“Good luck trying to find someone to sign this contract,” remarked the label representative.
Cody Johnson knew his demands were unusual. Artists may want complete creative control when they sign with a record label, but they rarely demand it. And yet, Johnson insisted upon it, leaving that record representative incredulous. For years, labels approached him, and his answer was always the same: as his 2016 album title states, he’s just Gotta Be Me.
“You don’t work for 12 or 13 years to give up all you worked for,” said Johnson in a phone interview. He built his career as a completely independent artist, which is not easy to do. Being an independent means accepting the financial burden of producing a record (including pricey studio time), marketing yourself to venues and simply honing the expertise to “make it.” He released five albums this way, which would mean a career under the radar for most, but Johnson’s did well. Two of them made it to the Billboard top 10, and whichever venues he booked across the U.S. he usually filled.
His career goal would take a lot of time and effort, but Johnson was willing to be patient. “Society sort of expects instant gratification,” he said. “The real world doesn’t work like that.”
Growing up, Johnson’s real world in Sebastopol, Texas was always surrounded by music. His family all played instruments, and it was commonplace to sit around and play their favorite songs together. Texas was filled with a rich music community everywhere you went, whether it was a Friday night at the local bar or Sunday morning service. He was 18 when he started to play in the local bar scene, where his sense of performing passionately began.
“I sang every show as if it were my last. It didn’t matter if no one showed up,” Johnson said. “This is what I’m meant to do.”
Johnson was ready to release his latest album, Ain’t Nothin’ To It, once again as an independent. But then Warner Music Nashville came forward with the offer he wanted, giving him complete control. This was not like the offers in the past. So the deal was struck, making this, his 6th release, his first with Warner or any label other than his own.
Johnson continued to work on the poetry he demonstrates in his first five albums, but he realized the talents of others within his reach. On Ain’t Nothin’ To It, he decided to interpret the songs of other writers, instead of featuring his own as he had done in his previous work.
“There is a different artistry when interpreting other people’s songs,” Johnson said, marking that every song chosen for the album had to have a personal connection to his life. He picked songs with lyrics he could have almost written himself, rather than choosing tunes that simply sounded like a hit. “If I’m going to cut a song, it needs to be something I can sing the rest of my life,” he said.
He felt the same way about contracts. When Johnson finally found the opportunity he had been looking for in Warner Music Nashville, it was of utmost importance that both the label and his fans recognized the partnership as a result of years of hard work and taking risks – not the result of instant gratification. He was happy to share finally his success; all he asked in return was to simply be himself. For Johnson, there ain’t nothin’ to it.