Lady Antebellum Manager Daniel Miller On the Big Picture For Artists and Students

Lady Antebellum photographed on Jan. 9, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Lady Antebellum photographed on Jan. 9, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.

On a rainy Tuesday in April, Fusion Music founder Daniel Miller inconvenienced himself for a couple of dozen kids in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Lady Antebellum, a management client for 10 years, had an album to set up for June release. Another client, Martina McBride, had a 25-year anniversary marketing plan that was coming together, and newcomer Jacob Davis was in the midst of a radio-promotion tour behind his first single, "What I Wanna Be." Traffic on the 30-mile drive from Nashville to Middle Tennessee State University made Miller and two fellow travelers -- Creative Artists Agency agent Aaron Tannenbaum and Flood Bumstead McCready & McCarthy co-owner Duane Clark -- an hour late. But they all eventually arrived to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, titled "The Ecosystem of the Music Industry," that provided an overview of music-business relationships for students at a Recording Academy-sponsored Grammy U event.

Teaching is not a job requirement job for Miller. But 20 years ago he enrolled in the same recording industry management program at MTSU, and the big-picture view he shared with those students is one he wishes he'd had when he started.

"I think we're a really undereducated industry," says Miller later. "A lot of the people in the industry don't understand it and don't pay attention to it, so there's a good chance for these kids to win. In theory, it's a young person's business. The best ideas come from young people, and I like to surround myself with younger people that are a lot smarter than I am. It helps me grow the business and offer the most to the clients."

Miller is, in many ways, extending the same service to those program enrollees that he provides to his management clients, using his own understanding of their situation to help them navigate a confusing business. His first industry gig came in 1998, when he called about opportunities at Evelyn Shriver Public Relations just as the under-staffed firm needed help answering phones in the wake of Tammy Wynette's death. He began his career with extraordinary naivete -- "I didn't even know what a -publicist was," admits Miller -- but now guides Lady Antebellum, McBride, Davis and Ryan Kinder through various partnerships and deals.

By the same token, Miller understands firsthand the commitment and risk required of the artists he represents. His family had no money for his education, so he worked his way through college when he could pull the funds together, taking seven years to get his degree. Later, he was comfortably positioned in a gig at Borman Entertainment, where he first started working with Lady A, but stepped out on his own without any clients, hoping his reputation and work ethic would stir some momentum.

"It's not uncommon in country music for someone to come from not having grown up with money and suddenly have lots," says Miller. "I don't think any of these people are prepared for success, because in a lot of ways it's really not a real life."

Miller told the MTSU students at the event that his role is to be "a barrier between the artist and the outside world," and that world is a complex one. The PowerPoint schematic laid out multiple pods of satellite entities -- label, booking agent, radio, media, concert buyer, audience and merchandise firm, to list some of the obvious ones -- but the manager isn't just required for protection. He also is a sounding board, offering advice about business and, at times, creative direction, which becomes increasingly difficult in the life of an artist.

"You can make a few [A&R] mistakes as you're sorting things out at the entry level," says Miller. "But at the superstar and iconic level the challenge is [that] you've established a sound and a brand: As you continue, [the music] has to be different enough to remain compelling, but not so different that people can't continue to connect to it. That's really hard, especially as trends change."

Giving advice that makes sense on both a creative and economic level is increasingly difficult. The business in 2017 is much different than the one Lady Antebellum entered in 2007. "Ten years ago, I don't know that we would have dreamed that not having music sales would be part of the strategy," says Miller, and it's a reason why he's guiding his established acts into non-music branding opportunities. Lady A's Hillary Scott introduced the LaBellum fashion line, with other developments on the way that will include bandmates Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, and McBride will be building on the cookbook she published in 2014, Around the Table: Recipes and Inspiration for Gatherings Throughout the Year.

But Miller discovered the hard way that the management business has changed, too. As managers have taken on some of the functions that labels used to fund, it has grown more challenging to turn a profit while still serving clients' needs. Thus, when Red Light Management offered Miller a chance to partner that would also allow him to reteam with Lady A, Fusion gladly gave Red Light the green light.

"The nature of management companies in the music business has changed really quickly," says Miller. "The odds of a new boutique management company surviving are pretty slim, and most everybody is aligned in some way or another with some bigger entity, whether it's another Live Nation or Scooter Braun [with SB Projects] or whatever it is. So the Red Light opportunity was really appealing because I couldn't afford to pay for all the resources that they -already had in-house."

Not all of the MTSU students that Miller addressed in April will succeed in the music business, and Miller returns periodically to give that PowerPoint presentation and help them figure out what it will take. But it also serves as a reminder to him that what separates the winning artists, managers and executives in the industry is often what elevates the top students in those music-business classes.

"Even that night at that panel, you could see two or three kids that were listening to every word we said, and there were several that weren't really paying any attention at all," says Miller. "There's got to be a certain level of ambition."

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