Billboard's 2021 Country Power Players Revealed

CMT’s Leslie Fram leads Billboard’s seventh annual Country Power Players list celebrating the genre’s wins as the industry enters a post-pandemic world.

In the mid-’80s, Leslie Fram was a fledgling DJ working her way through college at top 40 station WABB-FM in Mobile, Ala., when its program director critiqued her aircheck in a manner so harsh, it’s still seared in her memory. “He threw the cassette across the table and said, ‘You haven’t improved one bit,’  ” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I can’t take that tactic if I’m ever in the position to mentor or help someone.’ ”

Fast forward a few decades, and Fram is in precisely that kind of position as CMT’s senior vp of music strategy and talent. She mentors artists daily — and it’s safe to say that she has never flung anything at them other than a compliment or some helpful advice. Since starting at CMT in 2011, Fram, who oversees all musical integration within the brand — including original programming, and music video airplay across all CMT platforms — has been a fierce supporter of all country artists, especially burgeoning acts, as well as an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion.

In 2013, frustrated that female artists like Brandy Clark were struggling to get airplay on terrestrial country radio, she launched Next Women of Country, a signature CMT effort that bolsters 10 rising female acts each year through placements on all CMT platforms and social media, as well as a national tour. Many of the leading women heard on country radio today — Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce, Gabby Barrett — are NWOC graduates.

Read the full profile on Fram here.

Scott Borchetta
Founder/president/CEO, Big Machine Label Group
Andrew Kautz
COO, Big Machine Label Group
Allison Jones
Executive vp A&R, Big Machine Label Group
Jimmy Harnen
President/CEO, BMLG Records
George Briner
President, The Valory Music Co.

In the past year, Big Machine Label Group scored victories with both developing artists and veterans. Carly Pearce won her first awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association (CMA), for “I Hope You’re Happy Now” with Lee Brice, and Tim McGraw returned to both the label and the top of the charts with Here on Earth, a No. 1 debut on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Borchetta, 58, continues to keep his eyes and ears open for new talent, noting: “They come from anywhere and everywhere.”

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “Rage Against the Machine.” —Borchetta

Mike Curb
Chairman, Curb Records/Curb | Word Entertainment

Curb’s recent successes include Lee Brice’s two No. 1s on the Country Airplay chart (“One of Them Girls” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a duet with Big Machine’s Carly Pearce, which snagged the ACM Award for single of the year) while for King & Country earned its eighth No. 1 on Christian Airplay with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (featuring Needtobreathe). Curb is also proud of co-producing the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ 150th-anniversary album, Celebrating Fisk!, which won the Grammy Award for best roots gospel album in March.

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Trying to listen to music every night.”

Mike Dungan
Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Group Nashville
Cindy Mabe
President, Universal Music Group Nashville
Mike Harris
COO/executive vp, Universal Music Group Nashville
Brian Wright
Executive vp A&R, Universal Music Group Nashville
Royce Risser
Executive vp promotion, Universal Music Group Nashville

In addition to success with new artists like Parker McCollum, UMGN superstars Carrie Underwood and Alan Jackson reached new heights. Underwood’s first faith-based album, My Savior, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums and Christian Albums charts. “She is truly one of the greatest singers of our time,” says Dungan. Jackson returned with his first album in six years, a deeply traditional release that bowed at No. 2 on Top Country Albums. “Alan has made his ultimate love story to country music with Where Have You Gone,” says Dungan, “and it’s teaching each of us why country music matters.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Understand that many fans take sport in building them up and then tearing them down. Words and actions have consequences — be prepared to own yours.” —Dungan

John Esposito
Chairman/CEO, Warner Music Nashville
Ben Kline
Executive vp/GM, Warner Music Nashville
Cris Lacy
Executive vp A&R, Warner Music Nashville
Kristen Williams
Senior vp radio and streaming, Warner Music Nashville
James Marsh
National director of radio and streaming, Warner Music Nashville

Gabby Barrett continued her shift from new artist to budding superstar with “I Hope” and “The Good Ones,” becoming the first female to take her first two proper singles to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs since the list adopted its multi-metric methodology in 2012. Combined, the songs have earned over 1 billion global streams. For Esposito, 66, it’s proof that risks are worth taking. “If I’ve been reminded of anything this past year, it’s that the status quo does not serve us and can be overturned at any moment,” he says. “Although we can’t wait for things to return to the old normal, we’ve got to embrace the new normal, too.”

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns:  “Bruce Springsteen.” —Esposito

Randy Goodman
Chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville
Ken Robold
COO/Executive vp, Sony Music Nashville
Steve Hodges
Executive vp promotion and artist development, Sony Music Nashville
Taylor Lindsey
Senior vp A&R, Sony Music Nashville
Jennifer Way
Senior vp marketing, Sony Music Nashville

It was a banner year for Sony Music Nashville, as evidenced by the company’s stellar showing at award shows over the past several months. At the delayed 2020 ACM Awards in September, SMN earned 12 trophies, the most in its 30-year history. For November’s CMA Awards, SMN won seven awards, its largest tally in 14 years. Additionally, in March, Miranda Lambert won the best country album Grammy. The one downside is the ongoing issue of developing artists taking so long to gain traction at radio. “If new artists are going to continue to take 52-plus weeks to hit their peak,” says Goodman, 64, “we won’t be breaking any new artists.”

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “The Genesis reunion.”

Gordon S. Kerr
President/CEO, Black River Entertainment

Black River Entertainment kept things flowing during the past year, partly thanks to Kelsea Ballerini and her two albums — Kelsea and its stripped-down companion, Ballerini, both of which debuted in the top 10 on Top Country Albums. Kerr’s son, Josh, who is signed to Black River’s publishing company, won a Grammy and a Dove Award after co-writing for King & Country and Dolly Parton’s “God Only Knows.” “We’ve adapted and even changed during the pandemic,” says the senior Kerr. “Amid this change, our staff, songwriters and artists have had to carry on and adapt to this incredibly challenging, sad and important time in the history of this world.”

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Recently, I’ve been working a question into my conversations: ‘So who are you listening to these days?’ It has been great to hear about new music and artists from the perspective of others around me.”

Jon Loba
President, recorded music, BMG Nashville
Carson James
Senior vp promotion, BBR Music Group

Loba celebrates Black singer-­songwriter Blanco Brown racking up over 202 ­million streams and a No. 1 Country Airplay single with “Just the Way” (with labelmate Parmalee) as proof that “country music’s audience is more ­accepting of diverse voices than they are given credit for.” Meanwhile, Jimmie Allen was named best new male artist of the year at the ACM Awards, which he cites as a “strong sign that our genre is ­broadening.”

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Finding obscure Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams backgrounds.” —Loba

David Macias
President, Thirty Tigers

Macias does not like to play favorites with any of his artists, which include Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit and the late John Prine. The forward thinker also keeps his ear open for fresh talent through people he trusts and digital service provider playlists. “One of my favorite new artists that we’re working with, Kimberly Kelly, I found that way,” says Macias. “Three years later, I still always listen to her.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Don’t make it all about business. This is an opportunity for fans to develop a relationship with you. Be funny, be vulnerable, be charmingly discursive.”

Norbert Nix
President/partner, Triple Tigers Records
Kevin Herring
Senior vp promotion, Triple Tigers Records

Triple Tigers notched two more No. 1s on Country Airplay from its flagship artists over the past year with Scotty McCreery’s “In Between” and Russell Dickerson’s “Love You Like I Used To,” bringing the independent’s tally to seven since its 2016 launch. Additionally, Nix — who was named president of the label in September — signed Cam to Triple Tigers in partnership with Sony’s RCA in New York.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “People care more about what your Starbucks order is than what you are trying to sell or promote.” —Nix

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Luke Combs

Lynn Oliver-Cline
Founder/CEO, River House Artists

Oliver-Cline, 47, says Luke Combs’ ACM album of the year honor for What You See Is What You Get, released by River House, her joint venture with Sony Nashville, was a highlight of 2020. “Having a body of work be recognized and rewarded by your peers is an amazing feeling,” she says. And Combs grew that body of work with a deluxe edition of the album, which included his 11th consecutive Country Airplay No. 1, “Forever After All” — co-authored by River House writer Drew Parker, who signed with Warner Music Nashville in February.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Reading, reading and more reading. Often multiple books at a time. It really transported me elsewhere during quarantine. It continues to be a great escape.”

Narvel Blackstock
President, Starstruck Entertainment

Blackstock’s management client Blake Shelton continues to chart hits 20 years since his first release. Body Language, his first new studio album in nearly four years, debuted at No. 3 on Top Country Albums and at No. 18 on the Billboard 200. The set includes “Happy Anywhere,” Shelton’s Country Airplay No. 1 duet with partner Gwen Stefani, and top 10 hit “Minimum Wage.” Shelton, who has served as a coach on The Voice since its 2011 premiere, also marked his eighth victory in May with contestant Cam Anthony.

Gary Borman
Founder/CEO, Borman Entertainment

Borman manages Keith Urban and co-manages Mickey Guyton with Steve Moir. The two artists co-hosted the April ACM Awards, making Guyton, who caused a splash last year with the Grammy-nominated single “Black Like Me,” the first Black woman to do so. The track will be part of her first full-length album, out later this year, while Urban — whom Borman has managed for two decades — will begin playing live shows in August, as well as resume his Las Vegas residency, to support his 2020 release, The Speed of Now Part 1, his seventh No. 1 on Top Country Albums. “In the midst of a challenging year,” says Borman, “our team got creative, stayed positive and supported each other and our artists.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Be yourself, be consistent, experiment with new technology, and embrace change.”

Brent Harrington/CBS via Getty Images
Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton

Ash Bowers
Owner, Wide Open Management

Bowers, 39, helped guide Jimmie Allen’s first two singles (“Best Shot” and “Make Me Want To”) to No. 1 on Country Airplay in 2018 and 2020 and achieved the same feat with fellow client Matt Stell’s first two tracks (“Prayed for You” in 2019, “Everywhere But On” in 2020). Says Bowers: “Being the producer and the manager of both of these artists meant that there was a lot on the line.”

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Staying active in the creative community. As a producer, I get pitched a lot of demos from new songwriters. I always try to take the time to ask questions and learn as much as I can about who these artists and songwriters are. They are the next generation of this business. I love getting on board at the ground level.”

Virginia Bunetta
Owner/artist manager, G-Major Management

Bunetta, 40, successfully rescheduled star client Thomas Rhett’s The Center Point Road Tour, which was postponed last May and will now kick off in Alabama on Aug. 13. Rhett — named male artist of the year at the ACM Awards in April — also saw the first half of his double album, Country Again: Side A, debut at No. 2 on Top Country Albums in May, landing him his fifth top five entry on the chart.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Peloton and family dinners.”

Coran Capshaw
Founder, Red Light Management
Brad Belanger
Owner, Homestead
Mary Hilliard Harrington
Manager, Red Light Management; chairman of the board, Country Music Association
Tom Lord
Manager/head of marketing, Red Light Management

Red Light — home to artists including Gabby Barrett, Dierks Bentley, Sam Hunt, Maren Morris and Chris Stapleton — focused on out-of-the-box thinking this past year. It established CTRL_Music_, the first country channel on Twitch and home to weekly signature show Country Now Live, where top performers are garnering up to 350,000 unique viewers per night. The company is also embracing innovation to help boost its women clients. “With a specific focus on our female artists,” says Harrington, “we are continuing to set the pace with massive consumption numbers with some of the most streamed songs of the year so far.”

Bob Doyle
President, Bob Doyle & Associates

This spring, Doyle, 73, returned to the nation’s capital with Garth Brooks, his client of over 30 years. Honored as the youngest recipient of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2020, Brooks was next inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors’ Class of 2020 in a belated ceremony in May. After staying connected to fans with two CBS TV specials with wife Trisha Yearwood and his weekly Facebook Live series, Inside Studio G, Brooks is now preparing to hit the road again, having sold over 50,000 tickets in under 30 minutes for a July stadium show in Salt Lake City, according to Doyle. “I hope it is indicative of the demand for entertainment after the pandemic,” says Doyle. The country superstar is also spreading his wings, narrating and executive-producing a docuseries on national parks for National Geographic.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Think twice. What you post will be there for a long, long time.”

Martha Earls
Owner, EFG Management; co-owner, 1021 Entertainment, Demasiado Production

Earls diversified her portfolio during the pandemic to include a production company, Demasiado, alongside longtime management client Kane Brown. “Although it was hard, we adapted to the times and had success,” she says, citing Brown’s ACM Awards music video of the year win in April for his inclusive “Worldwide Beautiful.” In February, Earls also helped launch Brown’s new record label, 1021 Entertainment, a joint venture with Sony Music Nashville (which has signed Restless Road), as well as his publishing joint venture with Sony Music Publishing Nashville. “Kane is the best A&R that I know and is always first to discover someone new, especially on social media,” she says.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Be authentic. Be yourself. Don’t try to follow or chase trends. Just be open and honest with your fans.”

Ann Edelblute
Owner, The HQ

Collaborations with Loretta Lynn, John Legend, Reba McEntire, David Bisbal and others marked a busy year during which HQ client Carrie Underwood released her holiday album, My Gift (with an accompanying HBO film), and her first Christian album, My Savior. The two albums each debuted at No. 1 on both the Top Country Albums and Top Christian Albums. Planning for Underwood’s first residency, Reflection, starting Dec. 1 at the new Resorts World Las Vegas, and continued expansion of her fit52 fitness app and athleisure clothing line CALIA were also priorities. “We remained incredibly busy,” says Edelblute, “in spite of the challenges the world has faced over the past year.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Be your authentic self.”

Brent Harrington/CBS via Getty Images
Carrie Underwood

Kerri Edwards
President, KP Entertainment

Edwards’ long-term client Luke Bryan recently celebrated several career milestones: Last December, the singer was named Billboard’s country artist of the 2010s for placing 11 No. 1s on Hot Country Songs and eight No. 1s on Top Country Albums during the decade. In April, he took home the ACM Awards’ entertainer of the year trophy — his third time earning the top honor. Edwards also worked with the American Idol judge to co-executive-produce a five-episode series, Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary, for Amazon Prime’s IMDb TV, which is slated to air later this year.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “I wish I could say, ‘More sleep,’ but I know that’s a lie, so bring back traveling and live shows. Ready!”

Chris Kappy
Chief navigation officer, Make Wake Artists

“By sacrificing and making pivots, we grew to be a stronger management company,” says Kappy, 48, who decided to forgo a salary while he charted a course through the pandemic. Make Wake added five new employees, and they were busy. Luke Combs claimed the top artist spot, as well as the top two albums on Billboard’s 2020 year-end country charts, and landed his 11th straight No. 1 on Country Airplay with “Forever After All”; Niko Moon scored a Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs No. 1 with “Good Time”; Hailey Whitters’ Pigasus Records inked a deal with Big Loud/Songs & Daughters; and Drew Parker signed with Warner Music Nashville.

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Empowering my team to find them. Anyone in the company can present artists, and that has been so helpful in letting everyone know they have a voice.”

Marion Kraft
CEO/artist manager, ShopKeeper Management

Kraft, 56, and her ShopKeeper team embraced big plays for clients Miranda Lambert — who holds the record for the most ACM Awards with 34 trophies — and Ashley Monroe, whose new album, Rosegold, departs significantly from her usual sound. Lambert’s latest set, The Marfa Tapes, a lo-fi collection of tunes with collaborators Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, was released in tandem with a film and an Austin City Limits performance. As always, Kraft’s managerial moves were buffered by simple advice for clients: “Be yourself.”

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “My Chemical Romance. I think they are supposed to play Bonnaroo this year.”

Clint Higham
Co-owner/president, Morris Higham Management
Dale Morris
Co-owner, Morris Higham Management

Morris Higham’s management clients scooped up several recent awards, from Carly Pearce’s ACM and CMA wins to Old Dominion taking home its fourth group of the year trophy at the ACMs and third from the CMAs. The firm also achieved sales of 200,000 cases of Kenny Chesney’s Blue Chair Bay rum line, which the country superstar launched in 2013. “As an independent liquor brand, that was huge,” says Higham, 49, who believes the brand’s authenticity helped its success. The ways music is marketed and sold have changed significantly since Morris started in the business 40 years ago, but Higham notes that one thing remains the same — “the necessity for good songs and artistry.”

Danny Nozell
CEO, CTK Enterprises

Nozell’s client, Dolly Parton, has stayed extraordinarily busy during the pandemic, including donating $1 million toward creating the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and releasing A Holly Dolly Christmas, which debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums. Her latest collaboration — on a signature flavor of Jeni’s Ice Cream, Strawberry Pretzel Pie — “sold 50,000-plus units and is back-ordered until September,” says Nozell, with half of the proceeds benefiting Parton’s Imagination Library, which has provided free books to children monthly since 1995. “It broke [the Jeni’s website] within minutes.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Use all the free global marketing to your advantage.”

Courtesy of CTK Enterprises
Dolly Parton

Jason Owen
President/CEO, Sandbox Entertainment; co-president, Monument Records

Shepherding such high-profile acts as Kelsea Ballerini, Dan + Shay, Little Big Town, Midland and Kacey Musgraves through the pandemic has kept Nashville impresario Owen busy, but he and his staff met the challenge. “We are stronger as a team and better than ever,” he says, even launching Sandbox Succession, which oversees the estates of artists such as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Next up: a new Musgraves album — her first since taking home the Grammy for album of the year in 2019 — that will be released through a new partnership between Universal Music Group Nashville and Interscope Records.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Not attending award shows.”

John Peets
Founder/president, Q Prime South

Peets’ management clients enjoyed a successful year, both with hits from Ashley McBryde (“One-Night Standards”) and Eric Church (“Hell of a View”), and with culture-shifting moments from Church — who completed his COVID-19 vaccination for the cover of Billboard magazine — and Brothers Osborne, whose frontman, T.J. Osborne, came out as gay in February, a significant milestone in the country music community. “I am in awe of my talented team who continue to work relentlessly, allowing us to release six country albums during COVID,” says Peets, 54, including Church’s three-album set, Heart & Soul.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “We have learned a lot over the months on how to stay connected to one another — we have gained glimpses of a better overall work-life balance. We should maintain this going forward, but I do believe there is great benefit in being together in a physical space, especially in a creative business where inspiration cannot be scheduled.”

Scott Siman
President, EM.Co

In August 2020, Siman steered the release of his longtime client Tim McGraw’s 15th studio album, Here on Earth. The set debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, earning the country veteran the honor of having a chart-topper in each of the past four decades. “You can count on one hand the people who have accomplished that feat,” says Siman. “It was challenging on so many levels, but we adapted and found ways to connect with fans. We all thought the album would help people cope.”

Clarence Spalding
Partner, Maverick

Spalding’s proudest accomplishment was a basic one: The management conglomerate navigated the pandemic without furloughing any employees. Darius Rucker, who wrote his last two singles over Zoom, co-hosted the CMA Awards with fellow client Reba McEntire, who appeared in CBS’ Young Sheldon and the movie Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar. McEntire also sang the Diane Warren-penned end theme to Four Good Days, which opened in April, and superstar Jason Aldean announced his August return to the road.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Take a deep breath. Does the post have any value other than stroking your ego? I really don’t give a rat’s ass what you had for dinner last night.”

Janet Weir
Owner, House of 42; manager, Red Light Management

Weir, whose clients include Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd, celebrated last year when Morris’ “The Bones” became a 19-week No. 1 on Hot Country Songs and enjoyed crossover success, topping the Adult Contemporary and Adult Pop Airplay charts. In November, she earned CMA Award wins for song and single of the year for “The Bones,” as well as her first female vocalist trophy. During the 2021 ACM Awards, Morris earned her second female artist of the year honor, while “The Bones” won song of the year.

Seth England
Partner/CEO, Big Loud
Joey Moi
Partner/producer, Big Loud
Craig Wiseman
Partner/songwriter, Big Loud
Austen Adams
COO, Big Loud
Candice Watkins
VP marketing, Big Loud

Big Loud flagship artist Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard 200 this year — the first title to spend its first 10 weeks at No. 1 on the all-genre albums chart since Whitney Houston’s Whitney in 1987. That triumph was marred when Wallen’s use of a racial slur was caught on video, leading Big Loud to temporarily suspend his contract and radio stations to drop his music from their playlists in the short term. Through the touring pause, Big Loud has helped artists including Chris Lane, HARDY and Sean Stemaly build their careers while leading Jake Owen to his third No. 1 on Country Airplay since his moving to Big Loud in 2017. “I really believe nearly every artist on the roster grew careerwise” this year, says England.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Always be yourself. Fans love true authenticity, not perfection.” —England

Eric Hurt
VP A&R, Empire Nashville
Heather Vassar
VP marketing, Empire Nashville

EMPIRE Nashville launched in 2019 as an expansion of the San Francisco-based company known for its hip-hop savvy. Under Hurt and Vassar, the label/publisher has shown sharp instincts for country signings. The label released Willie Jones’ debut album, Right Now, which includes the Black empowerment anthem “American Dream,” setting up Jones’ jump to Sony Music Nashville. Singer-songwriter Tenille Arts on EMPIRE-affiliated 19th and Grand Records made her first showing on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Somebody Like That,” which also reached No. 3 on Country Airplay. Americana artist Waylon Payne (named for his godfather, Waylon Jennings) has created a buzz with his album Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me.

Matthew Berinato
Willie Jones

Rakiyah Marshall
Founder/CEO, Back Blocks Music

Formerly creative director at BMG Music Publishing, Marshall launched Back Blocks Music last November. The label, publisher and artist development firm’s signee, Lily Rose, went viral on TikTok with “Villain,” leading to a joint venture with Big Loud and Republic Records in January. “Lily trusted my brand-new company to release ‘Villain’ right before the holidays, and it reached No. 1 on the iTunes all-genre chart,” says Marshall, 29. Of the track’s No. 36 peak on Hot Country Songs, she adds, “I’m so grateful for the foundation and tone it set for my business that I didn’t see coming.”

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Being on any and every social platform. The next rising artist could be one swipe away on a lazy Saturday. If you fight against the ever-evolving platforms, you could be missing someone special.”

Scott Bailey
President, Opry Entertainment Group
Dan Rogers
VP/executive producer, Grand Ole Opry

From hosting the 55th and 56th ACM Awards at its Grand Ole Opry House and Ryman Auditorium venues to keeping the Grand Ole Opry operating throughout the pandemic and building out its new TV network, Circle, Opry Entertainment Group has had many notable accomplishments over the past year. Bailey attributes the success to “the amazing job our employees have done to keep all our venues open and host some of the most incredible shows with restricted audiences while keeping everyone safe.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Be authentic, read again, and read one more time before pressing Send. Once you hit Send, it never goes away.” —Bailey

Louis Messina
CEO, Messina Touring Group

Having been at home in Austin for a year, Messina can’t hit the road fast enough. Clients including Eric Church and Kenny Chesney have announced tours for 2022, while country icon George Strait will resume his Strait to Vegas residency at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena in August, followed by a headlining slot at ACL Fest in October. “It’s going to be a little crowded out there on the road,” he says, “but the stars will shine, and we have the brightest stars of all.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Don’t.”

Brian O’Connell
President of country touring, Live Nation
Julie Matway
COO, Country Nation, Live Nation
Patrick McDill
VP country music touring, Live Nation

After over a year without shows, Matway, 43, is preparing for the return of live music in the country sector and getting tours and festivals back on the road. “I am stoked to be part of the awakening,” she says. Live Nation is planning nearly two dozen country tours for 2021, including those for Luke Combs, Jason Aldean, Chris Stapleton, and the relaunch of country festivals like Michigan’s Faster Horses. Adds Matway: “I look forward to all of the new projects that our teams have been working so hard on.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Spread love. Stay human.” —Matway

Rich Schaefer
Senior vp global touring, AEG Presents
Adam Weiser
VP global touring, AEG Presents

In April, AEG Presents announced Kane Brown’s Blessed & Free tour — one of the first arena outings that will begin since the outbreak of the pandemic. The 35-date trek, which starts in September, will visit 29 NBA arenas, including a sold-out show at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. The promoter also rescheduled dozens of tours, including Dan + Shay’s The (Arena) Tour, which is now set for the fall. “The commitment to get our industry back was first and foremost,” says Weiser, “and that includes a plan to get everyone back to work quickly and safely.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “To be authentic. We’re in an age where we are fed so much content, and being yourself and relatable gets attention.” —Weiser

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Stagecoach
The 2019 Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif.

Stacy Vee
VP talent, Goldenvoice

After two years of pandemic postponements, Stagecoach’s next lineup will be its best yet, promises Vee. The Indio, Calif., country music festival, held at the Empire Polo Club, will return in April 2022 and highlight the current landscape of country music while also “shining a bright light on what it has the potential to be,” she says. “It will be my proudest moment.” Though a lineup has yet to be announced, Vee makes it clear she would love to see Brothers Osborne there or anywhere else. “Skeletons begs to be listened to live from the front row, dancing shoes on,” she says of the duo’s 2020 album.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Virtual Pilates and appreciating the small things.”

Sloane Cavitt Logue
Head of crossover of the Nashville office, WME
Michael Jasper
Brand partnerships agent, WME
Shari Lewin
Partner, WME
Aaron Tannenbaum
Partner, WME

WME spent the last year securing major deals for its clients, including virtual branded performances for Brad Paisley, Kane Brown and Thomas Rhett, who teamed up with Bud Light. Brown also extended his Dr Pepper deal for an additional year, and Paisley scored a deal with Publishers Clearing House that resulted in a series of TV commercials. The agency also helped bring Dolly Parton and Squarespace together for a Super Bowl LV ad that plugged Parton’s fragrance, Scent From Above. Lewin, 35, says she closed more deals in 2020 for country artists than ever before. “It was a challenging year,” she says, “but we were busier than ever, working hard to find new revenue streams for our clients in the absence of touring opportunities.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Remain consistent. Creating and posting a steady stream of content and having a uniform voice is key to creating an artist’s brand on social media.” —Jasper

Marc Dennis
Darin Murphy
Co-heads of the Nashville office, Creative Artists Agency
Jeff Krones
Kylen Sharpe
Music agents, Creative Artists Agency

In a year with virtually no touring, CAA’s country music group grossed over $11 million from private events alone. In addition to deals involving podcasts and non-fungible tokens, the agency negotiated book contracts for Carrie Underwood, Brett Young, Kelsea Ballerini, Tim McGraw and more while landing partnerships between Sam Hunt and Visible, Darius Rucker and the Texas Lottery, Jon Pardi and Chevy, and Kip Moore and Ford Bronco. “Surviving and making it through a global pandemic should be highlight enough,” says Sharpe, “but we are super proud of how much we’ve accomplished during this time.”

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Cooking at home. It has helped me save money and lose weight. I also hope that we will continue a lot of the video conference meetings. There is a lot of fat that we’ve trimmed from meetings, and I hope we keep that up in the future.” —Sharpe

Jonathan Levine
Executive vp/managing executive, Wasserman Music
Mike Betterton
Senior vp, Wasserman Music
Lenore Kinder
Senior vp, Wasserman Music

In April, Casey Wasserman’s lifestyle marketing and management firm completed its purchase of Paradigm’s North American music division, giving executives in Wasserman’s Nashville office not just a new employer, but a refreshed outlook on their work, which includes booking clients Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton and Kacey Musgraves. “Wasserman Music is a new company and a new start for us, and that itself is an achievement,” says Levine, 59. “We have a renewed passion to build incredible careers and empower artists to create the culture.”

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Seeing how torn our country and society became and the division that remains, to further the unrelenting pursuit of inclusiveness with every step and every action.” —Levine

Curt Motley
Lance Roberts
Agents, Nashville music leadership, UTA
Josh Garrett
Agent, music, UTA

In the year of live music’s great pivot, Motley applauds UTA’s music department for finding new areas of growth amid the shutdown through “securing innovative brand partnerships, drive-in tours and virtual experiences.” After the major agencies cut salaries at the beginning of the pandemic, in September 2020, UTA became the first to reinstate full pay, a move that Motley says emphasizes the company’s “clear, decisive vision, with the needs of the employees always coming first.” UTA opened its new Nashville headquarters within the former downtown Carnegie Library in early June.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Making craft beer.” —Motley

Johnny Chiang
Country format coordinator/ director of operations, CMG Houston, Cox Media Group

As a major-market programmer still invested in breaking new artists, Chiang’s recent successes include Ingrid Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine” and Lainey Wilson’s “Things a Man Oughta Know.” “Our competition isn’t just another radio station or company; we compete with everyone — Spotify, SiriusXM, YouTube,” says Chiang, 52. “When ratings go down, the tactic of not playing new music just doesn’t work today. We need to stress the one advantage we have over the [digital service providers], and that’s our live and local engagement.”

I Discover New Country Artists By: “[Listening to] my 10-year-old daughter Skylar.”

Frank Hoensch/Redferns
Ingrid Andress

Charlie Cook
VP country, Cumulus Media; operations manager, Cumulus Nashville; program director, WSM-FM
Mike Moore
Program director, WKHX-FM Atlanta, Cumulus
Mike Preston
Program director, KSCS-FM/KPLX-FM Dallas, Cumulus
Paul Williams
Director of programming, Westwood One, Nashville; program director, WKDF-FM Nashville

Preston joined Cumulus Media’s Dallas powerhouse combo, KPLX and KSCS, in March 2020, just in time to navigate the COVID-19 crisis. “I’d rather forget most things that happened in the pandemic,” he says. One thing that kept Preston busy was “checking our streams on smart speakers every day. Our stations are TLR [total line reporting], and it’s critical the stream is actually a matching simulcast of the terrestrial signal.” Preston keeps track of his terrestrial radio peers and the streaming charts, and relies on his record company relationships when it comes to finding new music. And, he adds, his stations are “rebounding nicely.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Think twice before you hit the ‘post’ button. Then think one more time.” —Preston

RJ Curtis
Executive director, Country Radio Broadcasters/CRS

In February, the broadcasting organization held its first virtual Country Radio Seminar, aka CRS, featuring an extra day of programming, the debut of its Streaming Summit and interviews with Luke Bryan, Luke Combs, Barry Gibb, Maren Morris and Brad Paisley. “It was more complex than a physical event, but we sustained the brand while retaining the collegial atmosphere and camaraderie that CRS is famous for,” says Curtis, 62, who will be inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame. “The personal, one-on-one engagement is CRS’ secret sauce, and it was served up in large, satisfying doses — yes, even online.”

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Reading. I’ve had my nose in a book every day since last March. I’ve set a goal of reading a biography on every U.S. president — I’m almost halfway there.”

Rod Phillips
Executive vp country programming strategy, iHeartCountry, iHeartMedia
Gator Harrison
iHeartCountry brand coordinator/senior vp programming Nashville, iHeartMedia
Bobby Bones
VP/creative director, iHeartCountry; host, The Bobby Bones Show, Country Top 30 with Bobby Bones, iHeartMedia; executive producer, Women of iHeartCountry, iHeartMedia
Cindy Spicer
Program director/on-air host, WFUS Tampa, Fla.; WQIK Jacksonville, Fla., iHeartMedia

Phillips, a 25-year programmer, has guided iHeartMedia’s 150-plus country stations since 2015, as well as Bones’ popular syndicated morning show. As the pandemic recedes, he’s excited about live events and concerts coming back, including “the iHeartRadio Music Festival returning live in Las Vegas in September,” he says. “And we are on the verge of announcing our plans for the return of a live iHeartCountry Festival later this year.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Don’t take it too seriously, ignore the haters, and give the fans some insight into your personal life at the level that makes you comfortable.” —Phillips

JR Schumann
Senior director music programming, SiriusXM
Storme Warren
Host, The Storme Warren Show, Exit 209 With Storme Warren

Live programming is a vital part of ­SiriusXM, but Schumann, 39, says the company pivoted “on a dime” to virtual events in 2020 with Stagecouch Weekend, a concert livestream in partnership with Goldenvoice held April 24-26, the dates of the canceled country festival Stagecoach. The event featured performances and Q&As by sidelined artists including Dustin Lynch, RaeLynn and Jon Pardi broadcast on its channel The Highway. “The word ‘no’ or the phrase ‘we can’t’ were never options,” says Warren. “In an environment void of live entertainment, we continued our mission of connecting the artists with the fans.”

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “Oh, this is easy. I’ve already got my tickets for Genesis!” —Schumann

Beville Dunkerley
Head of country, industry and artist relations, Pandora/SiriusXM
Jen Danielson
Head of country programming, Pandora

With livestreams available on multiple platforms during quarantine, Pandora switched to delivering buzzy virtual events like Pandora LIVE Powered by Women during Women’s History Month in March that included a multigenre panel featuring Lauren Alaina. “The discussion really acted as a wake-up call to the inequalities that women, and especially people of color, continue to face in this business,” says Dunkerley. Pandora also debuted genre-specific modes hosted by superstars like Chris Stapleton, Eric Church and Thomas Rhett, who talk new music and hand-pick songs.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Elastic waistbands.” —Dunkerley

Margaret Hart
Head of Nashville label and industry relations, YouTube
Copeland Isaacson
Head of Nashville artist relations, YouTube

In October, the company established the #YouTubeBlack Voices Fund and earmarked $100 million to elevate Black creators’ voices and stories. Nashville singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun is among the artists in the program’s inaugural class. YouTube’s two main Nashville representatives “are thrilled to help her build a thriving, sustainable career on YouTube,” says Isaacson.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Walking meetings. I love to grab an iced coffee and meet a partner at the park for a walking meeting. It’s a permanent addition to my weekly schedule.”

Jay Liepis
Global head of country, Apple Music
Michael Bryan
Head of Apple Music country, radio, Apple Music

Robby Klein
From left: Liepis, Bannen, Palmer and Bryan photographed on May 21, 2021 in Nashville.

When Jay Liepis and Michael Bryan were tasked with developing programming for Apple Music Country — the streaming service’s first country radio station — they used terrestrial radio as a road map.

“We just did everything they weren’t doing,” says Liepis, head of music business partnerships for Apple Music Nashville. “It was about inclusion and diversity. It was about gender balance ... everything that country typically seemed to struggle with.”

More so than other genres, success for country artists has long been tied to radio airplay. Historically, though, country radio has been one of the least diverse parts of the music industry. A 2019 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 16% of artists across Billboard’s year-end Hot Country charts were women; people of color and queer members of the genre were recognized even less on radio playlists.

Creating diverse programming was “100% our responsibility,” says Bryan, head of Apple Music Country, Radio. “We have to shine a spotlight if we’re ever going to make the change that needs to happen.”

When Apple Music Country launched last August, it curated a 41-show lineup that not only highlighted the genre’s most underrepresented communities, but also reflected the diversity of experiences within them. At the heart of its efforts is Color Me Country, hosted by Rissi Palmer, whose 2007 single “Country Girl” made her the first Black woman to hit the Hot Country Songs chart in 20 years. On the show — named for Black country pioneer Linda Martell’s 1970 debut album — Palmer amplifies Black, Latino and Indigenous artists, and the first season focuses specifically on women of color.

Bryan also gave the artist Tiera free rein over two programs — The Tiera Show and Soundcheck Radio — after viewing her experiences as a Black country singer on Instagram. Female hosts remain in the minority on country radio, but Apple Music recruited singer Kelleigh Bannen to host its first-ever country show, Today’s Country, in 2019, and she still helms the station under the new Apple Music Country banner.

Black singer-songwriter BRELAND, whose 2019 country-trap hit “My Truck” pushed boundaries, continues to supply Land of the Bre Radio listeners with more genre-bending songs. And on PROUD Radio With Hunter Kelly — country radio’s first LGBTQ+-themed regular broadcast — veteran journalist Kelly interviews queer country and Americana artists like Brandi Carlile and Waylon Payne on topics such as their coming-out experiences.

Those sessions run alongside exclusive shows from artists Jimmie Allen, Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood, among others. (Morgan Wallen’s Happy Hour Radio was pulled after a video of the up-and-comer using a racial slur surfaced in February, further igniting conversations about enduring racism in the country music industry.)

Apple Music Country aims to reach as far as possible, and as with all Apple Music radio offerings, the channel is available in 165 countries.

“Hopefully, this goes beyond our ecosystem and helps fuel the next version of country music in Nashville,” says Bryan. “It’s one of the most meaningful things that I think most of us have ever done in our careers.”

Kelly Rich
Country music lead, Amazon Music
Emily Cohen
Global programming lead for country, Christian, folk and Americana, Amazon Music

Among the artists participating in livestreams on Amazon Music over the past 14 months are Keith Urban, Eric Church, Gabby Barrett, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Combs. In September, Amazon Music partnered with Twitch to expand its livestream audience, leading Amazon to continue its prominent role in the country genre. “The share of country streams on Amazon Music continues to be more than two times the industry average,” says Rich.

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “Thomas Rhett. His new songs take me back to when he was initially signed to the Valory Music Company, and that is where I first fell in love with his music.” —Rich

Brittany Schaffer
Head of artist and label partnerships, Nashville, Spotify
Mary Catherine Kinney
Strategic music partnerships lead, Nashville, Spotify
Rachel Whitney
Head of editorial, Nashville, Spotify

Spotify broadened its support of country artists through the launch of the Indigo playlist, “where we made space for music that hasn’t traditionally fit into mainstream country, like Americana,” says Schaffer, as well as highlighting different country subgenre projects like The Marfa Tapes from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. The platform also involved a wide range of established and emerging artists in marketing campaigns around its playlists, including social campaigns and billboards. “Spotify has always focused on how we empower artists and labels to engage with their fans in more meaningful ways,” says Schaffer, “and the last year has seen us further accelerate those efforts.” My new pandemic habit that I will
continue “Carving out quality time with my family and not feeling guilty about it.” —Schaffer

Mark Brown
Senior vp/GM, Round Hill Music Nashville

Established in 2014, Round Hill’s Nashville office represents writers such as Ashley Gorley, Jimmy Robbins, Zach Crowell and Katie Pruitt. In 2020, the publisher released “over 380 cuts — up more than 100 from 2019,” says Brown, 64. Gorley has earned 43 No. 1s on Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs combined. But it was Maren Morris’ latest hit, “The Bones” — co-written by Robbins with Morris and Laura Veltz — that had the biggest impact, earning song of the year wins at the ACM, CMA and BMI Pop awards and spending 19 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. “Somehow, the worst year ever became our best year ever,” says Brown.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Always remember that anything you post will be there forever, and although you may be able to take it down, it will always be out there. Don’t be stupid.”

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Ashley Gorley

Stephanie Cox
Senior vp creative, Nashville, Kobalt

Cox signed and developed clients including Nashville-based independent music publisher Plaid Flag Music, which earned its first two-week No. 1 radio hit in May with Jake Owen’s potential wedding staple “Made for You,” which was co-written by former Plaid Flag writer Benjy Davis. In January, she also helped sign Mae Estes to the Plaid Flag roster, before her single “Roses” racked up 1.2 million U.S. on-demand streams.

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “Eric Church.”

Rusty Gaston
CEO, Sony Music Publishing Nashville

Thanks to multigenre hits like Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” (featuring Charlie Puth) in 2020, Sony Music Publishing’s Nashville outpost carried momentum into its February rebrand, in which the top global publisher dropped “ATV” from its name. The change, says Gaston, 45, “reflects our renewed focus on inclusivity and our songwriter-first approach.” In February, Sony signed Kane Brown to a worldwide publishing deal, and will also house the country superstar’s new publishing company, Verse 2 Music. Gaston’s plans for 2021? Live music. “The most important thing is that our songwriters are finally able to get back on the road again.”

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Morning hikes with artists, songwriters and employees to connect one-on-one.”

Michael Knox
Senior vp Nashville, peermusic; founder, Music Knox Records

Under Knox, peermusic ranked among the top 10 publishers on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Publishing Corporations chart for 2020. In May, the publisher signed a global deal with Lee Greenwood to administer his hits, including “God Bless the U.S.A.” Knox also leads the imprint Music Knox Records, a venture with BMG; hosts and produces the United Stations syndicated radio show Knox Country 360; and continues to produce Jason Aldean.

Shane McAnally
Founder/owner, SMACKSongs; co-president, Monument Records

Three-time Grammy-winning songwriter McAnally’s publishing company, SMACKSongs, reports that it has placed 56 No. 1s across Billboard's U.S. charts since its 2012 founding, with recent hits for Lady A, Sam Hunt and Darius Rucker. “Our group of young writers are killing it in every way,” he says. McAnally and Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen also revived Monument Records (Walker Hayes, Caitlyn Smith) as an imprint for Sony Music in 2017, which he says recently hired a promotions staff — “a product of our marketing team making so much headway in the streaming field.”

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Mostly word-of-mouth from fellow writers and artists that I work with but also what my kids love, because I know they know what’s coming.”

Mike Molinar
GM, Big Machine Music

Thanks to the success of writers like Laura Veltz, Jessie Jo Dillon and Ryan Hurd, Big Machine Music ranked No. 2 on Billboard’s 2020 Hot Country Songs Publishers chart. “This would be amazing for an indie to rank so high in any year, but especially in a pandemic, where it was enough to just survive,” says Molinar, 44, who was inducted into Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Media and Entertainment Wall of Fame in April. The pandemic gave Molinar abundant time to spend with his 3-year-old and 8-month-old sons. “Now that I know what I’m missing,” he says, “I want to preserve as much time with them as possible.”

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “Genuinely, every artist we’ve had a hit with. We’ve had a ton of radio hits in the last year that my team, the writers and I have never heard performed live.”

Chris Oglesby
Senior vp creative, Nashville, BMG

While celebrating publishing clients like Carly Pearce, who won single of the year and music event of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April for the No. 1 Country Airplay hit “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” her duet with Lee Brice, Oglesby also pays attention to streaming and social media using platforms such as TikTok “like I would a writer’s night.” Also, BMG writers Emily Landis and Jim McCormick also penned Gabby Barrett’s “The Good Ones,” which spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart and led Country Airplay for three weeks.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Walking while on the phone.”

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for ACM
Carly Pearce

Troy Tomlinson
Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville

Driven by increased subscription and streaming growth, revenues for UMPG were up 6.9% for the first quarter of 2021 over the same 2020 period, thanks in large part to a strong showing by Tomlinson’s Nashville division. Over the past 15 months, signings included Luke Combs, Kenny Chesney, Brandi Carlile and Dave Cobb, while a number of its writers, such as Ian Munsick and Bexar, have signed major-label deals. Tomlinson’s succinct explanation of his company’s ongoing success: “Very simply, growth across every key performance indicator.”

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Keep a gratitude journal. I took too much for granted pre-COVID-19.”

Ben Vaughn
President/CEO, Warner Chappell Music Nashville

Warner Chappell’s up-and-coming writers like Niko Moon and Parker McCollum landed Country Airplay No. 1s, while Priscilla Block and Mickey Guyton gained new audiences in breakthrough years for both artists. “They’re all honest, authentic writers who draw from their own personal experience to connect with music fans,” says Vaughn. “It’s great to see their voices and lyrics making an impact.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “To have as authentic of a voice on social media as you do in your music.”

Clay Bradley
VP creative, Nashville, BMI

In March 2020, Bradley returned to BMI to lead its Nashville creative department and its partnership/events team. Earlier in his career, he spent seven years with BMI and subsequently was founder/CEO of Eclipse Music Group, an artist development and publishing company. This year he has re-signed Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Ross Copperman and Thomas Rhett and is committed to promoting diversity on Music Row. “Nashville is long overdue for a reckoning with its past,” says Bradley. “I love highlighting Music City and all of the genres we represent, especially during this pivotal moment.”

Mike Sistad
VP, Nashville membership, ASCAP

In 2020, Sistad led his team in moving both ASCAP’s Christian Music Awards and Country Music Awards to social media during the pandemic, while ensuring that talent development activities, such as The ASCAP Foundation’s Nashville songwriting workshops and ASCAP’s Guidance From Publishers for Songwriters program, could take place online. Writers he has signed to ASCAP over the years include Chris Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini, Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne, Carly Pearce and Matt Stell.

Kelli Turner
President/COO, SESAC Rights Management

Last summer, in the wake of calls for racial and social justice, the Nashville-based Turner joined senior executives across SESAC and sister companies Harry Fox Agency and Rumblefish to create a diversity and inclusion network. In October, Turner assisted in SESAC signing Jon Nite, whose multiple No. 1 co-writes include Gabby Barrett’s multiformat smash, “I Hope.” Nite joins other Nashville songwriters including Jimmie Allen, Lee Brice, Blanco Brown, Niko Moon and Hillary Scott on SESAC’s roster.

Tatum Hauck Allsep
Founder/CEO, Music Health Alliance
Shelia Shipley Biddy
COO/certified senior adviser, Music Health Alliance

Celebrating its eighth anniversary in January, the Nashville nonprofit Music Health Alliance surpassed $63 million in health-care cost savings for 15,000 music industry professionals across the nation, says Allsep. As with many nonprofits, MHA faced the challenge of finding alternative funding during the pandemic since its two primary sources of revenue — events and music industry donations — dried up. In addition to receiving a PPP loan, MHA formed a relationship with Spotify’s COVID-19 Music Relief Program, which matched donations to MHA to support its COVID-19 relief programs and resources. During COVID-19, the alliance also launched two mental health funds in partnership with Music Biz, The Scars Foundation and the CMA Foundation. Separately, Allsep created the Facebook resource Tennessee Vaccine Hunters to help improve information and access regarding vaccines.

Lori Badgett
Diane Pearson
Senior VPs/team leaders, entertainment division, Nashville, City National Bank

In addition to helping clients obtain PPP loans during the COVID-19 crisis, the bank stepped up its charity and humanitarian activities in 2020, according to Badgett and Pearson. The bank donated $2 million to help colleagues, clients and communities facing the challenges of the pandemic and $360,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund, and also invested over $13 million in a wide range of organizations including MusiCares, ACM Lifting Lives and the Music Health Alliance. Pearson adds that CNB is also implementing new programs around diversity, equity and inclusion.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Be true to yourself and be authentic. That’s what country music does best: showcase the artist’s true self and identify with their fans.” —Badgett

Julie Boos
Owner/business manager/chairman, FBMM

“Relentless” is how Boos describes the challenges of the past year, as the business management firm she leads helped “successfully navigate my clients through a world of no touring, which equates to significant lost revenue, so they can live to fight another day.” Beyond her focus on the finances of her clients, which the firm keeps confidential, Boos says she has spent “a lot of time educating myself, asking questions and mostly listening to what it is to be Black in the country music industry today, and the world at large, and discovering ways I can be a better ally to my friends and colleagues living that reality.”

Jeremy Holley
Laura Hutfless
Co-founders, FlyteVu

In May, entertainment marketing agency FlyteVu supported Musicians on Call, the nonprofit that brings music to hospital patients, to create an online prom featuring Blanco Brown, Rita Ora, We the Kings and other artists. It secured a Dolly Parton performance for FlyteVu client Cracker Barrel’s sponsorship of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and also created exclusive branded holiday content with Carrie Underwood, Maddie & Tae and Runaway June. Through its FlyteVu Fund, the company donated $10,000 to Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music, which opened earlier this year.

Andy Moats
Director of music, sports and entertainment, Pinnacle Financial Partners

Pinnacle has emerged as a leading player in music asset financing, with the bank’s team writing up $500 million in music publishing and record label loans from October through March alone, according to Moats. “What started as a small Nashville-focused effort has grown into a large national and even international entertainment practice,” says Moats, who is also a founder and partner in August’s Music City Grand Prix, a new three-day race and concert series.

I Discover New Country Artists By: “Listening to the songwriting community. If the songwriters are buzzing about an artist, then I know they should be on my radar.”

Kerry O’Neil
Partner, O’Neil Hagaman; co-founder, Big Yellow Dog Music

O’Neil pulls double duty as a founding partner of the entertainment business management firm and as the co-founder, with Carla Wallace, of the publisher, label and artist development company. O’Neil Hagaman helped its clients navigate a pandemic-fueled economic downturn by mining the value of their intellectual property while also helping keep clients ready to tour when markets reopen. Big Yellow Dog successfully upstreamed several of its artists to major-label deals, according to O’Neil, while growing its synch and label business.

My New Pandemic Habit That I Will Continue: “Taking more time to appreciate all the wonderful people in our community who make life bearable and meaningful.”

Lou Taylor
Founder/CEO, Tri Star Sports and Entertainment Group

Business management clients seeking Taylor’s financial expertise come from the worlds of film, sports and all genres of music — and those from the country music community include Florida Georgia Line, Reba McEntire, Chase Rice, Orville Peck and Parker McCollum. As she and her team helped artists financially weather the pandemic, one of Taylor’s goals has been to help clients create and build new revenue streams outside their current careers — a strategy that proved prescient during the past year.

John Shearer/Getty Images for Spotify
Florida Georgia Line

Sarah Trahern
CEO, Country Music Association
Tiffany Kerns
VP community outreach, Country Music Association; executive director, CMA Foundation

Under Trahern and Kerns, the CMA created the Music Industry COVID Support initiative, which has committed $3 million to multiple nonprofits, including Music Health Alliance and Porter’s Call. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of CMA Fest 2020, Trahern and executive producer Robert Deaton created ABC special CMA Best of Fest. In June, the CMA extended its relationship with ABC for the CMA Awards and other programming through 2026.

Damon Whiteside
CEO, Academy of Country Music
Lyndsay Cruz
Executive director, ACM Lifting Lives

The Academy of Country Music held two ACM Awards shows in seven months after the 2020 edition was delayed by the pandemic from April to September and then the 2021 event was held on schedule in April. Whiteside, 48, hails both shows as “groundbreaking due to the format of being at several of Nashville’s most iconic music venues for the first time in our history” and airing primarily live performances. Meanwhile, Cruz oversaw the ACM Lifting Lives COVID-19 Response Fund, which raised and distributed $3.65 million to those in need in the country music industry.

Artist I Most Want to See Live When Touring Returns: “Eric Church. After his past two performances at the ACM Awards, I can’t wait to see him in a large venue packed with fans.” —Whiteside

David Crow
Mike Milom
Partners, Milom Horsnell Crow Kelley Beckett Shehan

During the pandemic, Crow, 47, focused on negotiating and drafting joint venture agreements to launch several new publishing, management and artist development companies for clients, as well as oversaw several significant master and music-publishing catalog sales. Partner Milom says the COVID-19 lockdown also forced the firm to help clients (whom the firm declines to name) find new pandemic-proof income streams to replace typical revenue generators such as touring, including “creating signature products through joint ventures with established brands” and setting up arrangements for paid livestreams.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Be mindful of the potential security issues involved. Artists can unintentionally give away their location, their home address and other sensitive information that can create issues if they have a stalker.” —Crow

Derek Crownover
Tiffany Dunn
Denise Stevens
Partners, Loeb & Loeb

Last year, Loeb & Loeb represented Grammy-winning hitmaker Hillary Lindsey in a co-publishing deal with Concord that includes a creative venture to jointly sign and develop new songwriting talent. Most significantly, Concord acquired an interest in Lindsey’s formidable back catalog, which includes co-writing credits on hits such as Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Type it out, then call your manager, publicist and lawyer before you hit send.” —Crownover

Rusty A. Jones
Attorney, Law Offices of Russell A. Jones Jr. and Associates

Jones represents Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith, whose respective performances boosted the morale of their fans during the pandemic. The lesson of the past year? “Patience,” says Jones. “We’ve all had to be patient during this unprecedented period. In a world that we normally live in where everything is going at the speed of light, all of a sudden we’ve all had to put on the brakes. Like they say, [patience] is an acquired taste... especially in this business, where we’re going 100 miles an hour all the time.”

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “Don’t print it if you don’t want it repeated.”

Joel Katz
Senior counsel, Barnes & Thornburg

Katz, who joined Barnes & Thornburg as senior counsel in March, successfully renegotiated a new TV contract for the CMA Awards with ABC. He is also the attorney for several top Nashville executives, including Scott Borchetta at Big Machine Label Group, Mike Dungan at Universal Music Group Nashville, Randy Goodman at Sony Music Nashville and John Esposito at Warner Music Nashville. He has also been engaged by Ken Robold and Steve Hodges for their employment extensions with Sony Music Nashville.

Jess L. Rosen
Shareholder/co-chair, Atlanta entertainment and media practice, Greenberg Traurig

Rosen believes in heading for “where the puck is going, not where it is at the moment,” a philosophy that positioned his firm well to help its clients during the pandemic. With a roster that includes Brad Paisley, Kacey Musgraves and Kenny Chesney, the lawyer (and jazz guitarist) says being adaptable during a challenging 2020 helped the practice meet clients’ needs as they prepare to ramp back up in 2021.

Advice For Any Artist Posting on Social Media: “The days of what you had for lunch — as we emerge from quarantine — should be over. Tell us about the world you want us to be living in, what you want your music to give people. Make those posts matter.”

Contributors: Trevor Anderson, Jim Asker, Katie Bain, Dave Brooks, Anna Chan, Ed Christman, Tatiana Cirisano, Mariel Concepcion, Marcus Dowling, Thom Duffy, Chris Eggertsen, Deborah Evans Price, Gary Graff, Paul Grein, Lyndsey Havens, Gil Kaufman, Steve Knopper, Joe Levy, Taylor Mims, Gail Mitchell, Melinda Newman, Jessica Nicholson, Cathy Applefeld Olson, Glenn Peoples, Bryan Reesman, Tom Roland, Micah Singleton, Andrew Unterberger, Deborah Wilker, Nick Williams, Xander Zellner.

Methodology: Billboard power lists are selective, with honorees chosen by Billboard editors. Nominations for each power list open not less than 120 days in advance of publication. (For a contact for our editorial calendar listing publication dates, please email The online nomination link is sent to press representatives and/or honorees of companies previously featured on any Billboard power list, as well as those who send a request before the nomination period to Nominations close and lists are locked not less than 90 days before publication. Billboard’s 2021 Country Power Players were chosen by editors based on factors including, but not limited to, nominations by peers, colleagues and superiors. In addition to nominations, editors weigh the success of each executive’s company or affiliated artists as measured by chart, sales and streaming performance. Career trajectory and industry impact are also considered. Unless otherwise noted, Billboard Boxscore and MRC Data are the sources for tour grosses and sales/streaming data, respectively. MRC Data is also the source for radio audience metrics. Unless otherwise noted, album streaming figures cited represent collective U.S. on-demand audio totals for an album’s tracks, and song/artist streaming figures represent U.S. on-demand audio and video totals.

Leading Schools Of The Country Power Players

The most frequently cited alma maters of the 2021 class of honorees.

John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
The campus of Belmont University in Nashville.

Belmont University (Nashville)
Enrollment: 8,428

California State University, Northridge (Northridge, Calif.)
Enrollment: 39,179

Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.)
Enrollment: 19,593

Middle Tennessee State University (Murfreesboro, Tenn.)
Enrollment: 21,721

Tennessee State University (Nashville)
Enrollment: 8,081

University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Enrollment: 38,100

University of Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Enrollment: 27,559

University of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)
Enrollment: 29,402

University of Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Enrollment: 29,460

Vanderbilt University (Nashville)
Enrollment: 13,131

Enrollments source: U.S. News & World Reports

This story originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.