Gain deeper knowledge through our adaptive insights™ communities. See the world through your customer's eyes.

Back To Views

Music Branding in 2019: Brian Nolan, SVP – Capitol Music Groups

September 13, 2019

| Bill Gullan |

Brian Nolan, SVP of Capitol Music Group, joins us today on the Real-World Branding Podcast. Brian oversees seventeenfifty, the in-house department of brand partnerships and all sync licensing. Capitol Music Group (CMG) is comprised of Capitol Records, Virgin Records, Motown Records, Blue Note Records, Astralwerks, Harvest Records and Capitol Christian Music Group, as well as Capitol Studios and the company’s independent distribution and label services arm, Caroline. Capitol Music Group is based in Hollywood, California in the iconic Capitol Tower. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating! 

Podcast: Download Subscribe: iTunes RSS

Podcast Signup


Bill: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch brands, your petite brand consultancy. Thank you for joining us. Brian Nolan today, SVP at Capitol Music Groups. He works in the iconic Capitol Records offices in Hollywood. His not only career progression is an incredible story of sort of grit and passion, and you can palpably feel his energy coming through the phone line here. But a lot of this, all of it really, was occurring against a backdrop of significant change which will continue, and is continuing, in the music business in terms of how artists get noticed, and how a monetization happens, and how partnerships are struck, etc. And Brian’s going to take us through all of that, not only his career development but what he’s doing day in and day out. His group leads partnership development efforts for Capitol and their related labels. Tons of big names that we’d all be familiar with across Motown.

Bill: We’re speaking with Brian Nolan who’s a Senior Vice President of Capitol Music Group coming to us from sunny Southern California. Brian, thanks for being with us.

Brian: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it. Glad to be here.

Bill: Our pleasure. And we were talking beforehand, I mean you’re in the iconic Capitol Records building, which I think you were saying there’s some data about how well recognized that is within LA.

Brian: Yeah, no it’s wonderful to walk into a building at your place of work that has stood the test of time and home to some of the most, just iconic recordings, and the Capitol studios on the ground floor. And just to work in a building like Capitol Records that has so much cache and so much history and so much creative prowess. It’s wonderful. And certainly don’t take it for granted.

Bill: No, awesome. And before we get there, and I can’t wait to hear your perspective on how the music business has changed and where that leads a marketer, take us if you would, a little bit through your own kind of backstory. I know we were talking a D.C. Guy from back east, but how’d you get to where you are?

Brian: So I grew up in D.C., went to school at James Madison in Virginia and around my… I always had an affinity for music. I think growing up in D.C., really gravitated… They had a number of iconic radio stations such as WPGC, WKYS, and WHSS on the alternative side. So we were really blessed with this incredible curation of music from these iconic radio stations and that really developed my love for music. I gravitated a lot towards the hip hop and urban music side. And then in college was able to get a couple key internships and get exposed to the music industry in a way that was just honestly life changing for me. The first one was an internship with Arista Records at their regional branch, and back then there was all of the majors had branches where they’re across certain regions of the country where their sales staff was, where the video promotion staff was, and they were servicing the record outlets and the radio station.

Brian: Those regional offices are long gone, but it was a really great first entry point in the D.C. area to get exposed to that from a local level. And then in the summer of 2001, I interned at Rawkus Records, which was a seminal underground hip hop label, home to artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli and a number of others. And that, I lived at the NYU dorm and worked at Rawkus that summer and that really was the first foray into thinking, wow, this can actually be a job that is at the pinnacle of creativity and culture.

Brian: And that resonated with me and really took a tone for going back to my senior year saying there’s no other industry that I want to work in outside of music period. And that really was… I wasn’t going to any job fairs. I wasn’t going to any interviews that weren’t related to music. And I decided that I was not going to take a job unless it was in the music industry. So that being said, I graduated without having a job. And it took me around five months after graduating, and I landed a mail room job at the BMG office where I interned with Arista in D.C.

Bill: Nice.

Brian: So after a four year university, I told my parents I successfully landed a job coordinating a mail room, which I worked at for a year and a half.

Bill: Probably not as simple as it sounds. Yeah.

Brian: No, certainly not. But it was a great way of entry point and there is no lower level to start at than the mail room. They also gave you a sense of how the branch worked, and how you could interact with everybody. So that set my path, and then I quickly learned that radio promotion was something I wanted to do. And I landed a job at Sony Music and Columbia Records in 2005 in the rap department and worked with such artists as Three 6 Mafia, John Legend, a host of many.

Brian: And then just to fast forward a bit, what I’ve been able to do in my career is really navigate through a corporate system. So a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit in the corporate world is kind of my forte of saying, I’m not going to be pigeonholed into just doing one discipline such as radio promotion. I also want to create a sports marketing department. I also want to do creative content. I also want to develop shows. And then I was able to do international marketing.

Brian: So I had a number of different verticals that I was eventually excelling at and that really set the tone for how I’m able to work now. After spending 12 years at Columbia Records, I spent the last two years at Capitol Music Group, which has been an incredible experience. And I run the division across film, television, video games, sports, as well as the brand partnership division, which is, in this current world of the music industry, I argue the most exciting place to be.

Bill: Yeah. And so what a ride. I mean, beyond just the sort of starting at the bottom, progressing through your career, you’re doing this against the backdrop. I mean, listen, every industry has changed to some degree because of technology, because of the internet. But very few probably more than music. And talk about that ride. I mean when you started, you’re talking about radio partnerships. This was getting music into the hands of DJs who are known locally and regionally as being tastemakers. And yeah, I guess there’s still a little bit in that, but take us through a little bit of just how the industry has changed. This is the backdrop of your career and it certainly proves a little bit of your ability to be nimble. But what’s happening? Yeah.

Brian: So it’s fascinating because I came in at the… I was in college was the peak of the Napster era. And so coming into that and really the first 13 or 14 years, it was, you were living in a post Napster era and Apple iTunes era where the downloads were king. And then eventually over the last four or five years, really streaming is taking hold, and the industry embracing streaming consumers of music and embracing streaming. So it’s changed a ton. And I think the biggest thing is that in the streaming era, the listener is king in terms of determining what is popular and what gravitates towards. There certainly are gatekeepers but less and less, I think those gatekeepers control what’s out there.

Brian: I think the really, the artist’s ability to curate their own fan base and the fan’s ability and the listenter’s ability to really tell what’s popular has been the biggest change. And we are in a consumption-based model as opposed to a transactional-based model. And that’s the biggest switch. In 2006 when iTunes was king, you really wanted the consumer to buy the song and then your job was ultimately done. Whereas now our job is to make music fans engage with our music as much as possible. And that means putting out music that fans have an affinity for, and that consumption-based model has really just taken on a life of its own. And we’re in an incredible time in the music industry for the artists, and the fan, and for the entity such as a label.

Bill: Yeah. So you alluded to it, but it used to be, there was a record, which was classic sort of anachronism for, it became a cassette, CD, whatever. And then obviously vinyls come back. But it was a record, it was a concept, and it wasn’t always a concept album, but it was a collection. There were some choices, at least initially about what you want to feature. What’s the first single, and now, I mean, it seems like it really is kind of track-driven. It isn’t… People drop mix tapes or whatever, but I mean, this is track by track stuff, right?

Brian: Yeah. I think it’s a little bit of both. I think there’s certainly, there’s a lot of album based artists with fans. I think there’s a number of artists have proven that fans on the appetite for albums. But there certainly also is a strong affinity for hit records, hit tracks if you will, hit songs. For them to really be the first entry point for fans, and what the cultural community can do to galvanize around those songs. And when you see all the time, which they, whether it’s in the social media world or involving a brand for a campaign, the way that we expose that song or that artist, it’s changing all the time.

Brian: And that’s the most beautiful thing about the music industry is that it’s constantly evolving, constantly changing. So what may have worked for a campaign 18 months ago may not even exist today. So we constantly have to be understanding the marketplace, understanding truly what our fans consume music and what they want. And that’s really made it a wonderful, again, as I keep repeating myself, it’s a wonderful time to be in the music industry.

Bill: Sure. What you spoke about, the listener being at the center, I mean obviously the availability of social media has created opportunities for artists as well to take a bit of command and express themselves, which they used to maybe do through their art and other kind of media appearances or whatever the case may be. But I mean, people’s Instagram life for example is… I mean, how does the role of the label and sort of what you’re doing compliment, or not, the artist’s own sort of brand management and their own business to help?

Brian: Yeah. So I think the biggest thing that we… the best things that we do is when we have artists that have a clear vision across everything they do. And what a successful label does, is just amplify that vision given the collective teamwork that goes into every different department of the label. So we’re able to have that vision that that artist has and take it to every place in the earth so that artists can… So that fans can be exposed to that artist. And I think that amplification is really at the core of what we do. And I think because you want to have authenticity, you want to have great music. And when you combine those things with an artist that has a very clear understanding of their brand, and that takes time.

Brian: I mean I think there’s the artist development process is still very much a critical aspect of what we do. And that takes time for artists to understand and a label to really build that up. And so I think the best cases you see are where an artist has the creativity to grow and make music and find their voice and find their brand. And then we as a label collectively work together to bring that to as many fans as possible. And that’s the beauty of what a modern day record label can do for an artist.

Bill: Yeah, totally. Another thing that probably is as important as it’s ever been, but also maybe very different is what is the role of sort of touring and performance and festivals. I mean it used to be there were certain acts, and again, not making any judgments about genre here, but you know, from the Dead to Jimmy Buffet and others not putting out new music or they were putting out some, but I mean they were touring, and they were licensing, and they were… That was how they built in many cases, incredible followership. Obviously the festival circuit’s never been stronger or more influential, but I mean, how has that, the world changed as it relates to live performance?

Brian: I think it’s a critical aspect, and I think what it does is it really shows you who your really core fan base is. Right?

Bill: Right, right.

Brian: That touring aspect goes hand in hand with artist developments. And I think if a new act is able to really create a hard ticket there, and when I say hard ticket, I mean they’re either headlining or they’re opening for a band. If they’re able to keep that hard ticket business, you can really see like, look, we are doing 800 cap rooms at this stage in the game or we’re doing 3000 venues. It’s hard fact and there’s people putting down significant money of hard earned money that they’re going to see this artist. So if you’re able to create that robust touring base, it only helps the overall ecosystem. And I think it’s as important as it’s ever been. But it’s certainly a combination of everything that goes into developing an artist.

Bill: Yeah. Yeah. So within your day to day, SVP at Capitol overseeing this in-house department of sort of partnerships and licensing. I’m not a fan of the typical day kind of question, but I mean, what does that translate to in terms of high priority items for you? And really where you are kind of spending your time and expressing yourself.

Brian: Yeah. So my number one job, and my number one team’s job is to break artists and to take campaign to the next level. And how we do that is we engage in partners across film, TV, advertising, and brands specifically to find and create opportunities to bring this music to a scalable level. And so whether it’s placing a song in a commercial or developing a campaign with a brand, or finding a right moment within a sports entity like an ESPN, we are constantly looking and having conversations with our partners to take our artist’s campaigns to the next level.

Brian: And at a time when the audience is so fractured in what they listened to and what they watch and how much time they’re spending on their phones, et cetera., the scalability of a campaign with a brand or a film or a TV show, is really critical and cuts through the clutter to help the rest of the campaign. And I think this world of brand partnerships in sync continues to get more and more important because of the scalability that brands and networks and films have. And so that’s what we do on an everyday basis. And it’s along with that, it’s strategizing with our internal team to have a cohesive plan for our artists and to building out these campaigns that are encompassing of all different aspects. But it’s certainly rooted in artist development and rooted in finding game-changing opportunities.

Bill: Right. Super cool. So forgive my ignorance, I’m trying to find a way to get my spoken word slam poetry to get your attention. But when we think about the sequence of how something like this happens, so does Capital and colleagues sort of in whatever source folks who they think might be artistically and commercially promising. And then they say, all right, Brian, here’s our next five. What can you do with them? Or is it more organic than that? Or how does something like this normally take flight for you?

Brian: I think it’s a combination. I think we have obviously a number of records that we’re working at any given moment. And I think it’s a combination of finding opportunities for the biggest artists we have and also for our more developing artists. So it really is a combination of okay what are our needs on the artistic side and the label side. And also what do our partners, what are they looking for? Because it could be a opportunity with a partner for one of our developing acts that could scale in a way that we weren’t even thinking about. And so it’s really having those conversations both internally and externally, and weaving in our opportunities and plans to affect those.

Bill: Yeah. Super interesting. You talked about your own sort of personal journey with hip hop and having a particular passion for an emerging sort of style. Do you now cross genres or is the team broken down based on genre specialties? Or how does that sort of work?

Brian: We work every genre. And I think the beautiful thing about the Capitol Music Group is diversity in our artist’s. I mean our music group encompasses Capitol Records, Motown Records, Astralwerks Records, Caroline, Distribution, Blue Note.

Bill: Well that’s my favorite. Super cool. Yeah.

Brian: Yeah, exactly. So we’re working every single genre from jazz to hip hop to dance music. So that’s the beauty of working at a place like Capitol where you really… Sure you may have an affinity for one type of music, but you’re working across all genres, creating opportunities for artists in all genres, and being able to service your partners across all genres. And that’s the luxury of a place like Capitol

Bill: Mmhmm (affirmative). Definitely. Definitely. So you talked a little bit about the root of your sort of career development being just a love for and passion for music from a creative and a sort of artistic perspective. What are the kind of super powers, I guess that have been layered upon you over a couple of decades that have prepared you for and sort of make you as effective in this role as you are? What are some of the other characteristics that are called upon, or muscles that you need to sort of flex when it comes to being great at what you do?

Brian: I think there’s a couple of things, and I think that’s a great question. And I think it’s rooted first in a deep, deep passion for music and a passion to really believe in the artists that are on our roster and to believe that myself, my team, and the overall label can take those artists to the highest level. So it’s that true passion for music. I also think it’s rooted in a hustle of just trying to be the best at what I do. And I think that comes from my upbringing and really a Testament to the world that I lived in when I was growing up in D.C. And that hustle is a very, very critical part because I just believeD that I can be anybody, and I can out work or out hustle anybody and find opportunities.

Brian: And that has really been been almost like a North star for me throughout my career to say I understand the world of music and I know that I believe at least I can do it better than anybody else. And the third thing is really creating a team atmosphere and really be… Like one of the strongest things that Capitol has, and my department has, a real sense of teamwork and it’s very much larger than the sum of its parts. And I think that’s what motivates me is to see a collective team work towards a common goal, and for everyone to buy in and face the same direction. And I really believe that a lot of the wins that we’ve had, both as a label and as our individual department at 1750 have come because of the teamwork atmosphere.

Brian: So I’m proud of that aspect and I’ve learned over the last 17 years that without a great team you can’t really accomplish much. And I think the ability to cultivate a winning team mentality is one of my strongest assets. And I certainly have been blessed, and we have a great team at Capital now that has really bought into… From my department, what we’re trying to accomplish and having a singular vision that everybody buys into.

Bill: Yeah. Yeah. You mentioned some of the types of partnerships that seem prominent and perhaps given all of us being consumers of content may be fairly obvious. There’s the advertising piece, there’s the product placement piece in sort of movies and other, creative endeavors. Are there certain, potentially some surprising, areas of partnerships that you could create? What are some things that I’m missing or types of partners who are really kind of compelling to you today?

Brian: I think the experiential side is very compelling, specifically for Capital Records as we have this iconic building, the iconic Capitol studios. We have a back lot that we use for a lot of activations. The experiential side is really something that we tried to lean in on. And like we’ve done everything from hosting the week of all-star weekend for the NBA in LA. Two years ago we threw a party with Finish Line, Under Armor, and Beats by Dre where we had Migos perform in our back lot to kickoff Allstar weekend, which no other label can do because they don’t have the backdrop of the Capitol tower and the lot that we have. So the experiential aspect is unique to Capital in that sense. And we’re certainly looking to double down on that with our brand partners in the coming year and beyond. Because what you’re able to do is create… Money can’t buy experiences for the consumer, for the fan, for the brand. And I believe we at Capital do that better than anybody else.

Bill: Super cool. And I want to apologize, I told you during the kickoff that I think when I was playing Grand Theft Auto 5, I actually fire bombed that building. So I want to apologize. And then my son, we were on the plane last week was watching Despicable Me 3, and I saw how prominent, I mean what a landmark and to know that not only is there the iconic sort of architecture and the thrill that you get every day, but the fact that the physical plant has become a real strong experiential contributor in just creating the depth and texture of all this is, is amazing.

Brian: It’s one of the core things that we have that, I always like to play in fields that there is no competition in. So what I mean by that is like there’s no, you can’t compete with a Capital Records tower lot because it doesn’t exist anywhere. And so as much as we can engage our partners in an opportunity where there’s literally no competition when it comes to what we can bring to the table, that’s a game I want to be playing.

Bill: Yeah, no doubt. We’ve kept you longer than we promised. But last thing, and this has been awesome, we’re so grateful for your time. As you can think back, I mean I think you’ve certainly shared some of these nuggets throughout our conversation, but as you look back on the twists and turns of your own career, and I think a segment of our audience or folks who may be starting out or starting over who might be inspired by the path that you’ve blazed, any kind of words of wisdom for folks who are sort of finding themselves within the marketing realm? Or maybe they’re passionate about music and they’re not quite sure how to go about it? What would you tell the next generation of what it takes to progress in the way that you have?

Brian: Yeah, I would say for, especially the younger side, I would say really what one of my critical decisions I did was I decided to go absolutely all in pursuing music as a career on the business side and really be relentless. I can’t tell you how many times I went on interviews at studios early on or interviews for things I thought had one aspect of music in it just to see what was out there. And I think that level of going all in and really not having a plan B worked to my advantage. And it’s something that I really carry with me 17 years later. And I truly believe that that’s the fire inside of me when I was trying to get even just an interview was the same fire I have currently.

Brian: So I think it’s that level of commitment. And I also think it’s… One thing I can say is we are in the service business. We are in the service business of artists, of teams, of who I report to, who reports to me. Like I really learned that from a number of early jobs of it’s not about me specifically, it’s about the overall team. And so I’m always looking for people who have that level of understanding of part of a greater good. And knowing that we are here to serve other people, other artists, the next generation. And that level of understanding I think is unique. So I would encourage the next generation to really understand what that means to be in the service business of opportunity because it certainly has proven me and given me the reason why I do these things. It’s certainly not for my own personal gain. It’s to affect culture in a way that very few other industries can do. And that’s why I feel so blessed to be doing what I’m doing.

Bill: Yeah, no doubt. Coming from the mail room… Coming out of undergrad in Harrisonburg, at JMU, having a good time, had good times down there, into the mail room. What was it? I mean, was it just to sort of purpose around music? Belief in yourself? That takes… I’m not going to make a generational comment, but I’m not sure everyone today would view that as the way in that you obviously did. And the opportunity that you ultimately wound up seizing?

Brian: I really just believe that if I can get in the building, the rest would take care of itself.

Bill: Right, right.

Brian: Very hard to get into the building. And however I needed to get into the building was how I was going to get in. Give me an inch, I’ll usually take a mile, and I was able to have an opportunity based off the internship of like no task was too small. I mean I knew the UPS guy’s on a first name basis. I was mailing out things that you’d probably do if you were 13, 14 years old. But it gave me an understanding of how the business works at the most granular level. And so again, I’m not afraid to at any point in my career, even now as a senior vice president, do any task that’s required. And that’s what I learned from those two years in the mail room was no task is below you, and having a sense of self where you’re just contributing to the greater good of the artist is the most important thing.

Bill: No, that’s a great place to leave it. You gave us an inch in terms of time and insight, and we took a mile. So thank you for being with us and on a busy Friday.

Brian: No I appreciate it.

Bill: Yeah, this is a real pleasure, and I’m sure our audience will feel the same. Thanks Brian.

Brian: Thanks!

Bill: That was awesome man. Thank you. That was terrific. Thanks to Brian, super energetic guy. Great story. Really compelling professional in the industry is super fascinating. Not only in terms of how much it’s changed, but just what makes it tick and makes it work. So thanks to Brian for helping us understand a little bit of that through his unique lens. As always, multiple ways to support us here, which I’m sure you’re thinking about, how best can I help Bill and Catt in the Real-World Branding team? Well, I’m glad you asked because we have a couple of answers this week. They’re not new, but maybe we could do them. Maybe we could do these. This is the first is to rate and review in the podcast store of your choice. Helps us get visible, helps us feel good, or helps us learn about how to do this better. You can also click subscribe to make sure that every single time we have an episode, and we are rolling every other week here, interviews with brands and business builders.

Bill: We’ve got a bunch of really good ones in the can. We’ve got a bunch that are scheduled and planned that we have yet to record, but man, we’re going to crush it as we continue through the fall and into the new year. Click subscribe and you won’t miss a single one of those. And then lastly, feedback ideas for future guests, ways we can be better, compliments if they’re warranted. All those things are things we’d like to hear. Probably simplest to do this @BillGullan or @FinchBrands on Twitter, which is a great way, but email’s good too. Other forms of social media are good or just send a note. We’d love to hear from folks who have been listening. We love those comments of praise or criticism, or whatever those may be. We’ll sign off on the cradle of liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

Access Our M&A Branding Playbook

Click here for a step-by-step review of M&A branding best practices.


Explore Our Blog & Podcast

Gain perspective on key topics shaping brands and businesses.

Sign Up For The Finch 5 Newsletter

Five thoughts, topics, and tips to inspire you.