Zac Brown photographed on Sept. 6, 2019 at BB&T Pavilion in Camden, N.J.
Zac Brown photographed on Sept. 6, 2019 at BB&T Pavilion in Camden, N.J.
Matthew Salacuse

How Zac Brown Band Teamed With Skrillex and Scooter Braun to Keep Reinventing Itself

Zac Brown Band has been one of the most successful country groups of the decade. Now, with Scooter Braun managing and pop superproducers in tow, the group’s leader is eyeing another reinvention

Zac Brown Band is accustomed to change, opting to license its albums through various label partners instead of having a permanent home. In March 2018, the Southern rock group signed a new management deal with Scooter Braun’s SB Projects; this February, it signed a new global licensing agreement with BMG; and in March, the group signed a contract with WME. (The act was previously signed to Creative Artists Agency.)

The one constant? Zac Brown has always had control over every aspect of his career. “By owning our touring, publishing and merchandise, if something doesn’t happen right, I know exactly who to call,” says the frontman, 41. Brown was never interested in signing a multi-album contract because, he says, the band’s musical approach is always changing: “You’re talking nine or 10 years,” he says. “[Think about] how much life can change.” (Now a father of five, Brown had his personal life shaken up in October 2018 when he and his wife, Shelly, announced they were separating.)

The Atlanta native formed Zac Brown Band in 2002; originally a threesome, with two members who are no longer in the band, the act grew through the years, and so did Brown’s business ventures. His Southern Ground label rebranded late last year to Zac Brown Collective, a multiplatform parent company that includes his Zac’s Place restaurant, Z. Alexander Brown wine brand, ZBC apparel and Southern Reel film production company.

Zac Brown Band’s 2008 major-label debut, The Foundation, established it as a country act with acoustic-­driven melodies -- and its breakout hit, “Chicken Fried,” solidified its place within the genre. The group has landed 13 No. 1s on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, but Brown insists his music doesn’t fall under just one genre classification, which is most apparent on The Owl, the band’s new album out Sept. 20.

Signing per-album licensing agreements with different labels has allowed Zac Brown Band to take risks musically without fear of getting dropped. Last November, the group teased The Owl’s more daring sound with the electro-country lead single “Someone I Used to Know.” The song rises to No. 29, a new peak, on the latest Country Airplay chart (dated Sept. 28) and ranks at No. 38 on Hot Country Songs (which blends, airplay, streaming and sales data), after debuting at its No. 27 best on the latter list last November. "Someone I Used to Know" is still climbing on Country Airplay, although Zac Brown Band hasn't had a top 10 single on the chart since "Beautiful Drug" topped the tally in 2016. Brown still sees the format as a partner, but admits he boxed himself in on the 2017 country-leaning album Welcome Home. Brown counts himself a fan of artists ranging from Jason Isbell to Kygo, and as such, The Owl is more indicative of his wide-ranging musical interests, with a superstar roster of producers including Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco, Skrillex, Andrew Watt and Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd.

Before working with Braun, Brown says that none of those names would’ve been possible gets. The pair’s relationship dates back to the early 2000s, when Braun caught Brown performing at a local Atlanta venue; they reconnected at the 2010 Grammys, when the band won best new artist and Justin Bieber presented for the first time.

“[Brown] called me a little over a year ago and said, ‘I’m doing things a little differently now -- would you mind coming along and helping me?’ ” recalls Braun. “I’m a fan first, so when Zac told me he wanted to work with certain producers and really venture out of his comfort zone, that was uncomfortable for me at first. But he’s a great artist, and he’s going to push the boundaries.”

Despite The Owl’s most ambitious tracks -- including the thumping “God Given,” which boasts hip-hop-inspired lyrics like “Gucci bag/Stacks on stacks/Diamonds fill up the champagne glass” -- Zac Brown Band hasn’t completely ditched its country roots. There’s the Brandi Carlile-­featuring “Finish What We Started,” and an ode to the men and women of the armed forces (“Warrior”). On the band’s current tour, Brown brings out a military member during the bridge of “Chicken Fried.” “This is the greatest country in the world,” says Brown onstage. “I don’t give a shit what the media says.”

Zac Brown Band is a well-oiled tour machine, having hit the road every year since its first headlining trek in 2012. The group recently broke its own record for most tickets sold by a single act at Boston’s Fenway Park. Even if the partnership with SB Projects and its BMG deal prove to be short-lived, Brown is confident in his capabilities as an artist -- and a businessman who isn’t afraid to say no.

“Ten years ago, I was willing to do everything,” he says. Now, “I don’t want to spend my life running around kissing people’s asses to try to be successful. That doesn’t define success to me anymore -- we want to have an impact.”

 


 

Road to Riches

In 2009, Zac Brown Band’s then day-to-day manager, Lynn Oliver, was scrambling to find the act a point person for its upcoming eight-week tour. So she enlisted her neighbor Paul Chanon, 47, who has stayed with the group ever since, helping it grow into a touring force that has grossed $183.4 million throughout its career, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore.

How did you become Zac Brown Band’s permanent touring manager?

In June 2009 I was self-employed, booking and producing concerts, festivals and corporate events. I had booked Zac Brown Band previously; the most I ever paid for them was $500. But as I went to county festivals as their tour manager, I kept hearing promoters say they had the biggest crowds -- this was just after “Chicken Fried” hit No. 1 [on the Country Airplay chart]. I told Zac there was no way I was going to walk away from what he had going on.

How important is touring to an act like Zac Brown Band?

It’s everything. Radio, streaming and digital are critical to keep the touring strong, but touring is where the money comes from.

How has the group’s touring structure changed?

When I started with ZBB, we were 12 people and a driver in an airport shuttle they custom-made themselves with captain’s chairs and bunks. Now that the band is a household name, we have the luxury of working when we want to. When we left our longtime management company, ROAR, a couple of years ago, I took over the management side of booking responsibilities. I have three kids and am at every show -- we book our schedule around time with family as much as we can.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.


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