Jason Aldean: The Billboard Cover Story
Jason Aldean: The Billboard Cover Story

Brown says that prior to launching Broken Bow in 1999, he had invested in other artist development projects. "I found out quickly that by the time the label got through recouping everything there wasn't a whole lot left for the artist," he says. "So when I came up with the model for Broken Bow, I said, 'If we're going to do this thing, it's going to be without greed in mind.' With Jason we did a very fair contract, and consequently even his business manager said [he'd] never seen an artist that started getting royalties from almost day one."

For Spalding, who worked with Brooks & Dunn for the length of the duo's 20-year career and has added Rascal Flatts to his firm, working with an independent has its advantages.

"I don't hear, 'I've got to check with business affairs,' " he says. "For a manager, the worst words you can hear is, 'I've got to check with business affairs,' which means, what, three weeks? It slows down the process, and I understand why. But with Broken Bow, Benny owns it, he runs it, and for us it's been fantastic."

Shedd says the chain of command is simple at Broken Bow. "Benny is the decider. The company is completely funded by Benny. We have no partners. Everything is up to him," Shedd says. "We bring things to Benny . . . 'This is what it's going to cost, this is what the benefits are going to be' -- and, boom, it's done."

Spalding sees more big wins in the future for Brown and company. "Jason is their first breakthrough act," he says. "I think they're going to have a lot of others."

THE SOUND: COUNTRY ROCK

Knox and Aldean honed their patented country/arena rock sound to perfection and were ready to push the envelope. The debut release's title track was pretty much in the Aldean zone, but then came the Clarkson duet, an edgy power ballad, then "Dirt Road Anthem," with a sort of rap by Aldean that demands attention.

"Coming off a big record with three No. 1s, we'd established ourselves enough to say, 'OK, now we're going to hit you with something completely unexpected,' " Aldean says. "I love when I think people think they have me figured out, to come with something different. We're always going to try . . . stuff that's different from what other people are doing."

Aldean relies on "gut instinct." "When I hear something like 'Dirt Road Anthem,' I think, 'Yeah, that's different, but I'd go buy that record.' Once we got locked in on how we wanted to do it, there wasn't any hesitation."

Taking on a duet alongside a vocalist with the chops of Clarkson would also be daunting for many singers. "I was like, 'OK, she's obviously going to make me look bad on this song, period, so just get over that and sing it your way,' " he says. "I went in and did my thing, and . . . when she started singing with me our voices blended so well. It was just one of those things you can't predict."

Four albums in, Aldean knows what he's looking for in terms of sound, and with more than 1,000 shows under his belt, he and the band, with Knox, have the sound on lock. In short, it sounds like a band, not just a singer with backing studio musicians.

"Everybody knows some of these studio guys are the best in the business; technically they're flawless," Aldean says. "But to me some of the flaws, some of the things that aren't clean, are what makes it cool, because . . . it's a little bit raw. It's . . . maybe a very, very good garage band . . . I think that's why it's appealing to people. It's believable. It's real."

Jason Aldean Leads CMT Music Awards Nominations

Kevin Neal, president of independent Nashville agency Buddy Lee Attractions and Aldean's agent, met the country artist when he was 18 and signed him around the time of the Broken Bow deal. "He is a live act," Neal says. "He's had that for as long as I've known him. Whenever he did a show it was always there. A lot of record companies were either afraid of it or didn't get it. Or it didn't fit within their box."

Building his live fan base has been a more steady, if continuously upward, progression. This was a plan Aldean bought into. "Jason believed in the long-term plan," Neal says. "I told him, 'Here's what I think an artist should do, and very few do it: Play areas where there's major radio and . . . develop a following. When the single comes out, they'll know who you are and maybe it'll help get you added to the station earlier.' He said, 'Fine, start booking me.' "

The climb, according to Spalding, was dictated by the market. "We wanted him to grow at a natural pace, not even a slow pace or a fast pace, but what was natural to the progression of selling records and having hit singles, and what we were seeing out there in those secondary [and] tertiary markets," he says.

Another key element is pricing. "You don't go out and just grab the money, you develop the career, have people buy a ticket . . . $10 or $15, then you slowly escalate the money," Neal says. "After 'She's Country,' things really started to take off, [and] at the end of our CMT tour [with Lady Antebellum in 2008] you could see the numbers growing. Jason called me that year about pricing and said, 'I'd rather have 5,000 people at $20-$25 than 1,500 at $30.' "

With a top ticket price of about $45, Aldean is moving tickets like few artists on the road, and the show is bigger on all levels. "We're able to go out now and build the kind of show that four years ago we weren't able to," Aldean says. "Now we're able to go out and I can make a show look and sound the way -- if I was a fan -- I'd want to see."

Given the ticket counts, it's easy to forget that these are Aldean's first headlining dates in the big rooms. "There's always a risk when you go from playing 8,000- to 10,000-seat buildings to playing 25,000-seat buildings," says Brian O'Connell, president of Live Nation's country division. "But this year, we're out there dead-on competing in some of these major markets with 14 acts over the course of a 12-month period."

But it was time for Aldean to make the move. "There was no way around it," Spalding says. "We did such good business last year that we were growing at the natural pace."

Spalding reels off the numbers: 16,000 in Dallas; 19,000 in St. Louis; 24,000 in Indianapolis; 21,000 in Washington, D.C.; 20,000 in Hartford, Conn. And he's selling out in advance.

"I had a great run with Brooks & Dunn," Spalding says. "But I don't believe we ever in their history sold out the amphitheaters a week in advance. A week in advance? In an amphitheater? If it were freaking [Lady] Gaga you'd have it on the cover of Billboard. I'm over here with one of the healthiest things alive in the business."

O'Connell says that all involved were confident. But, still, at this level? "If any of us tell you we said we thought we would do 20,000 tickets on a Sunday night in Hartford, Conn.," he says, "you could call us all liars. It took Aldean seven years to get to this point. There are acts from time to time that don't wait seven minutes before they think they're headliners. Jason has put in the work."

After pushing the boundaries on "Party," Aldean's not sure what comes next. "The album takes shape with whatever songs you get," he says. "If you ain't got the songs, you ain't got shit."

Three singles in, everyone on Team Aldean believes "Party" has a lot of legs left. "We could go probably seven singles deep and have hits," Brown says. "At the same time, if the album sales start dropping off too much, we'll have the next album. We're already looking for songs and preparing for it. We'll just let the market decide."

Whatever comes next, a conversation with Aldean makes it clear that he's going to come hard. "I'm a competitor," he says. "I'm not going to lie: If I get nominated for an award, I want to win. I'm not pissed when I don't, but this whole 'I'm just glad to be here' spiel? Not me. I'm glad to be there, but I'm there for a reason."