Between the pandemic shutdown, country streaming truly coming into its own and the emergence of Black, female and LGBTQ artists, this has been a year unlike any before it. On top of all that, 2020-21 has seen unprecedented changes in how Music City does business. But Nashville’s top managers have met these shifting realities head on as they’ve resourcefully handled previously unthinkable challenges and kept their clients’ careers not just on track but expanding, with a laser focus on artists first.

Several—including Chief Zaruk, Bruce Kalmick, Rob Beckham and Rakiyah Marshall—grew new businesses. Others—George Couri, Fiona Prine and Marion Kraft among them—blazed new trails with their established companies. And star-powered managers—Kappy with Luke Combs, Martha Earls with Kane Brown, Lisa Ray with Dan + Shay and Will Hitchcock with Old Dominion—saw next-gen colleagues’ acts join their ranks, including Tom Lord with Gabby Barrett and Blythe Scokin with Ingrid Andress.

In this close-knit town, the challenges of the last 12 months seem to have made the career architects even more reflective and closely bonded. Beyond the “we’re all in this together” ethos that’s emerged across the music industry, there’s a sense of the strength that comes from community echoed by every single manager polled for this year’s issue.

Rob Beckham, The AMG 

Former WME Co-Head Rob Beckham had an immersive vision for management so he teamed with longtime Brad Paisley manager Bill Simmons to launch The AMG (Artist Management Group) in 2019 with the iconic Paisley, platinum-certified traditionalist Chris Young and newcomers Kameron Marlowe, Payton Smith, Essex County and Ella Beckham. By emphasizing the fundamentals and classic sounds, AMG has immediately become a force.

What changes did you make that you’re going to continue?
Slowing down. When the world slowed down, I was forced to slow down. I’ll be honest—I hated it. For so long, I spent my time thinking about the next show, the next city, the next deal. Then I realized that by always thinking six months to a year ahead, I was missing out on a lot of really cool stuff happening in the present.

Early in 2020, we signed a new Latin-country duo, Kat & Alex, who are poised to change the traditional country landscape. I’ve been part of the creative process, helping them build their career from the ground. I hate thinking of all the “firsts” I would’ve missed if I had signed them two years ago. 

What do you view as the biggest issue as we return to live?
Safety is the biggest issue in live music right now. We want to make sure live events are not only safe for our artists and crew but also for the fans. We’re in constant conversation with agents, promoters and city officials to make sure our events are as safe as possible.

Did you or your artists pick up any side hustles or hobbies during the lockdown?
Chris really leaned into his love of sports and launched The Quad With Chris Young podcast at the beginning of 2020; it took on a life of its own during quarantine. Each week, he and his friends discuss four topics: sports, music, movies and a weekly hot take. Several “famous friends” have appeared, including Kane Brown, Israel Gutierrez, Tyler Hubbard, Sabrina Ionescu and Brad Paisley.

George Couri, Triple 8 Management

Triple 8 Management’s George Couri has spent the last 16 months looking at how to help his 28 staffers in Nashville and Austin excel. During that time, six staffers got promotions at the hybrid firm, which got its start with Texas music and now guides such high-profile acts as Scotty McCreary, Eli Young Band and Josh Abbott Band. A partnership with Thirty Tigers led to the launch of Triple Tigers Records, which has landed chart-toppers from McCreary, Russell Dickerson and Gone West.

Seeking new horizons, Triple 8 has expanded into producer management and now reps some of the most innovative creatives in both cities, who are behind upcoming projects from Miranda Lambert, Jackson Dean and Parker McCollum, among others.

What have you learned about your team? What changes might continue?
We re-examined our personnel structure and how to make our team most effective. After those changes, things began to bloom, and that led to new partnerships we didn’t anticipate, as well as a happier team and extended agreements for all involved. It was a revelation to discover that curing problems can lead to more overarching benefits than you realize when in the midst of fixing them.

What in the coming months are you most looking forward to?
Lots of new music releases from our established artists, in addition to our new artists ramping up. Our new signings The Aces, Jordan Fletcher and Morgan Evans, in partnership with Crush Music, are all going to be artists people hear a lot about this year. 

We also now manage multiple hot producers. Martin Johnson, Jon Randall, Luke Dick, Reid Shippen and Cason Cooley are working on some of the most exciting projects around Nashville today—which is inspiring—and these new partnerships are flourishing. All those things help us improve as a company on a lot of levels, while our existing partnership with Triple Tigers Records continues to generate a string of #1 hits.

Fletcher Foster, F2E Entertainment

Fletcher Foster, a proponent of old-school artist-development, moved into artist management and founded F2E Entertainment following stints at Arista in Los Angeles and Nashville. Having launched Kelsea Ballerini, he’s now handling the career of all-female trio Runaway June, second-generation writer/artist Levi Hummon and Internet sensation Priscilla Block, who was recently signed to Universal Nashville. Foster has an eye for personalities that translate to listeners and songs that reflect the world that people actually inhabit. 

What do you view as the biggest issue as we return to live?
One of the biggest issues is the “standardization” of venue capacity from city to city and state to state. To not be able to play full-capacity shows throughout the tour makes it really challenging to budget. There’s also a concern that the new strain of COVID might set back venue capacity, but as we’re getting closer to the kickoff of the tours, that’s becoming less of a concern. For some artists, it just doesn’t make economic sense to go out on the road this year, with all the traffic and unknowns. 

What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
I’m looking forward to getting back in the rhythm of releasing music on a more consistent basis. I had a couple of artists who just focused on writing and finding songs all last year. With radio being such a driver in country music, I just didn’t feel it was the right timing to release music unless it was by a superstar artist radio would embrace.

How has the business changed? Is it for the better?
Across the board, streaming services have found their audience, and it’s here to stay. People who hadn’t signed up with a DSP were able to have the time to experiment, get playlists set up and realize how easy it is to listen to the music of your choice anywhere you want.

I feel like streaming is going to be great for the music business in the long run. It will let the consumers find artists they are drawn to with less influence from the industry gatekeepers. A prime example is the overnight success of Priscilla Block, who has been in Nashville for the last six or seven years, but once the right song went viral and found its audience, it was a game-changer. 

Will Hitchcock, Morris Higham Management

Will Hitchcock is not only Morris-Higham Management’s man behind multiple CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year winner Old Dominion, he’s also guiding the rise of roots-positive sister duo Walker County. With core strengths in from-the-ground-up artist development, Hitchcock has stewarded the gradual but meaningful growth of his clients at a company that also boasts Kenny Chesney, Carly Pearce, Michael Ray and Brantley Gilbert. Whether it’s touring, endorsement opportunities or social media, Hitchcock is about finding new avenues for his clients to pursue without losing sight of an artist’s fundamental strengths and musical identity.

Did you or your artists pick up any side hustles or hobbies?
In January of 2020, while out with Old Dominion, I was talking to Matthew Ramsey and Geoff Spring; they brought up this book by Dan Harris called 10% Happier that’s all about mindfulness and meditation. Reading it changed the entire way I thought about my daily life and how I would approach each day. So I started putting it into practice and spending just a few minutes a day meditating. Now, I can’t imagine going back.

I’ve been reading a lot more books, diving into podcasts and every documentary David Attenborough has been involved in. His docs are beautifully shot and fascinating to watch.

How has the business changed? Is it for the better?
We are self-policing better these days. Companies and individuals alike are less afraid to take a risk that not too long ago would’ve felt detrimental to a career or brand—especially when it may not be the popular thing but is the right thing. I’m feeling change. Profits will never take a backseat to ethics, but the difference between them does seem to be less these days.

Also, I don’t know about everyone else. but I need more laughter in my life. So if anyone knows any good jokes, send ’em on over.

Bruce Kalmick, WHY&HOW

Austin-based Bruce Kalmick, who’d previously launched Ambiance Artists and merged it with Triple 8 Management, set out on his own to launch WHY&HOW in late 2020 with the following mission statement: “WHY&HOW is a full-service artist-management and music company with diversified ventures across music, entertainment, digital, branding and spirits. Our WHY is the purpose and intention behind every artist and project we take on. Our HOW is the strategy and action behind the execution of our client and company initiatives.” Based in Austin and Nashville, W&H oversees the careers of clients including Whiskey Myers, Breland, Chase Rice and Icelandic band Kaleo.

What have you learned that’s surprised you the most?
Outside of a few people, much of the community seemed to unite with fewer political barriers as we all picked up our cleats and hit the field again. 

What changes did you make that you’re going to continue
I left an eight-year partnership and started a new company with a very new mission: #1, family; #2, faith and giving back; #3, building our great talent into great businesses and unite talent with hungry fans.

What in the coming months are you most looking forward to?
Getting pissed off when some door guy tells me I can’t come into my own act’s show because it’s sold out—and then walking around back like I should have in the first place; trying to figure out how I’m going to get to the bathroom in the middle of a packed show without a backstage bathroom—I may just pee in a bottle). And I’m most excited about getting to the airport too late because we stayed up all night celebrating big wins, so I end up in a middle seat on a four-hour Southwest Airlines flight!

What do we need to improve/work on/be mindful of?
I feel like we have to become better partners, because it will only improve all that we are a part of. There is far too much greed in this industry. 

Kappy, Make Wake Artists

With Luke Combs dominating everything—and one of Nashville’s most diverse rosters—Chris Kappy and his Make Wake Artists management team are experiencing explosive growth. Combs is readying an in-the-round U.S. tour with support act Drew Parker, while Niko Moon is out with Lady A, Hailey Whitters is joining Midland on the road, Ashland Kraft is opening for Zac Brown and Flatland Cavalry has a headlining run lined up. Empowering his day-to-day managers and giving them meaningful stakes in the artists they work with, fans-first innovator Kappy believes that what’s good for one is good for all. 

What have you learned that’s most surprised you? 
That we are resilient and able to pivot when given the worst possible scenario for our industry. We were shut down, all things touring at a full stop, and my artists and teams all made changes that kept their crews, bands, and teams employed. Our artists did whatever it took to not lay people off; they put in their own savings and did whatever they could to make sure they took care of their touring camps. It was selfless and admirable to watch, and I did the same. We didn’t lay anyone off or furlough anyone. In fact, we hired five people who were out of jobs. We were able to get great talent that became available because of industry cuts.

What changes did you make that you’re going to continue?
We will continue no mandatory office hours. We’ve learned we can work from anywhere, under any conditions. If you want to work from home, great. If you want to work from the beach, even better. If you want to work in the office, love to have you, but it’s not required. Get your job done, and I don’t care if you work from the moon. The old model of being in attendance to do a good job has been proven ineffective.

What do you view as the biggest issue as we return to live? 
We’ve lost a lot of our touring professionals to other industries. Sound, lighting, drivers and crew people have left our industry in droves for more stable occupations, and we’re seeing a massive shortage of qualified experts in their fields. As happy as I am to be back to touring, we’re still dealing with the residual aspects of the pandemic in other ways.

Marion Kraft, Shopkeeper Management 

Marion Kraft formed Shopkeeper Management after serving as day-to-day manager of The Chicks. With a young female client named Miranda Lambert, decisions were made through a prism of what’s right for the music and the long-term goals. Whether it’s her side projects like The Pistol Annies, this year’s stripped-down Marfa Tapes with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, which debuted at #1, or charitable outreach like Mutt Nation, Lambert—the biggest winner in ACM Awards history—has emerged as country’s platinum standard for artistry.

What’s the biggest issue as we return to live? 
Overloading the touring system. We’re dealing with such pent-up demand to see shows. The traffic will make it difficult for the consumers to choose which shows they are able to go see, as well as competing with other forms of entertainment. Plus, we are challenged to figure out how to properly route a tour. Lots of flexibility is needed as we sort through the restrictions of different states. What may work in Indiana may be very different than Ohio versus what’s going on in Alabama. 

Did you or your artists pick up any side hustles or hobbies during the lockdown? 
We added a restaurant/bar to Miranda’s growing empire: Casa Rosa Tex-Mex Cantina on Broadway in downtown Nashville. Planning, designing, decorating and food- and drink-tasting were among our pandemic activities. 

How has the business changed? What do we need to be mindful of?
During this crisis, we’ve relied on each other and learned that a tight-knit community has formed an even more supportive community. We’re now talking more openly about mental health and how we can support people who are struggling. During the height of the pandemic, the virtual space helped, but technology also creates isolation. We need to counteract that and figure out how to build and create together again, as people need those support networks to feel connected. 

Tom Lord, Red Light Management

Tom Lord has got it going on. Four years ago, he signed a church-trained singer from outside Pittsburgh, knowing women struggled at radio. Today, Gabby Barrett’s got two of the year’s biggest global hits in “I Hope”—later re-recorded with Charlie Puth after he slid into her DMs—and “The Good Ones,” as well as her brand-new “Footsteps on the Moon,” which is blowing up. 

Barrett not only won the Academy of Country Music Top New Female Artist, she won three Billboard Music Awards, including Top Country Female Artist, and CMT’s Top Female Video for “The Good Ones.” Given The Gold Mine is the most-streamed country debut album in history, her ubiquity should come as no surprise.

Lord also works with Ryan Seacrest and syndicated radio host, author, American Idol mentor and leader of The Raging Idiots, Bobby Bones. Whether he’s doing charity work, hosting Circle Television’s weekly Opry broadcasts or winning Dancing With the Stars, Bones is a master at thinking outside the box.

What changes did you make that you’re going to continue?
Showering every other day instead of daily. But seriously, trusting in my colleagues more is something I want to continue to do. I’ve previously been guilty of micromanaging situations and people. But, in 2020, with the physical isolation in our work environments, that forced me to let go and trust more.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
Reconnecting with fans, getting back to live music, being able to release and share new music. And after a year in isolation, I want to develop new friendships on and off the road; that’s what I most look forward to.

Haley McLemore, Red Light Management

Haley McLemore cut her teeth in promotion, so she knows the value of radio. After Maddie & Tae launched with the powerhouse “Girl in a Country Song,” this strategist got the young duo signed to UMG Nashville and focused on touring while shepherding their #1 Country-airplay hit “Die From a Broken Heart” out of the conviction that there’s a place for women on terrestrial radio as well as the DSPs. McLemore is a never-say-die leader, and her passion is contagious.

What changes did you make that you’re going to continue?
Between intention and quantity, we will continue to choose intention in every form. Intention of relationships, fan engagement, energy on every level. Not just doing, but knowing why we’re doing it.

What do you view as the biggest issue as we return to live?
Touring has always been the soul of the country-music business. It’s honest; you can’t cheat it. It feels like the wild West at the moment, but we’re getting our feet wet, and it’s feeling really good. We still have a lot of hurdles to overcome adjusting to this pandemic/post-pandemic world. It’s a world that is feeling very uneasy; everyone and everything is so quick to be ridiculed. Whether you post or don’t post what you believe, think or do, it seems like there are people just looking to take a swing. 

Did you or your artists pick up any side hustles or hobbies during the lockdown?
I’ve always loved [Scenic Highway] 30A on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I got my Florida real-estate license, and it was nice stretching myself to learn something I’ve always been interested in. If you need to know anything about riparian rights or wind mitigation, let me know.

What do we need to improve/work on/be mindful of?
Change is hard, no matter what. Moving forward, the world will be very different for some. Maddie & Tae had a massive hit last year. While it wasn’t a year to tour, I believe the benefit of being patient with and staying committed to “Die From a Broken Heart” will be important. We knew it was special, but the continued support was critical. The Mercury promo staff refused to back down, and when we hit #1 and 7m streams a week, it was an incredible payoff.

Rakiyah Marshall, Back Blocks Music

In the heart of the pandemic, Rakiyah Marshall founded her self-funded Back Blocks Music in November to immediate success. Lily Rose, who dropped “Villian” on TikTok in December, landed at #1 on iTunes for an entire week ahead of Taylor Swift. A record deal with Republic/Big Loud arrived the next month, giving Nashville its first openly gay country female. Ashley Cooke was also discovered on TikTok; she put two singles on iTunes Top 10, three singles on SiriusXM’s The Highway and been featured on “The Bobby Bones Show” as an indie artist.

Through Marshall’s savvy stewardship, Cooke is on BRELAND’s summer tour, while Rose is on Chris Lane’s national tour. And on the publishing front, Blake Penderdress has already landed cuts with Kenny Chesney, Morgan Wallen, Lane, Rose and more.

What have you learned about your team/artist/self OR the Nashville community that’s surprised you the most?
To surround yourself with friends who will mention your name in a room full of opportunities. I think a big part of my company’s momentum is because I feel like I have teammates that are my friends in all areas of the industry who are constantly advocating for me, my artists /writers, and my goals – vice versa. Nashville is full of champions that make fun to win together with a little healthy competition.

What in the coming months are you most looking forward to?
I’m most looking forward to seeing the new artists play live shows that have gained momentum on platforms like Tik Tok in the last year and connecting with those big fan bases for the first time that fueled their success in a time that felt uncertain. Really excited to see them get to hear people sing their songs back to them, see what they built, and feel the energy they through live music again.

Did you or your artists pick up any interesting side hustles or hobbies?
I picked up golfing, which has turned into great hang with artists & friends. Great mix of work & pleasure

Fiona Prine, Oh Boy Records

Long before Fiona Whelan Prine married iconic American songwriter John Prine, she was a business force, managing Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios. Recently nominated by President Biden to the National Council for the Arts, the fierce artists’- and human-rights activist has channeled the loss of Prine to COVID last year into a series of projects honoring him, while also overseeing the careers of Oh Boy Records artists Tre Burt, Kelsey Waldon and Arlo McKinley.

With a documentary in the works for Oh Boy, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, the label President is immersed in book and film projects, creating opportunities for Thistle Farms, for which the Prines have raised over $3m, and honoring Americana and roots artists who continue her husband’s commitment to writing and singing about the human condition, addressing critical issues and making people smile alongside the wisdom being imparted.

What have you learned over this very strange, and for you, sad year?
I learned it’s entirely possible to be both resilient and fully vulnerable at the same time. I experienced that personally and witnessed it in others in our community. The tornado that ripped through our city in early March last year displayed that vulnerability and strength in clear terms. It was also interesting and encouraging to see the Internet reveal its value: providing platforms where relationships continued and where new alliances and friendships were forged, all while separated by a deadly pandemic.

What do you view as the biggest issue as we return to live?
That we take seriously the fact a whole section of our population is unvaccinated, which means COVID-19 and its evolving strains will be present for some time. Health and safety must be top priority.

What are you most looking forward to?
Oh Boy artists are ready to release new material or are in the studio working on projects. W’re very excited for what’s coming this year for the record company, including a new John Prine tribute record. We’ve been working hard on You Got Gold, a weeklong series of events scheduled for early October to celebrate and remember my husband.

Lisa Ray, Sandbox Entertainment

Sandbox Entertainment is a haven for artists who are committed to following their unique path. Lisa Ray, who handles day-to-day on Dan + Shay, embodies the creative essence of managing artists who work outside the box. After making the move to management from Warner Music Nashville, where she was a project manager for multiple Grammy, ACM and CMA winners, Ray—along with Jason Owen and Scooter Braun—has patiently and cannily helped build the pop-inflected pair into an arena-level headliner. 

What have you learned that’s surprised you the most? 
As an industry, with the breakdown of layers, each of us in the very same boat, and the playing field was suddenly level for all players. Artists and managers didn’t worry about where they were in the lineup—they just wanted to play.

What changes did you make that you’re going to continue?
I learned that less is actually more—less space to occupy, less baggage. I appreciate that now like I didn’t before. The shutdown gave me a perspective on back to basics that I hope to roll into everything I do. The same mentality of putting your head down and doing the work still applies; it just hits harder now. Don’t take anything for granted—and that’s not a cliché, it’s reality. Anyone who moves into this new season with an average work ethic or half-assed mindset, just get out of the way now.

Navigation became the immediate challenge. How do we pivot? Isolation, confusion and fear crept in, but then the new mentality took over: “What now?” led to “Hey, what if?” And the world opened up, even if it was just our world, for the moment.

 And we were busy. We kept it moving, worked smarter, created opportunities where there seemed to be none. We worked through more projects last year than we had the year before; just because isolation happened didn’t mean the creative process had to stop. For our artists and our team, it certainly didn’t. I became so inspired by the pivot, and our entire team felt it. We all buckled down and kept rolling. 

Blythe Scokin, rogue.

Leave it to Ingrid Andress’ manager Blythe Scokin to go rogue. A woman with a passion for exploring what doesn’t seem possible, Scokin and business partner John Geraghty spent the pandemic launching new management company rogue. and signing four new emerging artists. Andress, one of country’s breakthrough female talents, was nominated for three Grammys, including Best New Artist. With her passion, creativity and verve, Scokin takes it all in as she plans out the next wave of her clients’ careers.

What do you view as the biggest issue as we return to live?
A lot of folks still aren’t vaccinated, and it’s crucial—especially in tight indoor live spaces—for people to be vaccinated or wear a mask. I think we’re going to have a hard time determining who is and isn’t vaxxed—unless there’s some standard across the industry for how to handle this. 

What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
Live shows, new music, traveling abroad! I’m sure that must be everyone’s answer, but I’m so elated that Ingrid will be able to tour her debut album this fall with Dan + Shay. That genuine connection with fans is so vital, not just for them or from a financial standpoint, but because the reason Ingrid got into this business is to have that shared experience through her music. That energy and connection thrills me. 

How has the business changed? Is it for the better? What do we need to improve/work on/be mindful of?
I think we’ve all realized more than ever how important mental health is to do our jobs, especially for artists. This time at home has given us an opportunity to reexamine what’s most important to us and how to better take care of ourselves. We need to continue to be mindful of our artists’ and colleagues’ time, energy, and overall health and wellness to ensure we can all live our best lives and do our jobs in a way where we work smarter, not harder. 

Chief Zaruk, The Core Entertainment

When manager Kevin “Chief” Zaruk, a founding member of Big Loud, joined forces with successful business investor Simon Tikhman in 2019 they aligned with Live Nation and Michael Rapino to create The Core Entertainment, a company with the reach, financial resources and vision to embrace music, sports, movies, TV and other ventures. As Co-Founder CEO Tikhman said of the partnership, “We both operate by leveraging relationships and resources across industries to create unique and lucrative opportunities.”

Zaruk is overseeing The Core’s management, label and publishing divisions for a diverse group of artists who possess the goods to define the next wave of Music City. Dillon James, Nate Smith, Emily Weisband and After Midtown are emerging from the shutdown ready to take on the world.

What do you see as the biggest issue as we return to live?
People relearning how to communicate. It feels like some people have forgotten social etiquette, so it could be a weird transitional time trying to actually become normal again in terms of how we treat each other.

Did you or your artists pick up any side hustles or hobbies during the lockdown?
Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and NFTs. It’s a crazy world to dive into but very interesting, which is why we partnered in an NFT company.

How has the business changed? What do we need to be mindful of?
I hate seeing executives sign artists off the Internet to big contracts without ever meeting or knowing anything about them; then they throw their music out there to see if it sticks. There’s a lack of development, and these young artists are left on their own with no idea what to do.

Just because you have a following or viral moment does not mean you can sing or perform live, tour or handle press and PR, or know anything about the music business.

It’s up to us as managers to do what’s right for these artists. We need to help, educate, teach and protect them—set them up to be successful and not to fail. As a business, we have not done that, and we need to be more accountable to the artists we sign and represent. Let’s get back to creating career artists and making long-term decisions—and stop chasing easy and quick money.

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