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CLINT HIGHAM: CHESNEY'S CAN-DO MAN

Interview by Holly Gleason

Clint Higham always knew. When most little kids wanted to be doctors or firefighters, the young Northern Californian was determined as a young boy to be a country music manager. While his parents would take grade-schooler Clint to see Tammy Wynette, Barbara Mandrell and others at local Holiday Inns, the kid was intent on meeting the ones who made the careers matter.

He followed his dream to Nashville, to Belmont College—and through hustle and determination, he secured an internship with Dale Morris & Associates, then managing uber-group Alabama. When Kenny Chesney, signed by Phil Walden to Capricorn Records, couldn’t get an agent, Higham said, “Let me try.”

Today, Higham is the primary manager of the country music supernova—as well as the force behind Jake Owen, Old Dominion and several developing acts. Instrumental in getting Mandrell into the Country Music Hall of Fame, guiding Martina McBride through a transitional time and giving Sam Hunt his start, Higham has forged critical alliances with management icons such as Irving Azoff and Scooter Braun. As someone who helped Chesney realize a crazy dream of playing football stadiums—at the end of this summer, the eight-time Entertainer of Year will have played 135 stadiums over his last 10 tours, including 14 this summer—Higham has also created opportunities with Apple Music, Corona Light and Chesney’s self-funded liquor company, Blue Chair Bay Rum. Higham, always on the run.

Your success with Kenny Chesney is almost unprecedented. No matter who tours with him, he’s playing football stadiums summer after summer. No other country acts do that. Do have an overall management philosophy?
All the long-term careers I’ve been attracted to are the ones defined by long term-thinking, even when there’s short-term decision-making. U2, Springsteen and Reba. Look at Irving and the Eagles.

There’s a musical component too. To make music that is singular and iconic and brings people together, then holds them there—that’s a big piece of it. You have to think creatively and from a business point. When you can put them together, you get a Springsteen: The music was very important, but the business around him really made a difference; they saw the power of his live show and what the songs said; that created a force. 

And your start was so young.
I talked myself into an internship with Dale Morris & Associates, who had Alabama. They basically rewrote the playbook on bands—modern country music at the time.

I got my foot in the door and could study up close artists and managers, what works and doesn’t work. There’s a real craft between artist manager and the vision of what an artist can be.

So from intern to...
Kenny came through the office with Dale the same time I did. I was working on the agency side, interning. They needed someone to take him on, and I told him, “I don’t have any coattails,” because I had none of the clout [a big agent would have], but I wanted the same things he did. We grew up in the business together. We kept accomplishing things but kept raising the bar. Whenever we accomplished something, we’d think, “Now what?” 

What sets Kenny apart from so many artists who want his kind of success?
Kenny has an athlete’s spirit to win, so he gives at the level it takes to win. This business—to really have success, longevity—takes your soul to do it. You’re gonna get tired. You’re gonna get fried. Your relationships will suffer. And there’s always that reality of “What’s next?” and “How do I evolve?” It never stops. It’s relentless. Kenny is one of the very few who’s able to continually challenge himself, take the hard look at where he is, where he needs to go—and is honest about what it will take to get there. Then he digs in and does the work. 

Is it hard keeping up with him?
I haven’t turned my cellphone off in 22 years. 

Did you expect to be playing double digits of stadiums tour after tour?

I didn’t even know we could dream that big. But I knew he had the desire and soul burning deep inside him. When you don’t have the road map, you better surround yourself with people who do—and listen. It’s been like going to an Ivy League school and learning from people like Dale and Joe and Irving. Hell, I learned a lot from you.

Because even outside the sandbox, you look at what’s working, see what they’re doing and why. It’s the best off-road map I’ve found. 

Best piece of insight you’ve ever been given.
Well, Luke Lewis told me, “There are no stupid superstars.” And he’s right. Look at Madonna, Springsteen, the Eagles, Reba, Dolly... They all knew what they were doing, and continue to—for their brand and for their legacy, both. 

You and Kenny have also extended the partnership with Corona Light.
It’s been nine years, and it’s a great marriage. It reflects escape and unwinding, being able to relax. But there’s also a real authenticity. Corona Light is one of those brands that means something on its own, so it’s more than the check, it’s a mutual affiliation.

Things get turned down.
We’ve turned down major opportunities, checks, visibility, because he felt like they were disengaged from the fans, or weren’t a good representation. He really believes in the things he aligns with.

So Blue Chair Bay Rum isn’t just any obvious product alignment?
Kenny didn’t get in this business saying, “I want my own rum company.” That’s a by-product of a lot of offers of where, when he looked at what was going to be sold, he didn’t think it measured up. He could’ve taken the check, but he didn’t feel right about the quality. To Kenny, making the rum was as important as making the music. If those companies couldn’t be there, he decided to do it himself. We went out and built a team. I don’t know any celebrity brand that’s self-financed or has this level of artist involvement. 

Seems risky.
I know we don’t know shit about the booze business, but we had to be authentic to who he is. So we found the people who did this in other places, and brought them in. 

And there’s Apple.
Apple wants to tap into what Kenny represents, and his audience. That’s a lot of people. He appeals in New York and Los Angeles, but he also has the people in the middle of the country who come out summer after summer. Everyone in the No Shoes Nation knows how serious he takes the music, so this is about raising the bar for how they consume. They did a pretty amazing TV spot that aired during the CMA Awards last year. Shot at the last two days of the Big Revival Tour at Gillette Stadium, it was 60 seconds, with a three-minute version. They’re getting ready to capture another spot with Kenny that turns around his song “Noise.”

Scooter Braun helped broker that deal.
He was a big conduit. They wanted Kenny, but Scooter’s someone who moves in those worlds. He’s in the biggest sandboxes with the widest reach—and we all want that. And he brings a new way of thinking, because music has to change. Times change; business has to change to recognize that.

It’s an amazing alliance.
I try to have one foot in the new school, while recognizing the wisdom of great managers and record company people. It’s a mix. But Scooter is at the cutting edge of everything as the business is in such a transitional time. He’s very hands-on and a great human being. He cares about his long-term play—and the integrity of the artist, not to mention doing the right thing for them as people. 

How did you get together?
Jason Owen of Sandbox Entertainment had some history with him. He introduced us; Kenny liked him. I wouldn’t make any moves without Kenny being invested. Scooter’s proven he’s not trying to be a partner who knows it all. He brings different perspectives; knows he knows nothing about Nashville except recognizing it’s a community. But he’s very much, “How can I help?”

Look, this is a guy bringing a kid from Canada off YouTube and making him one of the biggest names in music. He’s also the person who’s orchestrating a pretty incredible comeback for him. People who see a world like that? You want to work with them, and learn from them. 

And you’ve been developing Academy of Country Music Best New Duo or Group Old Dominion as off-the-grid as any successful new act out of Nashville.
A lot of doors in Nashville were closed to them, but they didn’t get bitter. Or angry. They knew how to get people to want to work with them. They knew what they wanted: to get to the fans, regardless of the gatekeepers.

There hasn’t been a rock-star group moment since Alabama. They are writers, musicians—and that’s why they came to town. They were out touring, then SiriusXM got involved and a few radio stations leaned in, saw the magic of what they were doing. There was a huge buy-in from John Marks, creating all this interest, but no cigar.

It was a chance meeting with [Sony Music EVP Business Affairs & General Counsel] Julie Swidler. She was intrigued, said “Overnight me the music.” She took it to Doug Morris directly the next day. They let them do what they do best—music. The album is called Meat & Candy, because there was a vision. “Yes, we have radio candy on here, but we also have meat in these songs.”

So many bands don’t happen—and the investment is so much bigger. What drove your decision?
If I was following my brain, this would’ve been horrible. Every analyst in the business would say, “Run.” But not only did they inspire me, I like the five guys so much as human beings. Like I said: you want to work for them. [Top songwriter] Shane McAnally and [publisher] Ree Guyer were already onboard. They had a partnership and were doing the work. It grew out of their foundation.

Is there a trick or secret?
Great music is still the key. But getting people to care is now the trick, and it’s not easy. I grew up going to the record store on Saturday, just going through the bins. All that stuff mattered to me. Now there’s so many distractions. It’s a soundbite world, viewing on a tiny screen with compressed sound and no speaker quality. There’s so many distractions, but when you hear a lyric or an emotion that’s extracted, that’s what people are hungering for.

Music’s gotten me through a lot of difficult times in my life, whether it’s a workout I don’t want to do, or a relative dying—good or bad, music still does that. It’s harder to get through, but that’s the secret—and sometimes it starts with the people who are charged with getting the music to the consumers. When you see somebody being affected by music, especially music you might’ve had something to do with, there’s no feeling like it. You remember the power of what music does, and you realize that’s something to give people, something like water or air, that is essential. You have to hold on to that. You have to remember, that is our business. Sometimes it’s reminding others. But in the end, that emotion, that truth, that fun or good time or pain is the thing people get. Don’t lose sight of that. 

And longevity?
Doing the next right thing is all there is. Stay true to your brand. Don’t make decisions based on fear or money. And know that styles are going to change, but those artists who last are the ones that transcend all that. Who the artist is, with or without radio, who they’ve been and always working from there. I report to my clients. I don’t have a system. I believe in knowing the people—understanding their goals, trying to create the best paths for them.

And you?
I’ve always said, “I get to do this.” I’m privileged to work with a team I’ve been able to assemble. I’m able to direct and choreograph what I want to happen—and know that I’ve got the people to help me do it the way I see it.

I’m always honored to be in the rooms with the Irving Azoffs and Joe Galantes. I like to see how the masters work. It’s very rare air because it’s such a creative business. You have to take what’s right and extract or apply what you learn in a way that’s right for your clients—and you do that, you stay in the room. When I started out, just being around those people was amazing. Then one day, you look around and you realize you’re actually in the room. You can’t make that the goal, but in taking care of your clients, it happens.” 

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