Toby Keith, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan Among Country Acts Who Take Business Beyond Music

John Shearer/Getty Images for ACM
Toby Keith performs during the 10th Annual ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium on Aug. 30, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

Musicians view the years they spend in the honky-tonks as paying their dues for the music business. As it turns out, all that very specific training sets them up to succeed in other industries, too.

Toby Keith owns dozens of racehorses, developed his own brand of wild mezcal and licensed his name for a restaurant chain, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. Kix Brooks established Arrington Vineyards in Middle Tennessee and launched a film production company that led to a TV series on the Cooking Channel and a new cookbook. Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are investors in their own TV series, Buck Commander. And on Sept. 16, Trisha Yearwood — who has already developed her own home furnishings brand — announced the launch of a fragrance line at Walmart.

It’s natural for an artist to extend their vocational knowledge by investing inside the music business — Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw own publishing companies, for example; Keith Urban created a line of guitars; and the late Buck Owens established a radio chain. But music is hardly the only line of interest for many artists. Carrie Underwood (sports clothing), Dolly Parton (the Dollywood theme park), Willie Nelson (biodiesel fuel and marijuana), Eric Church (furniture), Zac Brown (leather goods, food enterprises), Kenny Chesney (rum), John Rich (a fashion line) and Miranda Lambert (retail store) are just some of the acts who have put their name and/or their money to work outside of music.

Keith “has got the guts to take the risk, and he’s got the money to do it, too,” says his manager, TKO Artist Management president TK Kimbrell.

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Keith, along with Brown, is likely country’s most avid investor beyond the music business. He was the lone writer on many of his hits — including “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” “Who’s That Man” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” — and as the mailbox money rolled in, he surpassed what he felt he needed to guarantee his family’s future.

That made it possible for Keith to invest in a wide range of companies: Starbucks, a golf course and some strip malls are probably safer bets than some of his other activities. Among the higher risks are the thoroughbreds (Kimbrell estimates that he owns around 200 through Dream Walkin’ Farms) and the I Love This Bar chain, which licenses the rights to his name but is operated by a separate company.

“Restaurants and bars are really hit-or-miss,” says Kimbrell. “When you put it on the line and you attach yourself to something, it can always come back on you in some way.”

For an investment to work for an artist, it typically requires a connection to his or her lifestyle and interests.

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“I would never go out and do a hairspray product,” says Aldean. “I don’t feel like that’s my brand, and it’s not really believable.”

An avid hunter, Aldean has found the Buck Commander TV show and associated products a better fit. It works with his image, fits his schedule and has some built-in promotional value.

“The fact that you’ve got [Duck Dynasty’s] Willie Robertson and me and Luke, and especially with all of our social media following, we can post about things and get it out there probably a lot quicker than most could with a startup company,” says Aldean.

That ability to run a startup is key. To navigate their way in the music business, successful artists are required to identify and cultivate an audience, build a solid team and continue to believe in their product and tell their story, even when marketplace statistics suggest that failure is the most likely outcome. Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship’s managing director Panos Panay and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers both see those factors as significant advantages for musicians who choose to pursue other businesses.

Thanks to their public position, successful artists are approached with more opportunities than lower-profile business people to get in on the ground floor of other enterprises. But that doesn’t mean that every product or investment is a good idea. Even if it is, it still may not be an ideal fit for the act.

Brooks recalls learning that lesson right out of college. A successful Louisiana bar was up for sale, and he tried to persuade his father to loan him the money to buy it. His sales pitch was unsuccessful. “First of all, he told me I needed to go to Nashville or New York or Los Angeles if I was going to play music, to see if I was worth a damn,” recalls Brooks. “Second, [he said] I didn’t know a thing about the bar business.”

Familiarity with an industry — or, at the very least, the product — is a major consideration for artists, since their primary business is already one that requires a huge amount of time. The product needs to fit instinctively into their life so that it doesn’t really feel like work. Such was the case for Florida Georgia Line when it developed Old Camp Peach Pecan Whiskey, which went on sale in August.

“Whiskey, for us, it just comes natural,” says FGL’s Brian Kelley. “That’s our drink of choice. We say that we took all last year to sample it, but that’s really a lie because we’ve been sampling probably the past 10 years or so. Trying to get the mix right, having a little whiskey drink here and there and enjoying friends and family, that’s something that’s organic to us.”

Even Brooks’ new role in food has been a natural evolution. An acting major in college, he put together a film production company after Brooks & Dunn split in 2010. Building on his affinity for exploring steakhouses on tour, the company landed a series, Steak Out With Kix Brooks, on the Cooking Channel in 2015. That led to his new cookbook, Cookin’ It With Kix, published by Thomas Nelson.

After several decades of physically exhausting tours, finding the time for his new ventures — in addition to his continuing his role as the host of American Country Countdown — has been as easy as finding time to check out a movie on vacation.

“That is not lip service,” he says. “The stuff I’m doing now, it’s just fun.”

One significant key to keeping it fun — and profitable — is a basic rule of thumb that most executives follow: hire the right people.

Keith has a hands-off attitude about his ventures, says Kimbrell. Whether it’s turning over the keys to his BelMar Country Club in Norman, Okla., or assigning oversight of his label Show Dog Nashville, Keith’s philosophy is to hire an expert and stay out of the way.

“Toby has been great at constantly refocusing on what he does best, and that’s writing songs and singing,” says Kimbrell. “If it’s going to take away from his songwriting and singing, he ropes it back in.”

That’s yet another lesson artists learn while paying their dues on the way up. The business part is easiest when they follow their passion. No matter how big the other ventures may become, it still starts with the music.

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