Group restructures operations for country entity

Warner Music Group is restructuring its Nashville operations to put the company’s diverse holdings under the oversight of newly appointed Warner Music Nashville prexy John Esposito, who previously headed Warner’s WEA Corp. distribution arm.

Aimed at grabbing a bigger piece of the country music pie being carved by Universal’s current chart-toppers Taylor Swift and George Strait, the new entity comprises Warner Bros. Nashville, Christian music unit Word Entertainment and a relaunched Atlantic Nashville label. With this reconfiguration, Bill Bennett, exec VP/GM of Warner Bros. Nashville, is exiting the company after five years.

Mike Jbara, exec VP and chief operating officer of Burbank-based WEA, is being elevated to succeed Esposito as distrib prexy and CEO.

Esposito, known in the biz as “Espo,” will direct a division whose top names include country stars Faith Hill, Big & Rich, and Randy Travis; pop-country crossover Michelle Branch and her duo side project, the Wreckers; comics Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy; and Christian performers Francesca Battistelli, Point of Grace, Diamond Rio and Selah.

Warner Music Nashville will also serve as home for Atlantic country artists. Move reflects a desire on Atlantic chairman/CEO Craig Kallman’s part to bolster its Music City A&R profile. New York-based Atlantic has had a meager presence there for years: It shuttered its country operation in 2001 and transferred such performers as John Michael Montgomery and Neal McCoy to Warner Bros. Nashville. Previously it had a brief adventure with Willie Nelson under Jerry Wexler’s aegis in the early ’70s.

Tom Whalley, Warner Bros. Records chairman and CEO, said the reorg comes as the company is focused on “expanding WMG’s presence in the country and Christian genres.”

Esposito, who had served as WEA prexy since 2002, returns to his deep label roots with the Nashville post. He joined WMG from Island Def Jam Music Group, where he served as g.m./exec VP, charged with IDJ’s day-to-day operations. He had previously served at PolyGram in a variety of executive positions.

Jbara is a 13-year WEA vet. As WEA topper, he will direct WMG’s sales, distribution and marketing, plus international management and distribution of the firm’s digital assets. He will also have oversight of indie distrib arm Alternative Distribution Alliance and indie imprint umbrella Independent Label Group.

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