Sugarland: The Billboard Cover Story

Ask Billboard: Sugarland's Sweet Success

Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush of

"The first time I heard it, I loved the song, but wished it didn't have the funky rap section to it," KMPS-FM Seattle PD Becky Brenner says. (Brenner isn't playing the unauthorized edit.) "It's like, 'OK, I get it, but is it really necessary?' That was my reaction. But I'm not going to not play it -- it's so contagious, you can't help but be drawn to it. Their style and their energy are unique, and that makes the song something that stands out on the radio. Even if it's a little polarizing, we need that. These days you have to be happy just to get a reaction out of people."

"I feel for them artistically," Sugarland's manager Gail Gellman says of the radio edit. "Nobody would change Van Gogh's 'Starry Night'; they wouldn't even consider it. 'Oh, I think I'll erase these stars because it looks better without them,' " she says with a laugh. "I mean, touching their art -- it's so presumptuous. No one has the right to change it. That opinion will probably make me unpopular, but I'm protective of them and I feel strongly about it."

"I don't think this is the first reggae-flavored backbeat anyone's ever heard in country music," Bush says of "Stuck Like Glue." "People around us have had entire Marley families on their record. So I'm not sure why people are in a huff now." He says he could understand the reaction "if I were

"We care about what we do and we want our fans to have a good time," Nettles says. "We believe that music is a performing art. It's great that we have this technology that allows us to capture a record and listen over and over again through headphones and car speakers. But at the end of the day it's intended to be experienced live with other human beings. I think that respect for the performing arts contributes to the energy we put into our show."

According to Jason Owen, a former UMG Nashville marketing exec who recently launched Sandbox Entertainment, TV performances also figure heavily into the "Incredible Machine" campaign.

"It always seems like we're juggling offers in this really great way," Owen says, pointing to upcoming appearances on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Chelsea Lately," "Today" and "CNN Heroes 2010." (The duo will also play the new album from beginning to end for invited tastemakers Oct. 20 at Atlanta's Fox Theatre.) Owen calls Sugarland's 2009 ABC prime-time special, "Live on the Inside," "one of the most defining moments for us over the last year. I think that opened up the eyes of a lot of producers and bookers -- like, 'Wow, this is not just a country group.' And it allowed us to connect with an audience who may never have seen a country show before. That changed everything."

All of these performances will feature elements of the album's steampunk visual design, Owen says, part of the band's attempt to give each of its releases a distinct brand. "Pop artists do that really well -- think of Christina Aguilera with her wigs and all the craziness. Sugarland does it, too: On the last album it was all about love and life; before that, with 'Enjoy the Ride,' there were all these carnival aspects. I can't really think of another country act that does that, but I think it's important to fans. You're giving them something new and familiar at the same time."

Beyond serving those core fans, Gellman says reaching new listeners is a definite aspiration for "The Incredible Machine," which in addition to the standard package will also arrive in a CD/DVD deluxe edition that includes a making-of documentary.

"I wish music didn't have to be defined by genre because I know they appeal to so many different people," Gellman says. "They're just great songwriters, and this record will touch a pop audience if it can get there. The barriers to crossover in the industry are pretty high. Taylor Swift is an anomaly; Lady Antebellum made sense. I feel like this record is full of songs like that."

"You don't know how many people have said to me, 'I don't really like country music, but I like them,' " UMG Nashville's Lewis says. "There's something palatable about their music to pretty near anyone who hears it. The whole challenge is to spread the word, and the most obvious way to do that is through other formats at radio. I have hopes that some of the music on this album finds a home there. But that remains to be seen. We haven't tried it yet."

Gellman says, "I won't rest until I turn on [top 40 station] KIIS-FM in Los Angeles and hear Sugarland."

Nettwerk Music Group CEO Terry McBride says he saw the band's crossover potential on this summer's Lilith Fair, where he booked Sugarland alongside such pop artists as Sheryl Crow and Colbie Caillat.

"Probably 5% of the Lilith Fair audience are country fans, but Sugarland got a standing ovation every night," he says. "I remember being at one of the earlier shows standing next to this couple when they sang one of their singles. The wife turned to the husband and said, 'I didn't know they sang this!' She hadn't put a face to the music yet, but that shows they can penetrate that world if they keep pushing."

"We dream really big," Bush says. "If you come to us asking to do a song for a movie, we'll say, 'Sure, can we score the whole thing?' 'You guys want to sing a song on this awards show?' 'Sure, can we host it, too?' So when we think about this record and whether it could play on pop radio, we think it could. Our message is simple: We're your tribe. You're welcome here. Come on in."

Sugarland will appear at the seventh annual Billboard Touring Conference & Awards Nov. 3-4 in New York. To register, go to