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Cody Johnson on Beating Music Row at Its Own Game

Texan underdog turned down major label deals to make his own success

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Cody Johnson logs a second-place finish with new album 'Gotta Be Me.'

Gary Miller/Getty Images

Singer-songwriter Cody Johnson has been fighting to carve out a place for himself in country music for over a decade now, but with last week’s release of his Gotta Be Me album, the rough-and-tumble traditionalist has staked his claim once and for all — and delivered another blow to the sagging major-label model of music delivery in the process.

For a little background, Johnson is a 29-year-old independent artist with six self-released albums under his belt. In the last two years, he has posted some seriously impressive numbers: His 2014 album Cowboy Like Me landed at Number Seven on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and since then his songs have been streamed over 80 million times. He’s sold half a million concert tickets and moved 400,000 singles, all without widespread radio play or major label support.

That brings us to last Friday, when Gotta Be Me debuted at Number Two on the Billboard album chart, Number One on the iTunes Country Albums chart (where it stood like a boulder for seven straight days) and Number Two on iTunes’ all-genre album list, selling more than 23,000 copies in a badly slumping market — again with no major-label backing.

Putting that into context, the week’s top spot is occupied by megastar Blake Shelton, who discounted his If I’m Honest album to the basically-free price of 99 cents for the week and enjoys a massive pop-culture presence. Meanwhile, Johnson’s full-price sales eclipse the first-week numbers posted this year by established talents such as Charles Kelley, Randy Houser and Martina McBride, among others.

At this point, mainstream country fans might be asking, “Who is this guy?”, but Nashville’s big labels are well aware of Cody Johnson. They expected Gotta Be Me to be huge, and more than one offered him a deal to help sell it, but Johnson turned them all down.

“I think it just felt right,” he says about the decision to remain independent, calling Rolling Stone Country from his tour bus while cruising through Utah. “I went with my gut, and that’s something I’ve done ever since my rodeo days. . . I wanted to show a different avenue of how to do this. I don’t know that we’re seeing that big change that some people might like, but I do see a changing of the tide of how things go. And I think enough people have been told ‘no’ that there’s a group of us that are kind of putting our hats down and going ,‘Well, fine. I’m just gonna chase this thing myself.’”

Johnson’s grassroots following has been built through hard touring and authenticity (he really is a former rodeo rider who once held a job as a horseback prison guard), and he never set out to follow in the footsteps of recent DIY hit makers like Aaron Watson, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Like almost all artists, getting a major label deal was originally the goal. “Never in a million years did I think, ‘Man, we’re gonna get to that point, and we’re gonna make the decision not to sign,’” he explains.

But by the time Johnson started attracting major label attention, he felt like there wasn’t much a major could offer him. He already had an established his brand, his nationwide network of fans and a strong social media presence, and since most music is now sold digitally, more pathways to success are open.

With the support of his band and team (and after convincing his parents), Johnson decided to take a shot. But that shot wasn’t aimed at the big league labels.

“This title, Gotta Be Me, and this whole independent artist thing is not a shot at, ‘We can do this without you.’ That’s not what this is about,” he cautions. “I respectfully declined those deals because I just felt like if I worked a little harder, and I reached out to the right people, that maybe I could help promote it myself. Maybe I could hire the right people to do some of the same things as a record label.

“I felt like if I hadn’t tried to do this independently, I would have laid in bed every night for the rest of my life going, ‘What if I had done it by myself?’” he says. “And I didn’t want to live with that every day.”

With the decision to stay independent made, the nail biting began. Johnson believed in himself, but he still worried that he had just led his team “off a ledge.” He describes his thought process as “big bug/little bug” and says he wasn’t necessarily trying to be the David to Music Row’s Goliath, but that’s exactly what happened.

Outperforming every single release (minus one discounted album) to become the week’s second best-selling title, Gotta Be Me provides another round of evidence that major labels no longer hold the sway they once did over the music business. But does that mean they’ve become obsolete? Is dreaming of a major label deal overrated?

Johnson’s not so sure.

“I don’t want to say overrated,” he explains. “I think for a guy like me in my position, they’re an option, but what’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. I’ve got several friends that are on major label deals that love it. They’re very happy, they have great lives, they’re seeing the success that they want to have and they’re treated very well. I’m not saying that any part of this industry is the devil. For me and the fan base that I brought in, and the amount of support we had and the people we had on our team, I just didn’t feel like it was the right move to make.”

With new opportunities popping up by the hour, it’s now pretty clear that Johnson made the right move. What he does next will take some more planning and reflection, so for now the scrappy Texan is content to savor his victory — a big win for the “little bug” and another step into the future for country music.

“To see yourself on that chart with that many artists that you respect, I really can’t put into words,” he says graciously. “I all I can say is I give the glory to the good Lord upstairs. And I don’t really know what to say about those numbers from the first week of album sales other than my favorite Thomas Edison quote, which is, ‘There is no substitute for hard work.’ That’s what me, my band and my brand are about.”

In This Article: Cody Johnson

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