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VOL. 36 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 5, 2012

Where are you now?

From one-hit wonder to Music Row executive, Harnen learned empathy for artists the hard way

By Brad Schmitt

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After scoring a degree in biology in the mid ‘80s, Jimmy Harnen, to the delight of his parents, was heading to dental or medical school.

But first, Harnen decided to throw a Hail Mary pass.

A drummer/singer in high school and while attending Wilkes College, Harnen and his buddies pooled $4,000 to record the two best songs they had written in a professional 24-track studio.

One of those songs was the ballad, Where Are You Now, which eventually hit the top five on radio pop charts – and eventually made Harnen one of a dozen or so one-hit wonders of the ‘80s.

But unlike those other one-hit wonders, Harnen hung on through painful times before switching sides to start working for record labels. He now is president of Republic Nashville, home to The Band Perry, Martina McBride, Eli Young Band and others, and executive vice president of Big Machine Label Group, with an artist roster that includes Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts and Reba McEntire.

And many on Music Row say Harnen works harder for his artists than most.

“I know what it feels like to be dropped and not have any money and have all the bad stuff happen,” Harnen says. “Maybe that’s the underlying motivation, I dunno.”

Harnen’s music career started when he was a boy singing loudly on public buses.

The son of a handyman and a waitress, Harnen and his mom would ride the bus into nearby Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania to do some window shopping.

“I used to sing Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, the Beatles, Neil Diamond, all the records my older sister had,” he recalls.

“I liked the way my voice sounded on that big bus. I just can’t believe my mom was a big enough sport to let me do it without the slightest hint of embarrassment.”

As a boy, Harnen found his hands were too small to play guitar, so he started taking trumpet and clarinet lessons until, in high school, his buddy Jimmy Miller started drumming. And Harnen became infatuated, switching instruments and doing whatever he could to get better.

Jimmy Harnen, who could have faded into obscurity after his one-hit brush with fame, now works with artists such as Martina McBride and The Band Perry as president of Republic Nashville.

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Harnen eventually got a coveted spot among the snare drummers in the marching band at Wyoming Valley West high school.

“We wore furry hats [that] looked like a furry gold version of Marge Simpson’s hair,” he says.

Harnen went off to study biology and psychology in college, where he played in several cover bands. That’s when Harnen started writing his own songs, an obsession that started when he realized how few bands in northeastern Pennsylvania played their own music.

In his last band, the keyboard player handed him music for a song that needed lyrics.

Harnen – motivated by his ex-girlfriend Greta and the REO Speedwagon hit Can’t Fight This Feeling – says he wrote the lyrics to Where Are You Now in about an hour.

He concedes he played the song for Greta in hopes of maybe winning her back.

“It didn’t work. It was probably the first bad review we got.”

But a local radio station loved it, and other stations started playing it. Harnen and his band, Synch, got a deal in 1985 with Columbia Records.

Synch’s next song didn’t do well and the band was dropped, but Harnen was re-signed in 1989 when a Las Vegas station started playing Where Are You Now again.

American Idol judge Randy Jackson played bass on the album that was quickly made to catch up to the single.

But that was way before Jackson’s catch phrase, “What up dawg?”

“His word back then was ‘dude,’” Harnen says. “He’d walk in and go, ‘Duuude!’ He was a great guy, a gentleman and awesome to work with.”

Alas, Harnen again failed to score a follow-up hit and, though he remained a big star in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, the band was dropped.

Harnen had to find a way to support himself.

“One of the jobs I took was inventory guy. We counted all the candy at, like, Target and Wal-Mart, and we did that overnight so nobody would see me,” he says.

“One day we were doing inventory and we were there when the store [in Wilkes-Barre] was open,” Harnen recalls.

“And somebody walked up to me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Um, I’m working.’ And they said, ‘Aren’t you rich?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ There were a lot of those moments.”

Harnen also wrote jingles and did radio spots for nightclubs, often having a tough time making ends meet.

But, he says, “while those times were incredibly painful to live through, they were the most valuable times of my life.”

“You definitely find out who your friends are, you definitely develop a lot of character, and you definitely develop survival skills.

Harnen went to Nashville in the mid 1990s when a third wave of Where Are You Now started cresting, but that never panned out.

And that’s when Harnen started working behind the scenes in the industry, first selling advertising for a Music Row trade publication before trying radio promotions – the record label department that tries to get songs played on the radio.

“I just remember wanting to do for someone else what I wish someone would’ve done for me,” he says. “I wanted to fight for an artist.”

Harnen had enough fight to work from regional promotions to become a national promotions guy for Capitol Records. Eventually, an old employer, Scott Borchetta – the top man behind the record label group that launched Taylor Swift – asked Harnen to run one of his labels.

And Harnen does so by believing whole-heartedly in his artists, and giving them the space to be themselves.

“Jimmy understands what an artist needs, and gives us the right creative space to do what we do,” The Band Perry (If I Die Young) said in a statement to the Nashville Ledger. “That’s what makes him a successful leader.”

Chris Thompson of the Eli Young Band (Even If It Breaks Your Heart) says:

“Jimmy leads the charge from the front lines. He is never afraid to get into the mix and inspires everyone around him to not only work harder but also to find joy in what they do.”

And Borchetta says Harnen’s ability to fuse with artists is based on Harnen’s experience as an artist.

“Jimmy’s experience of having some success and then standing by nearly helpless and alone and watching it all fall apart had to be devastating,” Borchetta says.

“But he was paying attention as it was happening. He asked endless questions. He made great friendships,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Harnen says he can’t remember the last time he has been asked to sing his one hit.

But he’s got a quick joke for the occasion, should it arise.

“Of all titles for a one-hit wonder to have,” he quips, “mine had to be Where Are You Now.”

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