Longtime Universal Group Nashville head Mike Dungan announced his impending retirement in a memo to staff Monday afternoon, saying he will be stepping down after holding the chairman-CEO role at Nashville’s top label group since 2012. Although the memo did not go into a line of succession or timeline, sources tell Variety that UMG Nashville president Cindy Mabe, Dungan’s longstanding second-in-command, will soon be announced as stepping into the top position in March.
In the memo to staff, Dungan wrote, “For 43 years the music business has been my home — smiling, dialing, selling, hustling, laughing, doing my part to help the art and magic realize its potential. And loving every minute of it. I’ve lived a charmed life, and there are no words to describe how grateful I am, and how blessed I feel, for everyone that I have encountered along the way. I’m also proud to boast that through it all, with little exception, I have been ‘all-in’ as a competitor and as a friend.”
Dungan’s memo continues: “The solemn truth is that over time, that intensity takes its toll, and a lot of the dog has been knocked out of me. By the time I leave here I will be 69 years old. It is time to slow down — I look forward to devoting more time to my family and to my garden. I have an incredible wife who has put up with my nonsense for 45 years. We have two great kids who have two great wives of their own. And we have five wonderful grandkids who I intend to spoil to the fullest. I am forever grateful to Sir Lucian Grainge, who 11 years ago handed me the keys to the best job in the world. To him and to everyone at UMG, to all of those who have been my family-in-arms now and in the past, to all those creators whose art it has been my pleasure to represent.” In concluding the memo, Dungan writes, “I am at a loss to express my love and gratitude. I am the luckiest man alive.”
Dungan’s retirement is not unexpected in Nashville circles. It had been reported by the Tennessean in late 2016 that the exec, then 62, had signed an extension that was to keep him at UMG Nashville for five more years, and he has already worked more than six years past the beginning of that five-year extension.
UMG chairman-CEO Sir Lucian Grainge indicated in a statement that Dungan will continue to serve in an advisory role of some kind.
“Mike is a unique force,” said Grainge. “He has had an incredible impact on the careers and well-being of so many in Nashville through the years — from artists to employees. After a brilliant four decades in Nashville, and with our team they are well-positioned for continued strength, Mike is making an admirable and well-deserved life change. And while he won’t be serving in his CEO capacity, I’ve asked him to continue to contribute to areas that we’re both passionate about—breaking genre barriers and delivering critical support to artists past and present. I am deeply grateful to Mike for all he has done for our company and our artists and congratulate him on his unprecedented career success. I’m so pleased we will continue to have the benefit of his experience, deep relationships and wisdom.”
In an unusual example of true and seemingly transparent partnership at the top, Dungan has long made it clear that he considered Mabe virtually his equal in running country music’s top label group. Even as UMG Nashville’s second-in-command, Mabe was already the highest ranking executive in the country music industry, and with her soon-to-be-announced elevation, she will become the first woman to be at the head of a major label group in Nashville.
Their dynasty together has been a long one. Mabe was appointed to the position of president back in 2014, two years after Dungan was named chairman/CEO. Their professional association goes back even further, though, than the eight years they have spent together in their current partnership at UMG Nashville, however. It dates back to 2008, when the two first began working together at the Capitol Nashville label.
The UMG Nashville roster includes a disproportionate number of country’s top stars, including perennial Grammy and CMAs winner Chris Stapleton, whom Mabe championed from the start, along with hitmakers like Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker, George Strait, Jon Pardi, Reba McEntire, Lady A, Little Big Town, Sam Hunt, Vince Gill, Parker McCollum, Jordan Davis and Tyler Hubbard. Country superstar Luke Bryan is one of Dungan’s biggest success stories, with the exec building the singer up from the club to the stadium label. Bryan landed his 30th career No. 1 airplay single with UMG in December.
Dungan, a Cincinnati native, started his career working in record stores, landing his first industry job doing rock promotion for RCA, from 1979 through 1987, working with artists like Hall and Oates, the Pointer Sisters and Rick Springfield — he claimed responsibility for breaking the latter singer’s “Jessie’s Girl” when the rest of the label had deprioritized it. He became a Midwestern marketing director for BMG, again on the pop side, then made the move into country in 1990 after Clive Davis decided to start a country division for Arista, and he was put in charge of marketing for the new imprint. In 2002, he became president of Capitol Nashville, a position he held for 12 years before being hired for the top spot at UMG Nashville. When that label group absorbed Capitol, he was able to be in command of his former roster as well as his new one.
For her part, Mabe, a North Carolina native, has been part of the country music industry from the beginning. She started her career with Nashville’s RCA Label Group as a promotion coordinator and then product manager after graduating from Belmont University in 1995. In 2008, Dungan, then the head of Capitol Nashville, brought her on to that label as VP of marketing. She and Dungan briefly worked apart as he was picked off by Universal to be put in charge of the Nashville division. When her contract was up in 2014, she took part in talks to join Sony Nashville as CEO, but elected to rejoin Dungan as president of UMG Nashville, setting up a partnership that stayed in place for more than eight years.