(By Charese Fruge’) Melissa Core-Caballo is the CEO and Co-Founder (along with her husband Rick) of the Nashville-based PR firm Dead Horse Branding. Originally from Australia, Core-Caballo got her start in the industry on the South Coast, on I-98 FM. “I was the promotions coordinator, and before that, I was on the street fleet team,” she explains. “Radio was so new to me, but I learned so much in that space and under my manager at the time, Tia Robins. It was amazing. She taught me so much.
“But I quickly learned that there wasn’t much space for independent artists in the main radio circuit,” says Core-Caballo, “And that frustrated me a lot. I was always trying to push new acts to the music and program directors. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it wouldn’t. They were always awesome at listening to them, but of course sometimes, like radio in all countries, hands were tied. That really frustrated me about radio, and I soon discovered that I wanted to be able to take a much more hands-on approach to working with new artists and labels.”
As the CEO of Dead Horse Branding, Core-Caballo’s role is to oversee all operations and to manage every single brand, its strategy, and all the formulas that are being created for her clients. “I’m very passionate about every single brand that we sign, and it’s important for me to touch every aspect of it as much as I can,” she says. “But really, first and foremost, it’s my job to make sure that my team is well equipped to help me do so and that they have a good work-life balance, are happy every day, and are excited about their role.”
Core-Caballo’s biggest accomplishment in her career so far has been building and establishing Dead Horse Branding. “We identified the brand development and brand management gaps in the marketplace and were able to take all formulas of branding under one roof,” she says. “We are that stereotypical entrepreneurial story of starting out of the garage and building the brand and a company up to where we now have two international bases. But more importantly, besides locations, we built the company and a team with a great work-life balance while achieving some of our biggest goals, working really hard together, and maintaining the flexibility to jump around from country to country and not miss out on life the way we want it. You see, I look at business and clients from the perspective of a ‘good life’ so when we are carving out brand plan strategies, we are essentially the team that’s building the life they want. So, every week, I make sure I’m checking in with our team to make sure we’re building the life we want.”
Another big accomplishment in Core-Caballo’s career was working with Jep and Jessica Robertson from Duck Dynasty. “They are such amazing people, and we got to do some really cool things together,” she says. “And another huge turning point for Dead Horse Branding was signing Tony Brown, one of country music’s most iconic producers and music executives. Being able to have the opportunity to work alongside him and manage him over the last eight years has been life-changing. Not only is he one of the most talented human beings on the planet, his outlook on life, his moral compass, and his humility are worth 100 lives on this planet, all rolled into one.”
Success doesn’t come without its challenges, nor does being based in two different international locations. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced as a company was being locked out of the United States for over two years during COVID and actually being stuck in Australia, which of course is where we are from. We hadn’t lived there for 11 years, but we’ve always had a percentage of Australian clients. We created an awesome segment for our Australian brands and American brands different to each market; however, we weren’t prepared to be stuck there for that long. Our staff were in Nashville, so we were up at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and 4 a.m. every day to get into the American time zone and work with our American clients.
“It wasn’t easy, but in those two years we actually had two of the best financial years we’ve ever had, and that proved to me that regardless of where the teams are, our system, our formulas, our management style, our software, it all works. Also, during that extremely challenging time, we created a branding curriculum ‘DH7, The Seven Secret Formulas to Branding,’ which Billboard Magazine has recognized on more than one occasion, and that was another huge goal that I’ve wanted to achieve for a long time.
“The formula just worked so well in the industry and with our clients that we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to give students a leg up so they can understand all of the necessary requirements of building themselves, a person, or a team up? How cool would it be if we could deliver that to them while they’re in school and before they graduate and go into the real world?’” Asks Core-Caballo. “This program really is about taking your craft and then using the seven formulas as your business and strategy model and having that be the bridgeway to get you the gig if you want.
“Our business manager Llew Hayden from Wales Business Management pitched the concept to Kennesaw State University, where the prominent music attorney Joel Katz has an incredible music business and entertainment program with Daniel Howell and Keith Perissi. Thankfully, they really liked it, and together we shaped and honed it into what it is today, which is a fantastic program that allows students to be put in groups to hypothetically build an artist from the ground up using all seven primary formulas of branding. Not only do they learn how to build an artist, but they also learned how to build themselves. The DH7 Branding curriculum is 25% of the university program, and we have incredible industry experts on the final panel, from radio to label executives. We are just getting started.”
In the last decade, Core-Caballo started to identify one piece of the puzzle in their winning strategy that was missing: distribution. “Although at Dead Horse Branding we help get you distribution for music and we are behind promotion, we don’t control it fully and we have to hand you off if you’re an independent artist, so we launched Rose Pony Records at the beginning of 2022,” she explains. “Rose Pony Records is really about signing the most well-branded and authentic artists that come through our doors, and now we get to be behind the distribution formula, not only from an administrative and management standpoint but also from a business standpoint, and we have created an imprint leg under One RPM and MGM Australia.”
Dead Horse Branding has a very diverse list of clients, which makes for very interesting stories and experiences. “We are the brand management team for the Bo Diddley estate,” says Core-Caballo. “We got to work with Jimi Hendrix’s family and Tina Hendrix at the Hendrix Music Academy. We get to see all of his projects, and now Tony Brown’s story, along with many others, is about to be told by a documentary and a Hollywood-fully scripted miniseries.
“The Loving Mary Band are incredible individuals with so much talent; it’s unbelievable. It was awesome building their brand for their own tours, especially as they were Steven Tyler’s solo band for his country tour and solo gigs outside of Aerosmith. Buck Johnson, who plays for Aerosmith and the Hollywood Vampires (Super Group with Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, etc.), is a new client. We also recently started working with CHINGY, who is pretty much the soundtrack for all of my young adult clubbing days. He’s another incredible talent with a really cool brand message that we are excited to amplify to the next level.”
The biggest challenge in all aspects of the music and entertainment business is bridging the generation gap and making sure we can engage and create loyalty with younger audiences so we can keep the business afloat. Core-Caballo says this is doable. “Absolutely it is; you know it’s always easier to make someone who has had success more appealing to a younger demographic with clever marketing, driver collaboration marketing, messages, and staying true to the brand. It’s much harder to build an act from the ground up. There is a talent for understanding how to develop and launch any product, and it takes a lot longer to move upward than it does to go downward. I love working with iconic brands and those that have had success. Maybe they’ve had a massive global hit and then later couldn’t translate that into anything else. I love a good challenge. I love the science of it, and I love the psychology of people.”
Core-Caballo has mentioned work-life balance as one of her main priorities. So, what keeps her up at night? “My toddler!” she says. But she does find a way to balance it all. “You know this is going to sound odd, but my work brings me balance,” she says. “My work allows me to be the best version of myself. It allows me to do something that I’m so passionate about and work with other passionate people. It fills my cup. Of course, if you have too much of anything, it’s going to tip you in a different direction, so you want to have a bit of everything, and that everything is whatever you want to be.”
So, what’s ahead for Core-Caballo and Dead Horse Branding? “There’s a big country music documentary we are working on and a fully scripted miniseries with an incredible writer and director, Harris Goldberg. These projects are going to shine a light from a different perspective on country music, with some incredible heavyweights that revolutionized mid-eighties to early 2000s country music. You’ll hear stories that will blow your mind.”