Why Everyone On the Florida Georgia Line Case Study Panel at the Touring Conference Was Grinning Ear-To-Ear (And It Wasn't Just the Fireball)

It Takes A Team: From left: Billboard's Ray Waddell; Seth England, General Manager, Big Loud Shirt; Jimmy Harnen, President, Republic Nashville; Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley (a.k.a. Florida Georgia Line); Kevin Neal, President, Buddy Lee Attractions; and Debra Rathwell of AEG Live.

(Photo: A Turner Archives)

Attendees of Billboard’s Touring Conference couldn’t have asked for a better artist development case study than Florida Georgia Line.

How this year the duo went from virtual unknowns to having the longest running No. 1 of all-time on the Hot Country Charts with their song “Cruise” crowning the tally for 24 weeks (while also becoming the second most downloaded country song of all time with 6.1 million clicks) and opening up for superstars like Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan is something artists and industry of any genre can learn from.

Billboard Touring Conference 2013 – All Our Coverage

The young duo’s hook-filed country-pop amalgam, deft management and publishing company, highly supportive label and powerful touring partners demonstrate what can happen when a strong team is in place, lockstep and firing on all cylinders. And then, too, there's the Fireball...

The story begins at Belmont University in Nashville where, through a mutual friend, Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley met. “The first time we knew we had something special,” Hubbard says, “was when we wrote a song together. We loved writing songs and had the same passion.” The duo began playing gigs around Nashville and after graduating put their focus and energies squarely on the band.

Enter the team from Big Loud Shirt run by songwriter Craig Wiseman (a Grammy winning songwriter who's written songs for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, LeAnn Rimes and others) with producer/songwriter Joey Moi, artist manager Kevin “Chief” Zaruk, and Seth England. England, who sat on the panel, had originally heard of FGL from a friend who attended Belmont.

“We went to see them and there weren’t any industry people there,” England recalls, “but they were doing something nobody else does: they were trying to entertain. They weren’t at the Bluebird trying to impress people, they weren’t asking for meetings with record label presidents, they were literally throwing a party. That’s the hardest thing to do, you find people who are amazing and talented but you have to encourage them to entertain—and it can feel fake.”

The Big Loud team reached out to the band to come and write songs with Wiseman. “The pieces of the puzzle couldn't have fit together any more perfect,” Tyler says. 

“[Producer] Joey Moi has took our sounds and our vision and literally knocked it out of the damn park,” enthuses Kelley. “He’s an innovator – we call him the wizard because he’s getting all these sounds and ideas and taken our songs and made them sound huge and awesome.”

The band first crossed the radar of Kevin Neal, president of Buddy Lee Attractions when he heard their music on SiriusXM Chanel 11 and again on Jason Aldean’s tour bus. It was the song “Black Tears,” a track Aldean would eventually cover. In Sept. 2011, at England repeated behest, Neal agreed to get the band a gig.  He put them on a bill with Colt Ford at the Lincoln County Fair in Fayetteville, Tenn. Neal was so impressed by the performance, the team and the boys’ work ethic – which included working the merch booth and their willingness to play any show – he made the decision to work with them that weekend.

Learning Tool: Billboard Touring Conference attendees admiring one of two bottles of Fireball that made the rounds at the Florida Georgia Arist Development Case Study panel. (A. Turner Archives)

“When you’ve got Seth, Chief, Joey Moi and Craig Wiseman and the writers they got at Big Live Shirt, it’s like, ‘okay, the team is here,’" Neal says. "Then you start hearing the music and it’s like ‘Holy shit, this is gonna be big’ because it’s so different. If you’re first in something and unique like Jason Aldean -- nobody was doing what he was doing when he came out. Everybody looked at him and was like ‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen.’ Now he’s playing stadiums. That was Saturday [he first saw FGL], by Monday I was like ‘I’m 100% in.’”

With Neal’s support, the band opened for Colt Ford and Corey Smith and did the Country Throwdown Tour, which led to opening for Luke Bryan. “They savored doing their 25 minutes,” Neal recalled, “letting the next act come on and blowing it out with merch and having a great time doing it.”

Republic Nashville president Jimmy Harnen says his label’s strategy, for the most part, was fairly hands-off. “There’s a lot of conversations with all the people on this stage, but we don’t really meet about a lot of stuff, we just get out of the way and let the art and music and the artists do what they do best," he says. "You go to a FGL show and it’s fun. If you’re grumpy when you go in, you’ll have a great time. To market these guys we use Brian and Tyler. The more you peel back the layers, the better and nicer and sweeter they are. I’ve seen them in a roomful of servers and Tyler’s cleaning up after us. The way we market them honestly is we let them be them.”

The band is active on social media. Kelley regularly tweets exclusive content towards the goal of being both “transparent and accessible,” he says. For last May’s ACMs, for which the band was nominated for a new artist of the year award, England hatched he idea of putting out a video a day on social media with big names. This included the X-Games’ Travis Pastrana, Jason Aldean, ESPN’s Mike Golick and Travis Ford. 

Leave it to the New Yorker, panelist Debra Rathwell, SVP of AEG Live NYC, to be the one to break out the Fireball at the panel. Two bottles of the cinnamon whiskey with the motto “Tastes Like Heaven, Burns Like Hell” were passed around the panel and then the entire Roosevelt Hotel’s Grand Ballroom. “I took a page out of the [promoter] Luis Messina playbook,” Rathwell says. “The first thing he recommended to me was that I get some Fireball.” 

It's Florida Georgia Line's drink of choice (“it always seems to end up on our tour bus”) and they sing about it on the song “Round Here” (“Twist off, sip a little, pass it around/dance in the dust, turn the radio up/That Fireball whiskey whispers/temptation in my ear/it’s a feeling alright, Saturday night/And that’s how we do it round here”). And track is now featured on the spirit's website.

On Fire Water: The Fireball homepage with the Florida Georgia Line's "Round Here" embedded as a Spotify link on the page.

“If you look at their Twitter feed, the pictures of Fireball bottles have been crazy.” explains Neal, “Fire Ball sales were up 300% last month --  whether they had anything to do with it or not, I don’t know.”  Neal says that the company, which has a “great association with the band,” sent out 300 bottles to radio stations with a thank you note from FGL.

In the immediate future, the team is looking forward to a deluxe version of their album “Here’s to Good Times…This Is How We Roll (Deluxe Version)” out Nov. 25.  Next year the band will tour with Jason Aldean and in April headline shows in western Canada where their album went six-times platinum. 

Invoking the "it's a marathon not a sprint" school of thought, English says he's really looking to2015. “We got more to learn,” he says. "and we want to gain fans for a lifetime, not just amidst this big song and album cycle. Every decision we are doing whether its national TV, album repackage, once 2015 hits, fingers crossed, we’re playing arenas and amphitheaters all year.” He also says the new material their writing is "off the charts."

But it's Neal who sums up the panel best: “This team is great,” he says, “the convergence of everybody involved is pretty crazy and it’s so fun.”