The massively condensed career bio for the Zac Brown Band goes something like this: Talented Georgia musician with instinctive head for business and mad kitchen skills ditches college, makes music, opens a restaurant, works with a wide range of musicians before settling on an alchemic lineup, conquers Atlanta, signs a recording deal with a concert promoter which then dismantles its fledgling label division-all not necessarily in that order. Aided by a highly competent promotion team, infectious debut single shoots up the country charts, musician and band sign to a major label, which, incidentally, didn't have a Nashville office at the time. Hit after hit follows.
Exclusive Billboard Video Q&A With Zac Brown
Hank didn't do it this way, nor have many others. Brown, 32, acknowledges that his band's mix of styles-country, roots, reggae, Southern rock and soft rock, among others-and its route to the top of the country charts have been anything but routine. "But it's been good the whole way," he says. "We wouldn't be ready if we hadn't gone that way."
Now, after eight years on the road, 1,000-plus shows, three studio albums, three live records, a few different labels, sales of 2.2 million (according to Nielsen SoundScan) of the breakthrough 2008 album "The Foundation," multiple Country Music Assn. (CMA) and Academy of Country Music award nominations and one highly coveted 2010 best new artist Grammy, the Zac Brown Band will release on Sept. 21 what's sure to be the biggest record of its career, "You Get What You Give."
"We want the people to hear what we spent all this time working on," Brown says. "We bled writing these songs, we bled in the studio, and now we're out bleeding getting them right live."
Moving seamlessly at radio from one album to the next doesn't overly concern Powers. "I think that radio is going to tell us, at least from a radio promotion standpoint, at what pace to give them singles, just as the fans will tell Atlantic/Southern Ground the pace to release at retail," he says. "Radio has not given me any indication at this point to slow down or to stop."
The band has also attracted the attention of blue chip brands. A multimillion-dollar cause marketing program partnering the band and Ram Trucks called "Letters for Lyrics" launched at Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram Truck dealerships nationwide with the goal to deliver 1 million letters to U.S. soldiers in return for 1 million "Breaking Southern Ground" CDs. The CD offered three new, exclusive tracks, along with songs from the artists on Brown's Southern Ground label. Consumers visited either Ram dealerships or Zac Brown Band concerts to write a letter to a soldier and exchange it for the compilation album.
Creative Artists Agency sponsorships agent Laura Hutfless, who helped broker the deal, says country music appeals to middle America-and middle America buys product. "The 'Letters for Lyrics' program exemplifies the type of interactive blending of cause marketing and band/brand/fan connections we're seeing more of today," she says.
Radio and branding notwithstanding, it's through its live shows that the Zac Brown Band connects most strongly with its audience. Booked by John Huie at CAA, the group's touring growth has been explosive. Attendance this year in markets like Raleigh, N.C. (11,445); Charlotte, N.C. (17,224); and Camden, N.J. (15,785) have more than tripled over 2009, and the band moved 10,000-plus tickets in markets like Virginia Beach, Va.; Boston; Hartford, Conn.; Detroit; and Cleveland the first time in as a headliner.
"Attendance numbers as we come back into markets are staggering," Ward says. "A lot of that can be attributed to radio, but a lot can be attributed to word-of-mouth. Looking at the numbers we're doing now, we'll be selling out a lot of shows next summer."
With a new baby on the way for both De Martini and Brown (his fourth), the band will take most of the rest of the year off, returning to the road as a headliner in mid- to late spring of 2011. Even though he says he's a dedicated family man and "full-on Dad" when home, Brown won't call the touring break time off. "I'm going to be working," he says. "The Southern Ground warehouse is rocking and rolling in Atlanta, with a T-shirt shop and a leather shop; everything we're selling at our shows we're making or publishing ourselves. You can outsource it and not have to deal with it, or you can employ your friends. You've got to be willing to put the time into seeing who's got talent and who's going to do a great job."
There is very much a businessman under that beard and beanie cap. Brown's business ventures are many, from artist development at the Southern Ground label (Levi Lowrey, Nic Cowan, Sonia Leigh) to a product line that includes his Southern Ground Grub spice rub and brown sauce. His new Southern Ground cookbook is available online, at shows and at Cracker Barrel restaurants. It's all based in Atlanta, where the still-expanding Southern Ground operation nicknamed "the Hive" will eventually be home to an even wider range of projects, offices, rehearsal space and a full commercial kitchen.
Early on, Brown began hosting "eat-and-greets" on tour, inviting as many as 75 fans at each show to join the group and chow down on Southern specialties made by Brown. He'll expand the concept to include everyone on next year's shows.
"We're fabricating a state-of-the-art concessions system for our touring, so we can feed the people and give them everything they need without having to wait on it," Brown says. "We're talking about smack-your-grandmama-in-the-mouth Southern gourmet."
Atlantic's Kallman says he's been impressed by Brown's vision and "dexterity" and sees more branding opportunities on the horizon. "From every level, from clothing and merchandising to television and film opportunities, as well as restaurants, he has a deep understanding of how it all can connect."
Running the business side is "a fun part of it for me," Brown says. "We all work hard to do what we do. We use each other's eyes and ears, we batten down the hatches, and we make sure we're a bad-ass traveling business," he says. "Then we can party when all the work is done."