of independently financed but soon-to-be defunct CCM labels, had proven that not only did it have real staying power, but that it’s artist-centric approach was looking more and more like a viable alternative in an industry that had long since decided artist development was an unnecessary luxury.
“In our early days,” Mays remembers, “there was no tension between doing good work and needing to earn a profit. It was pretty pure. From the top down no one was expecting significant revenues to come in. And it was crucial to our DNA as a company that we had several years to operate in that way. We went far enough down that path that it permanently fixed our personality as a company. At some point though, if you want to keep making music, you have to transition to a more self-sustaining model. So we had to begin to grow up and learn to do good business while at the same time continuing the work of ministry and service that the label was founded on.”
As the label matured, part of the ongoing transition was driven by established artists outside of Centricity who had begun to sit up and take notice of the Centricity model. Many saw it as an increasingly attractive option. The label had been known from the beginning as a place where new artists were nurtured and developed, but it was now respected and established artists who were knocking at the door to discuss what a relationship with Centricity might look like for them. Artists like Andrew Peterson and Aaron Shust ultimately signed with Centricity, seeing the label as the sort of artistic home that could actually feel like a home. Maybe even a family. Everyone at Centricity sensed they were entering a new stage at that point, moving from being the exuberant kid brother of the industry to actually making the varsity team and being able to drive.
“I had been on a label before, and also enjoyed the freedom of releasing a few independent albums. I wasn’t that interested in being on a label again,” says Andrew Peterson, “but I sensed that with Centricity there was something fundamentally and qualitatively different. They cared. They wanted me there. They didn’t just want my record sales, they wanted me. There’s something really freeing artistically about being surrounded by people who believe in what you’re doing so strongly that they’re going to stick with you even if you don’t have a radio hit off of this record. What I love about Centricity is that for them, the bottom line is not the bottom line. They’re tenacious and innovative and willing to take chances, but they’ve never lost their vision for serving artists, and that’s the thing that keeps me there.”
In order to better serve their artists, the label in 2009 birthed an in-house artist management company, Eaglemont Entertainment. Helmed by industry vet Jeff Berry, Eaglemont currently manages seven artists. Also in 2009 the label launched Centricity Music Publishing to serve not only their artists, but Nashville’s songwriting community as well. The publishing and management arms have grown rapidly each year, helping to launch and develop the careers of writers, artists and producers alike. The most recent new venture for the company is the launching of the CentricWorship sub-label, headed by Steve Rice who oversees Centricity’s entire publishing arm. Centricity has also expanded its roster in recent months, signing established artists Jonny Diaz and Lindsay McCaul, as well as welcoming newcomers Carrollton and Lauren Daigle.
“Relationship has always been our core value,” John Mays says. “Our biggest challenge as we look ahead is how do we grow bigger and stay small at the same time? How do we keep this family feel? I think we just have to be conscious, even as we continue to expand the scope of what we do, to keep everything centered around the same questions we had when we first opened our doors in 2004. How do we help artists? How can we best take the resources we’ve been entrusted with, and pour those into the lives of artists? We’ve always had this underlying philosophy that we can do the work but only God can produce the fruit. So we just have to keep showing up, using the gifts we’ve been given to plant those seeds, and then praying like crazy that God brings fruit out of it that will produce life-changing experiences in people. Only God can do that”