Since the release of their first hit, 2012’s “Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have built a legacy that extends far beyond country radio, and broken records in the process.
“Cruise,” boosted by early airplay from Sirius XM’s The Highway, landed the duo, which met at a Belmont University campus worship group in 2008, a deal with Republic Nashville before topping Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for a then-record 24 weeks. More recently, the pair set a different record with its current hit, the collaboration with Bebe Rexha, “Meant to Be.” The song has spent 26 weeks and counting at No. 1 as of the June 1 chart, the longest run for a song by a duo or group in the chart’s 59-year history.
“Meant to Be” is also the sixth FGL single to top Hot Country Songs, and the pair is aiming for its seventh with latest single “Simple,” which dropped June 1. In the process, Hubbard and Kelley have played a leading role in attracting pop music fans to the genre through collaborations with artists like Nelly (a remix of “Cruise” that featured the rapper went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 2013), Backstreet Boys, Alesso, Hailee Steinfeld and Rexha.
That chart success has been driven by 3.3 billion on-demand streams in the United States alone, according to Nielsen Music -- a rarity for a country act, given that the genre lags behind pop in streaming adoption. And in the all-important live sector, FGL is one of country’s few stadium headliners. The duo notched the No. 19-grossing tour of 2017 in any genre, according to Billboard Boxscore year-end results, pulling in $56.5 million.
Hubbard and Kelley, or “BK,” as his bandmate calls him, have parlayed their good-time vibe into a lifestyle brand that far surpasses the merch booth. They recently opened a creative compound in Nashville that houses a co-working/event space, meet + greet; their Tree Vibez music publishing company; and the Tribe Kelley Trading Post, headquarters of the fashion brand run by Kelley and his wife, Brittney. It is part of a growing empire that includes their FGL House restaurant/entertainment venue in Nashville and Old Camp whiskey line.
Because of their forward-thinking approach to their art and business, Hubbard and Kelley will be presented with Billboard’s inaugural Trailblazer Award, which they will receive at the annual Country Power Players event in Nashville on June 5.
On the eve of receiving the honor, the duo spoke to Billboard via phone about its multifaceted approach to music, its critics and the international success of “Meant to Be.” Hubbard was in a Nashville studio writing and Kelley, appropriately enough, was cruising down the highway in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., where he and Brittney split their time between there and Nashville.
When you started, some critics said you weren’t country enough. Has that criticism lessened?
Kelley: We rode that stigma right out of the arena. [Laughs.]
Hubbard: The first few months, all they knew about BK and I was that we were the “Cruise” dudes and that we were “bro country” -- all about girls, beer and trucks. It didn’t take too many more songs for people to realize that we had a little more depth to us. We had a lot of fun showing people the different sides of who we were, from “Dirt” to “H.O.L.Y.” to “God, Your Mama, and Me.” With each single, we strategize and say, “Well, do we want to let the world in on this side of who we are?”
What do you see as the most significant aspect of the success of “Meant to Be”?
Hubbard: It’s a special song because of the route it took [to No. 1]. It came from Bebe Rexha’s EP [All Your Fault: Pt. 2], it’s not on any of our projects and it was a single. And it crossed over from pop to country radio. In country radio, it’s pretty rare for that to happen.
How do you plan to capitalize on “Meant To Be’s” international success?
Kelley: We've got some plans to hit Europe pretty soon. We’re super excited. That is the biggest cherry on top of everything. When stuff like this goes global, way beyond anything [you expected], it's definitely a God thing. It’s super humbling and super inspiring to watch it just explode. It's so much bigger than Tyler and Brian and Florida Georgia Line to go to different countries and sing [our songs] with our fans, let them sing it and just get that energy.
What other country artists do you see as pushing the boundaries of the genre?
Hubbard: Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw inspire us. It’s hard to put our music into a box. We have always taken pride in doing things differently. Any time Music Row wants to do something a certain way, we are drawn to doing [it] the opposite way.
Kelley: It's fun to not only blaze a trail in music, but also in other areas of our lives in business, whether it's fashion, in the restaurant business or publishing. It's a blessing everyday to wake up and create. Ultimately at the end of the day what drives us is creating.
You’ve just expanded your business holdings with a new creative complex in Nashville. How would you describe the FGL brand?
Hubbard: It stands for good friends, good people and a good time. Literally from day one, when we were on the road playing shows, that's what we were trying to do. So, that kind of bled out into different industries. It’s the same concept.
Kelley: These businesses bring freshness and a bigger vision to FGL. We get excited about our new little babies, but at the end of the day, FGL is what makes everything else possible. To have those extra outlets bring a bigger vision, reminding us to never dream small, to continue to dream large. Anything's possible and we've seen that with our careers.
How do you guard against diluting your brand?
Kelley: By turning down some collaborations. It’s not so much about who we want to collaborate with. It always comes down to, “Is the song good enough?” Do we feel like our fans are gonna love it and it's gonna have a big impact.
When is the fourth album out?
Hubbard: I think the beginning of next year, but the plan is try to release a song or two every month until the album comes out. Every song, we're really, really proud of -- from "Swerve," which has a kind of a different hip-hop feel, to a song called "People Are Different," an amazing life song.
Tyler, you've become a dad last December. How has that influenced your songwriting?
Hubbard: Having a little girl in the house, it's been so amazing. BK and I both write from life experiences a lot and we're inspired through our day-to-day lives. I've felt really, really inspired lately and excited about life, excited to work even harder to support her. A lot of great song ideas come out of big life moments and this is definitely a big life moment.
You've had songs cut by other artists, including Jason Aldean, Cole Swindell and Billy Currington. Is it more rewarding to have your own hit on the radio or one recorded by someone else?
Hubbard: BK and I moved to Nashville to pursue songwriting and at that time we had no idea that we were going to be an artist. It depends on the day probably, but I think there's a writer side of us that would much rather have Jason Aldean sing one of our songs. The validation that happens with that is really special. But then I think when we're in our artist mode, that artist side of us really wants to hear ourselves on the radio.
You’re headlining CMA Fest. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at a show?
Kelley: When people get so drunk that they fall asleep right in the front row. They party so hard that they don’t even make it halfway through. People are singing all around them having a great time, and they'll be passed out. It's hilarious.
If a career is a life-long conversation with you fans, where are you in your conversation right now?
Hubbard: We're on the fourth chapter of our lives with our fans and our conversation. And I don't know how many chapters are in the book, but I feel like we're still at the beginning.
How has your relationship changed since you met at Belmont all those years ago?
Hubbard: More people rely on us. At the beginning, there wasn't nearly the pressure. We just maintained a healthy relationship because we loved writing songs together and playing shows on the weekends. But as [our careers] have grown and our families and a lot of employees and fans now depend on us, it hinges on BK's and [my] relationship. We take a lot of pride in trying to keep that thing healthy. Just like a marriage, it takes work, and we like to work at it. And it's a lot of fun for us. Hopefully we can do this thing until the day we die together.
MEANT TO BE... SEEN LIVE
$136M: Total gross reported to Billboard Boxscore for 260 shows from January 2013 to October 2017.
3M: Total number of fans who have seen Florida Georgia Line live in that time period.
5: Number of years it took for the duo to evolve from an opening act for the Stagecoach music festival in 2013 to headlining the event.
20: Number of festivals and fairs FGL is scheduled to play in 2018, including Country Jam, Summer Fest and Faster Horses.
-- DAVE BROOKS