Talking Artistry, Tour Logistics, Going Global and More With a Nashville Buzzmaster

Jason Owen sees opportunities everywhere he looks. The founder/chief of Sandbox Entertainment and 10-year UMG veteran just took over the Ryman Auditorium for a surprise show with client Faith Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, to kick-off their Soul 2 Soul Tour. A consultant for exclusive high-end resort Blackberry Farms, as well as the Hank Williams Sr. estate and Johnny Cash Trust, Owen has Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman anchoring Great American Country’s Kimberly’s Simply Southern cooking series and Karen Fairchild selling a line of clothes at Macy’s.

Having helped inaugural client Shania Twain relaunch her career, Owen’s full-service management company excels at branding, marketing and creating awareness. Whether it’s Kacey Musgraves’ high-concept TV performances, or Charlie Worsham taking industry tastemakers and powerbrokers for a ride in his car to debut music, taking the untraveled road is Owen’s strength.

With sexy young act Midland signed to Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, Owen rounds out his roster with Jay Joyce-produced Devin Dawson landing with John Esposito at Warner Music Nashville and pop-leaning Seth Innis. In addition, he shares CMA Duo of the Year Dan + Shay with Scooter Braun, making for a balanced group of artists who benefit from his expertise.

Whether figuring out international strategy, working with tour promoters or seeking out groundbreaking TV opportunities for his clients, Owen is committed to keeping things fresh—and coloring outside the lines. Knowing each act is its own island, he creates personalized plans to tap into his artists’ strong suits.

You’re working with Louis Messina on the Soul 2 Soul Tour. Do you find there are advantages to working with a single promoter?
I can only speak for what we’re doing here at Sandbox. I operate and like to work as a team—and going with someone who is as passionate about the artist and the tour as we are just seems to yield better results. With The Messina Group and AEG, 10 months before we announced the Soul 2 Soul Tour, we were having weekly calls: which rooms we were looking at, where the doubles were, when to announce those. We were looking at this very strategically, and that gave us the ability to really dial things in.

Doing a tour with multiple promoters, I don’t think we could’ve had such precision and the kind of success we’ve had with Soul 2 Soul. We had some tough decisions to make—and we had to make them together, which is where it’s useful to make someone doing the tour who can take a look from the overall perspective, not merely the dates they were promoting. When you can get someone invested with the same heart, why would you want to use multiple promoters?

Talk about working with Louis on the ramp up to Soul 2 Soul.
Before we announced this show, I had a spot and I wanted to announce [the tour] with no information. Then I went to The Voice, where Tim and Faith are mentors this season, and asked how much a spot would be. It would just be 30 seconds of Tim and Faith looking hot, looking like superstars—but no information on it. Get people talking, wondering: what is it? An album? A tour? Something else? When I went back to Louis, he didn’t blink an eye. He got it immediately, recognized the buzz factor. It got people talking, which is the point.

Pandora has played a big role in launching this tour, too.
I feel like Pandora for Tim and Faith is a home run. Tim is not only the most-streamed, or one of the three most-streamed country artists, but he also understands their culture. We had a pre-sale in place with American Express, which all tours of this magnitude have, but we wanted to reach out to younger fans too.
Pandora worked far greater than we even expected. It was the first time they’d done something like this with a country act, but between Tim’s digital team, our digital team and their digital team all working together, it was crazy.

The thing about Tim and Faith, though, is it’s really three acts. At Pandora, you have Tim’s lists, Faith’s lists and Tim & Faith’s lists—and they’re all only songs that would be played in those specific situations. So it gave them a lot to work with too. It’s also the perfect platform, because it’s audio, which is the listening way to remind people how much they love these two artists.

Do you see any advantages to using multiple promoters?
The advantage would be to see everyone’s strengths and weaknesses; you can push each one to be better based on what you learn from the others, or play them against each other to get what you want. But I’m not sure I’m an advocate of a multiple-promoter tour: too many moving parts and people, too great a risk of something getting missed. For us, Sandbox works best with a single promoter, someone who works alongside you and shares the same vision. That direct relationship also means not only do they see things the way you do, but the promoter really understands the thinking behind why things are done, and they can utilize the same thought processes as they’re working on the day-to-day of the tour. We used the same single-promoter approach with Deborah Rathwell and Donna DiBenedetto from AEG, who did Shania’s tour, and it was the very same process and result. We started working in advance; we got in front of what our goals were; we built the perception and execution from the ground up. And I look at acts who get involved with a promoter early on. You look at [Live Nation’s] Brian O’Connell and Luke Bryan—what they’ve built is impressive. I’ve had acts on those tours, and it’s undeniable.

How is streaming factored into what you’re doing in terms of record deals and artist revenue? Are you feeling its impact yet?
The landscape has been changing so rapidly that it obviously varies from artist to artist on my roster. It is absolutely something we are focusing on when signing a new act to a label or renegotiating with our superstars on their respective labels. An original contract with an act like Little Big Town, who have been signed for several years, is completely different than brand new artists like Seth Ennis in that regard. But for both, we need to be cognizant of how this plays into their recoupability, and how to make sure the money collected does make its way to the respective artists.

Country still has a long way to go for our consumers to catch up. The streaming’s starting to happen, but not like the other genres. I’d say the first place we really saw it was with “Girl Crush.” I can’t go into numbers, but it was significant. But it also showed me that you have to identify a different and more equitable formula to the royalty rate. That’s going to be critical.

And streaming is global, which also has to be taken into consideration.
Suddenly, it’s not just Dallas or Los Angeles or Nashville—it’s the world. The international power of streaming needs to be harnessed, so it’s contributing to these artists’ earning potential.

International is very important to you, both in how you expose your acts and how you create an enduring platform.
When I sit down with a label for an artist set-up meeting, one of the first things I ask is: “What is our international plan?” I feel there are fans of this music all over the world, and why would you not pay attention to them?
Even if it’s a small run-up tour or a TV appearance, start laying the groundwork early. Kacey’s first tour she ever did was with Lady Antebellum in Europe, long before she was even on tour in America. I knew how they’d respond to her; it would be the same audience that loves Dolly.
And in country, the C2C Festival, which is going into its fifth year, is an incredible opportunity. There are a lot of media there, a lot of real country music fans who’re ready to fall in love with new acts. Every single thing about it is a win. I’ve had at least one artist on it every single year.

Is it hard to get that international buy-in from the labels?
It has to come from management. I never rely on the label to tell me what they’re going to do to set up my artist; they have too many priorities and are often so overworked. So this can be one more thing on an already pretty full plate. We work directly with our label people overseas. If you have those direct relationships—with the label, with the media and all that—it makes a difference in how people respond and how things flow. Doing it this way puts everyone in the position to win. But I will say the new regimes, from Cindy [Mabe] to Randy [Goodman] and Espo [John Esposito], see the value in doing this. They’re recognizing it’s a global proposition.

Going back to streaming services: Do you have a way of ferreting them out?
I think about streaming services in the way I use them. It’s not scientific, but I think it’s pretty much the way most people do it. I listen to Spotify in my car, then that and Apple Music on planes. If I’m searching for a specific song or artist, I use Spotify or Apple Music. But at home, where I want a vibe, I use Pandora; it’s perfect for that. Like I said, it’s not scientific, but I think it’s pretty consistent with most people. And as streaming increases, so will the ways we use it.

You have an intriguing mix of icons, stars and developing artists.
We’re very happy with the way the roster is. I have 14 people here, and it’s about making people’s vision of what their music can be come to fruition, but also building a career no matter where they are. We’re very focused on that.

When you look at Faith, we’ve been together now for two years. We have a lot of fresh things we’re working on, musically and non-musically. Because she’s an icon in every sense of the word—class, elegance, aesthetic and her incredible voice—anything she does is going to be special. She went away for a while on purpose, to take care of the kids and be home while Tim was killing it on the road. They have two daughters in college now, so between “Forever Country,” the idea of going out on the road and a few other things going on, she’s getting inspired again—about music, about her career. I think Soul 2 Soul is a great jumping-off point. And there will be music that comes with it; I just can’t say what it is.

Well, the Ryman kick-off for that tour was so fabulous. As were Kacey’s Pageant Material shows. How does the original home of the Grand Ole Opry figure for Little Big Town?
Well, they just announced that the new album is called The Breaker, and it’s coming Feb. 24. It’s again produced by Jay Joyce. But the really big announcement was they’re going to be the first-ever artist in residence at the Ryman! Six shows will be announced: two in February, two in May and two in September. As history sort of speaks in that room, each show will be different in some way. Each show will stand out and be its own thing. “Little Big Town at the Mother Church”: It was myself, Leslie, who works here in touring, and Sally Williams from the Ryman. It’s a funny thing about Little Big Town, because they’ve always had it, they just weren’t getting the opportunities. Musically, they bring so much to their records and the stage, and they’re such professionals, I wish they could teach classes.

just released a Christmas record. What’s next?
She’s going to step back for a minute and start working on her music. What works so well for her, beyond the music, has been the aesthetics, which are very pronounced. Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material were very girly, very retro, very fashion-oriented. We want to take all that back after the new year. She did an event at Blackberry Farms where there were no candles, no light suits, just her and her guitar. She talked about the songs and sang with such clarity and honesty, it sincerely moved everyone out there—and her. I’ve heard Katy Perry talk about dissecting the song away from the show, and the song has to be there. Much like Patsy or Loretta, who had such a sound or style to their voices, once you hear it, you know immediately who’s singing. Kacey’s like that, because no one is more clever or poetic in their delivery. No matter where she goes, hundreds of people will sing those songs back to her.

Are there any other secrets?
Yes, she’s very good at saying no. There is an art to it, but it’s critical. You look at artists like George Strait or Adele or Faith, and they are all very good at knowing how and why to say no. I went to see Adele, and I loved the way she said in the middle of her show, “I just want you guys to know: When this tour’s over, I’m going away again, and it may be more than a few years.” That’s genius, and honest. It really struck a chord with me.

And then you have your developing acts. Charlie Worsham, Midland, Devin Dawson and Seth Innis.
Young artists keep you fresh and creative. It’s just that simple. Charlie is one of those artists like Vince Gill or Little Big Town—the community loves him as a person, and respects his talent and musicianship. He’s a bit more untraditional in terms of development, more like Kacey, but when I took him to C2C last year he jumped straight off to tour very small theaters. With Charlie, seeing’s believing.

Seth is on a heavy radio-promotion tour, plus reaching out to all the streaming services. Taking the music out there, and building it that way. Devin is working with Jay Joyce, and they’re recording and putting tracks up. He is so musical, and so connected; with him, it’s just a matter of getting him out and letting people hear his songs. Midland is this sexy, badass hard-country band, signed to Big Machine. They’re so unique. And it’s the first time I get to work with Scott Borchetta. This group is so hot, I can’t wait.

You share Dan + Shay with Scooter Braun.
They’re out there selling hard tickets, and they have a sold-out international tour. They’re dynamic onstage; they know amazing songs; they write amazing songs. And Shay’s voice on the radio is reminiscent of Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts. He wrote their last #1: “I Like The Sound of That.”

And what’s your secret?
I like that it’s all different every day. If we did things the same way all the time, nothing new would ever happen. That’s a big deal: Figure out the next wave, move towards it.