Kevin Neal’s resignation as president of venerable independent Nashville booking agency Buddy Lee Attractions to become a partner at William Morris Endeavor’s Nashville office may have occurred at "hyper speed," as Neal puts it, but nevertheless is a significant development in the red-hot, ultra-competitive Nashville booking agency scene.
“I felt it was time to move on,” Neal tells Billboard.biz, “and I wanted to go some place that had more resources for my clients, and just a bigger team to work with for support. I wanted to go into a place with a culture that fit me and had all the tools."
Neal, who had been with BLA for some 25 years and president since 2009, announced his resignation May 7, and insider speculation about where he would land began immediately. WME seemed to have the inside track from the beginning, and Neal announced that was indeed the case Monday night from the podium at a TJ Martell Roast & Toast of WME Nashville office co-head Rob Beckham, who was named Ambassador of the Year.
No BLA agents are making the move with Neal to WME, although his son, Austin, who also worked at BLA, resigned on Tuesday, and will be pursuing other opportunities, Neal says.
Neal brings a vital mix of established superstars and promising developing talent to WME, including such clients Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Parmalee, Colt Ford, John King, Clare Dunn and “possibly a few others,” Neal says. Under the guidance of Neal and management firm Spalding Entertainment, Aldean has become one of the most powerful live acts in the burgeoning country music scene, moving more than 1 million conservatively priced tickets last year to gross about $50 million.
Aldean’s upward trajectory continues, with the artist increasingly adding stadiums to the mix of venues on Live Nation-produced tours. Following a similar cautious, strategic touring plan from Neal and management firm Big Loud Mountain, Florida Georgia Line is on fire, and was arguably the best artist development story of 2013 for any genre.
Neal says his options were many following his BLA exit, including going out on his own and "building something anew" he says, describing such a venture as "nearly impossible," given what he wants to accomplish for his clients.
“To go in and sit in an office and represent the artists I had by myself, I’d be working 16 hours a day,” he says, touting the resources and wealth of territorial agents at WME. "A lot of those agents have been in territories for 20 years, they’ve got the relationships. I felt like their culture fit me better than anybody, and over the last two days that I’ve seen that firsthand.”
Contractual agreements prohibited Neal from discussing his next move with his clients, but he felt confident they would be open to change. “The relationships that I have with my clients are extremely strong,” he points out. “I’ve worked with Jason since 2004, playing $250 shows. FGL is the same, I started with them in 2011. The trajectory has gone a lot faster, but we were out working $250 dates. I started working with Colt when it was all just starting, trying to build career to point he is now. I felt confident that they would see this as a positive move, and, with the resources available to them, they’re all very excited."
With the broad scope of WME, including film/TV, branding/sponsorships, and literary, and bolstered by the 2013 acquisition of sports/management firm IMG last year, Neal believes his toolbox just got a lot bigger. “With the IMG deal that WME just finished, I think there’s going to be a lot of synergy between that acquisition and the artists, especially in country,” he says. “You can see the things that are happening, it’s not just lip service, there are results. I want my clients to feel confident that whatever they want to do, they’ll have the ability to get it done, whether it’s acting or writing a book or screenwriting. [WME has been] delivering in the past two days; I’m getting questions from LA, London, New York, and the excitement is a little overwhelming.”
Neal’s move to WME reunites the agent with longtime co-worker Joey Lee, whose father Buddy Lee founded BLA. “I’ve known so many of those people over there [at WME] for so long -- I’ve known Joey since he was a kid -- and I’ve always had a lot of respect for them,” Neal says. “They’ve always been friendly competitors, and we’ve worked together a lot on tours.”
Neal is known for having a keen eye for talent, and he says the new gig will provide even more opportunities for developing new artists. “I love music, I have a passion for this business, and I’m looking to find the next and the next... everybody is,” he says. “Nobody’s satisfied, because you put your blood, sweat and tears and everything into it, you have to. You can’t just throw it out there, you have to do a lot of strategic planning with touring, and that’s the fun of it. It’s like solving a puzzle, and it’s fun when you work with great teams that all get it, all are confident in the rest of the team, it flows so much smoother.”
Neal’s exit also marks a new chapter for BLA, launched more than 50 years ago -- decades before William Morris or CAA had a presence in Nashville. Buddy Lee, a former professional wrestler and colorful promotional visionary, initially formed the agency in partnership with Hank Williams’ widow Audrey Williams, at that time booking a young Hank Williams, Jr., (now a WME client for some 20 years). Buddy Lee died in 1998, and his widow, Rita Cortez Lee (also a former wrestler), retained ownership until she died in 2012. Despite it’s numerous changes at the top, BLA has seen success in the artist development realm throughout its history, taking on such clients as George Strait, Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert (now repped by Joey Lee at WME), Aldean and FGL at the earliest stages of their careers. While the road for independents is challenging, BLA has proven it can withstand change.