Billboard's 2016 Nashville Power Players List Revealed: Who Rules Music City?

Austin Hargrave
From left: Jimi Westbrook, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town, Dungan, Bryan and Urban photographed together on June 12 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR

MIKE DUNGAN, 62

Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Group Nashville

"He's the Don!" says Luke Bryan, sidling up to Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan at Billboard's photo shoot. It's the week of the Country Music Association's CMA Music Festival, and if it's the first time that one of Dungan's artists has made a ­flattering reference to the ­influence that he wields, it won't be the last. Before the festival is over, a procession of acts and their handlers will venture to Dungan's Commerce Street tower office to kiss the ring of the most powerful person in country music and Billboard's 2016 Nashville Executive of the Year.

Dungan, 62, oversees five labels -- Capitol Records Nashville, EMI Records Nashville, MCA Nashville, Mercury Nashville and Show Dog-Universal, a joint venture with Toby Keith -- that collectively make UMGN the largest distributor of country music in the United States. Its 29.5 percent market share for the first half of 2016 is almost 10 points higher than its nearest competitor, Sony Music Nashville, and, in that same time period, UMGN has charted 22 records on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and 11 singles in the top 10 of the Hot Country Songs list -- by far, the most of any label group.

Billboard's 2016 Power Players: The Billboard Shoot

That's not surprising given UMGN's roster includes country's reigning superstar, Bryan; radio ­darling Sam Hunt; CMA best new artist Chris Stapleton, whose full-length debut, Traveller, is the biggest-selling country album of the year (1.5 million units moved, according to Nielsen Music); and Dierks Bentley, who recently topped Hot Country Songs for the 11th time with "Somewhere on a Beach."

"It's nice to be No. 1," says Dungan, as he leans back in his office chair, surrounded by Beatles, Miles Davis and Rat Pack memorabilia, "but I was very ­comfortable being No. 2 at Capitol, because I didn't have a big target on my back." Dungan ran Capitol Nashville for 12 years, before it merged with Universal's far bigger Nashville operations in 2012. He eventually took the reins of the entire music group, home to more than 25 acts -- a number that, says Dungan, has been used to discourage new ­talent from ­signing with Universal. "It's easy for the guys down the street to go, 'How much attention do you think you're going to get when they have Luke, Keith Urban, Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum?"

Bryan describes the label boss as ­"seriously not serious," and between Dungan's cheerfully acerbic ­personality and UMGN's lead over the ­competition, it's difficult to imagine him having many dark nights of the soul at the Brentwood, Tenn., home he shares with his wife of 38 years, Jane. (They're the parents of two sons in their 30s.) Yet, Dungan admits to mixed feelings over recent resurgences at Sony and Warner Bros.' Nashville divisions. "It's never good to have weak ­competition," he says. "That said, I am a ­ridiculously ­competitive person. If you know me well, I'm miserable unless I'm batting a ­thousand. Sometimes, late at night, I'll get really dark," he says, "because something isn't happening for us, and it's happening somewhere else."

That competitive zeal manifests itself in Dungan's office layout. "It looks like a tech startup," says Bruce Flohr, a senior executive at Red Light Management who was involved in the negotiations that led to The Band Perry signing a joint deal with UMGN and Interscope. "He has displays of all his ­artists' data in real time. And he's got a team in place that knows how to use that data."

Key players on Dungan's staff include UMGN ­president Cindy Mabe -- "who the day I'm finished here will rise up and be the best anyone in this town has ever been, and ­better than I've ever been," says Dungan -- promo king Royce Risser, A&R vp Bryan Wright and COO Mike Harris.

As for their boss, "There's nothing refined about Dungan -- every part of him is on 11," says Flohr. After Dungan's beloved hometown team the Cincinnati Reds invited him to throw out the first pitch at a July game, he began practicing at the office using a pitchback that his staff bought him. "For a 62-year-old guy, my form looks pretty good on film, but I'm f--ing spraying all over the place," he says. "There are massive dents in everybody's doors." Flohr finds that same go-for-broke attitude in an annual camping getaway Dungan embarks on with other male execs, mixing winter weather with serious fireworks. "They go out and blow shit up," he says. "Everybody's shocked when they come back with all of their fingers."

Dungan can be similarly unvarnished when it comes to his artists. He says, for instance, that he counseled Bryan against becoming too closely identified with the bro-country sound that he ­virtually pioneered. "When we signed Luke, he was unlike anything out there," he says. "But over time, everyone started to emulate him. I told him, 'You need to utilize all the tools in your ­toolbox. Otherwise, you're going to be branded as that guy forever.' " On Kill the Lights, the 2015 album that Bryan released after their heart-to-heart, Dungan hears signs that Bryan was listening.

"He's still got the shake-your-butt songs in there," says Dungan, but such tracks as "Fast" and "Home Alone Tonight" are proof that "Luke is growing and morphing."

As country's style shifts go, Dungan is pro-evolution. He admits he ­"frustrated" Stapleton early on by urging him to go in a more contemporary direction -- advice, he says, he's glad Stapleton ignored, given the results. He has ­championed Urban, Little Big Town and The Band Perry ­working with pop or EDM ­producers, and Hunt, country's genre-blending game-changer, didn't faze him. At radio initially, "old guys like me stood back from 20 feet away and said, 'Boy, I don't know if there's anything in this that's remotely ­country,' " Dungan says of Hunt, whose debut LP, Montevallo, has sold 1.2 million copies. But, he adds, "there was one thing that was incredibly country: the lyrics."

Dungan is intent on making a star of a 31-year-old artist named Jon Pardi, whom he likens to "Buck Owens from a frat house." The bulk of the music on Pardi's sophomore album, California Sunrise, is "a lot more traditional than what's being played at ­country radio," says Dungan. One track, though, is a hip-hop-influenced outlier called "Dirt on My Boots." Dungan wants it to be the next single because he's convinced it'll be a "bona fide smash." Pardi is resisting him, however, and, as if on cue, steps out of the elevator. Dungan good-naturedly puts him on the spot. "Don't fight me on the ­second single, boy!" he says, laughing. "Don't have a great f--ing song and then stand there and say, 'I don't know if it's me!' " Pardi can't fight the pressure. "All right, all right," he says with a sigh. You can resist the don for only so long.

 

 

SCOTT BORCHETTA, 54

President/CEO, Big Machine Label Group

A year after Borchetta took BMLG off the market and reupped its distribution deal with Universal Music Group -- Republic Records provides pop radio support -- Big Machine continues to top charts and awards shows. Taylor Swift captured her second album of the year Grammy for 1989 in February, while Thomas Rhett's "Die a Happy Man" snagged the Academy of Country Music (ACM) prize for single of the year in April. The track also spent six weeks atop the Country Airplay chart, the longest run for a solo male since Kenny Chesney in 2007. BMLG continued to expand its scope, releasing Cheap Trick's first studio album in five years and Steven Tyler's first ­country LP. "Our focus is still on country," says Borchetta, "but, really, on whatever music our artists are making."

The Most Country Thing He Owns"Marty Robbins' 1964 Belvedere race car."

 

BENNY BROWN, 75

President/CEO, BBR Music Group

JON LOBA, 46

Executive vp, BBR Music Group

"We go out and tell artists, 'There's ­nothing you can do at the majors that you can't do here,' " says Loba of the indie ­country label group that Brown built, and he has proof. BBR's best-known artist, Jason Aldean, was named entertainer of the year at the ACM Awards in April; Granger Smith's "Backroad Song" -- the first single released by BBR's newest imprint, Wheelhouse -- reached No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart in February; and Broken Bow artist Dustin Lynch topped the chart for the third time in May with "Mind Reader."

JOHN ESPOSITO, 60

Chairman/CEO, Warner Music Nashville

Esposito's promotion to chairman in May was a vote of ­confidence by Warner Music Group CEO Stephen Cooper, who saw "Espo" revive the Nashville division since moving from New York in 2009. Bragging rights for 2015 include 10 Billboard No. 1 country records -- 9 singles and one album, Brett Eldredge’s Illinois --  with six different artists, all of whom, save for Blake [Shelton], weren't on the roster before I got there," says Esposito. His ­passion project: breaking Sting's favorite new ­collaborators, The Last Bandoleros.

The Most Country Thing He Owns"A Yeti cooler. Chris Janson mentions them in 'Buy Me a Boat.' I didn't know what the f-- he was talking about [at first]."

 

RANDY GOODMAN, 60

Chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville

When Goodman took the top Sony Music Nashville gig in July 2015, he says he came in "knowing that if we weren't making a substantive difference within the first year, people would write us off." A year later, SMN's progress is evident: For the first half of 2016, its country album market share is 20.8 percent, up from 19.8 percent for all of 2015.

Freshman Year Highlights 

In addition to acing releases by inherited acts Carrie Underwood and Cam, the Nashville-raised father of two signed key artists from under the noses of rivals. "Maren Morris was far down the road with another label," he says. The gambit paid off: Morris' Hero reached No. 1 on Top Country Albums and the single "My Church" went top 10. He also snagged LANco, another act in talks with a competitor, at Nashville's The High Watt club. The band's single, "Long Live Tonight," drew 459,000 radio audience impressions in its debut week. Just out: Kenny Chesney heralds his new LP, Cosmic Hallelujah, with a duet with Pink, "Setting the World on Fire." And Goodman says he's "blown away" by what he has heard of Miranda Lambert's upcoming LP.

Why They Signed 

LANco's Brandon Lancaster cites Goodman's intrepidness: "You don't expect a president to sign you on the spot, especially one who just came into that label." Singer Kane Brown, whose Chapter 1 EP has sold 50,000 copies, says Goodman got the nod because "he treats me like I was his son. With him being new to Sony, too, I felt like we could start this thing together."

 

BILL HEARN, 56

President/CEO, Capitol Christian Music Group

With more than 45 percent of the market, according to Nielsen Christian SoundScan, Hearn's group dominates the genre and distributes its No. 1-­selling release of 2016, Joey & Rory's Hymns, which has scanned 419,000 units so far -- enough to make it the 13th-best-selling album of the year across all genres. Hearn did not respond to interview requests, but his colleague, Universal Music Group Nashville chief Mike Dungan, calls him "one of the best music ­executives in Nashville," who was "raised in the ­business." Hearn's father, the late Billy Ray Hearn, founded ­venerable Christian label Sparrow Records, which is owned by Capitol CMG.

 

CINDY MABE, 43

President, Universal Music Group Nashville

It's hard to argue with Mabe's ­assertion that "[Chris] Stapleton was the story of the year," and her boss, Mike Dungan, gives her credit for orchestrating the ­artist's breakthrough. To make an end run around reluctant radio, Mabe campaigned to get Stapleton enough CMA Award ­nominations to merit a performance slot on the telecast, then brokered her idea of a dream duet with Justin Timberlake. The transfixing performance, coupled with Stapleton's three unexpected CMA wins, made ­country music history, says Mabe. "The birth of a star happened in front of us." She also had a key role in Little Big Town's crossover smash "Girl Crush," which, she adds, "redefined the band."

Biggest Issue Facing Country: "The lack of artist development. I don't want two of any artist that I have on my roster."

 

DAVID MACIAS, 51

President, Thirty Tigers

Thanks to the success of upstarts Chase Rice and Sturgill Simpson, Aaron Watson and Jason Isbell, Macias moved the 14-year-old indie-label services and management firm ­to flashy new digs in Nashville's Wedgewood/Houston ­neighborhood this year. Isbell and Watson in particular have boosted the company. The former's 2015 album, Something More Than Free, and Watson's The Underdog both topped the Top Country Albums chart. Up next: new releases from Watson and Isbell.

How He Knows a Song Is Country: "To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography: You know it when you hear it."

 

JACK WHITE, 41

Founder, Third Man Records

Third Man just pressed its 3 millionth vinyl disc, cementing its status as the most prolific label in Nashville, even if most of its 400 releases aren't available ­digitally. A staff of about 50 runs the label, a mail-order business and a storefront that's a must-stop for indie-rock tourists. White's role as Music City's foremost rock ­ambassador isn't strictly symbolic; his civic duties include serving on the mayor's new gender-inequity advisory board.

 

 

BRAD BELANGER, 41

Founder/president, Homestead Management 

KERRI EDWARDS 

President, KP Entertainment 

MARY HILLIARD HARRINGTON, 39

Senior manager, Red Light Management 

TOM LORD, 40

Head of marketing, Red Light Management

Last September, Harrington sold a majority stake in the successful Nashville PR firm she founded, The GreenRoom, to work full-time with Red Light Management and a roster that includes Dierks Bentley, Aubrie Sellers and Tucker Beathard. She's in good company. Edwards manages superstar Luke Bryan in tandem with RLM, Belanger has a similar arrangement with Sam Hunt, and all three tap into Lord's 18 years of industry experience to optimize radio promotion, branding and label relations.

Country's Power Trio

Harrington devoted much of 2016 to following up Bentley's Riser, which yielded his biggest digital single, "Drunk on a Plane" (1.5 million downloads), with the May release of Black. The rollout, which included a series of short films inspired by the album, gave Bentley his best-yet debut week -- 88,000 in pure album sales -- as well as a lead single, "Somewhere on a Beach," that spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. "The smartest thing Dierks did was to not try to make Riser Part Two," says Harrington. "There's a new sound and a new storyline."

Meanwhile, Edwards' client Bryan is close to selling his 10 millionth album, and, in 2015, grossed more than $56.6 million on tour. And Belanger is working with Hunt to roll out a new single in the fall followed by an album and headlining tour in 2017.

​Dierks' Props 

"From being a trusted friend to bounce songs off of, through the recording process and prerelease creative ideas, to losing sleep with me over single choices, to the album launch, Mary's handprint -- her grip -- is on all of Black," says Bentley.

 

BRANDON BLACKSTOCK, 39

Manager, Starstruck Entertainment 

NARVEL BLACKSTOCK, 59

President/CEO, Starstruck Entertainment

Warner Bros. Nashville chief John Esposito says the biggest breakthrough in Blake Shelton's career came 10 years ago when "he got Narvel and Brandon Blackstock to be his father-and-son management team." In June, Shelton scored his fifth No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart with If I'm Honest and his 22nd Country Airplay chart-topping single, "Came Here to Forget." Although Narvel's ex-wife, Reba McEntire, departed the firm, Brandon is now ­managing his spouse (and the mother of two of his four children), pop star Kelly Clarkson, who previously was repped by his dad. Pere and fils helped engineer Clarkson's move from RCA Records, where she clashed with the label, to Atlantic, where she is cutting a classic R&B-inspired label debut.

The Most Country Thing He Owns: Brandon: "Tractors, 'dozers and animal heads all over the wall."

 

GARY BORMAN, 63

Founder/CEO, Borman Entertainment

The Pittsburgh native maintains offices in Nashville and Los Angeles, but still keeps his business small and focused. The firm's primary clients are Keith Urban, who notched a record 36 consecutive top 10 singles on the Country Airplay chart, including his latest No. 1, "Wasted Time," in June and his fifth Top Country Albums chart-topper, Ripcord, in May; Alison Krauss, who has a solo album due out this fall; rising country star Mickey Guyton; and newcomer Clayton Anderson. Borman's 12-person team has worked with Urban to raise $800,000 this year for the Country Music Hall of Fame through its all-star We're All for the Hall benefit concerts, and to market the artist's Urban Guitar brand, which, says Borman, has sold more than 400,000 instruments.

 

CORAN CAPSHAW, 58

Founder, Red Light Management

With a staff of 45 and a roster of 60 acts, Red Light's Nashville operation alone would qualify as the largest independent talent-management firm in the world (all told, RLM employs 60 managers and reps 250 acts), and despite living with his wife on a farm near Charlottesville, Va., Capshaw is a frequent presence. "You wouldn't know he's not based here," says RLM Nashville executive Tom Lord of his boss' weekly visits and active ­involvement in the careers of six of the 30 country acts that are handled out of the firm's offices in the Gulch: Luke Bryan, who sold 1.6 ­million albums in 2015; Chris Stapleton; Dierks Bentley; Lady Antebellum; The Band Perry; and Sam Hu​nt, who will embark on his first ­headlining tour in 2017. Capshaw also has invested in the city through a ­partnership with Live Nation in the Ascend Amphitheater.

 

BOB DOYLE, 68

President/owner, Major Bob Music; Bob Doyle & Associates

As the manager and music publisher for country superstar Garth Brooks, Doyle commands a lot of clout in Nashville as well as a great deal of admiration. "He's managing the most unmanageable client in the world; he gets my respect," says one label executive who lauds the former Operation Desert Storm fighter pilot's ­ability to execute Brooks' outsized vision, such as his current world tour -- "our biggest accomplishment," says Doyle. With 4.5 million tickets sold so far, it ranks as one of the top 10 tours of all time.

Favorite New Artist: "Chris Stapleton. He's an old friend who is finally being recognized for his talent."

 

ANN EDELBLUTE

Owner, The HQ

When Carrie Underwood's Storyteller bowed at No. 1 on Top Country Albums last fall, Edelblute's star client became the only act in the history of the chart to have each of her six albums debut in the top spot. Her ongoing world tour in support of the album has grossed nearly $30 ­million, and her fitness/­lifestyle apparel line, launched in 2015, was the third-highest-selling women's athletic line at Dick's Sporting Goods' 600-plus stores. "Carrie constantly raises the bar for herself," says Edelblute.

 

 

CLINT HIGHAM, 44

President/partner, Morris Higham Management

Higham's 2015 partnership with Justin Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, reaped dividends in June, when Braun helped ­broker a deal with Apple Music to ­feature Higham's longtime client Kenny Chesney -- the No. 2 earner behind Taylor Swift in 2015, according to Billboard, with $39.8 million in total revenue -- and his latest single, "Noise," in an upcoming commercial for the streaming service. "Apple wants to appeal more to Middle America, and we're looking to expand awareness of Kenny's music, so it was a great deal," says Higham. After three years of ­stadium ­touring, Chesney will have just a ­handful of shows in 2017, but with a new LP, Cosmic Hallelujah, out Oct. 28, he's as busy as ever, which means so is his corner man. "I haven't turned off my phone in 22 years," says Higham.

 

TK KIMBRELL, 60

Founder/president, TKO Artist Management

Christmas came early for Kimbrell when the RIAA bestowed platinum status on breakout client Chris Janson's single, "Buy Me a Boat," in mid-December. The new year held good news as well. Kimbrell is about to delve into five decades of vault material from new client Glen Campbell, who, he says, "brought the world to ­country music." But Kimbrell's highest achiever is still longtime client Toby Keith. Even without a recent hit single, he was the fourth-biggest-­earning country star on Forbes' 2016 Celebrity 100. His Wild Shot mezcal, restaurants and endorsements contributed to a $47.5 million gross. "Toby is a great businessman, but nothing is on his radar every day except songs," says Kimbrell, who married his office's own Laura Covington last fall.

Favorite Nashville Character: "I liked J.D. Souther's character [Watty White], but I'm partial because of his songwriting."

 

MARION KRAFT, 51

Principal owner, ShopKeeper Management

Although Kraft's roster includes Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies and Courtney Cole, the last year largely has been about flagship client Miranda Lambert, who has sold a career total 8.7 million albums. She took home CMA female vocalist of the year honors in November 2015, then won the same award, for the seventh ­consecutive time, from the ACM in April. But despite not ­owning a TV, Kraft is well aware that media ­attention has focused on Lambert's highly anticipated new album -- expected to drop by Christmas -- and whether it will deal with her 2015 divorce from Blake Shelton. Kraft, who was raised in Germany (and remains a citizen), is ­characteristically tight-lipped about the record, but Sony Music Nashville chief Randy Goodman says the music he has heard so far is "amazing." 

How She Knows a Song Is Country: "Great country songs tell stories. It's that simple." 

 

JASON OWEN, 40

President/CEO, Sandbox Entertainment

Owen swears that client Dan & Shay's "From the Ground Up" will be one of the top three singles of the coming year when awards season rolls around, and it would be foolish to bet against him. He made the same claim for Little Big Town's No. 1 "Girl Crush," which won a Grammy, a CMT Award and two CMA prizes, ­fulfilling his five-year campaign to make LBT a household name. Not as much has come yet from his two years of quietly ­strategizing with Faith Hill, but, without divulging specifics, he asserts that "2016 to 2017 will be a year full of Faith."

Biggest Personal Splurge: "My son! [My partner] Sam [Easley] and I aren't able to go about it in the same way as most people, so it cost a lot to have him [through a ­surrogate]. But he was well worth it." 

 

JOHN PEETS, 49

Founder, Q Prime South

Peets says his diverse roster -- which ranges from country acts Eric Church and Brothers Osborne to the rootsy ­explorations of Rhiannon Giddens and the scruffy rock of The Black Keys -- spurs him to challenge the status quo. So, when Church's Mr. Misunderstood came together quickly, practically "falling out of the sky," Peets says he and Capitol chose to release it in the same spirit, with no advance notice. While most surprise drops are download-only, Mr. Misunderstood was available in physical formats, the vinyl secretly pressed in Germany. Team Church's bold move was rewarded with a No. 2 Top Country Album that, to date, has sold 395,000 physical and digital copies.

 

CLARENCE SPALDING, 59

President, Maverick Nashville

Under Spalding's guidance, Maverick Nashville acts really delivered on the road. The big winner was 2016 ACM entertainer of the year Jason Aldean, who grossed close to $30 million on tour in 2015 and $15.7 million so far this year. There's more to come: Spalding says Maverick acts will sell close to 1.9 million concert tickets in 2016. The firm also signed Darius Rucker after he exited McGhee Entertainment. 

Which Presidential Candidate Is More Country? "Neither. To be country, you need to be authentic. That's a stretch for these two."

 

 

ALI HARNELL, 48

Senior vp, AEG Live Nashville

LOUIS MESSINA, 68

Founder/CEO, Messina Touring Group

Messina handled Boxscore's top tour of 2015, Taylor Swift's $217.4 million ­outing, as well as Kenny Chesney's (No. 5 at $131 ­million). By the time Chesney's run wraps in September, he'll have played 167 U.S. stadium shows during the last 10 years, a number Messina says is surpassed only by The Rolling Stones. Atlanta-born Harnell, who worked with Messina on those tours, promoted 180-plus shows that grossed in excess of $36 million (up from 155 gigs and $27 million-plus in 2014). Her top 2015 accomplishment: ­promoting Little Big Town's Pain Killer Tour, which, after years of LBT playing fairs and ­festivals, grossed $3.5 million. She also signed The Shadowboxers, whom she ­manages, to Justin Timberlake's artist development/production company, Villa 40.

Which Candidate Is More Country? ­Harnell: "Hilz. She lived in Arkansas. Trump is a city fool -- I mean, boy."

 

BRIAN O'CONNELL, 51

President of country music, Live Nation 

BRIAN TRAEGER, 35

President of Tennessee, Live Nation

O'Connell annually rolls out more than a dozen country tours and four festivals that attract some 5 million fans, gross an estimated $250 million and pay out more than $100 million to talent. This year's headliners represent country's A-list -- among them 2016 ACM entertainer of the year Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley -- but the tours also offer valuable exposure to approximately 40 supporting acts. "One of the biggest issues facing country music right now is the industry's lack of patience for developing an act properly," says O'Connell.

And Yet... 

The publicly traded live-events giant did not have a full-time promoter in Nashville until Traeger was appointed in 2015. In addition to being the face of Live Nation on Music Row, the Lancaster, Pa., native books local venues like the new Ascend Amphitheater, a joint venture of Live Nation and Red Light Management.

Aldean On O'Connell 

"Brian has been a supporter of mine from the very beginning," says Aldean, whose latest single, "Lights Come On," became his 15th No. 1 Country Airplay song on the July 23 chart. "I thought I'd made it when I sold out my first club, but he always believed I would play stadiums. He knows when to take a big risk and has become an important part of my career because of it."

The New Nashville 

Once considered a fickle market for live entertainment, Traeger says the city's growth, as well as the arrival of more industry executives, has made Nashville a top 20 market. There also are more venues to play. Live Nation Nashville has cut a deal to rehab, operate and book the 4,500-capacity Carl Black Chevy Amphitheater at Fontanel and, says Traeger, is close to doing the same with Municipal Auditorium.

Country Comeback 

Although Live Nation's Farmborough and Delaware Junction festivals were canceled for 2016 due to soft ticket sales, O'Connell, who's on the road 46 weeks of the year, says the market is stabilizing and the company's remaining country festivals are "way up" in ticket sales and revenue over 2015. The Watershed festival in George, Wash., expanded to two weekends, a first for the genre. 

 

 

ROB BECKHAM, 50

Co-head, Nashville division; William Morris Endeavor 

GREG OSWALD*

Co-head, Nashville division; WME

According to the Nashville duo, WME artists are headlining 14 of the 20 major country tours hitting the road in 2016 -- among them, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton -- which, Billboard estimates, translates to a potential $300 million at the box office. Oswald says that WME intends to keep that revenue pipeline flowing via a 6-year-old program dedicated to developing acts -- rising stars at the agency include Brett EldredgeThomas Rhett and Cole Swindell -- by augmenting supporting-act slots with headlining dates at smaller venues. "We're taking A&R to a whole different level," he says.

Garth Is In The House 

In June, WME Nashville rocked Music City when it announced that it had signed Garth Brooks, who had been booked in-house since 1996. Brooks was seeking "a bigger scope to his career," says Beckham. The exclusive global representation deal extends beyond touring and will harness WME's film, TV, book and endorsement divisions. Oswald and Beckham say that WME's ownership of the global sports management firm IMG was essential to the deal.

Paisley Goes to College 

Last fall, WME Nashville worked a similarly synergistic deal with its IMG College division to launch Brad Paisley's Country Nation College Tour Presented By Zaxby's, which drew 120,000 college-age music fans to nine free university shows tied to NCAA football games.

Brad Had a 'Blast' 

"What a blast that was," says Paisley, adding that WME's affiliation with IMG "enabled them to partner with colleges and football and bring together a sponsorship all at the same time. I think combining these three different worlds would have been very difficult for most other agencies," he says.

 

SCOTT CLAYTON, 51

Co-head, Creative Artists Agency Nashville

MARC DENNIS, 46

Co-head, CAA Nashville

ROD ESSIG, 67

Co-head, CAA Nashville

JOHN HUIE, 60

Co-head, CAA Nashville

DARIN MURPHY, 50

Co-head, CAA Nashville

Boasting the most diverse roster of any major Nashville agency -- ­including Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Dixie Chicks, Keith Urban, Tori Kelly, Zac Brown Band, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Dead & Company, Twenty One Pilots, The Chainsmokers and electronic act Pretty Lights -- CAA's Music City division booked $500 million in ­touring revenue in 2015 and, thanks to the breadth of its client list, steered clear of what Dennis calls the "standardization" of the ­bro-country ­format. "It's all about the party right now, and I think we're missing some really amazing music being made here in Nashville," he says. Among CAA's big scores during the past year was Shania Twain's Rock This Country Tour, her first in 11 years, which grossed more than $65 million and was second only to Kenny Chesney among 2015 country tours. The agency also delivered in other ­mediums. CMT picked up the CAA-packaged Nashville from ABC, and Tim McGraw's Humble & Kind, a book that grew out of his song of the same name, was a New York Times best-seller.

The Biggest Issue Facing Country Music: Essig: "As an industry, we're building headliners too fast. There is not enough patience."

 

JONATHAN LEVINE, 54

Co-head, Nashville division; Paradigm Talent Agency

How did Paradigm transform alt-country critical darling Sturgill Simpson into a ­commercial artist who can sell out five nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville? Levine says he divined the answer while touring such jam bands as Phish and Gov't Mule out of the ­company's Monterey, Calif., office. "There's a ­common thread that goes into every decision with every artist that I work with," says Levine. "What's the purpose of the show, and how does that gig allow us to build a base [for the artist] and then honor that base?" The Chicago-raised Levine has some jam-band experience of his own. While in college at Southern Illinois University, he started a Grateful Dead-influenced group called Uncle Jon's Band and, today, keeps two drum kits in his office. "There's nothing like a mid-afternoon solo to keep everybody on their toes," he says.

Which Candidate Is More Country? "I would like to see [Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton] go out on the country ­circuit. Let's judge by the merch numbers." 

 

NICK MEINEMA, 36

Co-head, United Talent Agency Nashville

CURT MOTLEY, 51

Co-head, UTA Nashville

LANCE ROBERTS, 43

Co-head, UTA Nashville

Just one year ago, UTA had no ­presence in Nashville. But with its August 2015 acquisition of The Agency Group and the arrival of former Paradigm agent Curt Motley and his flagship client Toby Keith, it has emerged as an aggressive, growing contender in the country music market. A staff of 27, including 13 agents, books a roster that includes established ­headliners such as Keith, who's outpacing his total 2015 Boxscore gross of $20 ­million; breakout artists like platinum-selling "Buy Me a Boat"singer-songwriter Chris Janson; and such legacy veterans as Marty StuartBobby Bare and The Kentucky Headhunters. UTA was dealt a blow with the April death of Merle Haggard, but the agency is now booking the legend's son, Ben. "Everybody in country music is excited about what Ben is going to do," says Meinema.

The Most Country Thing He Owns: ­Motley: "A groundhog [pelt] that Chris LeDoux skinned at a rest stop on the way to a gig in Louisville, Kentucky."

 

 

BOBBY BONES, 36

Radio personality, iHeartMedia 

ROD PHILLIPS, 47

Senior vp programming/country format captain, iHeartMedia

Bones has been a media multitasker during the past year. As host of the nationally syndicated Bobby Bones Show and Country Top 30, the Hot Springs, Ark., native reaches nearly 5 million listeners weekly. Earlier this year, his guest-star-packed second album with his band The Raging IdiotsThe Critics Give It 5 Stars, hit No. 1 on the Comedy Albums chart and No. 4 on Top Country Albums. And his memoir, Bare Bones: I'm Not Lonely If You're Reading This Book, spent two weeks as a New York Times best-seller. "The book has given me credit with smart people," says Bones, "which I've never had before."

Rucker On Bones 

Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker had yet to cross over to country when an extremely nervous Bones, then 17, interviewed him for an Arkansas radio station. The two men have since become friends and Rucker has charted six No. 1 Hot Country Songs and four No. 1 Top Country Albums. "There are so few tastemakers these days that will go out on a limb and really champion music early on," says Rucker. "When Bobby believes in something, he can make a believer of you, too."

iHeart's Country Captain 

Phillips, who was instrumental in the 2013 syndication of Bones' show, added country duties in 2015. He oversees more than 145 U.S. stations that reach 97 million-plus listeners. According to iHeartMedia, ratings for its country outlets in the top 50 markets grew nearly 8 percent, winter to spring.

 

CHARLIE COOK, 65

Vp country format, Cumulus Media; ­operations manager, Cumulus Nashville

JOHN SHOMBY, 65

Director of programming, NASH Network

After a rough 2015 that led to brothers Lewis and John Dickey stepping down from the No. 1 and No. 2 slots at the radio giant, Shomby -- who, along with Cook, steers Cumulus Media's country music outlets and programming -- says, "All of our ­stations [monitored by Nielsen's Portable People Meters] are up an average of 25 percent ratings-wise -- and not just the country stations." Despite the stylistic changes in the genre, he says, country ­lyrics are still "straightforward. They're about what we experience in everyday life, no matter how the song leans musically."

Biggest Splurge of the Last Year: Cook: "Let me check with my 14-year-old ­daughter, because I'm sure that whatever it is is in her room."

 

ROBERT DEATON, 55

Executive producer, CMA Awards

Despite a ratings dip of 16 percent over 2014's broadcast, the 2015 CMA Awards gave ABC its highest ratings of the season and a career-changing moment for Chris Stapleton: his duet with Justin Timberlake (plus three surprise CMA wins). "People say it's one of the best moments in CMA history," says Deaton, whose credits also include the 2016 Billboard Music Awards and his upcoming feature-film ­directorial debut, Rounding Third. Deaton says he's bringing back "creative ideas from the other projects" for the CMAs' 50th anniversary telecast in the fall, promising, "That will be a historic show."

The Most Country Thing He Owns: "A WSM Grand Ole Opry guitar, made for Opry members about 30 years ago. Only 650 were made, because WSM is 650 AM."

 

LESLIE FRAM

Senior vp music strategy, CMT 

BRIAN PHILIPS, 55

President, CMT

Philips credits Fram with "always ­stretching the borders of country music," a nod to CMT's ­successful ­expansion into scripted TV with the June premiere of Still the King, starring Billy Ray Cyrus, and the unscripted I Love Kellie Pickler, which premiered to more than 2.5 ­million ­viewers last November -- the cable ­network's most-watched premiere among women ­viewers since 2008. The CMT Music Awards drew a record 3.6 million viewers in June, and CMT has high hopes for the fifth ­season of Nashville, which it rescued from ­cancellation by ABC.

 

JEFF KAPUGI, 51

Vp country programming, CBS Radio; program director, WUSN Chicago

Kapugi has a big pulpit -- CBS' 11 country stations have a cumulative audience of close to 8 million listeners -- and in the past year he has exposed rising stars to those masses with Launch, which pairs airplay with online content. Launch pick Granger Smith went on to have a No. 1 Country Airplay hit, "Backroad Song."

 

STEVE SCHNUR, 50

Worldwide executive/president, EA Music Group

During his college internship at MTV, Schnur says he was "the very loud guy in the room who went against the grain." He brings a similar ­willfulness to the ­gaming world. Instead of ­seeking out hits for game soundtracks, Schnur decided, "Why not introduce [an up-and-coming act] that would become a kid's ­favorite artist in the year ahead?" he says. Hence, Brantley Gilbert's "It's About to Get Dirty" will be among the songs to debut in the upcoming edition of Madden NFL. "You can get up to a ­billion ­impressions on a ­blockbuster game. We're going to break some artists," says Schnur, who has placed songs by Lady Antebellum and Luke Bryan in the Sims video game series. Schnur also moved EA's scoring operations to Nashville, making it "one of the top four scoring destinations in the world," he says.

Saddest Country Song Ever: " 'It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long' by The Notorious Cherry Bombs."

 

J.R. SCHUMANN, 34

Senior director of country ­programming, SiriusXM

After a decade in heavily ­formatted ­terrestrial radio, Schumann says he's thrilled to be breaking new acts. Just seven months into the gig at Sirius­XM, where he oversees 13 ­channels, mostly country and Christian, his finds include Kevin Fowler, Aubrie Sellers, Kalie Shorr, Steve Moakler, Margo Price and Smithfield, but he also goes off-menu with major-label artists, playing such deep cuts as "The Devil Named Music," a six-­minute Chris Stapleton song that broadcast radio can't touch. "Country radio is not breaking new artists.  They're not ­championing new music," says Schumann. "That's a shame."

 

 

KENT EARLS, 44

Executive vp/GM, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville

Earls, who took over leadership of UMPG Nashville in early 2012, has ­presided over a dramatic turnaround of the division. After the music publisher suffered 11 straight quarters -- from 2012 into 2014 -- when its market share for the top 100 country radio songs failed to crack double digits, UMPG Nashville since has met that mark in six out of the last seven quarters. Earls also can claim bragging rights to co-publishing the 2016 winner of the best country song Grammy, Little Big Town's "Girl Crush."

The Most Country Thing He Owns: "One of our writers gave me a pound of venison jerky. It's really good."

 

SETH ENGLAND, 30

Partner, Big Loud Shirt 

CRAIG WISEMAN, 52

Owner, Big Loud Shirt; partner, Big Loud Records and Management; songwriter 

Wiseman is still writing hit songs -- such as Blake Shelton's "Came Here to Forget," which topped the June 11 Country Airplay chart -- but he also administers ­publishing for a stable of ­songwriters at Big Loud Shirt. Their success has put the company among the top 10 music ­publishers in 12 of the last 15 quarters. He sold a chunk of equity in the firm's catalog to Round Hill Music in 2014, but the two companies split future ­signings. Wiseman credits England with keeping his Big Loud publishing and artist management operations running at peak performance, saying, "He's the Scooter Braun of Nashville."

 

DENNIS LORD

Executive vp creative and business affairs, SESAC 

KELLI TURNER, 45

Executive vp operations and corporate development/CFO, SESAC

Turner and Lord, who both had their responsibilities expanded last September, played key roles in the ­performing rights organization's $20 million ­acquisition of The Harry Fox Agency, the leading U.S. ­mechanical rights company, which, says Turner, will enable SESAC to take a more holistic approach to licensing. The move will allow the Nashville-based society to issue licenses to and obtain royalties from radio and streaming outlets, record labels and digital download services -- a potential boon for its songwriters in the streaming era.

 

MICHAEL MARTIN, 54

Vice president, ASCAP Nashville

"There's a lot of great new talent in Nashville, and I think we do a great job of developing it," says Martin. Chris Stapleton, who won four top ACM Awards, and the ACM's best new female vocalist, Kelsea Ballerini, are in the ASCAP fold, and Martin says nearly half of the honors handed out at the 2015 ASCAP Country Awards went to first-time winners. The performance rights ­organization's vets delivered, too. At the 2016 CMA Triple Play Awards, given to writers who have landed three or more No. 1 songs in a year, 11 of the 17 honorees were ASCAP members.

 

TROY TOMLINSON, 52

President/CEO, Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville

The Portland, Tenn., native, who has run Sony's Nashville music ­publishing arm since 2005, led his division to a record 14th consecutive publisher of the year honor at the BMI Country Awards in May. Sony/ATV Nashville also was the sole ­publisher of BMI's song of the year, "Beat of the Music," by Ross Copperman, Brett Eldredge and Heather Morgan, and took home 26 of the 50 most-­performed song prizes. Among the winners: Miranda Lambert and Natalie Hemby's "Automatic" and Cole Swindell's "Hope You Get Lonely Tonight."

 

BEN VAUGHN, 40

Executive vp/head of Nashville music publishing operation, Warner/Chappell Music

After spending 14 consecutive quarters chasing Sony/ATV Nashville for first place, Warner/Chappell finally took the top spot, with a 23.2 percent market share for the top 100 country radio songs, in the first quarter of 2016. Providing a big assist was Chris Stapleton, whose debut studio album, Traveller, has scanned 1.5 million units, with most of those sales coming after his appearance at the CMA Awards last fall.

"I have spent many years listening to his song demos in my truck -- it's awesome to see fans react to his talent," says Vaughn, who was instrumental in signing Stapleton. "He has had a lot of big moments in the last six months."

In addition to Stapleton, Vaughn oversees a roster that includes Little Big Town, Brantley Gilbert and Kacey Musgraves and played a key role in signing Lee Thomas Miller, Dan & Shay, Lady Antebellum, Dustin Lynch, Nathan Chapman and Liz Rose.

He's Got the Town Wired 

Miller, who's president of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, has co-written nine top 10 Hot Country Songs, and co-wrote Brad Paisley's current single with Demi Lovato, "Without a Fight," tells Billboard that Vaughn "has his ear to the ground better than any publisher I have worked with. If you hear rumors that someone is looking for a certain kind of song, he knows all the details."

He's Also a Copyright and Royalties Wonk 

Behind the music, Vaughn is well versed in the intricacies of publishing. Early in his career, he worked with songwriter royalties and says he learned "to be extremely diligent on the collection side." Miller also is impressed by Vaughn's grasp of copyright law. "When I testified before the House of Representatives last year, Ben went with me. He is very informed on all the nuances of that side of the business."

 

JODY WILLIAMS, 60

Vp writer/publisher relations, BMI Nashville

BMI collected more than $1 billion for ­publishers and songwriters in fiscal year 2015 -- the most in its history -- and Williams, who began there an as intern after dropping out of college in 1976, credits younger writer-artists turned ­producers such as Ross Copperman (Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley), Rodney Clawson (Jake Owen) and Busbee (Maren Morris) with driving the surge "at a time when songwriters and ­publishers are struggling to make money with streaming." He also is an adviser at tech incubator Project Music, where a recent grad developed the Notetracks app, which helps producers keep track of their ideas in the studio.

 

RUSSELL A. JONES JR., 66

Principal, Law Offices of Russell A. Jones Jr. and Anjlee Khurana

Before Jones -- "Rusty" to his clients and friends -- represented Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith, the New Orleans native was a guide on the Snake River and a deputy sheriff in Nashville. "You learn to stretch your ­horizons, trust your instincts and react with confidence," he says of ­working in different fields. Jones' skill set came in handy when he joined ASCAP in Nashville in 1978 and in 1988 began representing Brooks, who is keeping Jones busy now that he's back on the road and launching his own SiriusXM radio ­channel and Inside Studio G, a social media video series.

Biggest Splurge of the Last Year: "Diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef."

 

JOEL KATZ, 72

Chairman, global entertainment and media group, Greenberg Traurig​

JESS ROSEN, 61

Co-chairman, Atlanta entertainment and media practice, Greenberg Traurig

Which Nashville artists don't Katz and Rosen represent? Despite his Atlanta base, Rosen has ­negotiated deals for Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Thomas Rhett and Loretta Lynn; they both represent Brad Paisley, and Katz reps Little Big Town. Katz ­brokered the ­contracts for the ­current regime at Sony Music Nashville and re-signed Big Machine's ­distribution deal with Universal Music Group. Katz says country's next frontier is growing it "into a worldwide medium." To that end, Rosen, a jazz guitarist in his spare time, helped cut a sponsorship and ­marketing ­agreement between Chesney and Apple Music. 

 

MIKE MILOM, 73

Partner, Milom Horsnell Crow Rose Kelley

Milom negotiated Kelsea Ballerini's contract to co-host ABC's Greatest Hits, handled Luke Bryan's deal as Chevrolet's new brand ambassador and helped singer-songwriter John Prine acquire full ownership of his Oh Boy ­recording catalog. The Vanderbilt Law School grad prides himself on enduring ­client ­relationships: He has repped Bryan since he was an ­aspiring songwriter, and Alabama and Hank Williams Jr. for more than 30 years.

 

JULIE BOOS, 46

Co-owner/vice president/business manager, Flood Bumstead McCready & McCarthy 

MARY ANN MCCREADY

President/co-founder/business ­manager, Flood Bumstead McCready & McCarthy

Over the past 26 years, McCready, with Frank Bumstead and Chuck Flood, has built one of Nashville’s top financial management firms with a clientele that includes Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson, Pearl Jam, Sam Hunt, Mac Miller, Diplo and Keith Urban. There are now eight owners of the firm. "If you told me I was going to die tomorrow, I would say I got that little dream,” she says, “to have that second generation firmly entrenched and working on the third generation." Boos is a big part of training future managers, "and probably training the first generation, too," says McCready with a laugh.

The Most Country Thing She Owns: McCready: "A fly fishing rod and ­waders." 

 

STEVE BUCHANAN, 59

President, Opry Entertainment 

PETE FISHER, 53

Vp/GM, Grand Ole Opry

Buchanan and Fisher are the ­caretakers and gatekeepers of Nashville's most ­enduring symbol, the Grand Ole Opry, and in 2015 the institution celebrated its 90th birthday in robust health. "Over the last four or five years we've ­experienced ­double-digit growth, [through] a ­combination of Grand Ole Opry ticket sales and Ryman Auditorium and Opry tours," says Buchanan, who also serves as an executive producer of the TV series Nashville. "And that is having a positive impact on businesses throughout the city." Buchanan has seen a lot in his 31 years with the Opry, from Opry legend Roy Acuff shedding a tear as Vince Gill performed "When I Call Your Name" to Anna Nicole Smith jumping onstage, unbidden, to dance. "We were scared to death," he says. 

 

MIKE CURB, 71

Founder/chairman, Curb Records; owner/chairman, Word Entertainment

Curb, who heads up the oldest indie label still run by its original owner, made news in Nashville when he bought out his ­partner in Word Music, Warner Music Group, to become sole owner of the 65-year-old ­gospel label. "We're in the mood to grow our business," says Curb, who is just as well known for his civic ­involvement and leadership in Music City. Despite ­finishing only two years of college, he has founded music-business programs at 14 colleges and universities, including Vanderbilt and Belmont, both in Nashville.

The Most Country Thing He Owns: "I bought all of the major Johnny Cash items when he closed the House of Cash [in Hendersonville, N.C.]. We also own Elvis Presley's first home in Memphis, before Graceland."

 

KEN LEVITAN, 59

Founder/co-president, Vector Management

Because Vector made its reputation in the '80s representing Americana ­forerunners Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and John Hiatt, folks sometimes forget that Levitan brought rock to Music Row with Kings of Leon 16 years ago, then added The Strokes, The B-52s, Cheap Trick and movie/TV soundtrack king T Bone Burnett to his roster. Vector's biggest launch in the past year was Prophets of Rage, the rock-rap supergroup pairing Chuck D of Public Enemy and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. "What I love about Nashville is that it's not just country," says Levitan, a former lawyer who also chairs the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. and is a partner in chef Jonathan Waxman's hot restaurant there, Adele's.

 

TIFFANY MOON, 41

Executive vp/managing director/interim CEO, Academy of Country Music

Since the surprise departure of ACM CEO Bob Romeo in May, Moon has taken over his responsibilities and, according to ACM board chairman Paul Barnabee, is in the running as Romeo's permanent ­replacement. The Texas native joined the ACM in 2003 and was appointed ­secretary of its board of directors in August 2015. She also was a founding member of ACM's Lifting Lives ­charity, which is a ­beneficiary of the ACM Awards.

 

SARAH TRAHERN, 52

CEO, Country Music Association

The CMA Music Festival in June is the only major multi-day music event besides Coachella that reliably sells out before acts are booked. The four-day fest, which stars a who's who of country music, has a huge impact on Nashville's economy and on 30 music-education programs around the country that received a share of $2.6 ­million. (Artists perform for free, and the CMA donates half of the net proceeds from the festival.) Last November's CMA Awards had their biggest viral moment in years with Chris Stapleton's star-making duet with Justin Timberlake. This year's show, the CMA's 50th anniversary, will bring back old favorites. Says Trahern: "Hopefully we set a bar that the folks who do the 100th will look back on." 

Saddest Country Song Ever: "George Jones' 'He Stopped Loving Her Today.' "

 

METHODOLOGY: A committee of Billboard editors and reporters weighed a variety of factors in determining the Nashville Power Players list, including, but not limited to, impact on consumer behavior, as measured by metrics such as chart performance, touring grosses and ticket sales, social media impressions, and radio and TV audiences reached; company growth, career trajectory; reputation among peers; local influence; and overall impact in the industry during the last 12 months. Where appropriate, market share was determined using Nielsen Music total album plus track-equivalent album sales and country genre album and track share data. Unless otherwise noted, Billboard Boxscore and Nielsen Music are the sources for touring grosses and sales, streaming and radio data.

CONTRIBUTORS: Jim Asker, Ed Christman, Mike Corcoran, Deborah Evans Price,
Adrienne Gaffney, Jenn Haltman, Elias Leight, Melinda Newman, Phyllis Stark, Ray Waddell, Chris Willman

​This article originally appeared in the August 6 issue of Billboard

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