At times it was tough to distinguish between which John Esposito delivered the keynote speech Wednesday for the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce annual membership luncheon.
There was the media giant Esposito, CEO of Warner Music Nashville, who led the resurgence of the music label’s country music division by reinvigorating superstar Blake Shelton’s career and landing a contract with legend Kenny Chesney.
Then there was the Indiana High and Indiana University of Pennsylvania alum Esposito, bred of the local music community, there to reminisce and savor his hometown’s Christmas season celebration, albeit at a microphone before a crowd of 432 at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex at the IUP campus.
His message was a blend of “I can’t believe I get to do this” and “You can do this.”
Esposito traced his steps from his 1978 journalism degree to his rise through the ranks of The Wiz retail record store chain and his executive posts with the PolyGram label and The Island Def Jam Music Group before he signed with Warner.
But he was clearly in his element when he sat in with the Somebody To Love group, flashing back to days with local pick-up band Cimarron and the gigs at the Rusty Nail, The Coney and Wolfendale’s. “Espo” rocked the KCAC on drums on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” then strapped on a guitar and sang lead on his idol Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
As if to underscore a point, Esposito spoke a passage from the anthem:
“Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight, and I’m going to drink till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it …”
Esposito told of his friendship with Chesney — equally a student of Springsteen — that began 14 years ago, when Esposito’s family stayed with Big Kenny (of Big & Rich) at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, and they sought a safer place after an attempted break-in at their vacation house.
Big Kenny summoned Chesney for a hand in boating to another island.
“Sure enough, down at the pier, I see Kenny pull up on a dinghy after he anchored his boat,” Esposito said. “With his ball cap on he came up and started carrying our luggage to the dock. He said, ‘no, that’s OK, I’ll do it.’ He’s as humble and kind as you get.”
As a professional connection, it led to conversations with Chesney’s manager when Esposito learned of the star’s unhappiness with his label — not poaching, Esposito said — and brought Chesney’s headline-making jump to Warner in January 2018.
Bringing Chesney to the Warner stable is far from Esposito’s biggest success since the label put him in charge of Warner Music Nashville in 2009, when Warner’s country branch was “the epitome of dysfunction.”
“Holy crap, that company was a mess,” Esposito said. So he stood on his philosophy and refused to budge.
“The most important ingredient for a successful record label is to have amazing artists with incredibly compelling music,” he said.
Cleaning house (only three label bosses are still on board with Espo 10 years later), taking the unshakable position that the artists and repertoire (A&R) division decides what performers to keep and what songs to release, and propping up Shelton’s sagging career have been the underpinnings of Esposito’s success atop the division.
Shelton had charted only five No. 1 songs in eight years with Warner, “more misses than hits,” and there was talk of releasing him.
Esposito has unconditionally stood behind Shelton, “a genius … the funniest (man) on the planet,” as Warner Nashville’s flagship talent.
“He’s hardworking, passionate,” Esposito said. “If he didn’t have that Okie accent you would swear he was from here. And I’m the beneficiary of some of the craziest texts in the world.
“I told Blake and the team at our label that if we were going to make a mark, we would have to focus … he would be the future of our company, and God forbid anybody at the label question our single choices.”
With the label’s new focus and support, Shelton released 17 consecutive No. 1 hits before one stalled at No. 7, then reeled off four more chart toppers in the last three years.
“He is now at 26 No. 1 records,” Esposito said. “I know the next six radio singles for Blake Shelton, and the joy of our business is the fights we’ll have over which one’s next.”
Add to that Warner’s deals with Dan + Shay, Cole Swindell, Chris Jansen and the singer Esposito called a young “Velvet Fog,” Brett Eldredge.
That the 22-year-old Eldredge understood he was being compared to Mel Torme, and was as much a fan of Sinatra and the crooners’ generation, endeared him to Esposito.
Next on the horizon for Warner is Gabby Barrett, 19, of Munhall, an American Idol finalist who counts former Steelers coach Bill Cowher’s wife, singer Veronica Stigeler, among her show business boosters.
“Every record label in Nashville was trying to sign her,” Esposito said. Cowher talked to Barrett’s parents at his urging, Warner inked her to a deal in June and released her first single, “I Hope.”
“There’s no way it’s not going to be a number one record,” Esposito said. “And I’m telling you … she has a chance to be an artist as successful on the level of Shania Twain.
“She’s working her butt off,” Esposito later told the Gazette. “She’s got ‘it.’ ‘It’ is impossible to describe. … We believe in her and now we’re going to work harder.”
Numbers and honors bear out his impact. Shelton, Dan + Shay and Ashley McBryde earned three CMA awards on Nov. 13 and received five Grammy nominations a week later.
Warner rewarded Esposito with a contract extension earlier this month, Billboard reported.
As a guy with clout, Esposito lobbied chamber members and guests on behalf of his passions — after music.
“Many of us who have enjoyed financial success know that philanthropy is our obligation; we must give back,” he said. “I’m a hard-core environmentalist with a mission to make sure we protect our planet.”
A green program that he started in his Warner division, to rely on recycled paper and to shun all plastic, has been adopted at Warner units internationally. He also devotes efforts to conserving and protecting clean water for all purposes but especially for recreation and sporting.
Citizens’ Ambulance Service, the company co-founded by his father, is his other passion.
“You may not realize it, you are better off getting emergency care in little old Indiana than almost anywhere else on Earth because of the level of training and sophistication,” Esposito said. “Yet people take it for granted. … Funding this 55-year-old gem is imperative.”
Take out a membership, or sign up for the 18th annual Jerry and Libby Esposito/Citizens’ Ambulance Service Charity Golf Tournament on Sept. 18, he said.
For all his exuberance over returning to Indiana, Esposito wanted the business-focused audience at the chamber luncheon to understand the root of his message.
“I’ve always outkicked my coverage constantly just because I never thought anything could stop me in anything I did. I still don’t think that,” he told the Gazette. “I’m happy and lucky to work in a business that allows you to exhibit youthful exuberance. I wondered today when I was talking if people were asking ‘who is this weirdo?’ But I don’t care. I know how great this has been and how youthful it has helped me be.
“I talked to the music students in the back of the hall. One of them asked the question, ‘if you were giving yourself advice, if you were our age, what would you say?’ I said I hoped what they got was, ‘you can do whatever you want.’ I came from the humblest beginnings and all I had was a desire to be involved with music. And nothing could get in my way. It doesn’t matter if I was from New York City or from Indiana, I knew nothing could stop me. I looked a girl straight in the eye and told her, ‘nothing can stop you. If you want it, you can get it.’ And that was my point today. Follow your heart and work your butt off.
“All my passion doesn’t mean anything if I can’t deliver the numbers,” Esposito said in a Wednesday evening interview. “That includes artists on the level of Kenny, Blake, Dan and Shay. But this means in our business an insane focus on crazy, great marketing plans. Our artists can’t get enough of that. It’s just how it is. I have 70 to 80 people on my team and all are as passionate as me.
“Music is the thing that unclogs all the clutter. It is not political. Everybody loves music. And so there I was sitting in front of a room full of people who most probably were not on the political side of the fence that I’m on,” he told the Gazette. “But everybody loves music ... and has a song that takes them to a specific place and time. It just warms their heart. And I get to be involved in a business that has that life-changing difference … people get tears just hearing a song. How lucky am I?”