Revealed: Billboard's 2020 Country Power Players

Revealed: Billboard's 2020 Country Power Players

Warner Chappell Nashville's Ben Vaughn leads Billboard's sixth annual Country Power Players list celebrating the genre's wins in the past year, amidst a pandemic and an industry reckoning with systemic racism.

Ben Vaughn
President/CEO, Warner Chappell Music Nashville

In 2013, while attending an industry showcase, songwriter Nicolle Galyon invited Ben Vaughn, then-Warner Chappell Music Nashville executive vp, to her car to listen to a rough mix of Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert’s “We Were Us,” a song she had co-written. “When it was over, he said, ‘I’ll see you at the BMI Awards next year. Have fun picking out your dress,’ ” she recalls. “That song went on to be my first No. 1.”

Six years later, at its 67th annual Country Awards last November, BMI named Galyon songwriter of the year. Vaughn “poured rocket fuel” onto her career, says Galyon. A WCMN writer since 2007, she felt a momentous shift when Vaughn, who became president/CEO in 2019, arrived in 2012 after 10 years at EMI Music Publishing. “He was like, ‘We’re going to make some stuff happen for you,’ ” she says.

Galyon isn’t the only songwriter who has flourished under Vaughn. Home to hitmakers such as Liz Rose, Chris Stapleton, Jesse Frasure and Kacey Musgraves, WCMN has become a powerhouse during Vaughn’s tenure, claiming the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s Publishers Quarterly rankings (based on the top 100 country radio songs) for 14 consecutive quarters. For the latest tally, ending June 30, WCMN’s share was 21.44%, six percentage points higher than the next-closest publisher. In November 2019, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC all named WCMN their country publisher of the year — only the third time a publishing company has been honored as such, and a first for WCMN.

Read the full profile on Vaughn here.

Scott Borchetta
Founder/president/CEO, Big Machine Label Group; board member, Ithaca Holdings
Jimmy Harnen
President/CEO, BMLG Records
Allison Jones
Senior vp A&R, Big Machine Label Group
Andrew Kautz
COO, Big Machine Label Group

Borchetta, 58, may have sold part of his ownership stake in Big Machine Label Group last year, but his interest in the company and its roster is as intense as ever. On Aug. 21, Tim McGraw will release Here on Earth, his first album since returning to Big Machine Records, and Lady A’s “What If I Never Get Over You” became its first chart-topper on Country Airplay in five years, also after returning to Borchetta’s fold. Thomas Rhett’s “Be a Light,” released in March, has sparked “a national movement among fans to share kindness in their local communities through the #BeALight campaign,” says Borchetta. His company’s philanthropic moves have included the production of hand sanitizer by the Big Machine Vodka distillery, “which we donated to first responders amid the coronavirus outbreak.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “The most immediate way for us to change things is this November’s election.” - Borchetta

Mike Curb
Chairman, Curb Records/Curb | Word Entertainment

In his sixth decade as a label executive, Curb, 75, can point to both a history of genre-crossing artists — “whether their music was considered too pop or too country at the time, they remained strong” — and a current run of country, pop and Christian hits. Lee Brice reached No. 1 on Hot Country Songs and No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” cocredited to his duet partner, Big Machine Records artist Carly Pearce. (“We shared that hit with my next-door neighbor Scott Borchetta,” says Curb.) Big Daddy Weave reached No. 1 on Christian Airplay with “I Know,” as did For King & Country with “Together” (with Tori Kelly and Kirk Franklin), which also hit No. 15 on Adult Contemporary.

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “Focus on improving our relationships with respect to racial stereotypes and with the LGBT community. Strengthen our outreach to those who are less fortunate. Use our influence to help people through the major health issues that exist today, with respect to mental illness, drug abuse and other areas.”

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

“Artist development is clicking on all cylinders,” says Dungan, 66, citing the success in the past year of rising acts Jordan Davis (No. 1 on Country Airplay with “Slow Dance in a Parking Lot”) and Travis Denning, whose “After a Few” reached the top of Country Airplay “after a crazy 65-week run,” adds Dungan. The company’s established stars — Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, George Strait, Kacey Musgraves, Keith Urban, Little Big Town and Sam Hunt, among others — have had their plans upended by the pandemic. The release of Luke Bryan’s Born Here Live Here Die Here shifted from April to August. New albums from Church and Stapleton, expected to coincide with tours now on hold, have been postponed. “Since there is no touring right now,” says Dungan, “several album releases have been pushed back.”

The Song He Turns To: “Alan Jackson’s version of ‘Song for the Life,’ penned by Rodney Crowell, who is one of my idols. It says, ‘Slow down and enjoy the little things around you.’ ” - 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
James Marsh
National director of radio and streaming, Warner Music Nashville
Kristen Williams
Senior vp radio, Warner Music Nashville

“This team has not just learned the art of working remotely — they have defined it,” says Esposito of his Warner Music Nashville staff. During the pandemic, Warner artist Kenny Chesney has achieved his ninth Billboard 200 No. 1 with Here and Now, and he claimed his 31st chart-topper on Country Airplay with the title track. Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” became the first debut single by a woman to top Hot Country Songs. “Then there’s Brett Eldredge, Ashley McBryde, Ingrid Andress — all with their own incredible achievements,” says Esposito. “More important than the quantity of [our] successes, however, is their quality. The passion drives us.”

Advice for a Young Artist: “Have no Plan B. Own it, top to bottom.” - Esposito

Randy Goodman
Chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville
Jim Catino
Executive vp A&R, Sony Music Nashville
Steve Hodges
Executive vp promotion and artist development, Sony Music Nashville
Ken Robold
COO/executive vp, Sony Music Nashville

Sony Music Nashville finished at No. 1 on Billboard’s year-end Top Country Labels ranking for 2019, and Goodman praises the artists who are helping Sony maintain that momentum amid the pandemic: Maren Morris’ country smash “The Bones” reached No. 1 on Adult Top 40 in April after a 45-week climb. With What You See Is What You Get, Luke Combs in July became the first act in the 56-year history of Top Country Albums whose first two studio releases each logged at least 25 weeks at No. 1. Old Dominion reigns as the Academy of Country Music’s 2019 vocal group of the year. Miranda Lambert’s “Bluebird,” her first solo No. 1 on Country Airplay in eight years, and Brad Paisley’s “No I in Beer” have both inspired fans. And Kane Brown has dedicated his “Worldwide Beautiful” to the movement against racism and discrimination. Says Goodman: “[Brown] has a unique moment and is a unique artist able to speak in a profound way for our format.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “It’s affecting the newer artists. Their foundation was being built in the clubs, and that has gone away.” - Goodman

Gordon Kerr
President/CEO, Black River Entertainment

In late March, Kerr’s Black River released Kelsea Ballerini’s third album, Kelsea, just as the coronavirus closed offices and canceled in-person events. Promotion plans shifted, with fans receiving CDs (and pizza) at home via drones and Ballerini singing “Homecoming Queen?” during the TV special ACM Presents: Our Country on April 5 after the Academy of Country Music Awards were postponed. “Our staff has been incredible with their commitment to each other, as well as the artists and writers here,” says Kerr. Kelsea debuted at No. 2 on Top Country Albums and at No. 12 on the Billboard 200.

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “My hope is that [country music] becomes one of the voices that helps bring together a country that is hurting and in deep need of a good dose of truth.”

Jon Loba
Executive vp, BBR Music Group/BMG
Carson James
Senior vp promotion, BBR Music Group/BMG

BBR Music Group, the Nashville division of BMG and home to Jason Aldean and Dustin Lynch, released five collaborations between Black artists and their white peers in recent months, “and that is not even counting Jimmie Allen’s collaboration EP, Bettie James,” says Loba. “This wasn’t in response to the events after George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths. It was because doing so was amazing art — not to mention great business.” He adds: “Most exciting is there is real consumer connection to those efforts.”

Advice for a Young Artist: “Make great, emotional and inspiring songs. Allow us, as a record company, to market and expose the world to your art.” - James

Norbert Nix
Partner/GM, Triple Tigers Records
George Couri
Co-owner, Triple 8 Management; partner, Triple Tigers Records
Bruce Kalmick
Co-owner/partner, Triple 8 Management; partner, Triple Tigers Records
David Macias
President, Thirty Tigers; partner, Triple Tigers Records

Triple Tigers Records — a co-venture among Thirty Tigers,Triple 8 Management, label GM Norbert Nix and Sony Music launched in 2016, and quickly because a force on the radio. Under Nix, the label took its first six singles— three from Scotty McCreery and three from Russell Dickerson to No. 1 on Country Airplay. Triple 8, which manages McCreery, also scored No. 1s with fellow clients Chase Rice (“Eyes on You”) and the Eli Young Band (“Love Ain’t”). Macias’s Thirty Tigers won Grammy Awards in January for Patty Griffin (best folk album for Patty Griffin) and Delbert McClinton (best traditional blues album for Tall, Dark and Handsome). During the pandemic, Nix, 62, praises the Triple Tigers roster, adding “Each artist has been able to pivot and adapt by redirecting their creative flow.”

The Song He Turns To: “Merle Haggard’s ‘Are the Good Times Really Over? (I Wish a Buck Were Still Silver)’ because it reminds me that things are cyclical and that, of course, the good times are certainly not over.” - Couri

Narvel Blackstock
President, Starstruck Entertainment

Blackstock guides the careers of Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson. Shelton earned his 27th No. 1 on Country Airplay with “Nobody but You” (with Gwen Stefani). The two performed the song at the Grammys in January, while Shelton’s “God’s Country” is up for single, song and video of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sept. 16. Clarkson is reaching new audiences with The Kelly Clarkson Show, for which she won a daytime Emmy Award, and her home collection at Wayfair (which in April donated 25% of its profits to COVID-19 relief efforts). Both of Blackstock’s clients are coaches on The Voice, which Shelton’s contestant Todd Tilghman won in May.

Change That Will Last: “A lot of meetings will become Zoom meetings, and things like radio tours will probably never come back.”

Gary Borman
Founder/president, Borman Entertainment

Borman says that Keith Urban, his management client for nearly two decades, “continues to inspire.” The artist will release his 11th studio album, The Speed of Now Part 1, on Sept. 18, two days after hosting the rescheduled Academy of Country Music Awards. Borman also represents vocal powerhouse Mickey Guyton, who released two politically charged singles in 2020 — “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is about misogyny, while “Black Like Me” tackles systemic racism — and is working on an album. Guyton “has found her voice,” says Borman, “and is writing songs that will define this moment in time.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “It’s time to diversify — our companies, our teams, our playlists, our leaders. Millennials and Generation Z are the most diverse generations in American history. Country music needs to reflect the nation.”

Virginia Bunetta
Owner/artist manager, G-Major Management

Bunetta’s client Thomas Rhett, who released the top 10 ballad “Be a Light” on his 30th birthday in March to raise money for coronavirus relief, is still riding on the success of last year’s Grammy-nominated Center Point Road: In May, he notched his 15th No. 1 on Country Airplay with the album’s third single, “Beer Can’t Fix” (featuring Jon Pardi). But the 40-year-old Bunetta — whose roster also includes newcomers Patrick Droney and Trea Landon — is especially proud of keeping her team on the payroll and receiving benefits through a “tremendous financial shift in our business” due to the pandemic.

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “Storytelling is core to country music and always has been. It’s one of the most powerful tools our community has in sharing truth and creating unity.”

Coran Capshaw
Founder, Red Light Management
Mary Hilliard Harrington
Manager, Red Light Management
Janet Weir
Manager, Red Light Management; owner, House of 42

Red Light’s country music roster has proved every bit as diverse as it is successful, with albums from neotraditionalist Jon Pardi, genre-mixer Sam Hunt and country rocker Kip Moore all landing in the top five of the Top Country Albums chart. On Country Airplay, Red Light artists have sent 13 songs to No. 1 (through Aug. 3), including Gabby Barrett’s debut single, “I Hope.” “We are especially proud of the impact we’re having with emerging female artists,” says Harrington, citing Caylee Hammack, Lindsay Ell and Maddie & Tae as well. With “The Bones,” Weir’s client Maren Morris broke the record for the longest-running No. 1 on Hot Country Songs by a solo female artist. (see story below.)

Change That Will Last: “I can’t imagine going back to a time of spending 12 hours a day running all over town just to sit in back-to-back meetings.” - Harrington

Janet Weir
Manager, Red Light Management; owner, House of 42

It makes sense that a country song beginning with the lyric “we’re in the home stretch of the hard times” would take off after the double whammy that hit Nashville in early 2020: a tornado in March and the pandemic lockdown just a couple of weeks later. Maren Morris’ “The Bones” single had been out for over a year when it hit No. 1 on the March 14-dated Hot Country Songs. It ultimately spent 19 weeks at the summit, a record for a solo female artist.

The crossover smash led Adult Pop Songs on the survey dated April 11 and also logged time on the Hot 100, Adult Alternative Songs, Adult Contemporary and Pop Songs charts. “It just naturally got into some big pop playlists,” says Janet Weir, Morris’ manager. “I remember saying to Maren, ‘I feel like this is just the beginning of this song.’ It provides so much comfort for people because it talks about the most important foundations of a relationship.”

When the pandemic hit, Morris, 30, was already planning to take time off from her career — she and her husband, country singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd, had a son in late March — so the first few weeks of quarantine didn’t affect Weir, 46, much. “At first, I felt like, ‘We’re going to be fine; we already planned on several months.’ ” Weir had booked Morris for 2020 festivals such as Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, “but I needed to have an A plan, a B plan and a C plan for whatever way this goes. The C plan was moving everything to 2021 — and we did that.”

“Girl,” the title-track first single off Morris’ early-2019 album on Sony Nashville, went to No. 1 on Country Airplay last year, then peaked at No. 44 on the Hot 100. If she were touring this year, particularly on high-profile pop and country festivals, the one-two hit-single punch might have pushed her to broader pop stardom, which started with Zedd’s 2018 dance/pop smash, “The Middle” (featuring Morris and Grey). Instead, like every artist, she’s stuck at home, writing songs. “It’s time to dip into creative mode again,” says Weir, who also manages Hurd and works with Morris’ group, The Highwomen.

Weir started her career as an intern at Nettwerk, signing Old Crow Medicine Show to a label deal before relocating to Red Light Management in Los Angeles. After signing Morris and moving to Nashville, Weir named her company House of 42, in part because Morris’ album Hero hit No. 1 on Weir’s 42nd birthday. “I’ve stuck with it and waited for the right thing to happen,” says Weir. “A big part of that was meeting Maren before she was signed and believing in her.

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

Doyle, 72, has had plenty of recent opportunities to cheer on Garth Brooks, his friend and client of nearly 35 years. Last November, Brooks won the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award for a seventh time. In March, he became the youngest recipient of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. As the pandemic began, Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, offered an acoustic concert on CBS. And on June 27, Brooks staged a concert streamed to over 300 drive-in venues nationwide, drawing an estimated 350,000 people.

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “It has stopped the bulk of what we had planned over the next three years. We are now waiting like everyone else and looking for alternative ways to access the fans.”

Martha Earls
Owner, EFG Management

Earls’ client Kane Brown — who sold out Los Angeles’ Staples Center in January and toured Europe in February — had recorded “Worldwide Beautiful” last fall as the title track to his next album. “However, the social climate created an environment where there was no way we could sit back and not release the track,” says Earls, 42. The song arrived at midnight on June 4, raising funds for Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Being able to release culture-relevant music is incredible,” says Earls.

The Songs She Turns To: “My daughters, ages 6 and 8, have become obsessed with every song ever written by Taylor Swift. ‘Mean’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ have become anthems in our house about protecting yourself from toxic and negative people.”

Ann Edelblute
Owner, The HQ

Carrie Underwood’s self-help title Find Your Path arrived March 3 and reached No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list for advice books. But when the pandemic hit, Underwood had her other 2020 plans, including concert and festival dates, postponed or canceled. Other projects have continued “where we can work remotely and stay productive, especially on the digital side,” says Edelblute. That includes Underwood’s fit52 fitness app and an upcoming Christmas album. The country superstar also performed her single “Drinking Alone” from her No. 1 album Cry Pretty for TV’s ACM Presents: Our Country on April 5.

Change That Will Last: “Due to traveling extensively, I am more accustomed to working remotely. But after this, I can see many others continuing to do so more in the future.”

Kerri Edwards
President, KP Entertainment

Luke Bryan’s new album, Born Here Live Here Die Here, which includes “One Margarita,” his 23rd No. 1 on Country Airplay, follows the success of his 2019 Sunset Repeat Tour, which Edwards organized and which featured fellow clients Cole Swindell, Jon Langston and DJ Rock. The outing grossed $36.8 million from 37 shows between May and October. During the pandemic, Edwards has helped Bryan wrap the first remote season of American Idol, serving as “set designer, wardrobe, glam, camera operator, lighting crew and script reader,” she says. Meanwhile, KP newcomer CB30, a country duo signed to Buena Vista Records, grew its TikTok following to over 966,000 as its videos collected over 15 million cumulative views.

The Song She Turns To: Bryan’s “ ‘Most People Are Good’ because I truly do believe that. In a world where we are constantly being shown the bad right now, I know there is more good, and it is most likely right in front of you.”

Chris Kappy
Founder, Make Wake Artists
Lynn Oliver-Cline
Founder, River House Artists

It has been four years since Oliver-Cline, 46, launched River House as a label, publisher and management company and her first label signing, Luke Combs — whom she co-manages with Kappy, 47 — became the first act to have his first two albums, This One’s for You and What You See Is What You Get, log 25-plus weeks at No. 1 on Top Country Albums. Kappy also manages The Voice finalist Ashland Craft and Hailey Whitters, both now affiliated with Big Loud Records, while Oliver-Cline’s new management client Chrissy Metz (of This Is Us fame) has signed to EMI Records Nashville and released her second single, “Actress,” co-written by River House’s Nicolette Hayford.

Change That Will Last: “I have lost 166 pounds and have found a new goal in life, and that is to live. I feel like a new man.” - Kappy

Marion Kraft
CEO, Shopkeeper Management

Last November, when Kraft’s client Miranda Lambert released Wildcard, its No. 1 debut on Top Country Albums marked the artist’s seventh consecutive chart ruler. Single “Bluebird” became her first solo No. 1 on Country Airplay since 2012. Lambert played 17 arena dates of her Wildcard tour before the pandemic lockdown, just ahead of a swing through Australia. “Performing shows is the activity that our artists love the most,” says Kraft, 56. “Not being able to do that has been difficult, to say the least.” She notes that Lambert is very focused on her MuttNation Foundation, which has launched branded dog and cat food and accessories — and planning for whenever touring can resume.

The Song She Turns To: “Bluebird” is the “perfect song for this time: ‘And if the whole wide world stops singing/And all the stars go dark/I’ll keep a light on in my soul/Keep a bluebird in my heart.’ ”

Dale Morris
Clint Higham
Partners, Morris Higham Management

In May, Morris and Higham celebrated the release of client Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now. His ninth No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and his 17th chart-topper on Top Country Albums debuted “in the toughest of environments,” says Higham. Chesney was forced to move his Chillaxification stadium tour to 2021, and “we could have postponed the album release,” adds Higham. “But we felt our fans [needed] this and the escape Kenny’s music provides.” Old Dominion, meanwhile, reigns as the group of the year, as honored by both the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association, and the managers also now represent the estate of Roger Miller.

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “As managers, a majority of our income is based on the live element, and that has been flattened for all of us. We are fortunate to have been blessed with so many great years that we are able to survive the storm.” - Higham

Danny Nozell
CEO, CTK Enterprises

Amid the financial turmoil of the COVID-19 crisis, CTK Enterprises is having a banner year, says Nozell, 53. “I diversified my company. I closed book deals, podcast deals, record deals, publishing deals — everything that had to do with not being in public events. I adapt and overcome. I’m a solution guy.” And he has not laid off any staff. Nozell — whose management roster includes Dolly Parton, K.C. & The Sunshine Band, Seether, Meat Loaf, Orianthi and Kenny G — says the Dolly Parton Challenge meme was a global viral moment, with fans sharing Parton-inspired images on social media. “At 74 years old, she had one of the biggest memes of the year.”

The Song He Turns To: Parton’s “Better Get To Livin’ ” “because none of us are getting out of here alive, so we better get to livin’.”

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

Great collaborations have driven success for Owen’s management clients: Dan + Shay teamed with Justin Bieber for “10,000 Hours,” which spent 21 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs, and Kelsea Ballerini invited Halsey to duet on “The Other Girl,” which charted on the Hot 100, Hot Country Songs and Adult Top 40 simultaneously. As a live act, Dan + Shay had risen “from clubs and theaters to a sold-out arena tour that we were just beginning when COVID hit,” says Owen, who also manages Little Big Town, Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves and Midland, and is co-president of Monument Records with Shane McAnally.

Advice for a Young Artist: “Don’t get married.”

John Peets
Founder, Q Prime South

Q Prime South’s management roster includes Ashley McBryde (who released Never Will in April), Brett Eldredge (who unveiled Sunday Drive in July), The Black Keys, Brothers Osborne, Marty Stuart and Eric Church, who ranked as one of the top-grossing touring acts in country music in early 2020. Since March, says Peets, he has helped keep Q Prime “not just intact but thriving. I’m very proud that everyone has been able to keep their positions and their benefits.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “Our bands were built on the road. They love to play, and we believe in the power of that human exchange. Missing that is really a drag.”

Clarence Spalding
President, Maverick

Spalding, 63, leads a team that manages Jason Aldean, Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker — and he oversaw Rucker’s 2019 reunion tour with Hootie & The Blowfish that grossed $42.5 million. Brooks & Dunn were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last October following the album Reboot that teamed them with contemporary artists such as Luke Combs and Kacey Musgraves. “It looked like we had a plan,” says Spalding, “but most things between us three, we just stumble around and good things happen.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Darius and I said, ‘You know, what would you ask people to do?’ And he said, ‘Just stand with me. Stand with me.’ ”

Erv Woolsey
President, Erv Woolsey Co.

Woolsey’s longtime client George Strait grossed $64.6 million from live shows in both 2019 and this year prior to the pandemic, including his residency at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Woolsey, 76, has inked deals for clients Jaden Hamilton at Sony Music Nashville, the Davisson Brothers Band at Copperline Music Group and Ian Munsick at Warner Music Nashville — which signed him remotely. “Warner never saw him in person,” says Woolsey. “We did the [online] meetings, he played, they heard his music and signed him. It may be one of the very few that have happened that way.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “This is the time that we’d be planning next year. But you hate to commit too much because you just don’t know.

Scooter Braun
Founder/chairman, Ithaca Holdings

Braun made his big splash in Nashville in June 2019 with the $300 million acquisition of Big Machine Label Group and its publishing division, Big Machine Music, by his Ithaca Holdings and The Carlyle Group. But he has also maintained previously forged partnerships with Morris Higham Management, helping launch Kenny Chesney’s latest album, Here and Now, and with Sandbox Entertainment, teaming Justin Bieber with Dan + Shay for the hit “10,000 Hours.” Says Braun: “It has been a monumental year for our family members in Nashville.”

The Song He Turns To: “ ‘Be a Light’ by Thomas Rhett. It speaks to me. He made something beautiful in a time of need."

Seth England
Partner/CEO, Big Loud
Craig Wiseman
Partner, Big Loud
Austen Adams
COO, Big Loud
Candice Watkins
VP marketing, Big Loud Records

Big Loud’s label marked its fifth anniversary on Aug. 1. “We had invested just enough to get us maybe three years,” recalls England, “as long as we didn’t mess anything up too bad.” Launched in the wake of the success of Big Loud’s publishing and management divisions, Big Loud Records has thrived since: Morgan Wallen topped the year-end Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts with “Whiskey Glasses” and hit No. 1 on Country Airplay with “Chasin' You” and “Up Down” (featuring Florida Georgia Line). England says that he “can’t wait for another five years.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “The loss of touring income is a ripple effect all the way to our acts’ bands and crews. If there is any silver lining, it might be that a few of our acts really craved a mental break, and I’ve watched them regain some hunger for touring during this time.”

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

To draw new fans worldwide, Bailey in January helped launch Circle TV, a country music lifestyle channel with original programming that is reaching “nearly 65% of homes in the U.S.,” he says. Rogers, who assumed his newly created position last August, has kept the music flowing at the Grand Ole Opry during the pandemic. “It amazes me,” he says, “to be in a completely empty Opry auditorium — other than a handful of artists and crew — on a Saturday night, then look down at my phone or laptop to be reminded that millions of people from around the world are tuning in.”

The Song He Turns To:“ ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ It is very much like the Opry’s family Bible passed down from generation to generation. We sang it again on March 14 to conclude our first show without an Opry house audience, and I have no doubt it will ring from the rafters when audiences fill the Opry halls once again.” - Rogers

Louis Messina
CEO, Messina Touring Group

“Being unemployed is not fun,” says Messina as he waits out the coronavirus. “I doubt we’ll be able to return until there’s a vaccine.” The promoter was expecting a busy year with Kenny Chesney playing stadiums; Blake Shelton, George Strait and Kelly Clarkson touring arenas; and Taylor Swift bringing her Loverfest to Los Angeles and New York before heading to Europe. That’s all on hold now, he says, but he’s bullish on rescheduled tours. “Only a small percentage of fans have asked for refunds — we’re going to come back next year bigger than ever.”

The Song He Turns To: “ ‘Talladega’ from Eric Church because of its nostalgia for a simpler time.”

Brian O’Connell
President of country touring, Live Nation
Julie Matway
COO, Country Nation, Live Nation
Sally Williams
President of Nashville music and business strategy, Live Nation

Live Nation’s country road warrior, O’Connell, 54, spent 46 weeks on the road in 2019 guiding 13 tours and Country Megaticket, the biggest country bill in the company’s history, which featured superstars Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and Thomas Rhett, as well as Kane Brown. During the pandemic, he has collaborated with Live Nation president of North American venues Tom See on a series of drive-in shows with headliners Paisley and Darius Rucker. As COO of Country Nation, Matway, along with O'Connell, has built a portfolio of events — including the Faster Horses Festival, which the Academy of Country Music named festival of the year in 2019. Williams, who joined Live Nation last year after nearly 20 years with Ryman Hospitality Properties, drives the company’s business and entertainment strategy in Nashville and its venues in the city — including the Ascend Amphitheater and The Quarry — and the development of new venues. The COVID-19 crisis, says O’Connell, “has not been a fun experience.”

Stacy Vee
VP festival talent, Goldenvoice; vp artist relations, Messina Touring Group

In her two roles, Vee oversees strategy for Messina Touring Group’s roster while also booking and producing Stagecoach and Buckeye Country Superfest. Stagecoach 2020, with headliners Carrie Underwood, Thomas Rhett and Eric Church, was set to break last year’s attendance record of 80,000 festivalgoers before it was canceled, she says. “So many amazing festivals and tours never got to see light or were cut dramatically short,” says Vee. “The projects I had going were all on pace to be the best of my career — even if they didn’t materialize, I am still super proud” of that work.

Change That Will Last: “The video call is here to stay and may replace a lot of in-person meetings you would have previously traveled for.”

Adam Weiser
VP talent, global touring, AEG Presents

In a touring year cut short by the coronavirus, Weiser still got to see Luke Combs open his What You See Is What You Get tour in February and booked Dan + Shay for sold-out shows at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in early March. The duo’s dates were “both a personal and professional highlight,” says Weiser, “as I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside [their management at] Sandbox Entertainment and [their booking firm Creative Artists Agency] throughout the guys’ career.” Plus, the shows raised $100,000 for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to help victims of the tornadoes that had hit Nashville days earlier.

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “It’s a balance trying to understand what the world will allow us to do at a given time and what impact [the pandemic] will have on future tour cycles.

Mike Betterton
Agent, Paradigm Talent Agency
Jonathan Levine
Music executive leadership group, Paradigm Talent Agency

Betterton arrived at Paradigm following its late2018 acquisition of the booking division of Morris Higham Management and brought his expertise working with Old Dominion’s and Kenny Chesney’s stadium-packing tours. Levine signed Kacey Musgraves ahead of her award-sweeping success with Golden Hour and booked her Oh What a World Tour across six continents and 21 countries. He has guided the live and online appearances of clients Tanya Tucker, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Tyler Childers. In June, he envisioned a livestream by Simpson from the Ryman Auditorium that raised over $400,000 for the Special Forces Foundation, the Equity Alliance and the MusiCares COVID-19 relief fund.

Advice for a Young Artist: “Stick to your dreams and your vision. March to your own drummer, strum to your own strummer.” - Levine

Marc Dennis
Co-head of the Nashville office, Creative Artists Agency
Darin Murphy
Co-head of the Nashville office, Creative Artists Agency
Jeff Krones
Music agent, Creative Artists Agency
Aaron Tannenbaum
Music agent, Creative Artists Agency

CAA clients Brett Eldredge, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Brett Young and Jon Pardi each moved from supporting slots to headliner status in the past year. “A common theme with all these artists is there isn’t a common theme,” says Krones, 38. “They’re all doing it their way and bringing new fans to the format.” CAA’s country roster began 2020 with sold-out arena tours from Luke Combs and Dan + Shay before the coronavirus halted touring. “As an agent, you make long-term recommendations to a client based on expectations for the future,” says Tannenbaum, 40. “The pandemic has significantly elevated the uncertainty around all of these things.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “Our format has always been a comfort when things get a bit uncomfortable. Our storytellers just need to keep telling their stories, and people should find solace in them.” - Dennis

Becky Gardenhire
Partner/co-head of the Nashville office, WME
Jay Williams
Partner/co-head of the Nashville office, WME
Braeden Rountree
Partner, WME
Nate Towne
Partner, WME

“It goes without saying that this year has been difficult for so many reasons,” says Gardenhire, 39. “It’s hard to talk about business achievements while facing more urgent issues, such as a global pandemic and a long overdue reckoning regarding racial injustice in our country.” WME books many of country music’s hottest live acts, including Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and Zac Brown Band. But as live events were postponed or canceled beginning in March, the agency turned inward to explore “sustainable change,” says Gardenhire, in both surviving the pandemic and addressing systemic racism. “One of the ways we [as an industry] can start is by hiring more diverse candidates for musicians for road crews, executive roles at agencies, labels, etc.,” she says. “We must be intentional about creating those opportunities.”

Josh Garrett
Agent, music, UTA
Nick Meinema
Nashville music leadership, UTA

UTA booked Post Malone for one night of the July 2019 edition of Wyoming’s annual country-focused Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo and Western Celebration, fusing the century-plus history of event with one of hip-hop’s hottest current stars. Malone’s night was the fast-selling sellout on record for the rodeo, reports Meinema. He and Garrett and their colleagues work with artists ranging from veteran Toby Keith to newcomer Jimmie Allen.

The Song He Turns To: “ ‘If We Make It Through December’ by Merle Haggard." - Meinema

Charlie Cook
VP country formats, Cumulus Media; operations manager, Cumulus Nashville; program director, WSM-FM Nashville
Paul Williams
Director of programming, Westwood One, Nashville; program director, WKDF Nashville

Radio is still king in country music, and the battle for listeners couldn’t be more competitive than in Nashville itself. Cook — who advises all Cumulus country stations nationwide, oversees the Cumulus outlets in Nashville and handles day-to-day programming at WSM-FM (Nash Icon) — says that even amid the coronavirus, his team “has overperformed at every level.” In April, Cumulus tapped Williams to oversee Westwood One’s syndicated country programs and to be program director of WKDF (103.3 Country).

Change That Will Last: "I know that I can do almost everything from home. One snowflake and I am logging on.” - Cook

RJ Curtis
Executive director, Country Radio Broadcasters

In February, one month before the pandemic shut down public gatherings, Curtis, 61, oversaw CRS 2020 in Nashville, “a very complicated event involving a million pieces of detail,” he says. While precise attendance was not reported, Curtis says there were about 3,000 participants. They were drawn by an agenda that included onstage interviews with Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Rascal Flatts — and an acoustic set by Garth Brooks during a tribute to late country radio legend Bob Kingsley.

Change That Will Last: “Employers will place a greater emphasis on the health and safety of their staff on both a physical and emotional level.”

John Foxx
Program director, WNSH-FM New York
Tim Roberts
VP programming/country format captain, Entercom Communications; program director, WYCD-WOMC-WDZH Detroit

In 2019 Entercom acquired WNSH-FM (New York’s Country 94.7), and, under Foxx, ranks as the company’s No. 1 station nationwide with over 1 million weekly listeners. Roberts oversees 22 country outlets for Entercom and day-to-day programming for Detroit country powerhouse WYCD (as well as classic hits WOMC and adult contemporary WDZH). He says the chain’s reach has allowed it to serve listeners nationwide during the pandemic. “Because of Entercom’s news presence in major markets such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and others,” says Roberts, “we were able to deliver critical up-to-the-minute information on our country brands, websites, social platforms and Radio.com.”

Change That Will Last: “Innovation. The pandemic has made us all look at the business differently, develop efficiencies and connect in new, effective ways.” - Roberts

Leslie Fram
Senior vp music and talent, CMT

Under Fram, her company in February launched CMT Equal Play, a plan for a 50/50 gender mix for artists whose videos air on CMT and CMT Music channels. CMT also partnered with Coleman Insights to release CMT Equal Play Radio Research, with insights into country radio listeners’ habits and attitudes toward female artists. CMT’s research “proved what we’ve known all along: Fans want to hear more women on the radio,” says Fram. “Now it’s time to lock arms and demand industrywide change.”

Advice for a Young Artist: “Follow your arrow.”

Phil Guerini
VP music strategy, Disney Channels Worldwide; GM, Radio Disney Network

This past year, Guerini, 56, oversaw the opening of a new studio on Music Row for the satellite station Radio Disney Country. Originating from that studio is the “Let the Girls Play” segment promoting female country artists. (A weekly country feature block on Music Choice airs from Burbank, Calif.) Disney also secured a deal with Entercom that brought its country station, which focuses on females 17-24, to the Radio.com platform.

The Song He Turns To: “Carrie Underwood’s ‘Love Wins’ because this song’s lyrics sum up perfectly what I believe, and Carrie’s delivery of this message is flawless.”

Cameron Lutz
Music partnerships, Facebook/Instagram

Lutz, 28, helped launch Facebook and Instagram’s Women of Nashville Brunch in June 2019 — hosted by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman with Kelsea Ballerini — to give female artists and executives a place to offer mutual support. Since joining Facebook in 2015, he has worked with Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Combs, Midland and others to connect with fans on the platform.

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “We’ve seen such incredible artist-fan moments online, which I hope for the fans will continue to thrive.”

Rod Phillips
Executive programming for iHeartCountry, iHeartMedia
Bobby Bones
VP/creative director, iHeartCountry; host, The Bobby Bones Show, iHeartMedia
Meg Stevens
Senior vp programming for Atlanta, iHeartMedia; program director WUBL Atlanta

Phillips oversees iHeartMedia’s country stations in over 150 markets that reach more than 109 million listeners per month through broadcast and digital platforms, according to the company. In an extension of his multiplatform brand beyond country, Bones announced in May that he’ll host a new weekly travel TV show, Breaking Bobby Bones, in partnership with National Geographic and BBC Studios. In Atlanta, where her station WUBL (94.9 The Bull) airs Bones’ syndicated daily show, Stevens moved the outlet into the market’s overall top 10 ahead of the pandemic in its target 25-54 demographic. “This occurred simultaneously with the challenge of moving out of our building and learning the best way to work remotely,” she says. “It has been a very challenging and productive year.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “We all must do better to increase diversity and inclusion within the industry, speak out anytime we see racism [and] take action.” - Stevens

J.R. Schumann
Senior director of music programming, SiriusXM

Schumann, who oversees country and Christian programming for SiriusXM, including the satellite broadcaster’s influential channel The Highway, last year guided partnerships with major country events including Stagecoach. This year, amid the pandemic, “we partnered with Stagecoach to create a virtual version of the festival based on their planned 2020 lineup and had the artists submit ‘at home’ performances. It took over what would have been Stagecoach weekend on The Highway and was a huge success.”

Change That Will Last: “Our industry’s ability to adapt.”

Beville Dunkerley
Head of country music, Pandora

Dunkerley oversees country for Pandora, a genre that draws some 20 million consistent listeners to the platform, according to the company, and the size of that audience has spiked during lockdown. Listening hours on the Today’s Country station rose 52% from March to early May, according to Pandora. But Dunkerley sees her greatest accomplishment of 2020 as “learning how to juggle.” Like millions of other parents, she has had to home-school her sons and “wear my mom hat 24/7 without skipping a beat at work.”

The Song She Turns To: “Darrell Scott’s ‘It’s a Great Day To Be Alive,’ made famous by Travis Tritt. It just reminds me that my problems are small and my blessings are vast.”

Margaret Hart
Label relations manager, YouTube
Copeland Isaacson
Artist relations manager, YouTube Music

Hart, 34, and Isaacson, 38, have collaborated on numerous YouTube initiatives to promote country artists, including Cash Fest, featuring Midland, Grace Potter, Little Big Town and others, which took place at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium last November ahead of the premiere of the YouTube Originals documentary The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. During the pandemic, says Isaacson, “the entire industry is shifting release strategies and reevaluating how they can engage fans in the ‘new normal.’ And we really feel it’s our duty to help partners navigate that shift on YouTube and beyond.”

Change That Will Last: “Streaming is exploding for country music.” - Isaacson

Jay Liepis
Head of music business partnerships, Apple Music Nashville
Debra Herman
Music partnerships, Shazam, Apple Music

Under Liepis, Apple Music in Nashville last year launched new playlists and a weekly radio show on Beats 1, Today’s Country (with host Kelleigh Bannen), reaffirming the streaming platform’s commitment to the genre. Liepis has put Apple Music behind releases including Luke Combs’ What You See Is What You Get and Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard. Working with Shazam, which Apple acquired in 2018, Herman has helped fans discover breakout country artists including Gabby Barrett and Blanco Brown. “The integration of Shazam’s data within the Apple Music for Artists dashboard has been a game-changer for artists,” says Herman, “as they can see how and where their music is reacting with their fans.”

The Song She Turns To: “ ‘On the Road Again’ by Willie Nelson. I challenge anyone to not smile when singing along to that.” - Herman

John Marks
Global head of country, Spotify
Brittany Schaffer
Head of artist and label partnerships, Nashville, Spotify
Rachel Whitney
Head of editorial, Nashville, Spotify

Marks oversees 40-plus country playlists on Spotify, including Hot Country, currently the fourth-most popular genre playlist worldwide on the streaming platform, according to the company. In 2018, the Country Music Association honored Marks — who leads Spotify’s initiative to increase global consumption of country — for his work advocating for the genre outside of the United States. In February, Whitney left YouTube to join Spotify as its head of editorial for Nashville. Schaffer, 35, who is Spotify’s link to artists and labels, made certain that the Music Health Alliance of Nashville was one of 20 organizations that benefited from Spotify’s COVID-19 Music Relief Project that launched March 25. The company has matched $10 million in donations to organizations supporting artists in need.

The Song She Turns To: “ ‘The House That Built Me’ by Miranda Lambert. It relaxes me and gives me a sense of being grounded.” - Schaffer

Kelly Rich
Country music lead, label relations, Amazon Music
Emily Cohen
Senior music curator, country, Amazon Music

Twenty years ago, when Amazon first began selling physical CDs, country fans were among the online retail giant’s most loyal music customers. “The genre has always performed well for us,” says Rich, 53. “We’ve always invested heavily in country music events and marketing.” That loyalty has carried into the streaming age with Amazon Music’s Country Heat playlist, whose global streams have increased 4.7 times compared with a year ago, as of May. Monthly Alexa voice requests for country content have grown 1.4 times during the same period among Amazon Music’s 55 million users worldwide.

Gabby Barrett’s album Goldmine is the newest beneficiary: First single “I Hope” was Song of the Day last August. After concerts shut down due to the pandemic, Amazon Live hosted Barrett’s performance with Charlie Puth and a live joint Q&A in April. The service created a custom voice utterance on Alexa (“Take me to the Goldmine”) to build more streams, and Amazon Music bought Barrett billboards in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Atlanta. In June, Goldmine’s first-day and first-week streams broke a record for a debut country album on the service.

“I heard ‘I Hope’ and was like, ‘This is a hit,’ ” says Cohen, 36. Amazon added Barrett’s song to its Introducing: Country playlist on May 24, 2019, before Barrett signed with Warner Music Nashville. “It’s always exciting to see new artists bubble up in our charts, and it’s my job to recognize those trends and place them.” In July, Amazon selected Barrett for its new Breakthrough initiative that will provide global support for emerging artists of all genres.

Two years after its launch, Country Heat is a centerpiece among Amazon Music playlists, and Cohen uses a combination of instinct and metrics to identify promising new artists. After Travis Denning delivered “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” in 2018, the service put him “in as many programming places as possible” and supported follow-up “After a Few,” which reached No. 1 on Country Airplay. “The caliber and quality of music released since the playlist launched is really excellent,” says Cohen. “We just want to honor that.”

The service also launched its first country-focused minidocumentary, Kane Brown’s Velocity, in February, and hosted livestreams for Kip Moore and others. Although the pandemic halted touring, forcing labels and managers to frantically scramble acts’ album and single release dates, Amazon’s country team has persevered. “It has definitely been a juggling act,” says Rich. “We’ve had to adapt quickly and change our plans. We’ll continue to go big on our support.”

Mark Brown
Senior vp/GM, Round Hill Music Nashville

Last November, Round Hill writer Ashley Gorley was named songwriter of the year at the ASCAP Country Music Awards for the seventh time. Round Hill’s Jimmy Robbins co-wrote Maren Morris’ “The Bones,” a record-setter on Hot Country Songs. “But the one I’m most proud of is our writer-artist Katie Pruitt,” says Brown, 63. Pruitt wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks on her Rounder Records debut album, Expectations, which arrived in February. “It is particularly rewarding,” he says, “when you see the growth and the accomplishment from a young writer that you believe in.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “Our artists have a really big platform to push for positive change. Likewise, our songwriters have a big pen — and they can use that pen and the power of the word to affect change.”

Stephanie Cox
Senior vp creative, Kobalt

Kobalt Nashville reports that it had a publisher’s share in 14 No. 1 singles on Country Airplay in 2019. Cox says that after helping to guide HARDY’s success as a writer for acts such as Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line, as well as for his own recordings (“One Beer”), the publishing veteran is focused on Hayley McLean, whose co-write “Hope” landed on Grey’s Anatomy. “My passion and successes,” says Cox, “have resulted from finding and working with talented writers at the onset of their careers.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “Although it greatly saddens me to see the livelihoods of musicians threatened, it has given me the opportunity to see more artists ‘live’ on social media — some I might not have had the opportunity to get out to see in normal circumstances.

Rusty Gaston
CEO, Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville

Gaston, 44, arrived in January as the new head of Sony/ATV in Nashville from his own independent THiS Music (which Sony/ATV acquired when he joined the company). He helped re-sign Cole Swindell and Jon Pardi and recruited Ben Hayslip (co-writer of Luke Bryan’s “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”) and Josh Kear (co-writer of Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”). “During this uncharted time, I’m so proud of how our team has come together,” says Gaston, “solely focused on deepening relationships with songwriters.”

Change That Will Last: “Virtual [songwriting] sessions have encouraged new relationships and opportunities that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, and I think songwriters are excited about that.”

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

Knox, 53, who runs both peermusic’s Nashville operation and his own Music Knox Records in partnership with BMG, sold the royalties he will receive for producing Jason Aldean’s albums to Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis Songs in June 2019 and, as a producer, reached a career milestone this year of over 24 million albums sold. Besides his dual executive roles, he hosts the syndicated radio show Knox Country 360, which airs weekly in 30 markets. “I wear a lot of hats,” says Knox, who is the son of pioneering rockabilly singer-songwriter Buddy Knox.

Advice for a Young Artist: “Don’t be afraid of taking the long path. You have to put in the work and the time.”

Steve Markland
Executive vp A&R, Downtown Music Publishing Nashville

Downtown Music Publishing singer-songwriter Yola earned four nominations at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, including a best new artist nod. Kelly Archer co-wrote Travis Denning’s “After a Few,” a chart-topper on Country Airplay, while Marc Beeson’s co-write “How They Remember You” for Rascal Flatts reached No. 24 on Hot Country Songs. But Markland says he takes pride in a simpler accomplishment: “connecting our writers around the world from our living rooms.”

The Song He Turns To: “Don Williams’ ‘I Believe in You.’ It’s simple, brilliant and reminds us all to slow down and love one another and focus on what is important in life.”

Rakiyah Marshall
Creative director, BMG Music Publishing

Marshall, 28, who grew up on country queens like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Rimes, joined BMG Music Publishing in 2018 as creative director after working at pop-centric Republic Records; her roster of writers now includes Lindsay Ell, Sean Stemaly, Ryan Griffin and Emily Landis, who has her first single at radio with Gabby Barrett’s “The Good Ones.” She says her time in Nashville hasn’t been marked by the “harshness and hate” other Black executives have experienced. But that doesn’t mean she’s oblivious to the not-so-subtle microaggressions sparked when she is the only Black person in the room.

She has heard two questions more times than she can count: “How did you end up here?” and “Do you like country music?” She usually responds calmly: “That’s kind of a silly question. I currently work in this position, so obviously I like the music.” Today, she says, change in Nashville is happening “as we speak. Close friends have reached out and asked [important] questions that feel uncomfortable: I see the strength it’s taking to talk about it and want change for the future. I can’t expect anyone to change overnight and understand what it’s like to be a Black artist or executive and [stand] in our shoes. But if we talk more, people will become aware that it’s normal to be Black and sing a country song.”

Read the full story here.

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

A pandemic may have brought much of the music industry to a halt, but it hasn’t stopped Shane McAnally from going to work. In Nashville studios this summer, the songwriter-producer and his collaborators have been wearing masks and keeping their distance in isolation booths. They have even started workshopping ideas over Zoom — which McAnally admits has taken some getting used to. “One thing I do love about it is that it’s very efficient,” says the 45-year-old, who also juggles a publishing company (he’s founder/CEO of SMACKSongs), a record label (he’s co-president of Monument Records) and a mentor role on NBC’s Songland. “We’ll see how many of those songs have the same personality that things do when you’re in the room with someone.”

With three Grammy Awards and 32 No. 1 singles on Country Airplay alone for such acts as Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Old Dominion and Thomas Rhett, it’s safe to say McAnally has high standards. Yet that volume of hits is only one element of a legacy that has earned him Billboard’s 2020 Trailblazer honor. As one of the few out songwriters working in country music, he is often approached by other LGBTQ people who say they didn’t know they could make it in Nashville until they saw McAnally thrive. (His response: “I didn’t know you could, either!”) He’s especially proud of championing voices like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt, whose collaborations with McAnally — including, respectively, “Follow Your Arrow” and “Body Like a Back Road” — challenged conventional wisdom about what a country hit could be. Despite their recent successes, those artists were hardly safe bets early on in their careers. “When someone said ‘Kacey’s too country’ or ‘Sam is too pop,’ these were things that made me want to do it more,” says McAnally. “I know the magic of when someone doesn’t fit.”

Read the full profile on McAnally here.

Mike Molinar
GM, Big Machine Music

With a publishing share in two massive hits — “The Bones” by Maren Morris and “10,000 Hours” by Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber — Molinar, 44, notes that Big Machine Music has had a presence atop Hot Country Songs for 40 consecutive weeks. Earlier this year, Laura Veltz ruled Country Songwriters for five weeks with her co-writes on “The Bones,” Lady A’s “What If I Never Get Over You” and Ryan Hurd’s “To a T.” For 2019, Big Machine Music ranked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Country Publisher Corporations year-end recap, behind only Warner Chappell Music Nashville and Sony/ATV Nashville.

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “Most artists are putting an emphasis on listening or writing right now, which means increased co-writing and pitch opportunities.”

Frank Rogers
CEO, Spirit Music Nashville; founder/president, Fluid Music Revolution

Hitmaking songwriter-producer Rogers was named CEO of Spirit Music Nashville in 2019, and among his signings was David Garcia, co-writer of Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be.” A publishing share of that track and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” respectively, gave Spirit the No. 1 and No. 2 Hot Country Songs of the Decade. Earlier this year, says Rogers, “we also had three No. 1 Country Airplay singles in a row,” with Spirit writers contributing to Kenny Chesney’s “Here and Now,” Scotty McCreery’s “In Between” and the Carly Pearce-Lee Brice duet “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”

Advice for a Young Artist: “Don’t be ‘the next’ anything. Be ‘the first’ you.

Troy Tomlinson
Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville

Tomlinson, 56, had been president/CEO of Sony/ATV Nashville from 2005 until June 2019 when he was named UMPG Nashville’s first chairman/CEO — and in February, Taylor Swift left Sony/ATV to reunite with him as her publisher. Kenny Chesney, whom Tomlinson had signed while working at Acuff-Rose Music, has also rejoined him at UMPG Nashville. “We’ve come together to grow our roster with high-quality, proven signings,” says Tomlinson, including Brad Tursi, Ray Fulcher, Justin Ebach, Caitlyn Smith, Jacob Davis, John Pierce, Shane Minor and Jeff Middleton.

Advice for a Young Artist: “If you don’t know who you are, you better figure it out pretty damn quickly. No one else can do that for you."

Clay Bradley
VP creative, Nashville, BMI

Bradley succeeded Jody Williams as BMI vp creative in Nashville in February, a month before the COVID-19 crisis hit. “It was a strange time to step into this role,” says Bradley, for whom the BMI move is a homecoming of sorts: Earlier in his career, he spent seven years as an assistant vp in BMI’s writer/ publisher department, signing Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney, among others. Prior to his return, Bradley was CEO of Eclipse Music Group, working with singer-songwriters Katie Pruitt and Payton Smith.

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “The more this community speaks up about inclusiveness, diversity and unity, [the more] I believe the fans will listen and follow.”

Mike Sistad
VP Nashville membership, ASCAP

When the 58th annual ASCAP Country Music Awards are given out in November, the organization can draw from the experience of presenting its virtual Rhythm & Soul Music Awards July 15-17, as well as the ASCAP Experience: Home Edition this summer. “We have been able to maintain our strong relationships with our writer and publisher friends during a very challenging time,” says Sistad, 56. “Learning to work remotely as a cohesive team has only strengthened our ability to serve our members when we’re on the other side of this.”

The Song He Turns To: “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good,” recorded by Don Williams and written by Dave Hanner. “When I question things in the world, this simple message helps me put things in perspective.”

Kelli Turner
President/COO, SESAC

SESAC’s Nashville members include Lady A’s Hillary Scott, Runaway June, Blanco Brown, Jimmie Allen and SESAC’s 2019 songwriter of the year, Justin Ebach, who penned Dustin Lynch’s hit “Good Girl” and Brett Young’s “Here Tonight.” In August 2019, Turner oversaw SESAC’s refinancing of its capital structure. The performing rights organization sold $530 million in debt and gained commitments for a $30 million revolving credit facility. Turner says the money moves make SESAC “more dynamic and eager to strike the best deals for our affiliate songwriters and publishers.”

Advice for a Young Songwriter: “Participate with co-writers as much as possible, and register your songs and recordings. Copyright protection is essential to earning a living as an artist or songwriter.”

Derek Crownover
Tiffany Dunn
Partners, Loeb & Loeb

Loeb & Loeb recruited Crownover and members of his team of lawyers from Dickinson Wright last fall. The firm now represents an impressive roster of artists (Carrie Underwood, Jordan Davis, Matt Stell, Sam Hunt), songwriters (Ashley Gorley, Craig Wiseman, Luke Laird) and companies (Big Loud Records, Spirit Music Nashville, MV2 Entertainment). “[By] adding those attorneys,” says Dunn, “we were able to broaden our areas of expertise and capacity as well as expand our client base, which also includes Kane Brown and Luke Combs.” During the pandemic, she says, “I have come to realize that distance doesn’t have to mean interruption or disruption.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “The country music community has the trust of millions of listeners. It should do what it can to reach the listeners where they are — whether that be in a place of hurt, despair, fear, confusion or misunderstanding.” - Dunn

Rusty Jones
Attorney, Law Office of Russell A. Jones Jr.

Jones keeps his list of clients confidential, but they’re said to include Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith. During the pandemic, Jones says he has been involved with “television, theatrical and social media productions that have brought joy during these trying times. We have stayed very busy.” What word would Jones use to describe the country community right now? “Survivors,” he says.

The Song He Turns To: “ ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothin’ by Tim McGraw. [I play it] when I see federal, state and local leaders who still do not believe in science, social distancing or face masks.”

Joel Katz
Founding chairman of the global entertainment and media practice/founding shareholder of the Atlanta office, Greenberg Traurig
Jess Rosen
Shareholder/co-chair, Atlanta entertainment and media practice, Greenberg Traurig

The June 2019 sale of Big Machine Label Group to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings and The Carlyle Group was certainly one of Nashville’s biggest recent deals, but it is far from Katz’s only high-profile Music City negotiation over the last 18 months. Warner Music Nashville chairman/ CEO John Esposito and Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman turned to Katz for the most recent extensions of their employment agreements, and Katz renewed the deal between Jason Owen’s Sandbox Entertainment and Ithaca Holdings in 2019. Rosen negotiated Kenny Chesney’s (now postponed) 2020 stadium tour and sponsorship deals, a Christmas TV special and song placement in Frozen II for Kacey Musgraves, a new Sony/ATV publishing deal for Miranda Lambert and Live Nation partnerships for Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line.

Michael Milom
Partner, Milom Horsnell Crow Kelley Beckett Shehan

Milom says he was working on a diverse slate of deals before the pandemic, including a global distribution pact for one superstar’s album, creative service agreements for another’s release, the extension of an exclusive publishing deal for one top songwriter, plans for an artist to develop new products for a global musical instrument company and awards show hosting gigs. With artists now trading concert stages for digital platforms, he reports “an unusual number of new endorsement or ‘influencer’ agreements submitted to our clients.” On a pro bono basis, Milom has reviewed many agreements for his clients to appear in virtual charity concerts during the pandemic.

Marcie Allen
President, MAC Presents

Music and branding executive Allen turned to booking two all-star nights at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta last November to raise funds for veterans organizations and homelessness prevention centers. The ATLive benefit, supporting the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund and the Quest Community Development Organization, boasted Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne, Sam Hunt, Sugarland, Judah & The Lion and newcomers Cale Dodds and Caylee Hammack. Says Allen: “Little did I know those two nights would be [one of] the last live-music events for us for a while.”

How She Works Now: “My side hustle” — a CBD and wellness coffee shop in Nashville called Anzie Blue that she opened with her husband — “has kept me sane while the music industry is on pause.”

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

To help clients benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) after legislation passed in March, the City National Bank entertainment team in Nashville “worked 18 to 21 hours every day for over three solid weeks,” recalls Pearson. “The situation was incredibly dynamic. We didn’t know how long the money would last, so we were racing against the clock. Thankfully, we were able to help clients keep their doors open.” Adds Badgett: “[With] so much at stake for so many people, the bank has been able to provide support and funding to help bridge the gap caused by COVID-19.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “Typically [in spring], we are ramping up with lines of credit for artists’ touring companies as well as increasing credit card limits to accommodate travel and road expenses. The day I saw a post showing that four of my clients had canceled their tours for 2020 hit me really hard.” - Pearson

Julie Boos
Co-owner/chairman/business manager, FBMM

Boos, who was named business manager of the year at the Country Music Association’s touring awards in 2018, has worked with her fellow owners at FBMM “to address the greatest financial challenge our industry has experienced in any of our lifetimes,” she says. “Instead of managing tours, we’re managing cash flow, dealing with difficult employee decisions, getting a crash course in PPP, EIDL [economic injury disaster loans], unemployment insurance, etc. It’s definitely not business as usual.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “We keep it simple. Golden rule-type stuff: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ We just need to continue to walk forward with that kind of empathy.”

Jeremy Holley
Laura Hutfless
Co-founders, FlyteVu

To help health care workers fighting COVID-19, Nashville-based marketing agency FlyteVu worked with 80 artists, including Brad Paisley and Thomas Rhett, to create Gratitunes — performances posted on Instagram — to thank Vanderbilt University Medical Center staff and paired with client Cracker Barrel to facilitate meal donations in conjunction with Sony Music Nashville acts like Chris Young and Matt Stell. “Whether it’s supporting and elevating women in country music, launching a website to donate to Black organizations fighting for racial justice or helping create a first-of-its-kind trauma-informed workshop for mass-shooting survivors,” says Holley, “Laura and I hold ourselves accountable to put words to action through everything our agency does.”

How Country Can Help Move the Nation Forward: “We can start by banning the Confederate flag at our festivals and events. If NASCAR can do it, so can country music. Music unites people, and there should be nothing that makes our fans feel threatened or unsafe.”

Andy Moats
Executive vp/director of music, sports and entertainment, Pinnacle Financial Partners

While Pinnacle has been “extremely active in the publishing and label finance space and has closed hundreds of millions of dollars in loans over the past few quarters,” says Moats, 43, his music, sports and entertainment team also moved quickly early in the pandemic to close hundreds of PPP loans and working capital lines of credit for clients.

Change That Will Last: “A more flexible workspace is here to stay. The office environment won’t disappear, but we have proven to ourselves that we can be productive outside of our traditional offices.

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

O’Neil, 67, takes pride in carrying on as a leader in two industry sectors with “a sense of empathy and passion intact,” he says. As co-founder of publisher Big Yellow Dog Music with Carla Wallace, he has guided a roster of hit-making clients including Meghan Trainor and Daniel Tashian, coproducer of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. He and his four partners in the business management firm O’Neil Hagaman have seen touring income plummet. “The touring stoppage has affected everyone,” he says. “We will need the full array of our innovative skills to rebuild this.”

Change That Will Last: “Remote work has finally come of age.”

Jennie Smythe
CEO, Girlilla Marketing

With the pandemic forcing promotion to go online, Smythe, 43, says her 12-year-old digital marketing agency — with clients including Jason Aldean, Hootie & The Blowfish, Chrissy Metz and Maddie & Tae — “has never been busier.” She notes that artists forced off the road have more availability for digital events. “On certain days, we can have seven-plus hours of livestreams or fan activations,” says Smythe. “It’s a case of lemons [and] lemonade.”

Change That Will Last: “Now that our clients are more comfortable [with online events] and see the results, we are optimistic they will continue being proactive.”

Lou Taylor
Owner/CEO, TriStar Sports and Entertainment Group

Taylor says that she and her team have achieved a key goal in the past year: “being resilient and calm in a time we haven’t ever seen before,” says the business manager, whose roster includes country stars Florida Georgia Line and Reba McEntire, as well as Britney Spears. Working during the pandemic has involved guiding clients and staff “while managing all the federal [assistance] programs and requirements.” The good news? “Business is still moving forward,” she says, “and deals are being made.”

Sarah Trahern
CEO, Country Music Association

With both tornadoes and the pandemic striking Tennessee in early 2020, the CMA has had a role to play, says Trahern. “As a trade organization, we’ve been in constant contact with our members about their concerns, which include financial stability, making hard decisions like having to lay off employees, their health or the health of loved ones, and general uncertainty,” she says. “We’ve frequently offered resources, from instructing members how to file for various financial support to hosting COVID-specific webinars of interest to several sectors of our business.”

The Impact of the Halt on Touring: “The ripple effects are deep, and we’re only just beginning to see the long-term impact. I’m encouraged by the innovative ideas our industry is coming up with — from drive-in concerts and tours to virtual programming — for our fans.”

Damon Whiteside
CEO, Academy of Country Music

“This has been a year for the academy record books,” says Whiteside. Forced by the pandemic to postpone its annual awards show in Las Vegas, the organization created ACM Presents: Our Country, an April 5 special on CBS that drew an average 7.73 million viewers over its two hours, according to Nielsen. The ACM Lifting Lives COVID-19 Response Fund donated $1.4 million in grants to country professionals in need. The ACM Awards, shifted to Sept. 16, will broadcast from Nashville for the first time in the show’s history.

The Song He Turns To: “ ‘I Saw the Light’ by Hank Williams is a song of redemption. It has uplifting and spiritual lyrics that give you confidence that no matter how hopeless you feel, things will get better.”

Contributors: Trevor Anderson, Jim Asker, Katie Bain, Alexei Barrionuevo, Dave Brooks, Anna Chan, Ed Christman, Tatiana Cirisano, Leila Cobo, Stephen Daw, Camille Dodero, Thom Duffy, Deborah Evans Price, Griselda Flores, Gab Ginsberg, Josh Glicksman, Paul Grein, Lyndsey Havens, Steve Knopper, Carl Lamarre, Robert Levine, Joe Levy, Joe Lynch, Taylor Mims, Gail Mitchell, Melinda Newman, Glenn Peoples, Jessica Roiz, Tom Roland, Claudia Rosenbaum, Dan Rys, Andrew Unterberger, 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 thom.duffy@billboard.com.) 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 thom.duffy@billboard.com. Nominations close and lists are locked not less than 90 days before publication. Billboard’s 2020 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 Nielsen Music are the sources for tour grosses and sales/streaming data, respectively. Nielsen 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.

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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