NoiseTrade One-on-One

Label In Residence: New West #1 – John Allen

We’re so excited to be launching our new Label In Residence series with New West Records. With offices in Nashville, TN and Athens, GA and an impressively stacked roster of young bands, established artists, and legendary heavyweights, New West has consistently released some of the best Americana, rock, country, and singer-songwriter records of the last two decades.

Find out more about New West Records (including new releases, tour dates, and videos) here:

To kick things off, our first Label in Residence interview is with New West’s president, John Allen. Read on to get his perspectives on the label, their current (and future) musical vision, what they look for when signing an artist/band, and much more!

NoiseTrade: To set the stage, give us a little background on your extensive career in the music industry and the story of how you first got connected with New West Records.

John Allen: My Dad was a musician and had a career in radio, so I was always around that. I also DJed at radio stations starting at the age of fifteen. While a music major in college, I interned at Capitol Records Nashville just as Jimmy Bowen started running it and that led to an A&R job there. Capitol in 1990 was a good place to learn about the record industry as there were still legendary artists like Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, and Barbara Mandrell on the label, but there was also the “new traditionalists” crop of artists like Garth Brooks starting out. That was exciting to watch unfold.

While scouring Music Row for songs for artists, I became enamored with the diverse independent publisher Bug Music. I ended up working there for twenty years because Bug (and later when merged with BMG) allowed me to work with artists-songwriters of all genres, while still being based in Nashville. Looking back, the caliber of writers at Bug then was stunning. Buddy Miller was one writer in particular that I worked with early on who I helped secure significant cuts. When he signed a label and publishing deal with New West, I lobbied hard for Bug to administer the New West publishing catalog mainly to continue working creatively with Buddy.

NT: One of your first huge tasks as New West’s President was opening the label’s Nashville office and transitioning operations from Los Angeles. What were some of the main reasons behind the move to Nashville and what were some of the biggest challenges in a move of that size?

Allen: It was a massive undertaking to shutter an entire working office and then build a new one, while simultaneously releasing and promoting our current records. It was all worth the move though. The executive and artist talent in Nashville is unparalleled right now. In addition to the stalwart Americana and country music here, the rock and pop scene is also very robust. It made financial and logistic sense on several levels, alongside proximity of talent, to be based in Nashville.

NT: What do you feel are some of the main tenets of New West’s current musical vision, especially as it relates to what New West has done in the past?

Allen: The perception of New West has broadened with recent signings. The Americana genre by nature will of course continue to evolve, but we aren’t solely an Americana label. New West has built a solid foundation on heritage artists and newcomers that don’t compose music just to fit the commercial music marketplace. True art and commercial success aren’t mutually exclusive and through strong, focused A&R and creative marketing, we intend to enable musicians to achieve both. New West is unique in that it has remained autonomous in an extremely challenging music business climate and that allows us to champion our artists in ways many other labels don’t.

NT: After you joined up with New West, what was one of the first releases that made you feel like you had made the right decision and where headed in the direction you had envisioned?

Allen: The first couple of signings were renowned pop artist Ben Folds and the unclassifiable new rock band All Them Witches. Having our staff work those projects and see success was a turning point.

NT: This year has seen some incredibly impressive and widely celebrated records from artists who have released their first New West album. Whether it’s young acts like The Secret Sisters and Sammy Brue or established icons like Rodney Crowell and Justin Townes Earle, what are some of things New West looks for when signing an artist?

Allen: We really just want to put out records that matter. The hardest part of this job is saying no to certain projects that are appealing for various reasons but don’t fit our timeline or staff resources. There is no one-size-fits-all descriptor for potential New West artists, but it helps to have a strong sense of self that is evident in their craft, a dedicated work ethic, and usually the sense they are going to create compelling art regardless of their circumstance.

NT: Finally, looking back over the label’s entire catalog, do you have a few favorite New West album recommendations from before and after you came on board?

Allen: It’s tough to choose favorites but I’m partial to the Buddy Miller and Jason Isbell catalogs. The whole run of new releases this year has been fantastic as well.

When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t doing the Chicago promenade, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack