Today's country music is about crunchy guitar riffs, hip-hop beats and massive audiences that fill arenas, stadiums and bank accounts. Last year, the genre accounted for $830 million (12 percent) of total U.S. music sales and $397 million (15 percent) of the domestic touring business -- and took aim at the future in an industry seen as constrained by the past. In its first assessment of influence in country music, Billboard ranks who's got the most muscle in Music City.
1) SCOTT BORCHETTA
President/CEO, Big Machine Label Group
Scott Borchetta isn't the most powerful person in Nashville thanks to his company's market share. At best, Big Machine Label Group finishes third among country labels in the first half of 2015 with a 10.1 share of the market when sales by its Valory label (Brantley Gilbert, Justin Moore) and Republic Nashville are counted. Borchetta, 53, ranks No. 1 because record buyers aren't the only ones who want what he's selling. In a span of just eight months, he engaged in discussions with Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and other suitors to sell his company (which, sources say, had an initial asking price of $225 million to $250 million), appeared on American Idol and claimed the fastest-selling album to reach the 5 million mark with Taylor Swift's 1989.
That flurry of activity culminated in Borchetta's July 2 decision to take Big Machine off the market and renew its distribution deal with the Universal Music Group (UMG) in exchange for full ownership of Republic Nashville, the joint-venture label it started with UMG. The deal married Big Machine's roster of acts, including Swift, Tim McGraw and Zac Brown Band, with Republic stars Florida Georgia Line (FGL) and The Band Perry and spared Borchetta (and Swift) the limitation of being tied to one distributor. "We're a content company," he says. "And if we create the best content, every distributor will want what we have."
Exhibit A is Swift, who played a linchpin role in convincing Apple Music, in an open letter to the company, to pay indie artists during the service's first three months. "I didn't consult with Taylor on the letter, but it was ironic because I'd been having a conversation with [Apple executive] Jimmy [Iovine] about my concerns the day before and how I didn't feel we could participate," says Borchetta. "So when Taylor texted me the link that Saturday, I said, ‘You have no idea how good your timing is.' "
"What makes Scott powerful is his ability to separate his ego from the mix," Swift tells Billboard. "Many people in his position lose the ability to listen over time. Scott wants to hear his artists out. He knows he has a wealth of knowledge, but he also knows that the fresh creative ideas of young musicians are valuable and important in the grand scheme of things. His power comes from his ability to be humble enough to keep learning, keep listening, and as a result ... keep winning."
Borchetta commutes 20 minutes to Big Machine's offices from Nashville's upscale suburb of Forest Hills, where he lives with his wife, Sandi (Big Machine's creative director), and their two dogs. A fervent fan of auto racing, he sponsors the Chip Ganassi IndyCar team and is looking to do more laps around the rest of the industry. With six No. 1s on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart, Swift is the biggest country-to-pop crossover success in the list's history, and with acts like FGL and Gilbert further blurring the lines among country, rock, EDM and hip-hop, Iovine says Borchetta "has the capacity to build something great. It just depends on what he wants to do." Borchetta's next moves? "There's a couple of open lanes for another big female artist, and a huge, underlying rock animal out there that just needs to be taken care of. We try to stay on the edge of the mainstream and look at what the most aggressive young kids are running toward." --Andrew Hampp
2) MIKE DUNGAN
Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Group Nashville
In the early 1970s, Dungan went to see Frank Sinatra perform with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra in his native Cincinnati. He was 19 then, and wore a shaggy beard and hair past his shoulders. Five songs into the performance, Sinatra announced that his dear friend and collaborator, songwriter Sammy Cahn, was in the audience. "He happened to be sitting right next to me," recalls Dungan. When Sinatra spotted him, he said, " ‘I love you, Sammy, and you know I love you, because I made sure you got a great seat next to Jesus.' "
Forty years later, Dungan's almighty status in Nashville has nothing to do with his hairstyle. As the head of Music City's largest label, the 61-year-old is the most powerful man in town when the yardstick is market share. For the first half of 2015, 26.8 percent of country albums sold were released by UMG Nashville, and the label has five of the top 10 best-selling albums of the year from that genre: two by Billboard cover boy Luke Bryan (Spring Break... Checkin' Out and Crash My Party), Eric Church's The Outsiders, Little Big Town's Pain Killer and Sam Hunt's Montevallo. It's Hunt's breakthrough -- Montevallo has scanned 630,000 to date -- that Dungan considers his top achievement of the last 12 months. "And we are just beginning," he says.
Dungan's quiet demeanor and knowing wit -- the father of two sons in their 30s doesn't just live in tony Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife of 38 years, Jane; he lives there "with all the Stepford Wives" -- have made him a well-liked figure in Nashville. But he has no qualms playing hardball. He says his former boss, then-Arista Records chief Clive Davis, "taught me that the second-smartest decision you can make in the business is knowing when to cut your losses."
Then there was the time in the early 1980s when Dungan was helping to break Rick Springfield and his eventual No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, "Jessie's Girl," and he accompanied the heartthrob to an appearance in Columbus, Ohio. When thousands of screaming tween girls crashed the security barrier, Dungan says he and Springfield ran for cover. "Out of nowhere comes this little 12-year-old speedster," he says. "If she gets to Rick and slows him down, I realize we'll be crushed by the throng of kids right behind her. So I decked that kid with a solid elbow. And," he adds, "I don't regret it."
Country's Greatest Change in the Last 10 Years: "We used to be the genre that didn't place enough emphasis on star power, and that bothered me," says Dungan. "In the last decade, we've swung too far in the other direction and now expect every artist to be perfect-looking and ready to play the big stage right out of the box." --Ed Christman
3) BRIAN O'CONNELL, 50
President, Live Nation Country
After producing 12 to 14 country-music tours annually for more than a decade and launching six country festivals in the last four years (including FarmBorough in New York and Windy City Lake Shake in Chicago), O'Connell arguably has had more to do with the recent explosion of country music than anyone in the business. "BOC," as he's known in the industry, presents some 600 shows annually, most with two to three supporting acts. Given that an average country arena tour sells 500,000 tickets, those opening spots provide big exposure for developing artists aspiring to headliner status.
Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Zac Brown Band are among the acts that have graduated to stadiums under the Chicago native, and he has watched their progress up close and personal. O'Connell calls Brentwood, Tenn. (where he lives with his wife, Amy, and children Brett, 21, and Reilly, 18) home, but he says he spends about 46 weeks of the year on his personal bus checking up on Live Nation's country tours. "If you're just sitting in the 615 [Nashville], it's all 'I hear' or 'Someone told me,' " he says. "I get an extra look."
O'Connell won't discuss financials, but Billboard estimates conservatively that his division grosses $250 million a year, with artist payouts topping $100 million. "Look, I'm not splitting atoms or saving babies," he says. "For me it's just volume and work ethic. No one will ever outwork me, and if they do, God bless them." --Ray Waddell
4) CORAN CAPSHAW
Founder, Red Light Management
Red Light Management is the largest independent management firm in the world, and its Nashville division, which guides the careers of about 30 of the company's 200 acts, is the largest in country music, with all of the leverage that entails. Capshaw, 57, who lives with his wife, Parke, on a farm near RLM headquarters in Charlottesville, Va., works with roughly a dozen Nashville managers and a roster that includes country's top 2014 touring act, Luke Bryan, who grossed $63.2 million in 2014, according to Billboard Boxscore. Along with Bryan, its other arena-level acts Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry collectively will move more than 2 million tickets in 2015. RLM also reps rising stars Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton, whose first solo album, Traveller, sold 27,000-plus units in its first week, the best 2015 debut of a new country artist.
RLM's immersion in Nashville extends to its partnership with Live Nation in the new 6,800-capacity Ascend Amphitheatre, which opens at the end of July. And yet, despite a portfolio of assets and resources -- including festivals, labels and tour support -- that makes RLM essentially one-stop shopping for acts, Capshaw insists, "We're not here to change the system. We're here, hopefully, to enhance it." --R.W.
5) JOHN DICKEY, 49
Executive vp content and programming, Cumulus Media
Fresh out of college, Dickey and his brother, Lewis, got into the radio business with a simple philosophy in mind: "Everybody that was ahead of us we wanted to get past," he says. Country music gave them their leg up. Dickey says the genre's audience -- "who they are, where they live, what they do" -- are misunderstood, and in the summer of 2014 Cumulus seized the opportunity to please an older and neglected cohort of die-hard country fans. The company "fragmented the format" as Dickey puts it, by complementing Nash FM, which programs contemporary country music, with Nash Icon, which, he adds, takes "a hot AC approach to country." Dickey estimates the two formats have taken hold in more than 60 markets since their launch. "There are 100 million country fans and we reach 65 million of them every week," he says.
Country's Greatest Change in the Last 10 Years: "The sound. Country has gone from a fiddle-based format to one with guitar licks that would rival anything you hear on a rock station today."
6) JOHN ESPOSITO, 59
President/CEO, Warner Music Nashville
When Esposito came to Nashville in 2009, he knew he had a learning curve ahead of him. As the former president of WEA and GM of Island Def Jam, his previous experience had been in pop, rock and rap, and, he says, he soon learned that, in Music City, the term "Bless his little heart" really meant "He's a jerk." The skeptics fell by the wayside as the Punxsutawney, Pa., native grew WMN's country album market share from 3.4 percent to 8.6 percent at the end of 2014, and made stars of Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes. His winning streak continued this year when Brett Eldredge and Cole Swindell were named artists of the year by, respectively, the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM). The highlight of his career took place in January when he was named CMA president. "I hope it means," he says, "that I have been accepted in the community I moved to a little over five years ago."
Mentor: Former PolyGram Group Distribution executive vp John Madison, "who plucked me from [electronics/music retail chain] The Wiz in 1994. He's the reason I met my wife, Chantel. He's also the reason I bought a home on Nantucket -- sight unseen -- over 15 years ago."
7) JASON OWEN, 39
President/CEO, Sandbox Entertainment
Owen's power is defined in part by the job he didn't take. "We couldn't come to terms," says the publicist-turned-manager of Sony Music's yearlong courtship of him to head its Nashville operation, home of Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. Owen initially turned heads at Mercury Nashville, where one of his first tasks was spreading the word on Shania Twain's 2002 Up! album, which, at 5.4 million copies sold, is one of the most successful country efforts ever. With the formation of Sandbox in 2011, Owen had demonstrated in short order that he could build and groom a stellar roster of talent that now includes Twain, Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves, Dan + Shay and Little Big Town, whose "Girl Crush" was No. 1 for a record 12th straight week as of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart dated July 25. Proving that these acts can reach beyond Nashville has made Sandbox a standout. "Advertisers, marketers and retailers have finally figured out that their target audience is middle America and not New York and L.A.," says Owen, who recently became father to a newborn son with his partner, Bravado A&R director Sam Easely.
If I Wasn't in the Music Industry: "I'd be in interior design. I want [talent manager-turned-designer] Sandy Gallin's life after this."
8) RANDY GOODMAN
Chairman/CEO, Sony Nashville
Save for an initial exploratory conversation in 2014, Goodman, 59, wasn't approached for the top job at Sony Nashville until three long months after his predecessor, Gary Overton, had exited in March. But if he was a late choice, he also was a natural one: a veteran label executive who came up through the pre-Sony RCA ranks as then-label chief Joe Galante's No. 2 before exiting to found Disney's Lyric Street label.
After a stint managing Rascal Flatts (his biggest Lyric Street discovery) for Maverick, Goodman is now in charge of the No. 2 label in country music, an influential position that comes with a daunting task. During Overton's five-year tenure, Sony Nashville's market share fell from 21.7 percent in 2010 to 20.6 percent in 2014 and is hovering at 19.8 percent for the first half of 2015. That's seven points below the market share of No. 1 label Universal Nashville, which means that Goodman needs to find and develop more talents like Carrie Underwood, Sony Nashville's top act this year. Goodman spoke to Billboard about the challenges facing him as he takes charge of the label.
Nashville's reaction to your appointment was very warm. You were probably the least polarizing figure Sony could have picked.
The downside to that is, if you said, "I've got a record here that's not very polarizing," then we'd all say, "Well, it's not going to sell." So I hope that won't keep me from selling records.
Can you elaborate on the course of events that led to Sony Music making you an offer?
When [Sony's management] made the decision that change was going to be necessary in 2014, I was someone that they reached out to. We had a conversation, but I was just getting ready to start work with Clarence Spalding and Rascal Flatts. So I didn't raise my hand and say, "Please consider me strongly." And then [Sony Music CEO] Doug [Morris] met [Sandbox Entertainment president/CEO] Jason [Owen], who's an impressive young man. It's no wonder that Doug became very engaged with him. I thought it was just down to dotting I's and crossing T's for Jason, and then I got a call from [executive vp business affairs] Julie [Swidler], who said "Hey, Jason's not going to do the job. We'd like to know if you're interested."
What was your reaction?
I went home and talked to my wife and daughter, because our lifestyle had really settled down. They both said, "You need to go do this." I called Julie back and said, "I'm way into this. What do we need to do?"
Why return to the label business?
There could be some question about my sanity. There's no doubt the business is going through a very hard transition. With streaming, we're still in the evolutionary process. There is always opportunity where these things happen. We have to be better at pushing the gas when the gas needs to be pushed, and to do the opposite and cut bait sooner, because you can't afford the resource drain.
The prospect of roster cuts makes some people nervous.
Yeah. I wouldn't say that -- given the size of Sony -- it's out of control. I think the best way to deal with that is to seek the truth with your staff, to evaluate what's gone on and ask, "Has this act had every opportunity? Do we hear in them something that's been overlooked, and if so, what adjustments do we make to give them the [best shot] possible?"
What are your thoughts about radio consultant Keith Hill's comment that stations shouldn't play too many female artists because they're the "tomatoes" in the country music salad?
It seems to me that a lot of the research models that are used negatively impact a female getting up the chart. Historically, it's always been harder to break female artists. Yet with the exception of a Garth [Brooks], the guys ceiling out at a certain point, whereas the Dixie Chicks, Shania [Twain], Faith [Hill], Carrie [Underwood] and Miranda [Lambert] will continue to sell at a more robust level. If you can break a female act, you'll probably have a bigger upside with her.
Where does Nashville stand in the digital streaming universe? As arcane as it sounds, if you start with compelling artists and get them to critical mass at country radio, whether it's streaming or another revenue source, you'll be able to tap into it. --Chris Willman
9) ROB BECKHAM, 49; GREG OSWALD, 59
Co-heads, Nashville office, William Morris Endeavor
The metrics tell the tale: Under Beckham and Oswald's leadership, WME acts captured nine of 11 CMA Awards (CMAs) in 2014 and 10 of 11 ACM Awards (ACMs) in 2015. For 17 of the first 27 weeks of 2015, a WME act has been at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, and WME booked half of the 16 major arena/stadium country-music tours this year that featured clients Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert.
10) LOUIS MESSINA, 67
President, The Messina Group/AEG Live
Forty years in, Messina is having the best year of his concert-promoting career. He says 90 percent of his schedule -- stadium and arena shows by Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and pop artist Ed Sheeran (acts he has worked with since they were openers) -- has sold out. Austin-based Messina, who keeps his roster small so he can build artists as live acts, says he's determined to make Jake Owen his next arena headliner. He also hints that George Strait's 2014 retirement won't last long. "He's not going to tour, but still wants to do shows," says Messina.