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Combustion Music was founded by GRAMMY-nominated producer, songwriter and publisher Chris Farren in 2002 with the signings of Kings of Leon and Ashley Gorley. Initially launched as a soundtrack company, Combustion has evolved into a full-scale publishing and artist development company with both a label and masters division.
“We started pretty small, but we started strong,” Farren tells me of the independent publishing company. “I never wanted to be too big. I’ve always wanted to keep it kind of a boutique and keep it manageable and writer intensive so there was a lot of attention given to the writers. I think it gives us a uniqueness to be small and powerful.”
And powerful the team is. Combustion’s staff of five manages 13 writers, including Jameson Rodgers, Matthew West, Kolby Cooper and Corey Kent, who the company just signed in partnership with Sony Music Nashville. Earlier this year, Combustion celebrated its 100th No. 1 with Jordan Davis’ two-week country chart topper “Buy Dirt” featuring Luke Bryan.
The team hasn’t had a proper celebration just yet due to COVID-19. “We’re working on the next 100,” VP Chris “Falcon” Van Belkom, who joined the company in 2004, says.
Combustion Music has come a long way since its first No. 1 in 2006 with Carrie Underwood’s six-week Billboard Country Airplay hit, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” It was also the first No. 1 for songwriter Gordie Sampson, who was signed to the company at the time. In the subsequent years, Van Belkom and the team noticed a shift in the publishing world where artists began writing their own songs. So, the company’s strategy shifted to aligning its writers with artists and signing singer-songwriters.
“As we learned how to become a good publisher, we also noticed a lack of true artist development along the way,” Van Belkom says.
Combustion soon began developing artists like Rodgers, who signed with the company in 2014. Five years later he garnered a recording contract with Sony Music Nashville. Rodgers has seen success as a both a songwriter and an artist. He co-wrote Chris Lane’s No. 1 hit “I Don’t Know About You” and songs for Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean while his singles, “Some Girls” and “Cold Beer Calling My Name” featuring Luke Combs, both reached No. 1 on the country charts.
Farren credits the company’s success and longevity to the team’s vision and ability to take risks to get in front of the industry’s trends. Combustion has since evolved from a publisher into an all-encompassing music company. Farren says he sees Combustion as two companies: a masters business and an independent record label.
“We’re signing acts and we’re doing all the things that [labels] do as far as developing and funding,” he says. “At our core we’re still a publishing company. We don’t ever want that to get lost. That’s what it was built on, that’s what got us here and now we’re a publishing company with greater vision and greater scope.”
As Combustion expands its role within the industry, the company has added to its team. GM Keithan Melton joined earlier this year while Senior Creative Director, A&R Blake Duncan was hired in 2020. Kelly Lyons began as an intern in 2017 and quickly rose to Director of Operations. The trio’s passion for songwriters as well as their loyalty to Combustion was evident during a recent Zoom call. “The foundation is the song,” Duncan says of Combustion.
Adds Melton: “We’re constantly evolving, constantly doing what you have to do to stay competitive. Our business has changed from CD’s to illegal downloading to now we have the DSPs where we have an outlet, it just doesn’t pay like we hope it will one day. This company is on the forefront, I think, for independent publishers in this town.”
Lyons credits Combustion’s philanthropic arm for also setting the company apart. Farren launched a charity music festival nearly nine years ago in Hope Town, Bahamas. “It’s now raised over $1 million for Hope Town,” Lyons says.
Farren has had a home in the Bahamas for the past 20 years and says he wanted to be a part of the culture and community, so he and his children began doing charity work there. It was through volunteering that he realized there was a greater need.
“My daughter and I started playing these little fundraisers – much smaller than our festival – and then it really brought music to the island and people loved it, so it was easy to connect the dots,” he says.
The money raised from the festival goes to three local charities: Every Child Counts, Friends of the Environment and Hope Town Volunteer Fire and Rescue. In addition to Farren giving back to the Hope Town community, he gives back to his Combustion team by making each colleague a profit sharing owner of the company.
“I think the beauty of that is it builds comradery, it builds loyalty, it builds energy, and it builds all working towards the same goal,” he says. “If they don’t win, I don’t win. I want them to win, trust me.”
Adds Duncan: “He’s trying to include us in all projects. He wants all of us to win together.”
Farren himself does not take a salary from the company. He makes money from outside sources, like his production work and songwriting royalties. He and Van Belkom also own East Nashville venue The Basement East, which received its first Academy of Country Music Award for ACM Club of the Year in May. Farren says he’d rather reinvest his salary into the company so that Combustion can flourish more.
“Every few years we have a capital event where we sell some catalog and then I certainly get my payday then,” Farren says. “It’s been really helpful for us to not to dig too deep of a hole for ourselves. … I think any business you run where you can minimize the capital outlay that’s probably good thing. We put the money into the assets.”
As 2022 ushers in a new era for Combustion Music, Farren praises his colleagues’ and writers’ loyalty while optimistically looking ahead to the next chapter of the company.
“What I’m most proud of is the commitment,” he says. “We’re partners. We’re trying to build stuff that stays, whether it’s the creative staff or whether it’s the creators. … We try to be mindful of the economics but completely focused on the creation.”