Lady Antebellum: The Billboard Cover Story
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From its beginning the trio has been active on social media. All three members post messages to their nearly half a million Twitter followers and 5.6 million Facebook followers -- the fourth-most for a country act behind Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash and Carrie Underwood. The group is almost always with a videographer, and the resulting clips show up most often as a part of Lady A's "Webisode Wednesday" series. It's now 163 episodes deep. Posted on the band's website and Facebook and Twitter pages, the brief videos allow the members to show off their personalities. The clips take viewers into the recording studio, as well as backstage, for fun glimpses of life in the group.
Video: Lady Antebellum's 163rd "Webisode Wednesday," Aug. 24
Borman says it was Lady Antebellum's digital presence that helped its 2008 self-titled album debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. "They did it without a hit," he says. The act's first radio hit was its third single, "I Run to You." The April 2008 album moved 44,000 units that week and has sold 1.9 million to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The presence of Cameo Carlson helps, too. The former Universal Motown Republic Group executive VP (before that, she was at Apple as manager of label relations and music programming, and prior to that, the rock and alternative music director for AOL Music) became Borman Entertainment's head of digital business development at its Nashville office in April.
Carlson says she loves that Lady Antebellum is so digitally active and willing to try out new technology. "Country music sometimes tends to follow in the digital space," she says. "We don't want to follow."
Two of the band's digital marketing partners for the new album's launch are companies not normally associated with country: Pandora and Spotify. The group recorded an interview series with Pandora that premieres Sept. 9. For Spotify the act will set up a Lady Antebellum user account and share a playlist featuring songs selected by the members. "They really do live in this space," Carlson says. "It's easy to bring in partners because of that."
In mid-August, the act rolled out an online game called "Own the Board," a scavenger hunt that requires fans to visit various partners -- such as Shazam, GACTV.com and country site the Boot -- to search for clues. Fans can win such prizes as a trip to Las Vegas for a special event with the group, as well as iPads, iTunes gift cards and autographed CDs.
Jay Frank, outgoing senior VP of music strategy at CMT, calls Lady A's approach to digital content the part of the puzzle that often goes overlooked. "They have done that every single step of the way."
"Own the Night" is the result of the same process and elements that created "Need You Now." The album was recorded in the same studio, Warner Studios, in Nashville. Producer Paul Worley and engineer Clarke Schleicher returned for the sessions. And the group narrowed down 25 candidates for the 12 final songs with the same musicians in the same Nashville rehearsal space. "We went with what felt like home," Scott says.
A group of returning songwriters is a thread that links the band's albums. Tom Douglas ( Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me") co-wrote the album closer, the sweeping, piano-driven "The Heart of the World." Monty Powell ( Keith Urban's "Days Go By") co-wrote "As You Turn Away" and "Wanted You More." Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel") had a hand in "Cold As Stone." Rivers Rutherford ( Kenny Chesney's "Living in Fast Forward") co-wrote "Singing Me Home."
Lady A wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs, infusing their experiences with a love for relatable stories and themes. "Over our lives we've had heartbreak, been in love, out of love, back in love, had some great times and some low times," Kelley says. "So we feel like we're pretty normal just like everybody else."
But the album also has new blood. Dallas Davidson, who has penned No. 1 hits for Blake Shelton and Josh Turner, among other Nashville male artists, co-wrote the title track, "Just a Kiss" and the bittersweet ballad "Dancin' Away With My Heart." Rose Falcon, Eric Paslay and Rob Crosby penned the rollicking "Friday Night."
Although the songwriting has clearly matured, listeners will instantly recognize themes, sounds and melodies. The songs on Own the Night are a mixture of tempos and emotional stances. "Now more than ever in our career we've developed what we feel is our sound amongst the three of us," Haywood says.
The rare difference as far as process?
"We carved out a lot of time," Haywood says. "We wanted to spend more time on this record than we did on the first two. And even after we came back from the Grammy Awards, we felt more passionate about doing that as well. We canceled a couple of things to spend more time in [the studio] to get the music right."
"Own the Night" extends Lady Antebellum's pop-leaning approach to country music without misplacing the group's identity. "The goal is to make great music and make it for their audience, and their audience is primarily a country audience," Borman says.
Dungan insists that focus won't change. "We have received a lot of radio on the pop side. But this band makes no bones about their origin and their home base -- and it is at country radio."
Video: Lady Antebellum's "Hello World"
The next step in Lady A's career is a big one: its first arena headlining tour. But first the act will play large venues in secondary markets this fall -- from the Knoxville (Tenn.) Coliseum on Nov. 11 to the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va., on Dec. 18.
The arena tour will start the last week of January and hit 60-65 cities through the end of June, says agent John Huie, who books the band for Creative Artists Agency out of Nashville. Huie says the fall run will help build momentum for 2012, and he sees the band benefiting from the overall strength of the country music genre. "In the context of the live music business," he says, "I'm very bullish about Lady Antebellum."
The details of the stage show are still being worked out, but Carlson says it will reflect the band's digital nature. "We're working on an interactive element to be part of the show." The videographer will be on the road with Lady A, and the members will be in constant discussion with fans on social networks, she adds.
And although the group's focus right now is on North America, Huie and Dungan point to serious demand in Europe and as far away as South Africa. "Hopefully," Huie says, "long range we're going to have a chance to spread our wings and touch a lot of different countries that a lot of country artists haven't made yet."
Now the group needs to perform like a headliner. The live show had "kind of hit a wall" with two albums' worth of songs, Scott says. With new material in tow, the act used the summer's fair and festival circuit to prepare for the fall tour, figuring out what songs to add, which to drop and working on song-to-song transitions.
"Normally we would end our show with 'Need You Now' as an encore as the last song," Haywood says. "To be able to position that differently, and have some of this new material help take somebody through a show in a different journey, it's something we're probably most excited about."
Video: Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now"
Borman has no doubt the group will figure out the jump to arenas. "For this band at this stage in their career, that's all they need to do: Stay real, stay honest, stay connected, and it will take care of itself."
As for the group members, they're more excited than anxious. "We've been wanting to do a big headlining tour," Haywood says. "We want to play arenas."
In just five years Lady Antebellum has gone from playing Nashville clubs to headlining arenas. It achieved success by connecting with fans through memorable songs about everyday life. That realness will remain the group's cornerstone.
"Not to get too deep," Haywood says, "but I feel like with all the crazy stuff going on in this world, people long for something that's real and genuine."