Country Veteran Phil Vassar Launches i 81 Entertainment
Country hitmaker Phil Vassar scratches an entrepreneurial itch with the launch of i 81 Entertainment, Billboard has learned exclusively.
Vassar and his manager, Amy Millslagle, are partnering on the new venture, and have signed singer/songwriter Sarah Darling.
“Coming together has really been a great process for us,” Vassar tells Billboard of partnering with Millslagle. “We’ve had a lot of fun. She’s learned a lot about music and I’ve learned a lot about branding.”
Vassar first found success in Nashville as a songwriting, penning hits for Alan Jackson ("Right on the Money"), Tim McGraw (“For A Little While,” “My Next 30 Years”), Jo Dee Messina ("Bye, Bye", "I'm Alright) and Collin Raye (“Little Red Rodeo”). He signed with Arista and began a lengthy chart run that includes such No. 1 singles as “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “In A Real Love.”
Millslagle has a Chemical Engineering degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and received her MBA from Harvard. She was previously in brand management at Procter & Gamble and served as marketing VP of the Olympic Operations Unit at Dow Chemical. “Not only do we want to break and develop young artists, but we want to do it in such a way that they have lifelong careers,” Millslagle says. “We help each artist define their brand equity and point of difference, then let that guide us in assembling the supporting pieces. The same goes for established acts. We want to tap into the brand they have worked so long to establish, then strengthen and extend that brand so as to allow the artist to tour and play as long as they wish.”
Darling was slated to perform during Vassar’s annual fan club party at CMA Music Fest in Nashville on the weekend, serving up her new singles “You Take Me All the Way” and “Haley’s Comet.” “The first time I met Phil Vassar was at the Ryman Auditorium where he saw me play ‘Blackbird’ on the famous stage,” Darling tells Billboard. “He told me how much he loved my voice that night. Fast forward now. I'm truly honored to be be working with Phil because of his great passion for what I'm doing in music. [He’s a] true believer. He's a gem of a human being and incredible talent.”
Vassar says i 81 Entertainment will initially focus on artists in the country and Americana genres. “We’re definitely talking and other people have called,” says Vassar on adding to their roster. “I just don’t want to jump into too many things too fast.”
The name i 81 Entertainment references Interstate 81, which runs through Virginia and Tennessee. “Amy and I were both born along Interstate 81,” he says. “Amy in East Tennessee and me in Virginia. We were talking about it one day and the name popped up.”
Both are excited about the new venture. “It’s no surprise that Phil is musically talented,” Millslagle says. “However, he also possesses a sharp business acumen and a wonderful eye and ear for recognizing talent. Our strengths and backgrounds, while different, really complement each other well when it comes to developing or re-positioning talent. I also have to say I have finally found someone who matches my crazy work ethic and is as passionate as I am about reaching goals.”
In addition to launching the management company, Vassar has recently taken his public relations in house with Abbey Boutwell serving as publicist. Vassar is currently working on a new album and is touring extensively, including dates later this month in Germany, Italy and the U.K. He’s also hosting a new web series “Songs from the Cellar.” Filmed in the wine cellar of his Nashville home, the show has recently featured veteran rocker Tommy Shaw of Styx, Steve Cropper, Big & Rich’s John Rich and Darling.
One of the things Vassar is most excited about with the new company is the chance to continue mentoring young artists. “To me, it’s all about songs and putting together a body of work that I’m proud of. That’s what I want out of every artist that I work with,” he says.
“I want them to be just proud of their music and not forced. I want them to be artists and be who they are and be happy. At the end of it all, you’ve got to be proud of what you’ve done. We all make mistakes. God knows I did and I could have taken a left instead of right a couple times and probably would have done better, but it’s okay. At the end of it all, I’m happy and I love what I’m doing. I love what I’m writing. I’m playing music out there on the road and folks are still coming to my shows. Life is great!”