Two days before the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Nov. 8, five of the genre’s top managers gathered on the roof of the Thompson Hotel in Nashville to talk about guiding the careers of their acts, all of whom performed during the telecast.
Combined, their artists -- Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood -- have sold nearly 40 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, and their songs have generated over 6 billion on-demand audio streams.
That the managers are all female in what is still a male-dominated business isn't something they dwell on, though there is a sisterly feel to their camaraderie. “We all are examples for each other, and if there is ever a question, we know who to reach out to,” says Lambert’s manager, Marion Kraft.
At 53, Kraft is the oldest, and the admiration that the younger women feel for her is clear. “She’s the OG!” says Bentley’s manager, Mary Hilliard Harrington, 41, who originally represented him as his publicist.
Joined by Ann Edelblute, 42; Kerri Edwards, 46; and Virginia Davis, 37 -- Underwood, Bryan and Rhett’s managers, respectively -- the women talked to Billboard about the tipping points for their artists’ careers and setting boundaries with talent as well as sexual harassment and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.
There weren't many female managers in Nashville when most of you started. What doubts did you have to overcome?
Mary Hilliard Harrington: For better or worse, I have been totally fearless -- making mistakes along the way but never doubting that I was capable.
Kerri Edwards: I doubted myself in the beginning, coming from publishing into management, but once I made the decision, I just went for it.
With the exception of Mary Hilliard, you all have managed your acts since the beginning. When did you know your artist was going to break big?
Edwards: The defining moment was probably the first No. 1 [Bryan] wrote with Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood [of Lady Antebellum in 2009], “Do I.” I feel like that turned the corner for everything.
Ann Edelblute: When Carrie won her first CMA Award [in 2006], that was a really big deal. For her to be accepted in that community was key for our whole plan.
Virginia Davis: For Thomas, it was a lot of little moments that added up. The first time I ever saw him perform was in Nacogdoches, Texas, opening for Brantley Gilbert. He blew it out of the water. Then when cuts he co-wrote with other artists went to No. 1, like Florida Georgia Line’s “Round Here,” I started to see this holistic view of where he was going.
Marion Kraft: It was 2009 at the Ryman [Auditorium in Nashville]. Miranda performed her entire album, Revolution, which hadn't come out yet. When she played “The House That Built Me,” the room got really quiet. When she came offstage, we were just staring at each other. I felt, “This is the tipping point. Right here.”
What do you do when your artist wants to take a left turn?
Harrington: Dierks is always taking left turns, and I’m constantly having to follow him. It’s like, “You’re just at the point where you’re starting to sell out arenas and we’re going to make a bluegrass record?” OK, we’re going to make a bluegrass record.
Kraft: After starting in 2003, we finally had a No. 1 in 2011. And Miranda came to me and said, “Well, this is great, but I want to be in a girl band [Pistol Annies].” I said, “You’re asking me to spend my resources, my energy on this whole new project, and I don’t really know what it is. I think you should come and audition for me.” She goes, “I’m your client. It’s me.” I said, “I know you, but I really think you should audition for me. That’s fair.”
Kraft: They sure did.
How involved are you in the album-making process?
Harrington: I can’t keep my mouth shut. If I think something sucks, or if I really love something, I have to say it. Dierks didn't love “Drunk on a Plane,” and he didn't want to cut “Somewhere on a Beach.” I’m not taking credit for those songs, because he took them and made them his, but they were definitely on the fringe of making the record or not, and it was eating me up inside. So I had to put on a full-on assault.
Kraft: I stay out of it. Miranda’s very specific about her music. She knows what songs she wants to record. We figure out what happens after that.
Edwards: It is my favorite part of everything we do. I come from A&R and the publishing world, so it is my outlet when all the other madness is nonstop. I’m constantly listening to songs, and all of my artists let me be very involved.
Edelblute: I’m really involved with Carrie. She’s self-published. I’m a song person, so we spend a lot of time and energy with that. I work with her with setting up the co-writes and the collaborations.
Davis: Thomas writes every weekend on the road, brings songwriters out, and they’re always writing on the bus. So every time a new demo comes in, he sends it over pretty much immediately. From picking producers to different collaborators in the studio, it’s a constant collaboration.
With so many other entry points, how important is country radio still?
Edwards: It’s still important. You can definitely tell when a song has gotten more airplay in a live show. You can feel it.
Davis: Then there’s some songs that I personally think we’re doing the right thing [when] we’re pushing the boundaries. So a song like [Rhett’s] “Vacation” that had such amazing consumer reaction that maybe didn't chart as high on radio, you go to a show and have no idea that wasn't a No. 1 song.
Edwards: It’s like “Country Girl (Shake It For Me).” Everybody thinks that was No. 1 [for Bryan], but it wasn't.
Country music is lagging behind other formats in streaming. What are your concerns about that?
Kraft: Well, we bitch a lot. [Laughter.] I believe that our audience is a little lagging behind in streaming because I don’t think it’s been explained well to the masses. A lot of people that listen to country, they’re not 100 percent sure what [streaming] means: “Does it mean I’m renting a song?” It really needs to be simplified and explained better to the audience. Whoever explains it first, that’s where the mass audience will go.
Harrington: I totally get why the labels are concerned. All of us have built touring artists -- life out there is really great and whatever audience we’re getting through streaming, it’s working. So as long as the songs are good, they’re gonna keep coming.
Do you set boundaries with your artists?
Davis: In my 20s, I really didn't have boundaries, and I think I emotionally bankrupted myself trying to be everything to everyone all the time. You are the most important asset in your company, so you must take care of you.
Kraft: With Miranda, it was never an issue. She called me at 11:30 one night and [said], “I think my song’s going to go No. 1.” It was her first No. 1, and she apologized three times for calling me so late. I was like, “No, it’s OK, really!”
Harrington: But don’t do it again! [Laughter.]
All of your artists have branding deals. What is something you’ve turned down?
Kraft: Early in Miranda’s career, we had one of those offers for getting rid of pimples. If you’ve ever seen Miranda in person, she has perfect skin. She was driving an old car. I said, “It’s a lot of money, but we’re going to have to say no.” She goes, “Yeah, you’re right.” She never asked me how much money it was for.
Harrington: There was an offer once from a packaged pork [brand] for Dierks. I was like, “No! It doesn't matter how much money it is.”
How has the Las Vegas shooting changed the ways in which you seek to protect your artists and their fans?
Davis: We immediately increased security on the road. It’s something that I have been monitoring closely. Festivals are different than our hard-ticketed shows because we’re going in with a promoter, and it’s their show. There are multiple acts, and we don’t have as much control as we do inside a building.
Kraft: For us, the security issue became prevalent when the Christina Grimmie attack happened [in June 2016]. In country, we are very vulnerable because we do all these meet-and-greets. It basically exposes our artists to random strangers. When [our head of security] arrives at the venue, he calls the head of the venue. When it’s indoors, we have much more leverage. Everybody who comes through the meet-and-greet gets wand-ed. People have to leave their bags outside. With festivals, I don’t think the book has been written yet about how we keep everyone safe.
In the aftermath of Vegas, does Nashville need to re-evaluate the close connection between country music and the National Rifle Association?
Harrington: I feel like the whole country needs that conversation. Given what happened in [Sutherland Springs]. Texas, does the Baptist Church also need to have this conversation? It’s not just country [music], it’s Americans -- it’s so much broader.
Davis: This is a complicated issue -- one on which I have been doing my best to educate myself. Country music is defined by the fans’ accessibility to the artists. We take that away, we change the integrity of what country music is about. But we have to keep the people that come to our shows safe. So, it’s obviously a conversation we’re all having in the industry right now.
Davis: I would encourage anyone who feels strongly about speaking out to do so and to take the time to educate themselves on the complexity of this issue.
Harrington: For newer artists, I would recommend staying away from hot topics. I believe that fans want to connect through music and not politics or whatever the issue of the day might be. Tim and Faith are different [in] that they have earned the right -- as entertainers and as parents -- to speak out about issues they feel passionate about.
Kraft: I don’t recommend that any artist comment on a subject unless they feel absolutely passionate about it.
There’s a national discussion going on about sexual misconduct in the workplace. What have your experiences been?
Kraft: I encountered sexual harassment more as a young woman in my 20s and 30s. I think that women are conditioned to endure certain situations because we feel it moves us forward in our careers. [But] those situations always told me that I was not in the right place and needed to keep moving. My direct approach to letting these folks know that their advances were not welcome, nor appropriate, worked well for me in those days. It appears though we have reached a tipping point in awareness and hopefully that means deterring folks of bad behavior.
Harrington: It has certainly happened over the course of my career, but it never held me back. The other thing is it’s not just directed at women. There are a lot of young guys dealing with the same thing. With the music business, there’s a lot of alcohol and late nights, and things can get blurry for people who don’t understand boundaries.
What specific roadblocks have you faced as a female manager?
Harrington: I’ve definitely been in meetings where important questions get directed to the men in the room by default. I get a lot of pleasure from those same men having to defer to me for the answers.
Kraft: The part that still surprises me is that people tend to underestimate what women are capable of. It’s also one of the many reasons that birthed my passion to start a company that elevates women.
Why does country music have so many women in management, yet female artists are struggling at radio?
Kraft: I don’t think one has anything to do with the other. One is creative, the other is business. Don’t focus on being one of the few women in an industry. Concentrate on making yourself invaluable and on becoming an expert in your area.
Would you sign a new female artist today given the airplay issue?
Davis: There are two things I look for when signing an act and gender isn't one of them: Is their talent undeniable and are they willing to work harder than I do? And I work pretty hard. Females in country music tend to have less representation on terrestrial radio, but I know the right three minutes from the right artist can change the tide and songs that move people -- that speak honestly -- will win.
Kraft: Absolutely. Under the guidance of Crystal Dishmon, who is a manager at my company, we recently signed a young singer-songwriter, Tenille Townes. I look at the upside here: Since there are not that many women out there right now, that means there is opportunity.
Edelblute: Yes, absolutely. When female country artists break, it’s often in a big way.
What advice would you give to a young female manager starting out today?
Davis: I wish I had known that my biological clock was not gonna run in parallel to my manager trajectory. The advice I would give to younger women is to know what your options are if you want to start a family. The other thing I would say is get a great business manager.
Edelblute: It’s critical for young managers to put the client’s interest first and that everything that you do is in their best interest. The decisions that you have to make might not always make you the most well-liked or the most popular person, but if you do right by them, you can make it.
Harrington: I wish somebody had told me to take really good care of yourself along the way because that’s really important for you to have energy and a clear head and all of those things. You’re so busy taking care of other people. Be fearless. Be very vocal. Go for it.