The president/CEO of Sandbox Entertainment and manager of Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini and Little Big Town has emerged as the leader of country’s progressive new guard, which has no tolerance for homophobic politicians like Mike Huckabee.
“You know how we got Jason to sign us?” Midland’s Mark Wystrach, riding an endorphin high after his band’s set at the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif., saunters up to a backstage picnic table where Jason Owen sits, midinterview, sipping on a beer.
Without another word, Wystrach drops his Wranglers below his knees, flashing his blue-and-green boxer briefs.
It’s the kind of prank that could prompt glares of disapproval, but Owen, who co-manages the trio with BRND MGMT’s Matt Graham, doubles over with laughter.
His pants back in place, Wystrach explains in all seriousness that Midland, which took home the Academy of Country Music Award for best new vocal duo or group in April, signed with Owen because “you have to be surrounded by people that you can trust and with whom you share the same vision. You’re literally putting your life in their hands.”
It’s a responsibility that the 41-year-old president/CEO of Sandbox Entertainment, which manages or co-manages a roster that includes Faith Hill, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, Dan + Shay and Devin Dawson, takes seriously. “I’m really close with my artists,” says Owen. “I vacation with them sometimes; I’ve been through [their] divorces. I need to get a full picture so I know how to navigate things.”
In the nearly eight years since he founded Sandbox, Owen’s personalized, creative approach to his artists and the example he has set as a powerful, openly gay talent manager in a traditionally conservative town has made him the effective leader of country’s progressive new guard. He thinks globally, respects but is not bound by the traditional methods of breaking artists, sees the genre’s potential as -limitless and advocates for what he believes is right, as he did in March when he protested the Country Music Association’s appointment of Mike Huckabee to the board of its philanthropic foundation. In a respectful but impassioned letter to CMA CEO Sarah Trahern and its foundation’s director of community outreach, Tiffany Kerns, Owen — who has a 3-year-old son and 1-month-old twin daughters with his husband and partner of 12 years, Sam Easley — wrote that the former Arkansas governor’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric “would suggest my family is morally beneath his and uses language that has a profoundly negative impact upon young people all across this country.” A day after the media revealed the letter, Huckabee huffily resigned from the board.
Owen prefers to keep the spotlight on his clients, and over the past year has negotiated a number of innovative opportunities for them from his offices in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood, where he employs a staff of 17 and shares a floor with former Vice President Al Gore. He arranged for Musgraves — who, like many female country acts, gets little radio airplay — to expand her fan base by opening for Harry Styles on his summer tour. He established the first residency at the historic Ryman Auditorium with Little Big Town and co-produces with Faith Hill Pickler & Ben, a syndicated talk show co-hosted by Kellie Pickler in which items featured on the set are available to buy through Home Shopping Network.
“Jason is a forward thinker,” says Scooter Braun, who co-manages Dan + Shay with Owen and is also an investment partner in Sandbox. “I learned from him to give an artist their time. I’m someone [who thinks] we’ve got to tell the story right away. Jason really allows the artist to be themselves and grow an incredible fan base over time.”
“I am never not blown away by the things that come off the top of his head,” says Grammy-winning songwriter Shane McAnally, co-president with Owen at the reactivated, Sony-distributed Monument Records imprint. “He is so good at coming up with creative ways to present artists.”
He showcased that creativity with the rollout of Musgraves’ latest album, Golden Hour. Instead of the typical country campaign of sending a single to radio, then releasing the album months later as the song peaks, MCA Nashville and Owen chose to release two songs simultaneously that conveyed the album’s story arc — about finding new love after a bad breakup — and opted for a shorter album-release window. Owen describes the strategy as “Bam! Here’s the new imaging, here’s the new everything.” Media coverage in Billboard, GQ and Entertainment Weekly and a slot on Saturday Night Live, rare for a country artist, raised awareness as well.
The long-standing lack of support for women at country radio — Ballerini, whom Sandbox signed in April, is the exception — is no deterrent to Owen. “Look, I do everything we need to do for radio and try to help the label team, but I certainly don’t rely on that,” he says.
“Too many times, people get stuck in ‘Let’s make the record, here’s the single, we’re going to go on tour.’ But it’s all the other pieces that make real careers,” he adds. The relationships Owen made producing Pickler & Ben, for example, led to a cookware line for Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman.
From an early age, Owen was infatuated with country music, but even more so with the behind-the-scenes machinations. Growing up in Monticello, Ark. (population: 9,000), where his father ran a large chemical distribution company, Owen’s first show was The Judds when he was 10 or 11. “I was blown away,” he says, not only by Wynonna Judd’s powerhouse vocals “but by the production and what they wore.”
The mother-and-daughter act weren’t the only power duo who provided an early lesson in star-making. Even though Owen considers himself “not very political,” in high school, he volunteered for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. “I was fascinated with the Clintons in ways that correspond to what I do now,” he says. “The imaging of them, the marketing of them and how brilliant they were as stars — I studied it.”
After graduating from the University of Arkansas, Owen headed to Los Angeles, where he worked for legendary TV producer Aaron Spelling and at Columbia TriStar Television, where he marketed Dawson’s Creek internationally. He moved to Nashville in 2002 to work at Universal Music Group, where he rose to senior vp artist development and marketing, creating campaigns for Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack and George Strait. “I was dealing with every kind of yahoo manager there was,” recalls Owen. “And I thought, ‘I can do it better.'”
He launched Sandbox Entertainment in 2011 with Twain as his first client. (They parted ways in 2015.) Then came Little Big Town, who, under Owen’s guidance, grew from a beloved but underperforming act to a bona fide headliner with its fifth album, 2012’s Tornado. Musgraves and the others followed, all operating on handshake deals.
While most country acts seldom stray outside of North America, Owen — who saw the potential of global markets while at Columbia TriStar — works with his team to develop an international plan for all of his artists. Musgraves’ tour, for instance, will take her to Sweden, Germany and Holland before playing 11 U.K. dates. In July, she’s slated to be the only country act on the bill at the Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Japan.
“Since I’ve been a manager, you can literally see the growth” of international demand for country music, he says, citing AEG’s annual C2C: Country to Country Festival in the United Kingdom as an example. “These fans know every word to every song.” He adds that growing a global fan base contributes to career longevity.
Owen acquired some admirers of his own when he wrote to the CMA protesting Huckabee’s appointment due to his anti-gay-marriage stance. He was not alone in opposing the move, but his voice rang loudest. “I don’t regret it,” he says. “Too many times we worry about the repercussions. It was important to me to stand up for my family.”
With the controversy behind him, Owen is relieved to once again be focused on his roster. With the exception of Little Big Town and Hill, whose Soul2Soul outing with husband Tim McGraw was Billboard’s top country tour of 2017 (a new arena leg started May 31), most of Sandbox’s clients are still developing, which suits Owen just fine. “Do I not want a full stadium tour for one of my acts or a couple of my acts? Of course I do,” he says. “But I think it comes when it’s meant to come.” — MELINDA NEWMAN
SCOTT BORCHETTA, 55
Founder/president/CEO, Big Machine Label GroupTop-Shelf Reputation: “You don’t see a lot of one-hit wonders come out of this building,” says Borchetta, who oversees a roster that includes repeat hitmakers Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line and Taylor Swift. The lattermost’s Reputation sold 1.2 million copies in its first week — an increasingly rare achievement. Borchetta also cites the success of FGL’s “Meant to Be” with Bebe Rexha, which is the top-selling country song of 2018 so far (746,000 copies) and has made international stars of the duo. “Never before has a song broken globally on the pop charts and then crossed over to country to become a No. 1 single,” he says.
Why Country Acts Avoid Politics Today: “Everything they do or say is attacked in some way. So, if you take a stand, you better be able to back it up.”
DAVE COBB, 43
Founder, Low Country Sound; producer
Dueling Grammy Noms and a No. 1 Album: The 2018 Grammy Awards were a white-knuckle affair for the head of Elektra’s 3-year-old imprint: An LP that the Georgia native produced, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, faced off for best Americana album with one that Cobb released (and produced), Shine On Rainy Day by his younger cousin Brent Cobb. Isbell took home the trophy, but the elder Cobb insists, “I really care for everybody I work with, so it was difficult.” Low Country also scored its first No. 1 on Billboard‘s Triple A chart with Anderson East’s “All on My Mind.”
Best Recent Nashville Restaurant Meal: “Korea House’s No. 10 [dish], chicken bulgogi. I love that place.”
MIKE CURB, 73
Founder/chairman, Curb Records; owner/chairman, Word Entertainment
Bragging Rights: In July 2017, Curb celebrated his namesake label’s first No. 1 on Country Airplay in nearly three years with Dylan Scott’s “My Girl.” With 50-plus years in the music business (and four years as lieutenant governor of California in the late ’70s and early ’80s), Curb has little left to prove, but he still has plenty of hustle. He’s quick to tout the 2018 accomplishments of his Word Label Group — which, so far, include four top-five singles on the Christian Airplay chart. (Among them: Francesca Battistelli’s No. 1 “Messiah.”) “We’re only in the first 55 years,” says Curb with a chuckle. “The most important record is the next one.”
MIKE DUNGAN, 64
Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Group Nashville
CINDY MABE, 45
President, Universal Music Group Nashville
A Very Platinum Year: Led by Dungan and Mabe, UMGN has amassed some impressive stats over the past year-and-a-half. Chris Stapleton became the first artist since 1992 to hold the top three spots on Top Country Albums with 2015’s Travellerriding the jetstream of 2017’s From A Room: Volume 1 and Volume 2. And Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” spent a record 34 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. It was also the top-selling country track of 2017.
Pardi Time: New signee Carrie Underwood wasted no time in putting points on the board for Universal. Her music video for “The Champion” opened the Super Bowl LII broadcast, served as the Winter Olympics theme and amassed 55.5 million total streams in the process. Meanwhile, rising star Jon Pardi’s 2016 album, California Sunrise, which Dungan likens to “Buck Owens for a frat house,” yielded two top-three singles on Country Airplay in 2017.
Surprising Celebrity Country Fan: Mabe: “President Obama named Chris Stapleton’s ‘Millionaire’ on his best of 2017 list.”
SETH ENGLAND, 32
Partner/A&R rep, Big Loud Records
CLAY HUNNICUTT, 50
President, Big Loud Records
CRAIG WISEMAN, 54
Partner, Big Loud Records
Records Success: While Big Loud’s operations include a successful publishing arm, run by veteran songwriter Craig Wiseman and producer Joey Moi, and a management division (which recently partnered with Maverick) overseen by Kevin “Chief” Zaruk, the company’s 3-year-old Big Loud Records label has caught fire in the past year. Among the four songs it has landed in the top 15 of the Country Airplay chart: Morgan Wallen’s “Up Down” (featuring Florida Georgia Line), Chris Lane’s “For Her” and Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane).”
Big Viral Yodeler: In April, the Big Loud label partnered with Atlantic to sign 11-year-old “Walmart yodeling kid” Mason Ramsey. “This is the kind of artist who usually would go pop, but he wants to be in country,” says England.
He’s Over… Hunnicutt: “Nashville traffic. It’s so terrible that I’m telling [everyone] in hopes that it will stop others from moving here.”
JOHN ESPOSITO, 62
Chairman/CEO, Warner Music Nashville
Nashville Hat Trick: After bonding with Kenny Chesney over a shared love of red wine and Bruce Springsteen, “Espo,” as he is known, signed the No Shoes Nation founder to Warner Nashville at the beginning of 2018. “What I saw in him was somebody who believes he’s got 30 or 40 more years of creating new music, and I was excited to be part of that,” he says. Esposito also helped Blake Shelton maintain momentum with his sixth No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, Texoma Shore, and introduced newcomer Devin Dawson with a No. 2 on the Country Airplay list for his debut single, “All on Me,” that has generated 122.2 million streams, and a No. 5 LP on the Top Country Albums tally, Dark Horse. “I’m fucking proud of being 62 and relevant in the music business,” says Esposito.
Recent Broadway Show That Inspired Him: “Springsteen on Broadway. I’ve seen more than 50 concerts, but this show explores his story in a way that I had not yet experienced.”
RANDY GOODMAN, 62
Chairman/CEO, Sony Music NashvilleOn the eve of his third anniversary leading Sony Music Nashville, Randy Goodman has remade the country music label group into a hothouse for new talent that has successfully harnessed streaming: “There is no playbook. We’re figuring it out in real time”
On a bright Nashville morning, Randy Goodman fits a talk with Billboard between breakfast with Live Nation and a meeting with Apple Music. The following day, he leaves town for an off-site convocation with his executive team that marks almost three years since he took over as chairman/CEO at Sony Music Nashville. During that time, his new-artist evangelism on behalf of Maren Morris, Old Dominion, LANCO and streaming-social powerhouses Kane Brown and Luke Combs — all of whom delivered No. 1s on the Top Country Albums chart — have turned the label’s fortunes around. Brown even made history of sorts when he simultaneously topped all five of Billboard‘s main country charts last October. The successes have helped make Sony Nashville the only label in town to post market-share growth in 2018 (through April 19), up almost one percentage point to 21.9 percent.
Leaning Into Streaming: “If you look at our revenue at Sony Music Nashville, streaming is now No. 1 for us. It is probably 40 to 45 percent of our revenue, and our acts have had close to 40 percent market share in the streaming top 20 since the beginning of 2018. It allows me to talk to the people that put on these big awards shows and say, ‘You want to see what really is hot? Don’t look at the album chart. Look at the consumption chart. That’s where people are.'”
Why He’s Talking To Live Nation: “Ticket bundles. We’ve got Kane Brown and Luke Combs, who are both doing exceptionally well. Historically, you would get maybe five, six, seven hits under your belt before you’d even begin to think about testing the waters with a headlining tour. But because there’s so much of a pull now from social media and streaming — particularly on acts like Kane and Luke — they’re sitting there with management and their agency, going, ‘Maybe we should go into some country C and D markets that people haven’t been in in 10 years and see if we can headline.’ Which is not different from when I was at RCA in the ’90s and Dave Matthews Band did a similar thing.”
Making Features Work For The Featured Artist: “It’s hard sometimes to connect the dots back. ‘The Middle’ has performed incredibly well for Zedd, but it’s difficult to use that feature to drive people back to Maren [Morris]. It did put Maren on the Billboard Music Awards with Zedd, and ideally some people are going to see her and say, ‘Wow, who is that? Does she have her own music?’ ”
Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey On Working With Goodman: “The thing I appreciate most about Randy is his collaborative spirit. The best leaders know the strengths of those around them. On the creative side, we collaborate with writers, musicians and producers. It’s nice to be able to carry that same mindset over to the business side.” — JOE LEVY
GORDON KERR, 51
CEO, Black River Entertainment
No. 1 Status for “Legends”: Kerr says that Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends” hitting No. 1 on the Feb. 24 Country Airplay chart over seven months after its release “was a great moment for Kelsea and for anybody who’s involved with Kelsea.” In addition to the label, Black River Entertainment operates a publishing division with a roster that includes Josh Osborne, who co-wrote Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem.”
Keeping His Artists Country Strong: “We just started MK Fitness with my son Mike Kerr. It’s available to Black River staff, songwriters and our artists. Mike will develop personalized wellness programs for their use at home and on the road.”
Executive vp, BBR Music Group
Rebounding From Route 91: Loba — and BBR Music Group’s marquee artist, Jason Aldean — found themselves in uncharted territory after the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017. “We had staff members who were in the middle of it,” says Loba, adding that his priorities became “making sure that BBR and I personally were giving them the resources they needed.” He also praises Aldean, who was onstage when the shooting began, and tour manager Jake LaGrone for taking care of their team. “Jason became a voice for the victims and, within his organization, a comforter, leader and therapist,” says Loba.
Moving Forward With Rearview: In April, Aldean released Rearview Town, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, becoming his fourth consecutive album to top the chart and the first country LP to do so in 2018. Promoting the set, however, meant that “everywhere Jason turned, questions about Las Vegas would resurface,” says Loba. “He had to keep reliving it, and he did it with class and grace. I’ve never been more proud of anybody I’ve worked with.”
DAVID MACIAS, 53
President, Thirty Tigers
A Sound No. 1 for Jason Isbell: Under Macias’ direction, Thirty Tigers racked up $18.7 million in sales in 2017 and finished the year as the No. 4 indie label.
The ‘In’ Place for Outlaws: During its 16 years in business, Thirty Tigers has expanded the parameters of both the country and singer-songwriter genres beyond what is in fashion commercially. “If we love the music and there is a vision as to how we can build out [an artist], then we’re inclined to do it,” says Macias. Among the label’s successes: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, which was distributed and marketed by Thirty Tigers, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart and No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard 200 in July 2017. And so far this year, John Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness and Blackberry Smoke’s Find a Light respectively reached Nos. 2 and 3.
Country Trend He’d Like To See Accelerated: “The kind of music that Chris Stapleton and Midland make on the radio. Country is best when listeners are presented a broader spectrum of choices, and they clearly responded to those more traditional sounds. More, please.”
SHANE McANALLY, 43
CEO, Smack; Co-president, Monument Records
Walker Hayes Triple Play: McAnally says that the sweetest victory of the current year was scoring a top 10 Country Airplay hit with Walker Hayes’ “You Broke Up With Me” in January. “We publish him at SMACK, I produce him, he is on Monument, and my husband manages him,” says the outgoing McAnally, who only 10 years ago was constructing tents at the Stagecoach Festival. “That definitely felt like a big win.” McAnally garnered song of the year nominations for Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” from the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, the Grammy Awards and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards.
He’s Over… “The assumption by people who do not live here that Nashville is homophobic and racist. It’s just not true.”
NORBERT NIX, 60
Gm/partner, Triple Tigers Records
Winning From the Beginning: Under Nix’s direction, Triple Tigers, which was established in late 2016, found success from the start. The first two singles released through the joint venture of Thirty Tigers, Triple 8 Management and Sony Music — Russell Dickerson’s “Yours” and Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes” — topped the Country Airplay chart in the first quarter of 2018. And McCreery’s Seasons Changedebuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart in March. Nix, a former Columbia Nashville vice president, says the early wins have a lot to do with “all three partners agreeing on what we’re signing and putting out. Now we just have to be able to say, ‘We’ve got more.'”
Best Recent Nashville Restaurant Meal: “The oatmeal at Holler & Dash. It’s just oatmeal, for God’s sake, but I had it and was like, ‘Omigod!'”
KEN ROBOLD, 53
Executive vp/COO, Sony Music Nashville
JOHN ZARLING, 39
Executive vp marketing and new business, Sony Music Nashville
A Year of Firsts: Robold put Sony Nashville’s muscle behind recasting the country superstar mold with Kane Brown. “It’s a genre that’s pretty white,” says Robold. “Our challenge was, ‘Can we break through a guy with a biracial background?'” Brown did just that, becoming the first artist to simultaneously hit No. 1 on all five of Billboard‘s main country charts: Top Country Albums, Hot Country Songs, Country Airplay, Country Digital Song Sales and Country Streaming Songs. Meanwhile, Zarling, who moved to Sony Nashville from Big Machine in 2017, helmed last summer’s successful Dive Bar show partnership between Bud Light and Old Dominion, which helped propel the band’s Happy Endings album to No. 7 on the Billboard 200, its highest chart position to date.
Marketing 2.0: Zarling says he’s in the process of creating a cohesive marketing team at Sony Nashville “that can function like a modern-day agency.” He’s also seeking more partnerships and programs that “enhance the marketing of our artists so that we’re not always directly marketing from the label.”
Biggest Country Music Story Of The Past Year: Robold “It’s the first full year that the country music industry has been utilizing the consumption chart, so really it’s the first year that streaming became vital and all of the data became part of our lifeblood.”
LESLY SIMON, 46
GM, Pearl Records
Running Garth Brooks’ Record Label: Simon helped propel Garth Brooks to the top of the Country Airplay chart — for the first time in almost 10 years — with “Ask Me How I Know” on the artist’s own Pearl label. Brooks, the top-selling album artist of the Nielsen Music era with 72 million sold, was also named entertainer of the year for the sixth time at the 2017 CMA Awards — a record there as well.
More To Come: “Right now, [Brooks] is in the studio making new music and finishing the live album,” says Simon, who oversees Brooks’ platinum catalog.
Biggest Change In Nashville Over The Last Decade: “The number of women running companies, departments and leading the industry has risen exponentially in the last decade and is so important to the continued health and growth of this industry.”
JIMMY HARNEN, 55
Executive vp, Big Machine Label Group; president, BMLG RecordsMoving the Line Forward: Harnen and his team helped make Florida Georgia Line’s collaboration with Bebe Rexha, “Meant to Be,” which was dually promoted to pop and country radio, a massive hit. The track has ruled Hot Country Songs for 26 weeks and is the top-selling country track of 2018 so far, with 746,000 copies sold. Along with its 2012 hit “Cruise,” FGL now owns two of the three longest-running No. 1s in the history of the 59-year-old chart. On the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, “Meant to Be” has reached No. 2, surpassing the No. 4 peak of “Cruise” in 2013.
It’s Good To Be Young: Harnen also points to the breakthrough of Brett Young as a big win. Young, who took home the new male vocalist of the year trophy at the 2018 ACM Awards, has scored two No. 1s on Country Airplay: “In Case You Didn’t Know” (2017) and “Like I Loved You” (2018).
What He Misses About The Nashville Of Old: “There was a real quaintness and charm to the original Music Row and having all the offices in close proximity.”
STEVE HODGES, 53
Executive vp promotion and artist development, Sony Music Nashville
Cultivating a New Generation of No. 1 Artists: Hodges and his promotion team notched No. 1s on the Hot Country Songs chart with all three of Sony’s country imprints: Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours” for Columbia, Kane Brown’s “What Ifs” for RCA and LANCO’s “Greatest Love Story” for Arista.
Raising Kane, And Proud Of It: Hodges says the record-setting chart success (see Chart MVP, right) of Brown’s self-titled studio album, which has earned 971,000 equivalent album units and counting, and his single “What Ifs,” featuring Lauren Alaina, is a sign of country’s crossover potential in the years to come. “Kane has such an adoring and multigenre fan base,” he says. “He represents a lot of what country music has to offer the rest of the world.”
Surprising Country Music Fan: “You see Alice Cooper around town now and again, which is odd.”
CARSON JAMES, 61
Senior vp promotion, BBR Music Group
Delivering on BMG’s Bet: James admits there was some internal hand-wringing when BBR went from being founder Benny Brown’s indie label to a division of the BMG empire in early 2017. But after successes by Dustin Lynch (“Small Town Boy” became his fifth consecutive No. 1 Country Airplay single last September, moving 544,000 downloads and 232.5 million streams) and Jason Aldean (Rearview Town topped Top Country Albums and the Billboard 200 in April), James reports the transition has been quite productive, and BMG’s considerable resources have given him more muscle to do his job. “Information is power,” he says.
Country Music Trend He’d Like To See Accelerated: “We’re already seeing it: A more traditional country sound is making its way back onto the airwaves. No one is selling more albums than Chris Stapleton.”
ROYCE RISSER, 48
Senior vp promotion, Universal Music Group Nashville
Helped Stapleton Land His First No. 1 Radio Hit: In March, Risser and his team celebrated Chris Stapleton’s first No. 1 single on Country Airplay, “Broken Halos.” Other big wins include the record-setting success of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” the third-best-selling song of 2017 across all genres with 2 million downloads.
Out-Of-The-Box Work Culture: Staffers in Risser’s promotion department are as likely to jump out of boxes to prank each other as they are to work a record to the top of the Country Airplay chart, which they have done in the past year with Jordan Davis, Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker and Billy Currington. “There’s enough stress built into the job that humor and fun, and people that you love and trust, makes you actually enjoy coming to work,” he says.
What He Misses About The Nashville Of Old: “Opryland [theme park]. I loved that place. It was so unique to Nashville. I really wish I could’ve taken my kids there. Bums me out.”
KRISTEN WILLIAMS, 38
Senior vp radio and streaming, Warner Music Nashville
Developed Devin Dawson: Williams puts the chart success of Devin Dawson’s debut LP, Dark Horse, which hit No. 5 on Top Country Albums, and first single “All on Me,” which surged to No. 2 on Country Airplay, at the top of her wins column. “Devin is arguably the most inspiring artist-development story of the year,” she says. “He’s defying the norm and defining the future.”
Helping Radio Benefit From Streaming: Williams says that since Warner Nashville’s radio and streaming promotion teams were combined, “everyone on my team is fluent in how to pull streaming and consumption data, then contextualize it for individual radio markets.” That data is “critical in helping our radio partners understand their listeners’ behavior,” says Williams, adding: “Every artist has a story, but that story means nothing without context. It’s something I preach every day.”
Biggest Country Music Story Of The Past Year: “Route 91. Our industry was changed forever with stories of unrest and fear, but [also] stories of heroism and an industry united in the face of senseless violence.”
NARVEL BLACKSTOCK, 61
CEO, Starstruck EntertainmentBRANDON BLACKSTOCK, 41
Manager, Starstruck Entertainment
Hit Albums and The Voice for Two Top Clients: The father-and-son team had a great year with Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson, who has been married to Brandon since 2013. The artists are coaches on the 14th season of The Voice, and both had fall 2017 releases high on the charts: Shelton’s Texoma Shore hit No. 1 on Top Country Albums in November and became his 11th album to reach the top 10 on the Billboard 200. It has also generated 336,000 album consumption units. Clarkson’s Meaning of Lifebecame her eighth consecutive top-three release on the Billboard 200.
On Deck: The Blackstocks recently added Hunter Hayes to Starstruck’s roster.
GARY BORMAN, 65
Founder/CEO, Borman Entertainment
Urban’s on Fire: Borman says it was a “banner year” for his firm, due in large part to marquee client Keith Urban, who began 2017 with “Blue Ain’t Your Color” atop Hot Country Songs. It held that position for 12 straight weeks, then followed up that success with “The Fighter,” which peaked at No. 2 on the chart, and “Female,” which reached No. 11. And 2018 looks like another winner. Urban’s latest release, Graffiti U, debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums in May, earning 145,000 equivalent album units in its first week. “It always amazes me how Keith is able to assimilate his influences and [create] music that is uniquely his,” says Borman.
CORAN CAPSHAW, 60
Founder, Red Light Management
BRAD BELANGER, 43
Manager, Red Light Management; owner, Homestead Management
MARY HILLIARD HARRINGTON, 41
Manager, Red Light Management
TOM LORD, 42
Marketing, Red Light Management
JANET WEIR, 43
Manager, Red Light Management; owner, 42 Ent
Repping the Top Country Stars of Today: Capshaw personally manages Lady Antebellum and crossover phenom Chris Stapleton, whose Traveller went triple-platinum in May. Belanger paved the way for Sam Hunt to drive “Body Like a Back Road” to a record 34 weeks atop Hot Country Songs, while Weir helped Maren Morris earn her first two No. 1s (“I Could Use a Love Song” on Country Airplay and “The Middle” on Mainstream Top 40). Harrington has worked with Dierks Bentley to prep his latest, The Mountain, for a June 8 release and to organize his hot-ticket Seven Peaks Music Festival. And with duties spanning the entire RLM roster, Lord worked magic at the ACM Awards, where Stapleton received the most noms — eight — and won two.
Grooming New Talent: Red Light’s roster is star-packed — “[Universal Nashville] has the largest market share in town, and Red Light reps about 17 of their acts,” says Belanger — but fresh talent is always in the wings. Recent breakout acts LANCO, Jon Pardi and Brett Young are also on the roster. “We’re developing artists and executives, and another way we stand out in Nashville is the number of great female managers we have,” says Capshaw, citing Callie Cunningham (Lady Antebellum), Melanie Wetherbee (Pardi), Haley McLemore (Maddie & Tae) and Mary Forest Findley (Bobby Bones) in addition to Harrington, Weir and Kerri Edwards, who co-manages Luke Bryan with RLM.
Partner/co-owner, Triple 8 Management; partner/co-owner, Triple Tigers Records
With Triple Tigers, a Double Threat: Couri and his partner (and Triple 8 co-owner), Bruce Kalmick, expanded beyond talent management with the 2016 launch of Triple Tigers Records, a co-venture with Thirty Tigers and Sony Music. The label has been an out-of-the-box success: Its first two singles, “Yours” by Russell Dickerson and “Five More Minutes” by Scotty McCreery, each hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart. Dickerson’s track has earned 168.2 million streams.
The Breakdown: “We invest in a larger team of people so we can solve more problems and create more success,” says Couri of Triple 8’s team of 38, which manages a roster that includes Joe Nichols, Chase Rice, Eli Young Band and McCreery.
VIRGINIA DAVIS, 37
Managing partner/founder, G Major Mgmt
An “Unforgettable” Year With Thomas Rhett: Kicking off his first arena-headlining tour in 2017, Davis’ longtime client Thomas Rhett advanced from support act to main attraction, selling out 27 of 34 U.S. shows. The 28-year-old singer’s third LP, Life Changes, added to his momentum, yielding Rhett’s eighth, ninth and 10th No. 1s on Country Airplay (“Craving You,” featuring Maren Morris; “Unforgettable”; and “Marry Me,” respectively) and his first No. 1s on the Billboard 200, Top Album Sales and Top Country Albums charts. “I don’t look at last year as a breakthrough, but as a culmination of all the work that led up to it,” says Davis.
Rising: Danielle Bradbery, 21, who won season four of The Voice, earned a 2018 ACM Awards nom for new female vocalist of the year.
BOB DOYLE, 70
Owner/president, Major Bob Music/Bob Doyle & Associates
Garth’s Co-Pilot: Doyle’s superstar artist Garth Brooks topped the Country Airplay chart for the first time in nearly 10 years last October with “Ask Me How I Know,” his 19th time atop the tally. The song, released on his own Pearl label, was the second single from his Gunslinger album, which was released in 2016. It’s the latest chapter in an epic career that Doyle has managed since its beginning. Brooks is the top-selling artist of the Nielsen Music era, with 72 million albums sold. He was also named entertainer of the year for the sixth time at the 2017 CMA Awards — a record as well.
No Time To Rest: After finishing a three-year tour that sold a reported 6.4 million tickets, Brooks is in the studio readying a new album.
MARTHA EARLS, 40
Owner/creative principal, EFG Mgmt
Kane Brown Is EFG’s BFD: Earls says that the achievement of the last year was seeing Kane Brown, who was living with his grandmother when she began managing him less than three years ago, become the first artist to simultaneously top all five of Billboard‘s main country charts. The coming year is about raising awareness of Brown beyond the country genre. “Breaking through to country radio was truly something that two years ago I would have said, ‘I hope this happens. I don’t know,’ ” says Earls, whose husband, Kent, also appears on this list. “[Topping all five charts] was a turning point for Kane. I think achieving that gave him a lot more respect in Nashville, which is something I feel like we’re constantly fighting for.”
Recent Book That Inspired Her: “Magdalene by Marie Howe. It’s written from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, if she was living right now. It’s the story of her life and shows the complexity of being a female.”
Owner, The HQ
No One Champions Underwood Like She Does: The Milwaukee-born Edelblute flies beneath the radar while steering every aspect of Carrie Underwood’s recording, touring and lifestyle empire. During the past year she oversaw negotiations with NBC Sports for Underwood’s No. 3 Digital Song Sales hit “The Champion” (featuring Ludacris) to open the Super Bowl and also appear during NBC’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Bouncing Back: Underwood’s serious fall while walking her dogs in late 2017 — which necessitated surgery on her wrist and over 40 stitches on her face — hasn’t slowed her. The singer-songwriter recently hosted a fitness event on behalf of her CALIA workout line and unveiled her new single, “Cry Pretty,” during a dramatic performance at the ACM Awards in April. The track has since become her sixth No. 1 on Country Digital Song Sales, moving over 127,000 downloads. Underwood — who teased a new album that is due in September — also nabbed her 14th ACM trophy for “The Fighter,” a collaboration with pal Keith Urban.
Founder/president, KP Entertainment
Making Luke Bryan an American Idol: Luke Bryan, who Edwards co-manages with Red Light, notched his 19th No. 1 Country Airplay hit in 10 years with “Most People Are Good”; sold 290,000 copies of his 2017 No. 1 Top Country Albums release, What Makes You Country; and got a seat at the judges’ table on American Idol. He’s also about to headline a tour that will have him playing Major League Baseball’s Wrigley and Ford fields.
Teaching Underdogs New Tricks: Bryan was an unknown songwriter when Edwards left music publishing to manage him 15 years ago. She partnered with Coran Capshaw and Red Light for extra clout and now puts that leverage to use for KP clients Cole Swindell, who scored his fifth platinum single, and Jon Langston, who just signed a deal with UMG Nashville. Edwards says the official motto of KP, which has a staff of six, is “all in.”
MARION KRAFT, 53
CEO, ShopKeeper Management
Ushered in the Lambert generation: With Kraft’s guidance, client Miranda Lambert has become the ACM’s winningest artist of all time. In April, she was named female vocalist of the year for the ninth consecutive time. Kraft, who leads an all-female executive team, says ShopKeeper’s artists — which also include Tenille Townes, Ashley Monroe and her supergroup with Lambert, Pistol Annies — “are our bosses. We all figure out what the music says and we take it where it belongs.” Says Kraft: “That means knocking on lots of doors. We continue to raise the flag for female voices.”
Her Take On The Music Modernization Act: “My good friend Dina LaPolt has been fighting for years to change these outdated laws by extensively researching and reaching across the aisle to come up with a bill that fairly compensates music creators.”
DALE MORRIS, 81
President, Dale Morris & Associates/Morris Higham Management
CLINT HIGHAM, 46
President/partner, Morris Higham Management
Sunny Days for Chesney and Old Dominion: Key client Kenny Chesney’s current Trip Around the Sun Tour is on target to gross “north of $100 million” from 43 shows, and has already sold over 1 million tickets, says Higham. Old Dominion has had a breakthrough year as well. The five-piece band crested the Top Country Albums chart for the first time last September with Happy Endings, earned its fourth and fifth top five hits on Hot Country Songs and, in April, beat out Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum for the vocal group of the year honor at the ACM Awards.
Paying It Forward: For Higham, artist development is a favorite part of the job, one that he says has largely shifted from labels to managers in recent years. “I don’t want to lease a certain moment in time with an artist. I want the whole career,” he says. Mentoring others, as Morris mentored Higham when he hired him 25 years ago, is also a priority. “Nothing thrills me more than to see somebody else be successful and knowing you had something to do with it,” says Higham.
Biggest Country Music Story Of The Past Year: Higham: “There really wasn’t one. You look back at the Outlaw days, and those guys lived their music and truth. I’m ready for someone to shake it up.”
JOHN PEETS, 51
Founder, Q Prime South
Building Eric Church’s Flock: Peets is a guru for Nashville mavericks. He counsels his artists to “look more inward than outward” — to be themselves and color outside the boundaries of the country radio and publishing ecosystems. In 2017, that meant 896,620 tickets sold for country-rock titan Eric Church (Billboard Boxscore’s No. 2 country tour of 2017, with a total gross of almost $55 million from 65 shows). It also led to vocal duo of the year wins for Brothers Osborne at both the 2017 CMA Awards and 2018 ACM Awards. And rising star Ashley McBryde’s hard-living songs drove her Warner Bros. Nashville debut, Girl Going Nowhere, to a No. 7 debut on the Top Country Albums list.
SCOTT SIMAN, 63
CEO of Tim McGraw Inc.: As head of Tim McGraw’s management company, Siman was instrumental in putting together Soul2Soul, McGraw and wife Faith Hill’s first co-headlining tour in nearly two decades. The country superstars hit the road in April 2017 and grossed $71.3 million in the first six months, earning them the Legend of Live honor at the 2017 Billboard Touring Awards. They’ve just embarked on another run of shows.
Film And Fitness: Siman reps McGraw in all pursuits, which led to his involvement in the production of Showtime’s 2017 documentary about the Soul2Soul tour and the upcoming launch of a line of McGraw-branded gyms. “It is easier to tell people we manage Tim,” says Siman, “but I like to tell people it’s like we’re the CEO of his businesses.”
Biggest Change Of The Last Decade In Nashville: “You’ve got to love the Predators’ run at the Stanley Cup.”
CLARENCE SPALDING, 61
Steering the Aldean Machine: In April, Rearview Town became Jason Aldean’s fourth consecutive album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It earned 183,000 equivalent album units in its first week — the biggest haul for a country studio album since Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 in 2017. Two days after Rearview Town‘s release, Aldean scored his third consecutive entertainer of the year ACM Award. His victory was all the more meaningful following the horror of the Route 91 shooting, which began while the singer-guitarist was onstage. “Our artists use their music and performances to show that evil won’t win,” says Spalding.
Reba’s Renaissance: Spalding points to client Reba McEntire’s Grammy win for best roots gospel album and her ACM Awards hosting gig as the beginning of a new chapter in her career.
ALI HARNELL, 50
Senior vp global touring, AEG PresentsBragging Rights: Harnell promoted tours with Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves and Midland. Promoted to her current title in May, Harnell continues to program and grow AEG Presents’ successful C2C festival at the O2 Arena in London, Dublin and Glasgow, which in 2018 was headlined by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. And country is not her only game: Harnell also manages pop group The Shadowboxers, who are opening for Justin Timberlake on his Man of the Woods Tour.
Recent TV Series Character That Inspired Her: “The child character Papa from The Chi.”
DAVID KELLS, 42
Senior vp events and marketing, Bridgestone Arena/Nashville Predators
Breakaway Success With the Predators: With the help of the Nashville NHL team’s on-the-ice success and 2017 Stanley Cup run, Kells has made home games at Bridgestone Arena one of the hottest tickets in town, with Vince Gill playing intermissions, country stars welcoming fans with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Carrie Underwood cheering on her husband, Predators center Mike Fisher.
Hallowed Ground: Bridgestone remains the must-play concert venue for musicians touring through Music City — Eric Church ended his Holdin’ My Own Tour there and broke an attendance record with 19,020 fans in attendance.
LOUIS MESSINA, 70
CEO, Messina Touring Group
It’s Taylor Time: Messina, who plotted and is promoting Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour, her biggest to date, says it’s on track to gross $300 million with an average attendance of 40,000 per show. “She’s in her 11th year of touring and bigger than she has ever been,” says Messina.
Chesney, Shelton & Church — Oh My: The hard-driving promoter is also working with Kenny Chesney — career box-office gross, $968.8 million — on a sold-out stadium tour, while promoting red-hot runs for Blake Shelton and Eric Church. He’s also handling one-off shows for George Strait, including a headlining slot at Bayou Country Superfest in New Orleans. “We’re going to do 50,000 people and gross $7 million,” says Messina. “His legacy keeps growing.”
He’s Over… “All these loser writers talking about Taylor Swift’s tour. We’re going to gross $7 million a show — how can you say that’s not a huge success?”
BRIAN O’CONNELL, 53
President of country music touring, U.S. concerts division; Live Nation
BRIAN TRAEGER, 37
President of Nashville, U.S. concerts division; Live Nation
Career Honor: In January, O’Connell received the CMA Award for lifetime achievement in touring during his 25-plus years in the business, a game-changing career that’s responsible for six successful country music festivals and the Country Megaticket season pass. Traeger, meanwhile, oversaw a record number of 2017 shows booked at both Memphis’ FedExForum and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and Kid Rock’s third annual Fish Fry at Fontanel.
Route 91 Wisdom: “I have a much deeper awareness of how fragile things are,” says O’Connell about how he has changed in the tragic aftermath of the Route 91 festival, which he co-founded in 2014. “One minute you can be standing there at the most successful edition of a festival you [created] — and the next you’re the lead story on every news service on the planet. You can’t wrap your head around it.”
He’s Over… O’Connell “Talking about Route 91.”
SALLY WILLIAMS, 46
Senior vp programming and artist relations, Opry Entertainment; gm, Grand Ole OpryProtective of the Grand Ole Opry’s 93-year-old history but dedicated to ensuring its future, Sally Williams welcomes both veterans and country’s cutting edge — like Devin Dawson and Ashley McBryde — to the Nashville landmark’s storied stage.
As guardian of the Grand Ole Opry’s illustrious 93-year-old legacy, Williams points to 2018 Opry membership invitations extended to Chris Janson, 32, and Bobby Bare, 83, as a reflection of the institution’s scope. “It’s important to us to represent the full range of country artists,” says Williams, who notes that Ashley McBryde’s bluesy Southern rock, Lukas Nelson’s cowboy surf and Devin Dawson’s soulful country have all recently made Opry stage debuts. “We’ve got an amazing past,” adds Williams, “but our eye is also on the future.”
Williams is also working to impart the Opry’s sensibility beyond Nashville. Since last October, Opry Entertainment has opened three offshoot locations: Ole Red Nashville and Oklahoma’s Ole Red Tishomingo, a pair of upscale honky-tonks with Opry member and partner Blake Shelton, and Opry City Stage, a Times Square satellite in New York. As Williams explains, “I want to tie all this together in a way that engages more with the artistic community.”
Biggest Country Music Story Of The Past Year: “Sadly, it was the Route 91 tragedy, but there were positive stories as well. Vince Gill became an Eagle. Garth Brooks concluded the biggest tour ever by a solo artist. The Mother Church of Country Music — the Ryman Auditorium — celebrated its 125th anniversary, including the first yearlong residency featuring Little Big Town.”
Why Country Artists Avoid Politics Today: “There has never been a time when all country music was political. Hank Williams’ music wasn’t overtly political, nor was the music of Patsy Cline. On the other hand, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn tackled social and political issues, alienating radio stations and potential fans in the process. These days, sped and amplified by the immediacy of the internet, reactions to differing opinions can be ferocious. Tolerance and respect for other views are easily lost. Kudos to artists who are compelled to speak their minds on controversial issues. But who can blame any artist who doesn’t?”
Rascal Flatts Frontman Gary LeVox On Williams: “Sally has always been a powerhouse within our industry. It has been a privilege to work with her over the years and to see such a strong woman leading the charge at the Opry now, which has always been a special place for us. It’s exciting to see her continue to excel.” — CAMILLE DODERO
MARC DENNIS, 47 // DARIN MURPHY, 51
Co-heads, CAA Music Nashville
ROD ESSIG, 69 // JOHN HUIE, 62
Founders, CAA Music Nashville
Booking Bonanza: CAA’s Nashville quartet has orchestrated some of the hottest country tours of the past year, including an 80-date sold-out North American tour for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill that grossed close to $79 million (another 25-date leg began in May); a run of Zac Brown Band stadium/amphitheater shows in 2017 as well as 2018 plays with the Eagles; Keith Urban’s Graffiti U summer tour with Kelsea Ballerini, which is on track to gross over $30 million, according to the agency; and the extension of Luke Combs’ first headlining run with 25 new North American dates.
Shania’s On Fiya: CAA reports that a 70-city Shania Twain world tour routed by Dennis is on track to generate over $75 million in revenue.
JONATHAN LEVINE, 56
Head of Nashville office, Paradigm Talent Agency
Nonconformists Wanted: Levine says he’s most proud of working with artists who don’t conform to the “Nashville formula,” including Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Anderson East. “We continue to be a home for music that reeks of authenticity and credibility,” he says.
Kacey In The House: Levine signed Kacey Musgraves in 2018 and brought over her longtime promoter, Lenore Kinder from AEG Presents, to represent the “Space Cowboy” singer. Meanwhile, Paradigm continues to build careers for Tyler Childers, Colter Wall, Brent Cobb and The Lone Bellow — acts that don’t get much mainstream country radio play but have built strong fan bases through live performances.
NICK MEINEMA* // CURT MOTLEY, 53
Nashville music leadership, United Talent Agency
Took Toby Keith to Saudi Arabia: With Motley’s help, Toby Keith had one of the biggest years of his career. The Bus Songs landed at No. 6 on Top Country Albums, and Keith performed in front of an estimated 1 million fans globally, says Motley, including a historic show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2017. Meinema also booked Keith in three new markets in Canada. “It’s rare that you get to bring a new opportunity to someone with such a storied and robust career,” he says.
New Faces In The Crowd: “You have to make sure your artists aren’t looking at the same crowds year to year,” says Motley, who expanded Keith’s audience by booking him for nearly 20 corporate and private events in 2017.
ROB BECKHAM, 52 // SCOTT CLAYTON, 52 // JOEY LEE, 49 // GREG OSWALD, 61 // JAY WILLIAMS, 45
Co-heads/partners, Nashville Office; WME
Talent Infusion: In October 2017, Lee and Williams were promoted to co-head status, and a month later, Clayton left CAA to join them and WME vets Oswald and Beckham at the agency’s Nashville office, which reps Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert and has booked over 11,000 dates in the past year. In May, Williams and Clayton added Adam Voith and Andrew Colvin, formerly of the Billions agency, to the staff. “Jay was working on bringing them to WME when I was trying to get them to join CAA,” says Clayton. “I think being on the same side finally did the trick.”
Dolly’s in the House! Oswald led the team of agents that signed Dolly Parton in 2018.
RAC CLARK, 61
President/executive producer, Lion’s Heart Entertainment
ACM Awards Ace: In April, the 2018 ACM Awards, which Clark executive-produced, added 1.2 million overall viewers to its 2017 ratings. Clark, son of the late broadcasting legend Dick Clark, had the idea to approach Jason Aldean for the telecast’s opening tribute to the victims of the Route 91 shooting. “We had to find the right tone,” says Clark. “And we realized one song wouldn’t do it. That’s how we came up with the spoken-word part, and it was Jason and his team that came up with the idea to ask four other artists to join him and talk about what country music means to them and the fans.”
CHARLIE COOK, 67
Vp country formats, Cumulus Media; operations manager, Cumulus/Nashville; program director, WSM-FM Nashville
JOHN SHOMBY, 67
Director of Nash programming, Cumulus Media; program director, WKDF-FM Nashville
Double-Teaming the Competition: Cook’s programming of the Nash Icon-formatted WSM-FM (95.5) has it trading places with iHeartMedia’s WSIX-FM (97.9) for the No. 1 country-station spot among all listeners ages 6 and older. And Shomby has boosted listenership at contemporary country station WKDF (Nash-FM 103.3), which is in the same market, by 16,000.
#DEMOGOALS: “Our company concentrates on 25- to 54-year-olds, so I’m trying to [grow] our audience in that demo,” says Cook.
Biggest Issue Country Music Faces: Shomby: “We tend to not let a song breathe. Some good music goes away fast because stations are driven by the chart, not by their audience.”
Executive producer, CMA Awards
Route 91 Tribute a Highlight of 2017: Deaton, who has overseen the CMA Awards since 2007 and in 2017 signed a five-year contract extension, says the highlight of last November’s production was working with Carrie Underwood on her moving tribute to the victims of Route 91, “Softly and Tenderly.” Ratings for the telecast were up 14 percent over 2016, attracting 14.3 million viewers.
The Producer Is Also a Director: Deaton signed with United Talent Agency last October, and his Little League drama, Benched, which he co-directed, will receive a limited theatrical release in August.
Senior vp music and talent, CMT
Frustrated by the country music industry’s lack of support for female artists, Leslie Fram founded the CMT Next Women of Country campaign to level the playing field — and it’s working
Now in 92 million homes, the Viacom-owned CMT finished fiscal 2017 up 13 percent among adults 18-49, notching its highest-rated year since 2014. That’s largely thanks to Leslie Fram’s savvy programming and talent choices for the cable channel’s musical fare, which includes Crossroads, a series that pairs country artists with musicians from other genres; the CMT Music Awards; and the CMT Next Women of Country campaign, a cross-platform initiative that Fram, who grew up in Fairhope, Ala., created to provide tour support and on-air opportunities for rising female stars. “Among our success stories are Brandy Clark, Cassadee Pope, RaeLynn and Maren Morris,” says Fram.
The Biggest Issue Country Music Faces: “Lack of support for female artists. In the past few years, only two to three women have appeared on radio’s ‘most played’ year-end lists. This is also true for streaming services. Female artists and songwriters are making some of the best music available but are not given the support and exposure. The issue won’t be resolved until women are elevated in all aspects of the business.”
What CMT Is Doing To Counter That Trend: “Our team selects a mixture of signed and unsigned female artists, and we highlight their material across our shows and platforms. We’ll film them in our studio doing acoustic sets and create videos around them to give them extra content. That has been going on for five years. Four years ago, we added a tour. It’s usually anchored by a more established artist, and they take out up-and-comers that otherwise might not get a stage to play on. Each November, the Tuesday before the CMA Awards, we host an event at the City Winery to introduce the new class. There are about 10 performances, and it’s a big industry celebration.”
Carly Pearce On Fram: “When I think about my nine-year journey in Nashville, meeting Leslie Fram and becoming a member of the Next Women of Country stands out. Leslie has become an unwavering champion of the kind of artist I am, and continues to be high on my list of ‘go-tos’ when I need guidance regarding difficult decisions in my career. Her drive and passion to create a safe place for female artists not only fostered opportunities for me early on, but also helped me to regain my confidence as a woman in the industry when for quite some time it was shattered.” — PAULA PARISI
PHIL GUERINI, 54
Vp music strategy, Disney Channels Worldwide; gm, Radio Disney Network
Growing Radio Disney’s Global Reach: Under Guerini’s guidance, Radio Disney Country has grown to reach over 20 million listeners globally in under three years.
Keep It Fresh: With awareness of the platform growing, Guerini says he’s zeroing in on attracting the female 18-24 demographic. The strategy, which will be in place by the end of the year, means Radio Disney Country won’t play anything over nine months old, so as not to “compromise our ability to be that discovery platform,” says Guerini.
JOHN HAMLIN, 57
President/CEO, Switched On Entertainment
Put Healing Before Hustling: Jason Aldean, Keith Urban and other honorees who appeared on the Oct. 18 CMT Artists of the Year TV special, executive-produced by Hamlin, skipped their thank-yous in favor of healing messages to fans in the wake of the Route 91 shooting. The decision to mute the glitz proved wise: Ratings were up 61 percent among the sought-after 18-49 demographic.
Pop Credentials: Hamlin’s portfolio includes 11 years with CMT Crossroads, pairing pop and country artists, and the CMT Music Awards, which “has a very young [general admission] audience around the stage, giving it a kind of European festival feel,” he says.
Why Country Artists Avoid Politics Today: “Ask the Dixie Chicks.”
MIKE MOORE, 54
Vp programming/director of country programming, Entercom
Broadcasting for the Greater Good: Just 11 days after the CBS Radio-Entercom merger closed last November, the broadcast groups’ country stations came together to simulcast an hourlong fundraiser, Count On Country, for the Las Vegas Victims Fund.
Big Footprint: The Portland, Ore.-based Moore oversees programming for 18 country stations nationwide, including former CBS outlets in Chicago, Houston and Detroit. As the dust settles on the merger, he’s excited about the kinds of things the company’s “bigger footprint” in country music will allow it to do.
ROD PHILLIPS, 49
Senior vp programming/country brand manager, iHeartMedia
BOBBY BONES, 38
Radio personality, iHeartMedia
GATOR HARRISON, 46
Senior vp programming for Nashville, iHeartMedia
Country Radio’s Triple Threat: With over 150 stations and 110 million monthly listeners, America’s largest country broadcast radio group continued to expand under Phillips, infiltrating the Denver market with the launch of KWBL (106.7 The Bull) last December. Meanwhile, syndicated host/entertainer Bones parlayed his eponymous show’s 5 million-plus weekly listeners into a three-episode mentoring role on ABC’s American Idol reboot. And under Harrison’s leadership of iHeart’s six-station cluster in Nashville, WSIX-FM (97.9), home to Bones’ show, is currently the No. 1 country signal among the key adults 25-54 demo.
Country Music Story Of The Past Year Phillips: “The increase in emerging female vocalists in the format. The most current [Country Airplay] chart had 11 songs with female vocals in the top 40, compared to times when there were just one or two.”
J.R. SCHUMANN, 36
Senior director of programming, SiriusXM
Making Fans in Margaritaville: Schumann has overseen the growth of 12 country channels on the satellite radio service, which has over 33.1 million total subscribers.
Country Ambassador: The Tyler, Texas-born executive has raised country’s global profile through his oversight of artist-branded channels such as Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Radio and The Garth Channel, as well as live events like The Highway’s Music Row Happy Hour every Friday at the Margaritaville restaurant in Nashville. “We see probably on average 1,000 people,” says Schumann. “Trip Advisor lists it as a ‘must-do.’ ”
He’s Over… “Pedal taverns! It’s basically a bar on wheels — with people pedaling the thing down the road at two-and-a-half miles per hour.”
JAY LIEPIS, 44
Global head of country music, Apple Music
Nashville’s New Kid in Town: As country blooms at Apple Music — the genre is up 84 percent worldwide among the service’s 40 million subscribers in 115 countries — the streaming behemoth has staked a physical claim to Nashville by moving Liepis to Music City before it opens a Southern office there in the fall.
The Power of Streaming: Even with 13 years at the tech giant, Liepis calls a recent Apple Music collaboration with Jason Aldean “definitely a career highlight,” adding, “He really understands the power of streaming.” Coordinated exclusives like a Beats 1 interview and a “Drowns the Whiskey (Live)” premiere helped catapult the April release of Aldean’s Rearview Town to No. 1 on the service’s country albums chart and smash the platform’s all-time record for most-streamed country album in its first week.
Surprising Country Fan Base: “The United Kingdom. Twenty years ago, it was all about the local Brit rock scene there.”
JOHN MARKS, 64
Global senior editor/music programmer, country; Spotify
Bringing Country to More Countries: Spotify’s Hot Country playlist, curated by Marks, reaches over 4.7 million followers worldwide — it recently expanded to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Spain, in addition to the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Latin America. In April, an “enhanced” playlist premiered that includes original interviews and music videos.
Crossover Champion: Marks is especially proud of Spotify Country discoveries like Florida Georgia Line’s collaboration with Bebe Rexha, “Meant to Be,” which has spent 26 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. “It has broken records with a female lead from New York City with no country cred,” says Marks. “I love it when stuff like that happens.”
KELLY RICH, 51
Senior label relations manager for Nashville, Amazon Music
EMILY COHEN, 34
Country music curator, Amazon Music
Country’s Streaming Leader: While country music lags behind other genres when it comes to consumption through streaming, Amazon Music “performs three times the industry average, and to see those numbers grow is our biggest accomplishment,” says Rich, who left Big Machine Label Group in February 2017 to help the Amazon team make its mark in Nashville. While the company that Jeff Bezos built declines to reveal any real numbers about its business, Billboard estimates that country makes up 15 percent of Amazon’s streams. Comparatively, country music accounts for only 6 percent of overall U.S. streams.
Spreading Country Heat: On April 27, Amazon launched its new Country Heat playlist, curated by Cohen, in 35 countries.
Surprising Celebrity Country Fan: Cohen: “Chris Pratt. When Chris Stapleton brought him onstage during his hometown shows at Bridgestone Arena [in Nashville], I was completely floored. If Stapleton co-signs you into the country-music-verse, then so will I.”
RACHEL WHITNEY, 36
Head of country music programming, Pandora
BEVILLE DUNKERLEY, 43
Director of artist marketing and industry relations, Pandora
Building Audience With Backroads: Whitney was instrumental in introducing Pandora’s Backroads station in April. Dunkerley made the company’s yearly Sounds Like You: Country show in June 2017 biannual, pulling off a second November event headlined by Blake Shelton on the release day for his album Texoma Shore.
Awake, Dormant Country Fans! Over two-thirds of Pandora’s 72.3 million monthly active listeners have tuned in to country on the platform in the past year, but both Whitney and Dunkerley want to grow that considerable number through efforts like Backroads, the first country initiative for a digital service provider incorporating programming, marketing and events. “The focus is getting people who maybe signed up for a Pandora account 15 years ago but haven’t used it in a while to become habitual users again,” says Dunkerley.
What She Misses About The Nashville Of Old Whitney: “The old venues — The Rutledge, the old Sutler, Starwood — and the people: Jeff Walker was the first person to give me a chance at a ‘real’ job, and Ann Soyars, who would always wave us past the line at the Station Inn. And I really miss the parking.”
KENT EARLS, 46
Executive vp/gm, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville
20 Years Strong: Earls is celebrating the meteoric rise of UMPGN artist Kane Brown, who is managed by his wife, Martha Earls, as well as the success of Keith Urban’s Graffiti U, his sixth LP to debut at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, earning 145,000 equivalent album units in its first week.
Wanted: New Talent: Earls, who recently marked 20 years with Universal, says his division is “being aggressive” about discovering new songwriters and artists. Recent signees include Caylee Hammack and Josh Hoge.
TROY TOMLINSON, 54
President/CEO, Sony/ATV Nashville
A Year of Growth: Although Tomlinson declines to provide specifics, he says his division posted significant year-to-year growth and profit. Sony Music’s global publishing grew 11.8 percent to $670 million in its most recent fiscal year, and Billboard estimates Sony/ATV as a whole comprises $600 million of the total.
New To The Roster: Tomlinson’s team signed Kelsea Ballerini and songwriter Luke Laird.
BEN VAUGHN, 42
President, Warner/Chappell Music Nashville
Five-Time ASCAP Publisher of the Year: Under Vaughn’s leadership, Warner/Chappell Nashville has been the No. 1 publisher of the top 100 country radio songs for the past five consecutive quarters, including the first quarter of 2018, in which the division captured a 26.2 percent share.
ACM Domination: Vaughn says that 2017 was “one of the best years in the history of the company.” Warner/Chappell took home its fifth consecutive ASCAP publisher of the year honor and represented 67 percent of the acts who performed on the 2018 ACM Awards.
Surprising Celebrity Country Fan: “The Rock.”
Co-owner, Big Yellow Dog Music
Next-Gen Nurturer: Wallace cultivates young talent. The native Nashvillian signed Meghan Trainor at 17, helped Maren Morris transition from songwriter to performer and has a new label partnership with Atlantic to release recent Harvard grad Brynn Elliott. Internally, there is 25-year-old Alex Stefano, whose three-woman-strong synch department scored key placements with Apple and Old Navy.
Not Just Publishing: The 19-year-old company that Wallace owns with Kerry O’Neil is a multisector powerhouse, handling synchs, label services and marketing for its writers — almost everything but management. “Not everybody can do what we do,” she says. “I can’t do what a manager does.”
KOS WEAVER, 49
Executive vp, BMG Nashville
$119 Million in Added Revenue in 2017: Over the past 18 months, Weaver has played a critical role in BMG’s acquisition of BBR Music Group, which included publishing arm Magic Mustang Music. The deal, for which BMG paid approximately $103 million upfront, established the company as a major presence in Nashville, where staff has already grown from 20 to almost 100 people.
BMG + BBR = Growth: The BBR purchase helped BMG grow annual revenue to $619 million from about $500 million in 2016. Publishing revenue accounted for about 80 percent of that, with BMG claiming 7.7 percent of the top 100 country radio songs in the first quarter of 2018.
MICHAEL MARTIN, 56
Vp membership, Nashville; ASCAPRepping 47 Percent of the Country Market: Martin says ASCAP holds 47 percent of the country-music songwriting market that it shares with BMI, SESAC and Global Music Rights. That’s up from 30 percent when Martin joined the performing rights organization in 2010.
Room With A “Vroom”: After citing the success of member Chris Stapleton’s Travellerand From A Room: Volume 1 and Volume 2 — which have collectively generated 1.7 billion streams since 2015 — Martin says he’s scouting for the Stapletons of tomorrow, citing newcomers Jillian Jacqueline, Tenille Townes and Jordan Davis, who scored his first Country Airplay No. 1 with “Singles You Up.” “Since the labels have cut back,” he says, “it has put more pressure on the PROs to develop [artists].”
KELLI TURNER, 47
Executive vp operations and corporate development/CFO SESAC
Blackstone Power Surge: SESAC management has spent the last year positioning the company for future growth under its new owner, Blackstone. “We’ve really been focused on building our team and hiring the right people in the right seats that can help take SESAC forward for the next 10 years,” says Turner. The PRO has more than doubled revenue collections from $206 million in 2015 to $400 million-$500 million in 2017.
JODY WILLIAMS, 62
Vp writer publisher relations, Nashville; BMI
Showcased 800 Artists and Songwriters: BMI’s 3-year-old partnerships and events department, which Williams oversees, has yielded 800 paid annual performance slots to promote artists and writers including Luke Combs, Ashley McBryde and RaeLynn.
Brand Aid: Jason Aldean, Maren Morris, Keith Urban and Kane Brown keep the BMI A-list sizzling, but Williams is most engaged when spotlighting new talent. “We were the only PRO with a curated stage at Hangout, Austin City Limits, LouFest and Lollapalooza,” he says. And with sponsors Anheuser-Busch, Delta and AT&T, BMI events are “funded without taking dollars from distribution.”
RUSSELL A. JONES, 67
Principal, The Law Offices Of Russell A. Jones Jr. & Anjlee Khurana
Garth Brooks’ Pact Man: Jones negotiated Garth Brooks’ contracts for his record-breaking tour, which in 2017 became the most successful outing in North America with a reported 6.4 million tickets sold. The attorney — who has worked on Music Row for 40 years, and also represents Toby Keith and Trisha Yearwood — takes pride in his “small contribution” to Brooks landing a sixth CMA entertainer of the year award. The country star’s rarefied level of success “means a lot of people do their jobs really well,” says Jones of Team Garth.
JOEL KATZ, 74
Chairman, Global Entertainment and Media Group; Greenberg Traurig
JESS L. ROSEN, 63
Co-Chairman, Atlanta Entertainment and Media Practice; Greenberg Traurig
Nashville’s Power Lawyers: Katz clients Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s Soul2Soul World Tour grossed $79 million in 2017 alone. “For the first time we are really seeing progress in terms of country becoming a global brand,” says the well-connected Katz. Meanwhile, longtime legal partner Rosen, whose clients include Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert and Thomas Rhett, oversaw Kenny Chesney’s surprise defection to Warner Nashville.
Good Deeds Indeed: Rosen helped Chesney earmark profits from his first Warner single, “Get Along,” for his Love for Love City Foundation to aid hurricane relief efforts in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Katz worked with Berklee College of Music to establish the African Music Institute, a philanthropic and educational venture slated to open in Libreville, Gabon, in late 2018.
MIKE MILOM, 75
Partner, Milom Horsnell Crow Rose Kelley
Transactional Titan: Milom and his firm have negotiated more than a dozen “impact deals” over the past year, including placing Luke Bryan on the American Idol judges’ panel and nailing down credits for his client Keith Urban’s new Graffiti U album and its 18 producers.
Brought To You By… Verizon, Marriott, Hilton and Can-Am/Bombardier are among the brands Milom has negotiated with this past year for tour sponsorships and endorsements.
His Take On the Music Modernization Act: “It will significantly increase the value of existing and future music assets.”
PETE FISHER, 55
CEO, Academy Of Country MusicEmboldened by a ratings increase for the 2018 ACM Awards, Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music CEO Pete Fisher intends to increase country’s presence in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
The 53rd annual ACM Awards were a testament to country music’s resilience. Buoyed by two comeback stories — the industry’s first Las Vegas event since the Route 91 mass shooting in October 2017 and Carrie Underwood’s first public performance since the star sustained injuries in a November fall — the 2018 telecast averaged 12.1 million viewers, an overall audience growth of 11 percent over 2017’s 10.9 million. It even beat former FBI director James Comey’s first TV interview (airing the same night on ABC) after being fired by President Donald Trump. “Many awards shows have seen a downward trend in ratings, so we were thrilled to reverse that,” says Fisher, who’s in his-second year as CEO of the Los Angeles-based trade association (and prior to that served as GM of the Grand Ole Opry). “We look to build upon that next year.”
How The ACM Awards Trumped Comey: “I think we were fortunate to attract people who wanted a little relief from politics with some good, old-fashioned country music. Country music’s triumphant return to Las Vegas was one narrative of interest to people, and the other was Carrie Underwood’s return. Everyone loves the all-American girl. Those were moments you can’t program toward, but our motivation to return to Vegas wasn’t about ratings, it was about healing.”
Expansion Plans: “Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve been surprised by two things: first, how many country fans there are in this massive metropolitan area. Second, what incredible potential there is out here to expand our genre. Moving forward, one of the academy’s key initiatives is to elevate our West Coast profile: Whether it’s Hollywood, Silicon Valley or Silicon Beach, we believe there are untapped opportunities for country music in film, TV and technology.”
Brett Young On Fisher: “I’ve known Pete for several years now. He is really the first person I met in the Nashville music industry. I got connected with him through his son, whom I met when I was playing music in Los Angeles. Pete met with me the week that I moved to Nashville and took the time to listen to some of my music and give me advice and direction. He has been such a huge champion of mine from the start, and his support has meant the world to me.” — C.D.
JEREMY HOLLEY, 40 / LAURA HUTFLESS, 36
Billion-Dollar Bumble: Under Holley and Hutfless’ leadership, the Nashville-based marketing agency more than doubled revenue and staff in the last year and opened a second office in Austin in April. The two also helped grow social-connection app Bumble into a billion-dollar brand through promotions with Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum. “We understand talent and what will be a win for them,” says Hutfless.
Winning For Dolly, Keith And Kelsea: In addition to spearheading brand campaigns for Urban, Dolly Parton and Kelsea Ballerini, former Warner Music Group executive Holley and Creative Artists Agency alum Hutfless have used country music and artists to engineer high-stakes rebrands for Cracker Barrel and the American Red Cross.
MARY ANN McCREADY*
Business manager/co-owner, Flood Bumstead McCready & McCarthy
Finding Profits Off-Road: McCready says that her business management firm is driving clients’ non-touring income — which averaged 10 to 15 percent of an artist’s pay five years ago — to as high as 40 percent thanks to merch, endorsements, licensing, TV appearances and synchs. Off-road revenue has “much lower overhead,” she says, “so it’s more profitable to the bottom line.”
Shhh… McCready won’t divulge or discuss her firm’s clients, but insiders say they include such country stars as Eric Church, Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley.
What She Misses About the Nashville Of Old: “Watching Billy Sherrill in Columbia’s Studio B producing Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette and Johnny Paycheck; watching Lynn Anderson’s husband, Glen Sutton, streak down Music Row in hosiery; Bob Beckham’s 16th Avenue deck parties; the Peddler [restaurant]; and how everything that mattered was congregated on Music Row.”
KERRY O’NEIL, 65
Co-founder, O’Neil Hagaman
Bottom-Line Builders: O’Neil’s business management firm doesn’t advertise itself or its clients — don’t even look for a website — but sources say they include Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Little Big Town. As O’Neil puts it, if he and partners Al Hagaman Jr. and Cheryl Harris have another year where “[our]artists take their bows and nobody senses our presence except the key people who need to know, that’s a fantastic year for us.”
And That’s Not All: O’Neil also works in music publishing as a co-owner (with Carla Wallace) of Big Yellow Dog Music, where the roster includes Maren Morris and Meghan Trainor.
JENNIE SMYTHE, 41
CEO, Girlilla Marketing
Country’s Social Media Savant: This all-women digital marketing agency led by Smythe marked its 10th year in business by acquiring competitor Solo Media and quarterbacking the social media strategy of the 53rd annual ACM Awards, which finished first in its network demo of adults 18-49. “It doesn’t get much better than standing in a room with Reba [McEntire], cutting GIFs of her making jokes,” says Smythe of the awards show’s host.
Well-Rounded Roster: Girlilla’s clientele includes Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts as well as Kid Rock, and Liam and Chris Hemsworth.
Why Country Artists Avoid Politics Today: “These conversations are coming — I just think they’re still in the studio.”
LOU TAYLOR, 52
CEO/owner, Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group
Building FGL’s Brand Portfolio: The business manager for Florida Georgia Line oversaw the development and construction of the duo’s creative and retail compound, which opened in Nashville earlier this year and houses its music publishing company and meet + greet co-working/event space.
Invested In Nashville: Leading a staff of 92 employees — 72 of whom are women — Taylor’s firm reps a roster that includes Reba McEntire and Jessie James Decker.
Her Take On The Music Modernization Act: “Why did it take so long to [advance] the thought that writers should be fairly compensated? You pay more for a bottle of water than someone’s created intellectual property.”
SARAH TRAHERN, 53
CEO, Country Music Association
The TV Ratings Whisperer: The 51st annual CMA Awards wrangled 14.3 million viewers in November 2017, up 14 percent from 2016; the Reba McEntire-hosted CMA Country Christmas drew 8.2 million, up 19 percent from 6.9 million; and a televised CMA Fest special in August attracted 5.7 million, its largest audience in three years.
International Harvester: In her fifth year as CEO, Trahern continues to expand the CMA’s global reach with a multiyear distribution deal in Latin America and an award presentation at U.K. and Australian festivals. “The fans there know the music and lyrics just as well as the fans here,” says the C-SPAN alumna.
*Declined to reveal age
Contributors: Trevor Anderson, Megan Armstrong, Jim Asker, Dave Brooks, Ed Christman, Camille Dodero, Adrienne Gaffney, Gary Graff, Jenn Haltman, Joe Levy, Melinda Newman, Paula Parisi, Eric Spitznagel, Phyllis Stark, Deborah Wilker
Methodology: A committee of Billboard editors and reporters weighed a variety of factors in determining the 2018 Country Power list, including, but not limited to, Billboard’s 2017 Top Artists and Top Tours rankings; nominations by peers, colleagues and superiors; impact on consumer behavior as measured by such metrics as chart, sales and streaming performance, social media impressions, and radio and TV audiences reached; career trajectory; and overall impact in the industry. When available, financial results are taken into consideration. Where required, U.S. record-label market share was consulted using Nielsen Music’s market share for album plus track-equivalent and streaming-equivalent album consumption units, and Billboard’s quarterly top 10 publisher rankings. Unless otherwise noted, Billboard Boxscore and Nielsen Music are the sources for tour grosses and sales/streaming data, respectively. Nielsen is also the source for radio audience metrics. Unless otherwise noted, streaming figures cited represent combined U.S. on-demand audio and video totals.
This article originally appeared in the June 2 issue of Billboard.