CMA Panel Gives Peek Behind Curtain of Sony Music's Plan to Boost Luke Combs Into Star Territory

Jim Wright
Luke Combs

It's a CMA EDU lesson in teamwork.

If you take the word of the Sony Music Nashville (SMN) team, Luke Combs and his closest business associates deserve an A+.

Combs' original label partner, River House founder Lynn Oliver-Cline, and his manager, Make Wake Artists founder Chris Kappy, created a plan that helped Columbia Nashville move Combs into hyper-drive when he signed in 2016, and the label is now celebrating a platinum album.

Students from 13 universities in the Country Music Association's music-business education program, CMA EDU, got a quick lesson in career-building on July 24 with a one-hour panel that centered on the team effort behind the artist's rise. Seven members of the SMN crew demonstrated how their departments played a role in Combs' ascent. And even Combs presented himself as one cog in a whole squadron that has helped his career make the grade.

"What they do is totally different from what I do, but I think they intertwine in many different places," said Combs. "From an artist's perspective, [my role is] giving them the ability to do their job by putting out quality music. It's an important relationship to have with these people, to know that you have people behind the scenes every day to ensure that what you're doing matters in the long run."    

Sony's homework started, of course, in the A&R department, which became aware of his music and worked to get the rest of the team on board. The other departments all studied how to best accommodate his talents and brand, and when the label began formal contract discussions, it brought a game plan to the table.

It helped that Combs had done much of his own homework, establishing a social media presence on Facebook and Vine, touring successfully and selling enough downloads that he charted "Hurricane" as an independent artist. When Columbia took over promotion, Combs was already being played on 18 major stations, and in most regions of the country, programmers were already familiar with -- or, at least, aware of -- Combs and his music.

"I'd never experienced before an artist's team that had laid so much groundwork already," said SMN executive vp promotion and artist development Shane Allen. "That was a tribute to not only Lynn and the team that she had put together, but to Luke's engagement."

The Sony crew had other assignments, too, once Combs joined the roster. The digital strategy, marketing, sales and media departments all started outreach to their various partners, touting Combs' strong foundation and encouraging those partners to get familiar with the music, which usually won them over.

"He is a commercial artist and a ‘cred' artist," noted SMN associate director of media Mary Catherine Kinney.

Timelines were built to roll out the marketing plan, a physical brand catalog was established to identify the kinds of partnerships and characteristics that fit Combs' artistic profile, and they made a specific effort to shore up familiarity in the Northeast, his weakest region at the outset. Creative Artists Agency booked a performance at the Mercury Lounge in New York, and appropriate radio and other media were brought in for the experience. In addition to solidifying his airplay, that earned him key TV performance slots, including a high-profile shot in the 8 a.m. hour on NBC's Today.

That successful example of synchronized performance was appropriate for the CMA EDU participants, who spent two days better understanding how to organize and build their chapters.

"It's amazing how much [team work] this business is and how everyone needs to be hands on deck to get things done," said Belmont University CMA EDU president Jamie Wendt.  

The EDU chapters are encouraged to see themselves as part of a bigger team, and that's particularly important to those hoping to develop music-business careers in other communities. To that end, conference participants were able to glean information at other panels about how to better find opportunities for their chapters, particularly by tying in to tours.

One panel explored ways to create local campaigns involving Hunter Hayes appearances -- an obvious benefit to Hayes in building awareness, but also beneficial to students who can cite successful marketing projects on their résumés. Additionally, those kinds of efforts help students network, a key first step in becoming part of a team.

"We always harp [on] them that it's about who you know and it's about networking," says CMA project manager of community outreach Lindsey Jones. "Our out-of-state chapters, through those special projects and tour promotions, they're able to do that. But then we also tell them, ‘Look around you. You're all like-minded individuals interested in pursuing the same career and you're going to rise through the industry together, so network with your peers."

Former University of Alabama CMA EDU president Anna Blake Atkinson is using networking to find her own place in the wheel now that she's an alumnus. Coming at it from a team perspective and helping creators identify their own forms of homework are helping her in that process.

"I've met with several singer-songwriters, and they just don't know what to do -- ‘What's my next step? Am I supposed to put out music? Am I supposed to play gigs?' They just don't know," said Atkinson. "That was cool for me to see, to give them advice and say, ‘Hey, I think this is your next step.' It's really important to set the goals and have that timeline so that you're always reaching [for] something."

Combs' summer-school session was at least a peek behind the curtain at the future possibilities as the collegians move through their studies and the CMA EDU program. Whether they end up an employee or an entrepreneur, they'll still discover their success will lie in knowing how to contribute to a team.

"If you grow up to be any of these people onstage and you support your artists as much as these people do," Combs told the students, "you're going to have a job forever."