Combustion Music was founded by two-time GRAMMY nominated producer, songwriter and ASCAP award-winning publisher Chris Farren in 2002 with the signings of Kings of Leon and Ashley Gorley. Initially launched as a soundtrack company, Combustion has grown into a full-scale publishing and artist development company with both a label and masters division.
“We started off pretty small, but we started off strong,” Farren tells me of the independent publishing house. “I never wanted to be too big. I always wanted it to be 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 singularity to be small and powerful.
And the team is strong. Combustion’s five-person team 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 100e No. 1 with Jordan Davis’ two-week country chart topper “Buy Dirt” with Luke Bryan.
The team has yet to have a proper celebration due to COVID-19. “We’re working on the next 100,” says Vice President Chris “Falcon” Van Belkom, who joined the company in 2004.
Combustion Music has come a long way since its first No. 1 in 2006 with the six weeks of Carrie Underwood Billboard Country Airplay hit “Jesus, Take the Wheel”. It was also the first No. 1 for songwriter Gordie Sampson, who was then signed to the company. Over the next few years, Van Belkom and the team noticed a change in the publishing world where artists started writing their own songs. Thus, the company’s strategy shifted to aligning its writers with artists and signing singer-songwriters.
“As we learned how to be a good publisher, we also noticed a lack of real artist development along the way,” says Van Belkom.
Combustion quickly began developing artists like Rodgers, who signed with the company in 2014. Five years later, he landed a record deal with Sony Music Nashville. Rodgers found success as a songwriter and 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” 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 steer clear of industry trends. Combustion has since evolved from a publisher to a global music company. Farren says he sees Combustion as two companies: a masters company and an independent record label.
“We sign deeds and we do everything that [labels] to do in terms of development and financing,” he says. “Basically, we are still a publishing house. We never want this to be lost. It’s what it was built on, it’s what got us here and now we’re a publishing house with bigger vision and bigger reach.
As Combustion expands its role within the industry, the company has expanded its team. Managing Director Keithan Melton joined earlier this year while Senior Creative Director, A&R Blake Duncan was hired in 2020. Kelly Lyons started as an intern in 2017 and quickly rose to COO. 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.
Melton adds, “We are constantly evolving, constantly doing what you need to do to stay competitive. Our business has moved from CDs to illegal downloading. Now we have the DSPs where we have a selling point, it just doesn’t pay off the way we hope one day. This company is at the forefront, I think, for independent publishers in this city.
Lyons credits Combustion’s philanthropic arm for also singling out the company. Farren started a charity music festival nearly nine years ago in Hope Town, Bahamas. “He’s now raised over a million dollars for Hope Town,” Lyons says.
Farren has had a home in the Bahamas for the past 20 years and says he wanted to be part of the culture and the community, so he and his children started doing charity work there. It was while 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 said.
Money raised from the festival is donated to three local charities: Every Child Counts, Friends of the Environment and Hope Town Volunteer Fire and Rescue. In addition to giving back to the Hope Town community, Farren gives back to his Combustion team by making every co-worker a profit-sharing owner of the business.
“I think the beauty of it is that it builds camaraderie, loyalty, energy and everyone working towards the same goal,” he says. “If they don’t win, I don’t win. I want them to win, believe me.
Duncan adds: “He tries to include us in all the projects. He wants us all to win together.
Farren himself does not receive a salary from the company. He earns money from outside sources, such as 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 prefers to reinvest his salary back into the business so Combustion can prosper more.
“Every few years we have a capital event where we sell a catalog and then I definitely get my paycheck,” says Farren. “It was very helpful for us not to dig too deep a hole for ourselves. … I think any business you run where you can minimize capital expenditure is probably a good thing. We put the money in the assets.
As 2022 ushers in a new era for Combustion Music, Farren praises the loyalty of his colleagues and writers while looking optimistically to the company’s next chapter.
“What I’m most proud of is the commitment,” he says. “We are partners. We try to build things that stick, whether it’s the creative team or the creators. … We try to be conscious of the economy but completely focused on the creation.