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Joe Galante didn’t want to come to Nashville, and when he got here Nashville didn’t want him either.
It was 1974. Galante was 24 years old and a New Yorker to his core. Raised in Queens, Galante went to college at Fordham University in the Bronx and then landed his first job with RCA Records’ New York office as a budget analyst.
Galante was earmarked as an up-and-comer, and RCA leadership wanted to send him to Nashville to work in the company’s country and western division, as it was called at the time.
But the prospect of leaving his beloved New York and working in Nashville wasn’t exactly appealing. When Galante flew down for a meet and greet with his would-be boss, legendary Music Row producer and executive Jerry Bradley, it didn’t go well at all.
“It was that whole, ‘Oh, you’re from New York’ thing,” Galante said, recalling the meeting. “He didn’t like me, and frankly I didn’t like him very much at first. So I went back to New York and thought, ‘That’s that. I won’t have to go there.’ “
But to his surprise, RCA executives still wanted to move Galante to Music City, a decision that altered the course of Nashville’s music industry.
Fast-forward four decades to 2018 and Galante, now 69, has carved out one of the most consequential careers in the music industry.
He counted Music Row icons such as the late Frances Preston and Chet Atkins as his mentors. He learned to love country music from intimate experiences on the road and in the studio with legendary artists Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton.
And when he left as chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville in 2010, Galante could rightfully claim he modernized the business side of country music and played a central role in Nashville utilizing music as an export to help garner a plethora of “it city” accolades.
His one-of-a-kind career didn’t end eight years ago, and Galante is very quick to point out, he hasn’t retired at all.
Since leaving Sony, Galante helped launch a new bank, led the creation of the Entrepreneur Center’s Project Music incubator program, co-chaired the city’s Music City Music Council and oversaw massive growth of the CMA Foundation. He’s invested in an array of music tech startups and recently joined the board of directors of a pharmaceutical company.
Galante says he’s focused on giving back to the town that gave him so much.
“This town gave me more than I can repay,” Galante said in his crisp and unmistakable New York accent. “I want to hold this town up. I want to hold the banner high and do what I can to say thank you.”
The constant student
Galante said he “didn’t know there was a music industry to work in” when he graduated from college and scored a job as a budget analyst for RCA Records. The entry-level job was supposed to be spreadsheets and accounting, but Galante befriended a veteran executive who worked in the promotion division named Frank Mancini.
“I would ask him if I could just kind of sit on the couch in the corner and observe. So after my work was done in the evening, I’d go over and hang out,” Galante said.
Galante learned how to promote records, and then how to package and distribute albums. Before long, the hard-charging Galante was learning all about the industry he didn’t know existed.
His curiosity and appetite for learning are traits that served him well throughout his career.
When veteran Nashville banker Ron Samuels asked for Galante’s help launching Avenue Bank in 2006, the Sony CEO said yes. Samuels said having Galante on the bank’s board of directors was a natural fit because the bank planned to focus on the music industry.
“Having Joe as a founding board member meant you could get your foot in the door in any meeting,” Samuels said.
Galante didn’t just focus on music industry banking. He fastidiously studied all aspects of banking and regulations, Samuels said. Galante currently serves on the asset liability management committee of Pinnacle Bank, which bought Avenue in 2016.
“As we got to know each other better, I found out how accessible and available Joe was. He brought a whole different view of business and dealing with negotiating, which was great,” Samuels said.
“He is exceptionally smart in the way of gathering information in a totally different industry. He spent time to learn how banks work, how we make money, how we invest in the bond industry. He studied asset liability management, things way outside what he was used to dealing with, but he was extremely dedicated to building the bank.”
In his own words, Galante said he “always wanted to be learning,” even up until the day he stepped down as chairman and CEO at Sony.
The intimidating boss
If an appetite for learning accelerated Galante’s ascent through the music industry, his leadership skills earned him respect as a top boss. Before he turned 30, Galante was a top vice president of the Nashville office.
Before he reached 50, he led RCA Nashville and then spent four years as the global head of music for RCA in New York. In that role he signed industry titans Wu-Tang Clan and Dave Matthews Band to major label record deals.
Galante said he was demanding of his employees, recalling a phone call from a New York executive telling him to lay off staff to cut costs.
“I told him, ‘There is nobody to fire. You don’t need to tell me to fire people. Anybody who isn’t good enough, I’ve already fired,’ ” Galante said.
Jennie Smythe, founder and CEO of the digital marketing firm Girlilla, recalled an especially stressful meeting with Galante when she was a young executive. Smythe painted the picture of an intense but cool Galante, who carried himself with the steely calm of a young Al Pacino. Even though Galante has an average build, he maintains a presence that commands the room.
“I basically went into a meeting and wasn’t very prepared,” Smythe said. “He basically knew more about what I was talking about than I knew. So he did me a big favor because I got better at my job, but I was kind of embarrassed about it.
“I don’t want to say scary is the right word, but he’s very intimidating because he’s always so calm and collected and always has his stuff together.”
Last year Smythe co-chaired one of Galante’s post-Sony passions, the CMA Foundation, which has raised over $20 million since 2011 for music education in public schools.
Galante’s eyes light up when he discusses the vital work of the CMA Foundation, which is largely funded with money raised during the CMA Music Festival. It’s the same passion he displays when recounting inking Alabama, Clint Black or Kenny Chesney to record deals.
“I don’t think people understand or make the connection that the money raised during those sold-out shows at Nissan Stadium goes to provide instruments and education to students in schools across the country,” Galante said.
His leadership role of the country music industry’s foremost charity completes the circle for Galante, who as a young New Yorker adjusted to a slower, gentler way of life in Nashville, and learned to love country music.
“I didn’t get the town, and I didn’t get the music,” Galante said.
But then Galante traveled with Parton for a promotion in New York City as she performed on a flatbed rail car when the train made stops throughout the day.
“I saw just something special. I saw how she connected with people, and I started to understand that star quality,” Galante said, adding that another powerful experience came when he spent time in a recording studio with Jennings, one of the most influential artists of his generation.
Galante more than learned to love country music. He developed an ear for a hit song. He remembers telling a top A&R executive Carrie Underwood’s song “Before He Cheats” would be a hit.
Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville and a Galante understudy, said his former boss deserves credit for modernizing the country music industry. Radio promotion, marketing and accounting all improved immensely under Galante’s watch, Goodman said.
New York-based companies previously kept a watchful, and sometimes overbearing, eye on Nashville country label operations. But Galante changed that.
“They gave me the freedom to run the business the way I needed to run the business,” Galante said, remembering that under his watch, the industry dropped the name “country and western” to describe the genre and switched to simply “country” music.
“I think more than anything, Joe deserves the credit for modernizing country music. This age of artists selling out stadiums and arenas and playing on late night shows, that all started in large part because of Joe Galante,” Goodman said. “And the truth is, we are still feeling his influence.”
Reach Nate Rau at [email protected] or 615-259-8094 and on Twitter @tnnaterau.
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