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THE UNSTOPPABLE
JASON OWEN

Jason Owen just keeps going. As the touring industry—central to country careers—was stopped cold by the COVID shutdown, the founder of Sandbox Entertainment wouldn’t be slowed down. Following cross-genre pairings for management client Kelsea Ballerini that included collaborations with Halsey, Kenny Chesney and LANY, he’s brokered a slot for her on the Jonas Brothers’ upcoming tour. And after racking up another round of ACM, CMA and Grammy Awards, Dan + Shay are prepping their first arena-headlining tour.

As Kacey Musgraves graces the cover of Elle and Little Big Town returns to the studio, Owen harvests a year of content development that puts Nashville in the mainstream spotlight in bold ways that echo Callie Khouri’s Nashville success. Beyond the Icons scripted series devoted to The Judds, Fox has ordered Monarch, a straight-to-series run of Owen’s Aaron Spelling-homage primetime soap about a major country-music family living on a compound in Texas. Given his history with both Spelling Productions and Paramount television franchises Dawson’s Creek and Ricki Lake, this Jerry Weintraub/Sandy Gallin hybrid is poised to make a major mark over the next 18 months.

You’ve spent shutdown going hard into content.
A lot of it was in the works before the shutdown, but the time gave us an opportunity to really get set up, dial in the details and bank scripts. Fox pivoted in a way that allowed us to actually hire a writers’ room, go to work creating scripts for six episodes, then go straight to air. Because actual production had been shut down, they wanted to be ready with fresh content.

[Monarch co-executive producer and head of The Jackal GroupGail Berman, who had a long career with Fox on the TV side and Paramount on the film side, is a legend. Fox was looking for what they could do in the country world, and she needed someone who knew the country space for authenticity but who also understood episodic drama programming. 

Enter Jason Owen. What’s your primetime show about?
Monarch is a mix of Dynasty, Empire, Desperate Housewives and Glee. Set in Texas, it’s built around a famous country-music family who live on a very expansive ranch. All the kids are in the business too. It’s juicy, it’s funny, it’s flamboyant—and over the top. Everything I love!

It’s like your mentors are converging.
[Laughs] I have Mr. Spelling on my right shoulder, Dolly Parton on my other.

You’ve got a Judds thing too.
It’s not a straight bio movie, more like American Crime Story when they did Versace. Or I, Tonya. Maybe what happened with Halston, a scripted limited series. We’re calling it Icons, and I’m hoping to do one every year. There are so many over-the-top stories, especially in country music. 

Wynonna and Naomi have been very involved. Since it’s not a straight timeline, there’s room to be creative about the career and the backstory. Adam Milch, who executive-produced The Morning Show, is writing and producing it. 

Is that all?
No, there’s been a lot. I’m also in business with Tom Mackay at Sony Music. We have a lot of projects in development. He’s a killer in the sense that if you have an idea, you put it together and you want it shopped, he’s the best closer I’ve ever seen.

I have a project with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Apple. It’s a different take on a music-talent competition. Oh, and there’s a very exciting project with 360 Entertainment, Eric Kranzler and Kirsten Dunst.

How are you keeping up with it all?
I’ve really beefed up Sandbox Productions. I’ve hired some key people who’re making a huge difference. Jean Song is running development for film and TV in L.A. In Nashville, I’ve hired Chandra LaPlume to keep track of timelines, contracts, everything. She has a real production pedigree. At this point, it’s how to see the bigger picture and keep everyone engaged. My strength has always been talent and having direct relations with creative executives, whether artists, musicians, actors...

I hear you’ve been on the phone with Sharon Stone.
Holly, I can’t talk about that!

Okay, let’s talk Kacey. She’s on the cover of Elle. There’s an album dropping this year.
It’s funny; it seems like these days I get my [artist] news from Instagram. But it’s interesting to see how the media see her. The thing about this Kacey record: We have the runway to set it up properly worldwide.

Is that why Interscope and Universal Nashville are working it jointly?
In part, yes. The combination of John Janick and Steve Berman, alongside Cindy Mabe and Mike Dungan, is pure magic. I’ve really loved working with these two teams. We have the time to really set it up, and no one works harder than Kacey. It was so compartmentalized outside the United States last time.

How so?
I can’t tell you how many U.K. programmers outside Radio 2—big programmers too—were telling us Golden Hour was their favorite album, all genres. I was like, “Well, why didn’t you play it?”

She has a way of smearing genres.
I think this album’s a masterpiece. She’s always surprising me with the approach of how she writes the songs. She’s one of the best lyricists, the way she approaches what she’s trying to communicate. One line: “Chronological order is nothing but torture.” Genius.

Fashion too.
Fashion’s one of her things. We’ve gone from asking for clothes to having them thrown at her. But there’s a balance between keeping your mystery and feeding your wallet. She’s been offered crazy money even outside the fashion realm.

No face for a designer? No major campaign?
If it’s not organic or feels right, not really. It’s not for Kacey. Jeremy Scott, who did her Met Gala Barbie outfit, did a Sesame Street C-note collection aimed at Asia for Moschino that’s rolling out right now. It’s a leisure line, so fun and so Kacey. 

Dan + Shay are also blurring genres.
Dan Smyers is our modern Mutt Lange from a producer standpoint. The way he dives into the tracks and his attention to details? The minute he’s done with a show, he’s back on the bus. Pair him with Shay Mooney’s vocal abilities, and I don’t think there’s anybody out there in any genre who can touch them.

Their new record is—no kidding—their Teenage Dream. It’s hit after hit after hit, but it’s not just throwaway ear candy. They’ve really taken it up a level—and considering their success, my dream is for Dan to work with my other artists as a producer. He’s that good.

Everyone agrees Caitlyn Smith is amazing, and now she’s finding success with this Old Dominion duet. Having your own label means...?
First, I have to hand it to Katie McCartney, who’s really the leader of Monument Records. She points Shane [McAnally] and me in the right direction. We’ve actually got a promotion team, which is great, but our success comes from finding artists we think are great—and figuring out what to do with them.

Our attitude—and Caitlyn is perfect—is sign artists whose music we enjoy. Our job is to create opportunities for them, to be creative on the marketing and business sides. We’re not worried about whether it’s a square peg or a round hole; we’re worried about whether it’s great. Maybe it’s not obvious, but that’s what we do.

Caitlyn’s put in the really hard work; she was doing a virtual radio tour, but she was also going into small venues, playing for small groups of radio people when everyone was home. But now she’s getting requests for tours; people are reaching out for collaborations. It’s very similar to Chris Stapleton on the CMA Awards. We’re one major moment away for her.

And Kelsea?
Fearless. And such a star. She just had another #1 record at Country radio with Kenny Chesney. She just won a CMT Video Music Award for her performance with Halsey. She also hosted the awards show and performed a new smash song that she wrote with LANY. That ability to adapt without losing herself was a big factor in getting the upcoming Jonas Brothers tour, which is a lot like Kacey with Katy Perry or Harry Styles. She’s going to be who she is, but they trust it’s going to connect with their fans.

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