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SPOTLIGHT ON NASHVILLE

Story by Holly Gleason
Country music has never been as diverse as it is right now, with high-impact BroCos like Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and the edgier Eric Church; female mavericks like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe; and bands that go thump in the holler like The Band Perry, Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town. But the Nashville musical universe has been further bolstered by decidedly non-hillbilly breakouts like Kings of Leon, Ke$ha, The Civil Wars and relatively recent émigrés The Black Keys, as well as Jack White and his myriad musical entities. If Music City is suddenly hipster-hot, this is why.

And leading the charge for Music City’s newfound visibility and success are a handful of progressive managers who don’t care if Hank did it this way. All are highly unique in vision and tenacious in approach; the only common ground of these artist advocates is an unwavering commitment to getting it done.

"I don’t look at an act as if it’s a Nashville act or mainstream," says Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen. "That’s over! I look at how big or how small, and what can we do with it? If you start there, anything is possible."

Owen should know. He established a high-profile Las Vegas residency for Shania Twain, took a hard progressive songwriter named Kacey Musgraves to wild visibility on the Grammys and helped sort out industry faves Little Big Town by pairing them with ace rock producer Jay Joyce.
"I’ve had artists say, ‘Give me the opportunity and I’ll deliver," Owen continues. "My attitude: We do give you the opportunity, then we help you make the most of it. I am a big believer that you can launch careers off television: there will be one or two performances on an awards show everyone’s talking about the next day; those will be mine.

"Or Little Big Town. Everybody loved them, but changing producers to Jay Joyce was a huge step. Then asking the creative community, ‘What do you love about them?’ and trying to bring the songs in line with that, versus just ‘This is a hit," which is how some people think."
 
At the other end of the spectrum is Q Prime’s John Peets, a manager who cut his teeth by taking the decidedly eclectic bluegrass/acoustic Nickel Creek platinum on iconic indie label Sugar Hill. Now working with The Black Keys, Jay Joyce and country’s only true outlaw, Eric Church, Peets takes a more rockin’ approach to how he facilitates his clients’ careers.

"That essence of rock & roll is dangerous," explains the Cleveland native. "The unpredictability, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that out-of-control element is the heart of everything. It’s challenging—and you don’t want to look away."

That doesn’t mean he eschews planning. For The Black Keys, it’s an 18-month assault on the entire globe; for Church, it’s knowing to only release one track in front of an album to ensure that’s what’s setting the tone, or playing rock clubs before he broke to attract a different kind of audience.

"We went to where the fans were going to be, the people who would connect with Eric’s music, and it wasn’t what most people would do, but we found his audience," Peets explains. "Just like with the Brothers Osborne, their Virginia coast regionalism meant they were more the workingman’s water set than the partying that’s going on in country—and that means a whole other language and culture. Try to go there instead."
 
Going there has little appeal to Hard 8’s Rich Egan, the man behind tattooed love boy Brantley Gilbert. When Just as I Am debuted at #1 on the Country Album chart by selling 211k, Egan’s unorthodox style started to make sense. Cautioning, "I’m not for everyone, let me tell you that," the founder of punk label Vagrant brings a nuts-and-bolts approach to artist management and development.

"Kids are kids, whether they’re in Georgia or Portland, Oregon—and they’re smarter than people give them credit for," Egan notes. "At Hard 8, we try to engage them, to listen to them—and let that drive how we market and make our decisions, whether it’s Brantley, Augustana, Mac Miller, Dashboard Confessional or Breaking Benjamin. At the end of the day, don’t rush things, but don’t overthink it—and always be prepared to call an audible at the line of scrimmage. You have to know your artist and their fans to do it, but beyond getting basic business in place, that’s the secret.

"Brantley’s more a songwriter than anything—because he is singing about his life. His audience recognizes and relates to that authenticity. He doesn’t fit a traditional country mold, and neither do I; but look at what’s happening and who’s buying in. Plus, [Big Machine Label Group head] Scott Borchetta gets the left of center thing and what we are completely."

 
That kind of synergy isn’t always guaranteed. Clint Higham, principal in Higham-Morris Management, runs his boutique company with the notion he’s managing acts over the long haul. "Kenny [Chesney] and I have been working together for 21 years—and we’ve been able to do things, whether it’s the rum or taking him into stadiums. It’s not a moment or momentum, but building something that grows and endures. Jake Owen’s growth into a headliner this summer repeats that: to see his name on a ticket as the headliner? That’s been eight years in the making, but it’s been steady and isn’t just about a hit record."

Higham-Morris was the firm that built the average guy band Alabama into one of country’s most enduring franchises. Preferring to stay smaller—they also handle Martina McBride—but invest in their clients’ careers, Higham has created a team that functions as a second label staff. "I believe in artist development: building from a digital marketing place, radio, booking. Joe Galante, who’s forgotten more than most of us will ever know about the business, is a strategic advisor, because it takes having those resources. And here it’s about the relationships."
 

Clarence Spalding, who manages Jason Aldean and Rascal Flatts at the company that bears his name, jokes, "I’ve eaten a corn dog in every state. You find me a rock manager who can say that!" But as a guiding force with Brooks & Dunn, as well as Terri Clark and the solo Kix Brooks, he, too, stresses the community aspect of doing business in Nashville.

"When I sit with an Irving or a Coran, that’s a whole level, they’re doing so many other things. Here, when you start talking to the ones who make a career managing artists, they all came up through the ranks, share stories and have clients for a long, long time. I think the key is having artists in alignment with management: You’re looking in the same direction, wanting the same things and everyone’s working hard and together. Brooks & Dunn had a 20-year run, and 95% of the time we were all on the same page. It just accrues.

"I’ve never had a mainstream act," he continues, "but when you look at Jason Aldean, who’s selling a boatload of records, a whole lot of tickets and playing the venues we want, is there a difference? Maybe that we’re so radio-dependent, but as a community, we also are all in that boat together, too."

Spalding, who left Kentucky as Exile’s tour manager, ascended to day-to-day management with Stan Moress, then was integral to Brooks & Dunn’s rise. When he talks fundamentals, he’s not kidding. But even more than that, Spalding believes success comes down to self-awareness.

"When you look at the great artists, they know who they are, they have a point of view. That’s more important than anything. Jason may not write, but he knows what songs are him. He’ll look you in the eye, and say, ‘I know this is a hit, but it’s not for me; it’s not who I am.’ "
 
Knowing who you are certainly appeals to Marion Kraft, the manager who helped steer the Dixie Chicks, then signed on with Miranda Lambert. Her Shopkeeper Management is built around the premise that it’s an artist "who says, ‘This is who I am. This is the music I have to make and the things I have to say.’ It’s non-negotiable—and there are no options for them but making music. You have to be resilient, willing to do it no matter what. If you want to be in it, you have to be in all the way. Once people realize how much work it is, they give up."

If Lambert is one of today’s true supernovas—coming off the cover of Rolling Stone, huge duets with Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood and topping the all-genre Album Sales chart with Platinum—it was a slow start. Not that Kraft was concerned.

"I believe you make fans one at a time, and it feels rewarding as you go through the steps," she explains. "After four years of working with Miranda, people were coming up congratulating us on her success. Honestly, we thought we were successful, because Miranda was doing what she loved. Years one and two, when there was almost no radio, she was playing her music, she was out there—and to us, that was success. It’s all in how you look it at."
 
John Grady, now a principal at Crush Management and the head of the relaunched I.R.S., was at Sony when Lambert arrived—fresh from losing Nashville Star. As a man who’s straddled the fence as both a manager and a label head, he understands how similar the principles of breaking acts can be. Admitting "there’s no more development on the record side, it’s all done by management," Grady—like his New York counterparts—seeks to fill the void. "My New York partners do everything under the sun to build everything first, then maybe take it to a major label, where it’s all about radio. It’s the quickest way to 100,000 people with a single, but it doesn’t build a lasting audience."

He cites Lambert, who sold 1.5 million without "a single anywhere near the Top 10," as an example of how to build it. "There was TV, touring, awards—and when people saw her, they responded."

It’s the same notion—create smart opportunities—that Grady is putting into place with songwriter Ashley Monroe, one-third of the Pistol Annies. Though they’re still working Monroe’s Vince Gill-produced album, Grady’s eyes are on the horizon. Always one to think outside the box, he also knows one shouldn’t miss obvious opportunities.

"If you rush or short creativity, it’s not worth it," he says. "I believe the best record wins. It’s why, when I got to Sony, I dropped so many artists but made a point to keep Rodney [Crowell], Patty [Loveless] and Chapin [Mary-Chapin Carpenter]. You stay with quality, and good things happen."

To that end, Grady signed a duo named Striking Matches. The pair of Belmont College students—currently finishing an album with T Bone Burnett—had already landed seven songs in ABC’s hit series Nashville.
 
"The fortunate thing about Nashville right now is that there’s established industry and there’s lots of opportunity to define what the business will be," says Nate Yetton, who heads the sensibility music management firm and label (The Civil Wars). "I’m excited to see what the next wave of artists breaking out of Nashville will be, because there’s such a huge blend of cultural movements happening here outside of the country world. I don’t claim to know what will happen, but I think it’s going to be important for the music business globally."

Yetton reports that TCW singer Joy Williams is currently recording her debut solo album. He released an album by sensibility-managed NYC-based band Sacco in the spring and will put out Le Fou, a set by Nashville client Devan DuBois (who’s now attracting major-label interest), later this summer.

Looking for other ways—and recognizing the gift in what is there—seems to be the earmark of the new breed of Nashville manager. Owen, who came to town via Luke Lewis, is philosophical about the shifting artist trajectory, and offers a perspective beyond the obvious in turn.
"Everyone says, ‘How do you feel not having big radio success with Kacey?’ And I feel like we have. A #1? No, but there’s been incredible support. ‘Follow Your Arrow’ might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but the passion was there—even some people who didn’t play it let us know they believed in her. What more could you want?"

Ah, the new Nashville. Many paths up the mountain, but all of them start with a song.
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