As the genre’s brightest stars expand their sound and attract a growing global audience, the 100 industry leaders on Billboard’s fifth annual Country Power Players list celebrate the past year’s $1.34 billion earnings in sales, streaming and touring.
President, Universal Music Group Nashville
Last December, UMG Nashville president Cindy Mabe climbed aboard George Strait’s tour bus, which was parked outside Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena and serves as his home during his residency in the city. Strait had turned in an album in October and wanted to put it out before year’s end. But Mabe knew it needed more setup time, and she arranged a face-to-face meeting to break the news.
“Listening to these songs reminded me of how important George Strait is to music,” says Mabe in late April, sitting in UMG Nashville’s office on Second Avenue, overlooking the Cumberland River. So she presented Strait with not only a new rollout plan for the album but also a multiyear initiative for his back catalog that tied in partners like Spotify. “We spoke a lot about why we needed him to keep creating his musical perspective, because he is our North Star,” says Mabe.
SCOTT BORCHETTA, 56
President/CEO/founder, Big Machine Label Group
Bolstered by acts like Brett Young, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett — all of whom took multiple songs to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart in 2018 — Borchetta’s BMLG snagged a 10.1% country market share for the year. Though Big Machine ended its decadelong association with Taylor Swift in November, its talent bench remains deep, with Lady Antebellum, Sugarland and Sheryl Crow coming aboard, as well as newer acts like Midland and Carly Pearce continuing to thrive. Borchetta hints there are bigger things to come. “We’re getting ready to do a huge face-lift,” he says cryptically. “It’s something we’ve been working on the last 12-18 months.”
Movie Character He Most Relates To: “Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now — I’m always in a different battle every day.”
GEORGE COURI, 48 // BRUCE KALMICK, 37
Co-owners, Triple 8 Management/Triple Tigers Records
NORBERT NIX, 61
GM/Partner, Triple Tigers Records
Since launching in the fall of 2016, Triple Tigers — a partnership among Thirty Tigers, Triple 8 Management and Sony — has been on an impressive winning streak, with all four singles it has released (Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes” and “This Is It”; Russell Dickerson’s “Yours” and “Blue Tacoma”) topping the Country Airplay chart. “For a label to be profitable in three years with two artists, it’s pretty incredible,” says Nix of the team that finished at No. 8 on Billboard’s 2018 Country Airplay Label of the Year list. “We don’t take it for granted.” Triple Tigers hopes to continue its success with latest signing Gone West, which comprises Grammy winner Colbie Caillat; her fiancé, Justin Young; and husband-and-wife duo Nelly Joy and Jason Reeves.
Best Nashville Restaurant Meal: “My wife and I can devour the Crazy Rice at Sunda in under five minutes — not something you want to watch us do.” – Couri
MIKE CURB, 74
Founder/Chairman, Curb/Word Entertainment
Curb Records’ complete integration of the assets — over 13,000 song copyrights and 10,000 masters — acquired in its 2016 purchase of Christian label giant Word Entertainment is the recent feat that gives the company’s leader the most satisfaction. But Curb, who founded his namesake label in 1963, is also excited by the continued chart success of Lee Brice, Dylan Scott and Rodney Atkins, whose single “Caught Up in the Country,” featuring the Fisk Jubilee Singers, set the record for the longest-running single in Country Airplay history at 57 weeks.
What Keeps Him Up At Night: “We had 128,000 children go off the health-care rolls here in Tennessee [recently]. We need to figure out why.”
MIKE DUNGAN, 65
Chairman/CEO, Universal Music Group Nashville
UMG Nashville took seven albums to the peak of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart in 2018 and started 2019 strong with the return of Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning Golden Hour to No. 1 and George Strait’s 27th chart-topper. But it’s the roster’s newbies who have Dungan’s blood pumping. “I’m feeling really great about a lot of our recent signings,” says the Ohio native, who is especially high on Texan singer Parker McCollum, 26, and “Family Tree” singer Caylee Hammack, 25. As head of the label with the highest market share, Dungan can afford to be choosy: “We never stop looking and I believe that our quality meter is very high, [but] we only move when we feel like we’ve got something and it makes you feel good.”
Advice To Artists Taking Political Stances: “I greatly admire anyone who uses a celebrity platform to speak up to what they see as an injustice. Just try not to fuck up my business plan.”
JOHN ESPOSITO, 63
Chairman/CEO, Warner Music Nashville
Esposito points to the ACM Awards in April as evidence of WMN’s success with its artists at every stage of their careers. Dan + Shay, whom the Music City executive calls “one of the really great stories of 2018 in this town,” won duo of the year; Blake Shelton performed “God’s Country,” which in May became his first No. 1 on Hot Country Songs since 2013; and Ashley McBryde took home new female artist. Says the Pennsylvania native: “For a born-again hillbilly to say we [just] had our most successful year financially in 20 years, and we’re beating it again — it’s damn fun.”
Time Management Tip: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Her advice has allowed me to unclutter my personal and professional life.”
RANDY GOODMAN, 62
Chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville
One of the biggest success stories of 2018 came from Goodman’s roster: Luke Combs’ This One’s for You spent 17 of its ongoing 35 weeks at No. 1 on Top Country Albums and helped Sony achieve a 22.4% country market share. Sony also scored one of country’s biggest crossover wins: After Maren Morris collaborated with Zedd and Grey for 2018’s Interscope smash “The Middle,” Sony’s challenge was to “tie airplay back in to Maren’s debut album — and it never seemed to work,” says Goodman. But then this spring, Morris’ sophomore set, GIRL, spun off a country radio hit with its title track, and album cut “The Bones” became a surprise playlist favorite, logging over 45 million on-demand streams since its March release.
Movie Character He Relates To Most: “Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. I wish I was more like him.”
JIMMY HARNEN, 56
President, BMLG Records; executive vp, Big Machine Label Group
Senior vp A&R, Big Machine Label Group
Harnen’s 2018 highlights include signing seven-time Grammy winners Lady Antebellum — an act he helped break at Capitol in 2007 — and finding new talent like Riley Green, who peaked at No. 3 on Country Airplay with first single “There Was This Girl,” and Brett Young, who notched his fourth Country Airplay No. 1 with “Here Tonight.” Recalls Harnen, “I heard Brett’s voice and said, ‘Nobody sings like him.’ ” Jones — who works across all Big Machine labels — touts the success of Florida Georgia Line, whose duet with Bebe Rexha, “Meant to Be,” spent 50 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. She also praises gains made by Thomas Rhett, Midland and Carly Pearce.
Learning From The Best: “Reba McEntire “sets the gold standard on how to be a working woman in this business. She handles everything with unwavering grace, faith and a wicked sense of humor. I constantly ask myself, ‘What would Reba do?’ ” – Jones
Senior vp promotion, BBR Music Group
Veteran promotion manager James led former college linebacker and singer-songwriter Chase Rice (who co-wrote Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 crossover hit, “Cruise”) out of a career lull with his Country Airplay No. 1 “Eyes on You” and also helped Jimmie Allen’s “Best Shot” spend three weeks atop the chart. “Talent has no racial boundaries,” says James, “and with artists like Jimmie and Kane Brown, our format’s reach expands immensely.” Now the North Carolina native is laying the groundwork for new artist Lainey Wilson, “a Louisiana girl with an attitude,” whose label debut EP, produced by Jay Joyce (Eric Church), is slated for July. “She’s fun, she’s funny, and she can write,” says James.
Time Management Tip: “In Sam Walton’s book [Made in America: My Story], he said never put more than 10 items on your to-do list per day.”
GORDON KERR, 52
President/CEO, Black River Entertainment
Kerr measures success by more than the numbers, citing his biggest 2018 accomplishment as “helping our artists, our writers and our staff realize their dreams.” However, Black River Entertainment — which in addition to its namesake label includes Black River Christian, Black River Americana and Black River Publishing, as well as a management company and recording studios — has racked up some impressive achievements over the last 12 months. Kelsea Ballerini notched her fourth Country Airplay chart-topper with “Legends,” For King & Country landed its fifth No. 1 on Christian Airplay with “God Only Knows,” and Christian artist Hannah Kerr (the CEO’s 22-year-old daughter) scored a top 30 hit on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart.
One Business Nashville Still Needs: “Tim Hortons. I am a sucker for their Timbits.”
BEN KLINE, 50
Executive vp/gm, Warner Music Nashville
CRIS LACY, 46
Executive vp A&R, Warner Music Nashville
KRISTEN WILLIAMS, 39
Senior vp radio and streaming, Warner Music Nashville
Lacy says Dan + Shay had “everything to do” with Warner’s 2018 success, as Williams helped the Grammy-winning duo’s piano ballad “Tequila” land atop both Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs, pushing the act to over 2 billion career on-demand streams. Those numbers not only led to Dan + Shay breaking on pop radio, with “Tequila” peaking at No. 18 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart, but also boosted its follow-up Country Airplay No. 1, “Speechless,” to No. 24 on the Hot 100. The pair helped Warner Nashville double its global revenue to seven figures in two years. Says Kline: “If we had a foot in the door, we broke it down in 2018.”
Learning From Blake Shelton: “It doesn’t matter how big a superstar, the business is constantly evolving and you have to change with it. I get texts from him all the time: ‘What does ‘consumption’ mean?’ ” – Kline
Executive vp, BBR Music Group
Jason Aldean’s Rearview Town, which was Billboard’s best-selling independent album of 2018, and rising artist Jimmie Allen’s Country Airplay No. 1 “Best Shot,” drove BBR Music Group to the top spot on the year-end 2018 independent labels chart. Successes from Dustin Lynch, LOCASH and Runaway June propelled the label in early 2019. “When we started in 2001, there were so many things our competitors said could never happen within the walls of an independent: sales, dreams, radio airplay, major press, TV appearances, award nominations, touring,” says Loba about BBR Music Group, which BMG acquired in 2017. “But we’ve knocked them all down.”
DAVID MACIAS, 54
Owner/president, Thirty Tigers
“We’re up 9.6% [in revenue] from 2017 to 2018,” says Macias about his 17-year-old label. The Grammy-winning producer is particularly proud of helping triple John Prine’s first-week album sales with his 2018 LP, The Tree of Forgiveness, over Prine’s previous effort. Also noteworthy is the success American Idol alum Scotty McCreery has achieved at country radio through Triple Tigers Records — a partnership that Thirty Tigers, Triple 8 Management and Sony formed in 2016. He says of McCreery’s hit album Seasons Change: “This is a new chapter, and it couldn’t be off to a better start.”
Country Music Story Of The Year: “Kacey Musgraves. [Her success] should give everyone courage to take more chances on great music.”
ROYCE RISSER, 48
Executive vp promotion, Universal Music Group Nashville
BRIAN WRIGHT, 46
Executive vp A&R, Universal Music Group Nashville
In a year that included major successes for Keith Urban, Chris Stapleton and Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves’ ascension was the primary highlight for the two executives. A young Musgraves sang her debut single, “Merry Go ’Round,” before country radio programmers in 2012, so to watch her win the album of the year Grammy seven years later feels like an especially hard-fought victory. “It was really cool to see her get that recognition,” says Risser.
Last Concert Attented For Fun: “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in 2017.” – Wright
KEN ROBOLD, 54
Executive vp/COO, Sony Music Nashville
JIM CATINO, 47
Executive vp A&R, Sony Music Nashville
STEVE HODGES, 54
Executive vp promotion and artist development, Sony Music Nashville
During the past year, this power trio collected big returns on a hat trick of wins: Maren Morris’ GIRL notched the largest debut-week streaming sum for a country album by a female artist, with 24 million on-demand audio streams; Kane Brown netted his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with second LP Experiment; Luke Combs’ This One’s for You has spent 35 weeks (and counting) at No. 1 on Top Country Albums, the first LP by a solo male to achieve that feat since Garth Brooks’ No Fences in 1990. Hodges calls Combs’ durable hit “Beautiful Crazy,” which spent 11 weeks atop Hot Country Songs, “a phenomenon of its own.”
Closing The Gender Gap: “At Sony, we take pride that we don’t shy away from signing females because there is an issue getting country [airplay]. If an artist is unique and compelling, we will sign them.” – Robold
NARVEL BLACKSTOCK, 62
CEO, Starstruck Entertainment
Blackstock’s 31-year-old firm continued to grow the brands of Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson — the CEO’s daughter-in-law — beyond their singing bases. Shelton’s Ole Red clubs expanded into Gatlinburg, Tenn., and new series The Kelly Clarkson Show will hit daytime TV this fall. Both clients are also coaches on NBC’s The Voice, which makes them “advocates for not only their music, but the music industry as a whole,” says Blackstock.
On Deck: Developing talent Maggie Rose, who already has netted over 21.6 million on-demand U.S. streams, made her national TV debut on NBC’s Today in March.
Founder/CEO, Borman Entertainment
After landing his sixth No. 1 on Top Country Albums in May 2018 with ninth studio set Graffiti U, client Keith Urban grossed $47.9 million on his Graffiti U world tour from 72 dates. His success co-headlining five C2C: Country to Country dates throughout Europe led Borman to prioritize an international plan for his Australian superstar. Plus, the 2018 Country Music Association Awards and the 2019 Academy of Country Music Awards both named Urban entertainer of the year.
And The Walls Came Down: “One can no longer define an artist or their music simply by genre or country of origin. The walls of genre and nationality that keep music contained and segmented are continuing to dissolve from the impact of streaming and social media.”
VIRGINIA BUNETTA, 38
Managing partner, G-Major Management
As if Thomas Rhett — whose new album Center Point Road drops May 31 — taking the male artist trophy at the 2019 Academy of Country Music Awards wasn’t enough, Bunetta (neé Davis) hit a personal high note this past year, welcoming a daughter with her husband, songwriter-producer Julian Bunetta, on the October night that Rhett played the Los Angeles Forum. “I started working with Thomas when he was a songwriter at Lipscomb University, when he was 19 or 20,” says the West Virginia native. “To deliver my baby on the night of this very big show for us was very surreal.”
Time Management Tip: “I list my top priorities on a yellow legal pad every night for the next day, so I start there first thing instead of my email.”
CORAN CAPSHAW, 61
Founder, Red Light Management
MARY HILLIARD HARRINGTON, 42
Senior manager, Red Light Management
JANET WEIR, 44
Manager, Red Light Management; owner, 42 Ent
VAN HAZE, 41
Manager, Red Light Management
Capshaw works directly with Chris Stapleton, who has steadily grown into one of country’s top touring draws: grossing $38 million from 45 shows in 2018. Weir helped Maren Morris shatter a streaming record with GIRL: Its tracks racked up 24 million on-demand streams in its premiere frame, the largest debut-week tally for a country album by a female artist. Haze guided budding star Brett Young to his first No. 1 on Top Country Albums with Ticket to L.A. and his fourth Country Airplay chart-topper with “Here Tonight.”
BOB DOYLE, 71
Owner/president, Major Bob Music/Bob Doyle & Associates
Longtime client Garth Brooks, who Doyle co-manages with Randy Bernard, hinted at things to come when, in October, he played the first concert held at Notre Dame Stadium. CBS’ subsequent concert special, Garth: Live at Notre Dame!, drew 14 million total viewers. Brooks, whom iHeartRadio Awards presented with the inaugural artist of the decade award in March, kicked off a three-year stadium tour in earnest that same month, with nine so-far announced shows selling more than 600,000 tickets. In another first, Brooks will release his music on vinyl with a new box set, Legacy.
MARTHA EARLS, 41
Owner, EFG Management
Kane Brown’s sophomore album, Experiment, bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in November, one of only three country albums to reach the chart’s top slot in 2018. It was a high note for manager Earls, who says, “Within that album, there’s some heavy music: One song called ‘American Bad Dream’ is very timely, topical and important.” She adds that Experiment “contains some music and messaging that maybe is a little progressive for the format that makes people a little uncomfortable. But we’re talking about it. And conversation leads to change.”
Country Music Story Of The Year: “I’ve worked in the Nashville music industry for over 20 years, and there was always a stigma about artists if they had a hit outside the country genre. For the first time, artists are able to walk back and forth between genres — like ‘Meant to Be,’ from Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha. Was it a pop song? Was it a country song? Or was it both? It doesn’t matter.”
Owner, The HQ
Edelblute steered Carrie Underwood, whom she has managed since the singer’s American Idol days, through another spectacular year: September’s Cry Pretty was the performer’s fourth Billboard 200 No. 1, the biggest all-genre debut by a female in 2018 and the top-selling new country album of last year. In November, Underwood was named female vocalist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards, which she and Brad Paisley co-hosted for the 11th time.
KERRI PAULEY EDWARDS, 47
President, KP Entertainment
Edwards guided Luke Bryan to another stellar year, including a tour that grossed more than $67 million in 2018 and hit 11 stadiums. “I don’t think I ever dreamed we would be in the position to do that many [stadiums],” the Lipscomb University alum says about her client of 15 years. “I almost have to pinch myself.” She also manages Cole Swindell, whose third studio release, All of It, stormed onto Top Country Albums at No. 1 in September, the first time he had reached the chart’s peak.
Country Strong: “I’ve had people outside of country say, ‘There doesn’t seem to be [another] community like you guys have.’ That’s a big flag for us to wave. I’m competitive with the best, but don’t talk badly about Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean.”
CHRIS KAPPY, 46
Founder, Make Wake Artists
LYNN OLIVER-CLINE, 45
Founder, River House Artists
In early 2016, longtime friends Chris Kappy, 46, and Lynn Oliver-Cline, 45, plotted Luke Combs’ career from a $250-a-month windowless room above a dentist’s office on Nashville’s Donelson Pike. “We had both of our desks and a small love seat,” remembers Kappy, who had recently quit his job at Atlanta-based music-cruise producer Sixthman and moved to Music City to manage the singer-songwriter full time. “Luke would come in, lay on it and shoot the shit.”
Now more than 2.7 billion on-demand U.S. streams (according to Nielsen Music), three years and one everyman megastar later, the executive collaborators have parlayed their glorified storage space into the purchase of a 10,000-square-foot building on Nashville’s west side. But this doesn’t mean they’ve gotten fancy. “We still go to Taco Bell,” says Oliver-Cline.
The Origin Story
Oliver-Cline: Kappy and I have known each other for 23 years. When he moved to Nashville in 2015, he said, “Can I come play you some music? I’m going to do the management thing with a guy named Luke Combs.” When he played [his music] for me, I said, “Hmmm, I think you actually have something here.”
Kappy: It was just Luke and the band, four other guys. He booked all his own shows and didn’t know what a real manager did. It was a three-month-long courting process — he met with other managers, too. I told him, ‘I know what a passionate fan base wants. If you can handle everything from the stage, I will handle everything from the stage to the doors.’ I don’t know what I said [right], but he decided to go with me. So I quit Sixthman, jumped into the van and started driving.
Striking a Balance
Oliver-Cline: I signed Luke to a record deal, but eventually Kappy and I decided to partner on the management side. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, worn a bunch of different hats and also have a publishing company. Kappy works his magic on the touring piece and fan engagement. I don’t ever confirm a show, and he doesn’t come up with a record-release date. It works.
Lessons From Pearl Jam
Oliver-Cline: Kappy and I had the opportunity to tour the Pearl Jam space in Seattle last December. They have everything in-house: a place for their tech people, the road crew, their gear, the merchandise. We wanted to model it after what they do — it creates a culture.
Celebrating Team Combs-Style
Kappy: Going out for a big steak dinner and popping bottles isn’t who we are. Just some La Croix [and] bean burritos, and we’re happy people.
Oliver-Cline: We go fishing a lot to celebrate — pier fishing, fly fishing, boat fishing.
Kappy: [We’re] a little different than a regular client/manager relationship. We spend holidays together. We vacation together. We’re really into the personal side.
MARION KRAFT, 54
CEO, ShopKeeper Management
MARY HILLIARD HARRINGTON, 42
Senior Manager, Red Light Management
Mary Hilliard Harrington, 42, and Marion Kraft, 54, met in 2005 while Harrington was doing publicity for a not-yet-famous Miranda Lambert and Kraft served as the singer’s manager. Nearly 15 years later, Lambert, whom Kraft still manages, is a full-fledged superstar, and Harrington now manages some big names of her own, including Dierks Bentley, Elle King and LANCO. But what hasn’t changed in the intervening time is their connection and their dedication to making the path for artists smoother. In 2018, the friends helped create the CMA KixStart artist scholarship program, which aims to help rising acts get ahead in the industry.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it by myself,” says Kraft at her Nashville home, with Harrington seated beside her on the couch. “I needed a great partner.” Together they’re also on a mission to rectify the lack of women on country radio and in writing rooms. Harrington represents Caylee Hammack, whom CMT named a 2019 Next Women of Country class member, and Kraft’s client list is an all-female cadre of powerful women: Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies and Tenille Townes.
Going Beyond Gender: “For a lot of years, as this diversity conversation was happening, I didn’t feel like I was a “good female” because I wasn’t signing girls. But the reason was that no one had walked in my office that just floored me. When I saw [Hammack], I was just like, “Let’s go do it!” I want people to love her because she’s an amazing artist and not because she’s female. She is incredibly special beyond her gender.” – Harrington
The Importance Of Long-Term Commitment To Artists: “When Miranda came into the format, [we had] the support of record labels and TV executives saying, “We’re in on this; we’re going to give it years.” And it took years. She had her first single in 2004 but her first No. 1 in 2010. If we had people that only believed for six weeks or a year or even two, she would not be an artist today. We need to remember that careers are not built overnight.” – Kraft
How To Get More Women On The Airwaves: “It’s going to take a lot of people not just talking about it but actually doing something. We hear a lot about [lack of] familiarity being the problem at country radio or streaming. How can [listeners] have familiarity [with female artists] if you’re not even adding them?” – Harrington
Keeping it Competitive: “For Miranda to have won [the Academy of Country Music award for] female vocalist of the year for nine years in a row — that’s ridiculous. How haven’t we, as an industry, been able to build female [artists] that can compete with that? Thank God somebody else won this year. We celebrated. It’s time.” – Kraft
DALE MORRIS, 82 // CLINT HIGHAM, 47
Partners, Morris Higham Management
As Morris celebrates 50 years in the music business, marquee client Kenny Chesney played his 200th stadium show while on his Trip Around the Sun Tour. The outing grossed over $114 million from 42 shows with 1.3 million tickets sold, making Chesney the only country act to land on the top 10 overall tours list last year (No. 9). Breakthrough talent Old Dominion reached 1.4 billion U.S. streams and won group of the year at the 2019 Academy of Country Music Awards for the second straight year, while Morris Higham also added Carly Pearce and Brantley Gilbert to its roster.
Life Lessons From Chesney: “Kenny told me once: ‘Too much chocolate cake can make anyone sick.’ He knows how to balance his celebrity with his private life.” – Higham
JASON OWEN, 42
President/CEO, Sandbox Entertainment; Co-president, Monument Records
Owen’s artists Kacey Musgraves and Dan + Shay (whom he co-manages with Scooter Braun) ruled the 2019 Grammys, scoring trophies in every category for which they were nominated. Musgraves’ album of the year winner, Golden Hour, returned to No. 1 on Top Country Albums and No. 9 on the Billboard 200 post-Grammys, a notable feat given its scant country radio play. “[Country] listeners before relied so heavily on country radio, and that’s just not the case with streaming,” says Owen, who also manages Kelsea Ballerini, Little Big Town and Faith Hill. “The fan is listening to Ariana Grande, then Dan + Shay the next song, then Khalid. Music has become genreless.”
Last Concert Not For Work: “Cher, with Scott and Sandi Borchetta. We turned back time.”
JOHN PEETS, 51
Founder, Q Prime South
Top client Eric Church has grossed $46.4 million from 34 shows on his ongoing Double Down Tour and set an attendance record at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium on May 25. “He’s doing this with [only] seven No. 1 [Country] Airplay hits,” says Peets about the Desperate Man singer. The Ohio native — who also manages Brothers Osborne and fellow Ohio-to-Nashville transplants The Black Keys — has also seen the Academy of Country Music’s 2019 new female artist winner, Ashley McBryde, expand from 300- to 2,000-seat venues in the United Kingdom and move her September Nashville show from its original 500-seat club to a 1,600-capacity venue.
Going Global: “International has been our single greatest area of growth.”
SCOTT SIMAN, 64
Siman’s sole client, Tim McGraw, performed at the Super Bowl’s pregame tailgate party and personally had a hand in bringing the 2019 NFL Draft to Music City. In January, the megastar opened his first gym, Nashville’s TruMav Fitness. He also will publish two books — Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham on June 11, and the health- and fitness-focused Grit and Grace on Nov. 5. In store for 2020 is McGraw’s new album and tour. “I’m always impressed with his ability to analyze a situation and find a course of action,” says Siman. “Given good information, he’s able to help chart a path that reflects who he is as an artist, often with an angle I missed or minimized.”
Nashville Landmark He Misses Most: “The old Music Row, with its vast array of alleys, basements and backdoors — where anything and everything was possible.”
CLARENCE SPALDING, 62
Spalding’s suggestion that Brooks & Dunn rerecord their classics with a new generation of country acts, including Luke Combs, Kacey Musgraves and Kane Brown, resulted in April’s Reboot, which landed the duo its first Top Country Albums No. 1 in 10 years. “Artists came in with such a respect for the songs and Kix and Ronnie, but also wanted to leave their mark on it,” says Spalding. Also in April: Client Jason Aldean received the ACM Dick Clark Artist of the Decade award. Spalding also masterminded this summer’s 25th-anniversary tour of Hootie & The Blowfish’s debut, Cracked Rear View, and now manages the reunited band in an expansion of his role with frontman Darius Rucker. The Kentucky native is working on a return to TV for Reba McEntire and Rascal Flatts’ 20th anniversary, which he promises will include “new music, a new tour and some TV opportunities.”
TV Character He Relates To Most: “Lassie. Feels like I’m always running around trying to save someone’s ass.”
KERRY O’NEIL, 66
Co-owner, Big Yellow Dog Music; Co-owner, O’Neil Hagaman
Co-owner/CEO, Big Yellow Dog Music
When producer-songwriter Daniel Tashian won an album of the year Grammy for his production work on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, it was a watershed moment for Big Yellow Dog, which handles publishing and artist development. “White doves should [have been] released,” jokes Wallace of seeing Tashian, who also co-wrote seven songs on the set, take the stage. The 20-year-old firm had a strong 12 months with the runaway success of Maren Morris’ GIRL and the emergence of Tenille Townes, whose “Somebody’s Daughter” hit No. 26 on Country Airplay.
Lesson From An Artist: “Tenille Townes treats everyone she meets with respect, gratitude and pure happiness.” – Wallace
CRAIG WISEMAN, 55
Owner, Big Loud
SETH ENGLAND, 33
Partner, Big Loud
CLAY HUNNICUTT, 51
President, Big Loud Records
Big Loud’s management arm, in partnership with Maverick, toasted a whopping 50 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs with the Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha smash “Meant to Be” and scored a No. 1 on the chart with Morgan Wallen’s “Whiskey Glasses,” which also landed the management and label client a second Country Airplay top five in May, following the No. 1 “Up Down.” “If you look at the [genre’s current] impact, it’s leading presence is undeniable,” says Hunnicutt. In its fourth year of operation, Big Loud’s label division also boasted strong showings for Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” which crowned Country Airplay in August, and 12-year-old viral Walmart yodeler Mason Ramsey. “College kids are rabid about Mason,” says England. “He sold 1,700 tickets at Baylor [University’s Waco Hall] in March with only six songs online.”
Nashville Landmark Most Missed: “The Midtown Noshville Delicatessen [which closed in 2015]. A lot of hangover breakfasts in that place.” – England
LOUIS MESSINA, 71
CEO, Messina Touring Group
Messina ended 2018 with the year’s highest-grossing country trek, Kenny Chesney’s Trip Around the Sun Tour, which contributed $114.3 million to the promoter’s $680 million worth of overall ticket sales, alongside outings by Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw and others. That’s a tough act to beat for 2019, but with tours from Chesney and Shelton planned and record-attendance shows from George Strait in Atlanta and Houston already in the books — along with more stadium and Las Vegas arena dates for the King of Country sprinkled throughout the year — the industry veteran may have a chance. He also promotes Eric Church’s ongoing Double Down Tour that includes two-night runs in 25 cities. “No two evenings are the same,” says Messina, who received the CMA Touring Lifetime Achievement Award in January. “Eric is like me. He’s a dreamer.”
Movie Character He Most Relates To: “Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny from Unforgiven. He’s an old outlaw trying to teach the youngster frontier life.”
BRIAN O’CONNELL, 53
President of country music touring, U.S. concerts division, Live Nation
The BOC, as he’s known to friends, is country’s ultimate road warrior, clocking roughly 46 weeks of travel in 2018 and promoting 12 headlining tours and 600 shows, including Luke Bryan’s $68 million What Makes You Country tour. He also promoted tours for artists including Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean, and festivals like Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks in Buena Vista, Colo., which averaged 10,000 fans a day in its first year. O’Connell thinks festivals are his best artist discovery and development tool: “Eight years ago we had Thomas Rhett play Watershed Festival three times in a day, and he just opened his arena tour in Montreal. We always find the right lane for our artists.”
Artists Are People, Too: “When you’re routing a tour, you’re not just filling in blanks on paper. You’re going, ‘OK, the [artist’s] kids go back to school this week, and we’ve been on [the road] five weeks, so maybe take a weekend off here for family time.’ ”
SALLY WILLIAMS, 47
Senior vp programming and artist relations, Opry Entertainment; GM, Grand Ole Opry
Kelsea Ballerini’s April induction into the Grand Ole Opry marked the first time a contemporary female artist joined the Nashville institution in 11 years, since Carrie Underwood in 2008. “The Opry is firing on all cylinders right now,” says Williams, who has held the GM role for two years, noting the theater’s 222 shows in 2018 and 225 scheduled for this year. Under the Missouri native’s direction, Opry Entertainment also has launched crossover initiatives like Opry NextStage, a yearlong collaboration with rising country artists Riley Green, Tegan Marie, Tenille Townes and Travis Denning; staged the first USO-Opry show in April in Dayton, Ohio; and booked 200 ticketed concerts in 2019 at the Ryman Auditorium, including a two-hour concert in March held in conjunction with Ken Burns’ upcoming PBS documentary, Country Music.
Nashville Traffic Tip: “I take 6 a.m. YMCA classes. The traffic signals are in flashing mode, there aren’t many cars yet.”
Vp festival booking, Goldenvoice; vp artist relations, Messina Touring Group
As curator and producer of Stagecoach, Stacy Vee has been an integral part of Coachella’s sister event since its 2007 launch. After starting as an assistant and later ascending to talent buyer in 2015, the Minnesota native helped the world’s biggest country music festival set an attendance record of 80,000 in April.
A self-identified “type A personality,” who has already confirmed performers for the Indio, Calif., festival in 2020, Vee speaks animatedly about artists she has watched grow up with Stagecoach. Luke Bryan went from “one of our baby acts, years ago” to third-time headliner this year. Florida Georgia Line, the genre-defying trailblazers, leapfrogged from afternoon support in 2013 to top billing in 2014. Sam Hunt, who first played the festival in 2016, closed out this year’s Saturday night.
A lifelong music fan with her first cassette cover (Tina Turner’s Private Dancer) framed in her Los Angeles office, Vee is understandably more subdued when discussing the blowback she faced this year for Stagecoach’s heavily male lineup: Only two of the 10 top-billed acts were women (Cam and Lauren Alaina), with headliners Bryan, Hunt and Jason Aldean. The criticism “was tough to read,” she says, especially since her team leaders are all women and the weekend’s overall lineup “had more females than ever.” But Vee — who in May added vp artist relations for Messina Touring Group to her duties — says she’s aiming for gender parity on the festival’s Mane Stage in the next few years: “I’m going to do everything in my power to make that a reality.”
The Lineup Lowdown: “I talk to people like [Messina Touring Group’s] Louis Messina and [AEG Presents’] Adam Weiser, but it’s ultimately my decision. I work really far out, know when artists have new music coming out and when they plan to tour. There isn’t an algorithm; it’s a gut feeling.”
How Diplo And Tom Jones Ended Up At Stagecoach: “I like to throw curve balls at people. Tom Jones came to Stagecoach [in 2017] to watch Jerry Lee Lewis and I thought, ‘That would be fun.’ We booked Diplo this year to play our [Palomino Stage] afterparty: His managers came out in 2018, all three days, dressed head-to-toe in Boot Barn gear and pitched the idea, so I gave him a shot.”
Country’s Genre-Blurring Crossover: “If you listen to what [Stagecoach] artists play before their sets, you’ll hear hip-hop, electronic. A song like ‘Old Town Road’ has allowed Lil Nas X [whose surprise duet with Billy Ray Cyrus closed Diplo’s set] to create his own path. We totally embrace that, and our patrons do too.”
Country Music Story of the Year: “Kacey Musgraves. She’s tearing down barriers, sticking to her guns, having her own sound and standing up for what she believes in. She had a goal and she did it.”
Dream Headliner: “Dolly Parton. We’ll get her one day.”
SCOTT CLAYTON, 53 // JOEY LEE, 50 // JAY WILLIAMS, 46
Co-heads/partners, WME’s Nashville Offices
GREG OSWALD, 62
In the past year, WME’s Nashville team booked over 14,000 shows, including headlining arena tours for superstars Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church. Globally, the Music City office secured more than 400 concerts in 31 countries, helping Ashley McBryde parlay a side-stage slot at the 2018 C2C: Country to Country festival into several headlining shows throughout Europe. “Country artists are thinking about a worldwide plan now, and that wasn’t in the cards five or six years ago,” says Williams. Among the 2019 additions to WME’s Nashville roster is touring powerhouse Zac Brown Band.
Lessons From Bocephus: “Hank Williams Jr. has been my client for nearly 30 years. The first year, I learned the hard way: ‘Don’t think you know the answer when you are talking to your artist.’ Thirty years later, I’m reminded not to jump to conclusions.” – Oswald
MARC DENNIS, 48 // DARIN MURPHY, 52
Co-heads, Creative Artists Agency Music Nashville
ROD ESSIG, 70 // JOHN HUIE, 63
Founders, Creative Artists Agency Music Nashville
In 2018, Dennis’ longtime client Shania Twain embarked on an 87-date, four-continent tour that grossed nearly $70 million, according to CAA. New York transplant and Academy of Country Music chairman Murphy worked with Keith Urban on his Graffiti U world tour, which grossed $47.9 million globally from 72 shows in 2018-19. Essig helped bring the high-profile 2019 NFL Draft to Nashville in April, booking Tim McGraw as the main headliner. CAA Music Nashville co-founder Huie handled Kelsea Ballerini’s 14-date arena tour, her largest to date.
International Strategy: “You have to have a [long-term] plan. You can’t just go have a moment at a festival like C2C [Country to Country] and then disappear.” – Dennis
JONATHAN LEVINE, 57
Music Executive Leadership Group, Paradigm Talent Agency
MIKE BETTERTON, 47 // LENORE KINDER, 39
Agents, Paradigm Talent Agency
For Paradigm Talent Agency’s Nashville office, it has been a game-changing 18 months. In February 2018, company veteran Jonathan Levine, 57, signed Kacey Musgraves a month before the release of her Grammy-winning album of the year, Golden Hour. That April, Lenore Kinder — who’d heard an advance of the record and “told my wife it was going to change my life” — left AEG Presents, where the 39-year-old had promoted concerts for a decade (including Musgraves’), to become one of her agents at Paradigm.
Then, in November, Paradigm acquired Dale Morris & Associates, the in-house touring division of Morris Higham Management, a move that brought Mike Betterton, 47, and agent Nate Ritches into the firm’s Nashville office. Even more impressively, the deal added fast-rising act Old Dominion and live powerhouse Kenny Chesney, whose $114 million-grossing Trip Around the Sun outing was the top country tour of 2018, to the agency’s flourishing roster.
Nabbing a country superstar like Chesney was a major coup, but Levine’s early investment in Americana artists such as Tyler Childers, recent best new artist Grammy nominee Margo Price and Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson had already raised the agency’s Nashville profile. Levine’s team now handles private bookings and fairs for George Strait and Blake Shelton, and, in late 2018, quietly landed the estate of Johnny Cash, which it oversees in conjunction with Sandbox Management.
Managing The Man In Black’s Legacy: “In the 16 years since Johnny [Cash has] passed, the family and the estate have done nothing to compromise the magnitude of his music’s impact. Our job is to make sure generations to come are provided opportunities to learn, enjoy and discover [Cash’s] incomparable body of work.” – Levine
On Kacey’s Success
Levine: “This lightning in a bottle that Kacey has managed to capture did not catch any of us off guard. The plans, the foundation, the vision came from the top down, starting with Kacey.”
Kinder: “I grew up on The Judds and Dixie Chicks. I yearn for female performers like that now. If radio’s not going to support them, we have to rally our wagons from a live perspective and help women [artists] develop their careers so there are female headliners. It’s helpful to see statistics about lack of representation, but you’ve also got to roll up your fucking sleeves and start doing the work.”
Kenny’s Know-How: “In an interview Kenny Chesney did with The New York Times [in 2011], he said, ‘There’s [an] idea that somebody’s job could be more important than somebody else’s, and to me, that’s not true.’ If Kenny didn’t consider his job more important than anyone else’s, then why should I? It takes all of us to make this work.” – Betterton
Vp country formats, Cumulus Media; operations manager, Cumulus Nashville; program director, WSM-FM (NASH Icon) Nashville
JOHN SHOMBY, 68
Director of programming, NASH Network, Cumulus Media; program director, WKDF-FM (NASH-FM 103.3)
The battle for supremacy among Nashville’s country FM stations has largely been a three-way race during the last few years, with Cumulus’ WSM and WKDF exchanging the lead with iHeartRadio’s WSIX. “We’ve been concentrating on WKDF,” says Cook. The strategy has worked. In April, WKDF took first place with a 6.3 share of listeners 6 years and older, while WSIX and WSM took second and third, respectively. Cook says that WSM, which broadcasts the Nash Icon format of hits from the 1990s and 2000s, has really clicked with young women 18-24.
Country Music Story Of The Year: “The loss of audience on country radio. The ratings are falling year to year.” – Cook
Senior vp Music Strategy and Talent, CMT
The Oct. 17 telecast of CMT’s 2018 Artists of the Year special, featuring an all-female roster with Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Kelsea Ballerini, was the most-watched in the nine-year history of the franchise. “It was the right thing to do, and the timing was perfect,” says Fram, who adds that Little Big Town member Karen Fairchild’s acceptance speech — in which she name-checked over 30 rising women acts — amplified the good vibes when it went viral. “[Women] in the community felt like it gave them a voice,” says Fram. In November, CMT’s Artist Discovery initiative helped 12 independent artists make demos under the guidance of industry vets including Grammy-winning songwriter Liz Rose and A&R executive Tracy Gershon.
Actor She Most Relates To: “Sandra Bullock. She is unpredictable but always ‘real.’ ”
PHIL GUERINI, 55
Vp music strategy, Disney Channels Worldwide; worldwide gm, Radio Disney Network
During the past six months, 3-year-old Radio Disney Country — which tallies 12 million to 15 million monthly users — has rolled out “Let the Girls Play,” a strategy that targets women ages 17-24 by focusing on female artists. One of the San Diego native’s goals is to create more slots for female voices through the upcoming inaugural Radio Disney Country festival. “Hopefully, we have created a bit of inspiration for [women artists] to perform in what is a male-dominated marketplace,” he says.
Time Management Tip: “Define your balance and commit to it.”
ROD PHILLIPS, 50
Executive vp country programming strategy, iHeartMedia
BOBBY BONES, 39
Host, The Bobby Bones Show; vp/creative director, iHeartCountry
GATOR HARRISON, 47
Senior vp programming, Nashville, iHeartMedia; brand coordinator, iHeartCountry
According to iHeartRadio, ratings for 70% of its 150-plus country stations increased from 2017 to 2018, reeling in an average of 111 million monthly listeners at a time when terrestrial country radio’s audience is shrinking. IHeart’s Nashville stations, which Harrison oversees, have performed particularly well, especially WSIX-FM, which consistently ranks atop the market, thanks in large part to Bones’ syndicated show. “Country music is best when it’s broad,” says Harrison of his programming philosophy. “Limiting music based on trend or style or genre is a mistake.” Phillips, meanwhile, says he hopes to build on iHeart’s country success through producing more live events.
Country Music Story Of The Year: “The long list of newcomers to the format that have had multiple singles succeed — like Luke Combs, Kane Brown, Maren Morris, Brett Young and Carly Pearce.” – Phillips
TIM ROBERTS, 58
Vp programming/country format captain, Entercom Communications; program director, WYCD/WOMC/WDZH Detroit
It has been a good year for Roberts. In January, Entercom promoted the Michigan native to country format captain to oversee the chain’s country radio stations. A few weeks later, while at Nashville’s Country Radio Seminar, Roberts learned Entercom had acquired Cumulus’ flagship WNSH, New York’s only FM country outlet, bringing the number of stations under his command to 22. “I heard the news while surrounded by thousands of people,” says Roberts, who’ll continue to handle day-to-day programming at country WYCD Detroit — where he has been program director since 2005 — as well as at Motor City adult contemporary station WDZH and classic hits WOMC.
Women Rising On Radio: “Runaway June’s ‘Buy My Own Drinks’ is doing great in Detroit.”
J.R. SCHUMANN, 37
Senior director of country music programming, SiriusXM
Although Schumann oversees all of SiriusXM’s country and Christian channels, Nashville’s music industry most closely monitors The Highway, which focuses on new music. The Lake Dallas, Texas, native says he learned his programming style at KSCS/KPLX Dallas and WWKA Orlando, Fla. “I have a finite playlist of 36 spots, which is exactly the same as when I was programming terrestrial radio,” says Schumann, who helped break Carly Pearce on The Highway. Currently, he adds, “12 of those slots are being held down by women, and that doesn’t include specialty new music shows.”
BEVILLE DUNKERLEY, 44
Head of country music, Pandora
Dunkerley, who has overseen live events with artists like Jason Aldean and Carly Pearce, says Pandora has over 20 million engaged country listeners, and the internet radio platform’s No. 2 station overall is Today’s Country. “We’ve always been giant in country music, but there’s still a lot of room to grow creatively,” says the Vanderbilt University alum, who sees SiriusXM’s recent $3.5 billion acquisition of Pandora as a key partnership that will help expand country’s reach. In November, the Academy of Country Music elected Dunkerley to its board of directors.
More Tomatoes In This Radio Salad, Please: “I have to look up at my screen about once a day to check the artist’s name on male-voiced country songs — so many guys sound alike. But I’d know Lauren Alaina or Maren Morris from the first word.”
JAY LIEPIS, 45
Global head of country, Apple Music
As the streaming titan readies its new Nashville location in an old sock factory in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, Liepis keeps nurturing Apple Music’s local investment in country, a genre that’s up 55% worldwide among the service’s 56 million paid subscribers. Kane Brown’s Experiment was a 2018 highlight, with a Sony and EFG Management collaboration that included producing an Apple Music Presents short film about the Billboard 200 chart-topper. The rollout brought results: Liepis says Experiment logged Apple Music’s most streams for a 2018 country album in its first 24 hours.
Most Unwelcome Change To Nashville: ”All the scooters, pedal taverns and other ridiculous transportation/party options downtown has to offer.”
Head of country, Spotify
Head of artist and label marketing, Nashville, Spotify
Last summer, to promote its Hot Country brand, Spotify commissioned crop-circle artist Stan Herd to create portraits of Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini and Luke Bryan in fields near Lawrence, Tenn. Spotify’s Hot Country, which Marks helms, is the service’s third-most-popular genre playlist in the world, according to the company, reaching over 5.3 million followers. But the crop-circle stunt was a clear signal that the streaming powerhouse — which closed the first quarter of 2019 with 217 million monthly users — was serious about growing the genre. Schaffer describes the mission as “a combination of bringing in country fans who weren’t previously streaming on Spotify and working to expand to listeners who haven’t experienced country music before.”
Most Welcome Change To Nashville: “No longer having to explain to nonresidents why I choose to live here.” – Schaffer
KELLY RICH, 52
Senior label relations manager, Amazon Music
EMILY COHEN, 35
Senior music curator, Amazon Music
Amazon Music always has been strong in country, renewing its exclusive streaming and downloading deal with Garth Brooks earlier this year. And with its tens of millions of total paid subscribers, the company claims that its share of country music in its overall streaming mix is more than twice the industry average. Amazon erected billboards for Maren Morris’ second major-label album, GIRL, in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, and featured Morris in its A Voice Is All You Need ad campaign. Rich’s team also used Alexa’s new-music notification feature to alert Morris’ followers about GIRL’s March release. Rich credits all of this in contributing to GIRL’s record-breaking first week of 24 million on-demand audio streams. “What we did at Amazon as a whole, on top of her music being incredible, helped her to achieve this goal,” says Rich. Cohen’s playlist, Country Heat, which launched in April 2018, remains the service’s global country music destination.
What Other Genres Should Know About Country: “It’s a lifestyle. Fans are very loyal and appreciate artists rather than focusing on quick trends.” – Rich
RACHEL WHITNEY, 37
Country music programming lead, YouTube & Google Play
Since coming aboard YouTube Music in October from Pandora, Whitney has worked to beef up the genre’s audience at the world’s second-most-popular site. “We are seeing new country music talent across the globe, and there’s no better place to watch this phenomenon than on YouTube,” says Whitney, who works on YouTube’s country expansion alongside the Nashville-based music team of Margaret Hart and Copeland Isaacson. “It’s easier [than ever] for U.S.-based artists to develop international fan bases.”
Country Music Story Of The Year: “Three words: ‘Old. Town. Road.’ The internet will continue to be a gold mine for new subgenres and crossovers in country music that won’t need gatekeepers to generate huge hits.”
KENT EARLS, 47
Executive vp/gm, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville
Breakout songwriter Chase McGill co-penned two Country Airplay No. 1s (Luke Bryan’s “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” and Kane Brown’s “Lose It”) and two Grammy nominees for best country song (Cole Swindell’s “Break Up in the End” and Little Big Town’s “When Someone Stops Loving You”). “We call him a ‘redneck poet,’ ” says Earls, who’s also excited about Ingrid Andress, Caylee Hammack and Rachel Wammack, three rising female singer-songwriters. “They all have a unique voice that I can’t wait for the rest of the world to hear,” says Earls.
Most missed Nashville landmark: “My great-great-grandparents’ tavern [Albin’s Hall] at Fourth Avenue and Ash Street.
BETH LAIRD, 37
Co-founder/CEO, Creative Nation
Laird’s business partner and husband, Luke Laird, took home a Grammy this year for co-writing Kacey Musgraves’ best country song winner “Space Cowboy.” “We have been a part of Kacey’s career since the very beginning,” says Laird, who was a writers’ rep at BMI when she met Musgraves and introduced her to Luke. The Lairds have since grown their family and company, with two sons and two office bungalows on Music Row. “When we started [in November 2011], it was just three of us: me, Luke and [songwriter] Barry Dean,” says Laird. Now Creative Nation represents nine songwriters, including “Girl Crush” co-author Lori McKenna and Tyler Johnson, who has collaborated with Harry Styles, Cam and Sam Smith.
Last Concert Not For Work: “Justin Timberlake.”
TROY TOMLINSON, 55
President/CEO, Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville
Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart recently illuminated the strength of Sony/ATV’s roster: LANCO followed its 2017 No. 1 “Greatest Love Story” with the top 20 hit “Born to Love You,” while singer-songwriters Mitchell Tenpenny and Jimmie Allen broke into the top 10 with “Drunk Me” and “Best Shot,” respectively. “We really got our A&R team exactly where it needs to be,” says Tomlinson, adding that several of his developing writer-artists have secured record deals, including Lainey Wilson (Broken Bow), Jon Langston (Universal Music Group Nashville), Noah Schnacky (Big Machine) and Sony Nashville signees Hannah Dasher and The Sisterhood Band.
TV Character He Most Relates To: “Walter White from Breaking Bad. No, I don’t make meth… yet. But Walter is a conflicted soul, just trying to provide for his family.”
BEN VAUGHN, 43
President/CEO, Warner Chappell Music Nashville
After Warner Chappell won publisher of the year at the ASCAP Country Music Awards last November for the sixth consecutive year and its Warner-Tamerlane nabbed the BMI equivalent the next night, Vaughn received his CEO stripes in January, an acknowledgment of his A&R acumen that’s resulted in successes like Midland, Riley Green and Dan + Shay, whom Vaughn signed in 2013. The pair’s No. 1 Country Airplay hits “Speechless” and “Tequila” crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 (Nos. 24 and 21, respectively). “Country writers are getting success in all kinds of worlds,” says the Belmont University alumnus, citing an Adult Top 40 No. 1 for Josh Miller’s Florida Georgia Line/Bebe Rexha hit “Meant to Be” and a No. 14 song on Mainstream Top 40 (Camila Cabello’s “Consequences”) from his roster’s Nicolle Galyon, Emily Weisband and Amy Wadge.
Lesson Learned From Artists: ”Sometimes it’s best to just listen. I’m a self-admitted fixer of problems, but there are moments writers just want to vent.”
KOS WEAVER, 50
Executive vp, BMG Nashville
Home to hit songwriters Shy Carter, Hillary Lindsey, Russell Dickerson, Margo Price, Carly Pearce, Scooter Carusoe and Mark Holman, BMG maintained its No. 3 spot on Billboard’s 2018 Hot Country Songs Publishing Corporations year-end chart for the third consecutive year. “It’s all about being a proper steward of a creator’s career, both creatively and administratively,” says Weaver. He singles out Lindsey as one such creator, as her 14 Country Airplay No. 1s and multigenre work (she contributed to the A Star Is Born soundtrack) continue to set her apart. “To my mind, she’s one of the best songwriters in the world.”
Nashville Traffic Tip: “Live in town. Traffic is popular cocktail conversation, but that’s really all it is. We’re expanding, it’s all good.”
MICHAEL MARTIN, 57
Vp, ASCAP Nashville
ASCAP songwriting titan Ashley Gorley recently notched his 32nd No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, and in November, he took home the ASCAP Country Music Songwriter of the Year honor for a record sixth time. In supporting local songwriters, Martin says the PRO is helping Nashville, “as a hub of creators,” make an impact on other genres: ASCAP Christian songwriters David Garcia co-produced and co-wrote Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be,” Tommee Profitt co-wrote NF’s “Let You Down” and Jordan Reynolds co-authored Dan + Shay’s “Tequila.”
Learning From Garth: “I met Garth Brooks early in his career in Texas, and he is the same today as he was back then: the same work ethic, loyalty and generosity.”
KELLI TURNER, 48
Since relocating to Nashville from New York four years ago, Turner has grown to love country music. “I wasn’t a huge fan and hadn’t listened to it that much,” admits the University of Michigan alum, who was promoted to her position in October and counts the Country Airplay No. 1 success of SESAC songwriter Jimmie Allen among her recent professional highlights. “Now I see [country] has a broad appeal with great storytelling on real-life situations — there is a lot more to relate to than trucks and whiskey.”
Learning From Lee Brice: “Even though he is a big star, he remembers giving back is very important: He works with [military-family scholarship group] Folds of Honor.”
JODY WILLIAMS, 63
Vp creative, BMI Nashville
In March, Williams led BMI’s expansion to Austin, the organization’s first new office in 20 years. “Outside of Tennessee and California, Texas has the most BMI songwriters,” he says, explaining the necessity for a local presence. Williams, who’s also chairman of the Country Music Association’s board of directors, adds that the Texas office will serve artists who fall under the Red Dirt Country subgenre and exhaustively tour the Southwest. “We will take care of those guys too.”
Learning From Eric Church: “He chose a lane from the very beginning, stayed out of the middle of the road at every turn and is now a dominant touring act and hitmaker. There are no Eric Church knockoffs and no artists that are remotely like him.”
RUSSELL A. JONES JR., 68
Principal, Law Offices of Russell A. Jones Jr. and Associates
Longtime clients Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith rely on Jones not only for the utmost discretion, but for his savvy in brokering landmark deals — like the one for the first concert at Notre Dame Stadium, which Brooks headlined in October. December’s subsequent TV special, Garth: Live at Notre Dame!, was a ratings winner for CBS, which broadcast the performance to 14 million total viewers. “I maintain a low profile,” says “Rusty,” as most people call him. “My job is to do the work and stay quiet.”
Nashville Landmark Missed Most: “Music Row. A lot of the places that spawned fabulous music have been knocked down. But I’m an optimist — I just renewed my lease.”
JOEL KATZ, 75
Founding chairman, Global Entertainment and Media Practice; Founding shareholder, Atlanta Office; Greenberg Traurig
JESS L. ROSEN, 64
Co-chairman, Atlanta Entertainment and Media Practice; Greenberg Traurig
Rosen represents many of country’s heaviest hitters: Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, Thomas Rhett and more. But the attorney takes particular pride in client Kacey Musgraves’ big year, a culmination of working with her for over a decade. “The industry has now realized what her fans always [knew],” says Rosen, also an accomplished jazz guitarist. Chairman of the T.J. Martell Foundation and longtime counsel to Willie Nelson, George Strait, Little Big Town, Faith Hill and many more, Katz has negotiated contracts for nearly every label chief and artist manager in Nashville and recently renewed the partnership deal between Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings and Jason Owen’s Sandbox Entertainment.
Kenny Knows Best: “I’ve seen [Chesney] walk away from multimillion-dollar deals because they weren’t right. He’s a big believer in authenticity.” – Rosen
NOAH MCPIKE, 37
Of counsel, Dickinson Wright
Performers don’t just want an attorney, “they want a trusted adviser,” says McPike, who credits both his small-town upbringing in Lincoln, Maine, and Jesuit education from the College of the Holy Cross for the “open door” he extends to his clients, a roster that includes Jason Aldean, Luke Combs, Kane Brown, Billy Currington, LANCO, Jordan Davis and Parmalee. “If you need to call someone in the middle of the night — even if it’s for the millionth time, to ask me something simple like, ‘What does a tax levy mean?’ — it’s OK.”
Country Music Story Of The Year: “Jason Aldean [winning the ACM Dick Clark] Artist of the Decade award. Even if he wasn’t the client who has had the greatest impact on my career, my answer would be the same.”
Partner, Milom Horsnell Crow Kelley Beckett Shehan
The veteran attorney’s groundbreaking deals for Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Chet Atkins, Alabama and Emmylou Harris paved the way for his present-day work with stars Luke Bryan, Keith Urban and Kelsea Ballerini. The secret to the Vanderbilt School of Law alumnus’ enduring success? “I’m not a raconteur. I’m not a storyteller. I listen well. It’s never about me,” says Milom, who jokes that he may be “the only Nashville native left alive.”
Country Music Story Of The Year: “Passage of the Music Modernization Act. Most country professionals understand success is driven by songwriters who have for decades been deprived of fair compensation.”
JULIE BOOS, 49
Business Manager/Owner, FBMM
In 2018, Boos was appointed chairman of FBMM, a business management firm with a long-standing presence in Nashville. “It doubled my workload, but made it twice as fun,” says the Kansas native, who specializes in helping clients with touring. “Most country artists don’t ‘tour,’ they just work,” says Boos. “They go out year-round, Thursday to Sunday, playing shows.”
Her Lips Are Sealed: Though Boos won’t confirm, insiders say FBMM clients include Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and Vince Gill.
JEREMY HOLLEY, 41 // LAURA HUTFLESS, 37
Holley spearheaded a text-message campaign for Enterprise Rent-A-Car that paired Zac Brown’s side project, Sir Rosevelt, with Cirque du Soleil for a one-night-only show. Ten percent of the Nashville-based agency’s annual earnings goes to charity, and at the end of 2018 the company’s 15 employees were each given $10,000 to donate to the cause of their choice. Hutfless, who helmed a Super Bowl campaign for dating app Bumble, says many of the chosen charities “were music-centric, including Music Health Alliance and Musicians On Call.”
Advice To Artists Taking Political Stances: “Educate yourself on all sides of the issue, speak up with solutions, and use your music to offer hope. The world suffers not only from the violence of bad people, but the silence of good people.” – Hutfless
JENNIE SMYTHE, 42
CEO, Girlilla Marketing
The client list of Smythe’s 11-year-old digital marketing agency mixes Nashville’s powerhouses (Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn) with country’s next generation (Maddie & Tae, Rachel Wammack, Tenille Arts). But for Smythe, it has been especially fulfilling to watch stalwarts like Darius Rucker, Tracy Lawrence and Rodney Atkins apply the same enthusiasm they have for new projects to their online followings. “Social and digital marketing needs to translate on the ground,” says the Denver native. “The reality is, ‘Did people show up to the event?’ ‘Yes?’ Great.” This conversion rate bodes well for Girlilla, which also quarterbacked socials for Avengers: Endgame, now the all-time second-highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office.
Lessons From Maddie & Tae: “I’ve learned from these girls, who are much younger than me, that talent and patience wins, always.”
LOU TAYLOR, 53
Owner/CEO, Tri Star Sports and Entertainment Group
Florida Georgia Line’s smash with Bebe Rexha, “Meant to Be,” confirmed the duo’s top-tier status — and business manager Taylor has been an integral part of the act’s rise. While also working with artists like Reba McEntire and Britney Spears, she advises on the growing FGL empire, which includes a Hillsboro Village creative compound — that houses a publishing company, recording studio and community workplace — as well as FGL’s liquor line, Old Camp Whiskey, and restaurant FGL House. Representation is also key: 75 of Tri Star’s 110 employees are women.
Most Welcome Change to Nashville: “When I came here in 2002, this was a very closed-off marketplace for anybody new and female. It feels like it’s more open to people doing a great job, regardless of sex or color.”
SARAH TRAHERN, 54
CEO, Country Music Association
International growth is a huge strategic initiative, says Trahern, citing the expansion of the annual CMA Songwriter Series in London, held prior to the C2C: Country to Country festival in March, into a full-fledged fall U.K./European tour featuring rising stars Kassi Ashton, Tenille Townes, Drake White and others. The Georgetown alumna also commends CMA vp international relations and development Milly Olykan for shepherding this spring’s launch of the CMA’s inaugural Introducing Nashville tour, which took Lindsay Ell, Devin Dawson, Brandy Clark and Townes to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. “We’re investing in taking new artists overseas early in their careers to help those artists develop their international fan bases,” says Trahern. On the homefront, the 2018 CMA Music Festival brought over $61 million in direct visitor spending to Nashville.
Country Music Story Of The Year: “The PBS-produced, Ken Burns-directed documentary Country Music will roll out in September. Our staff has been working with them for a while, and it’s going to have a big impact on our business.”
TATUM HAUCK ALLSEP*
Founder/CEO, Music Health Alliance
SHELIA SHIPLEY BIDDY*
COO, Music Health Alliance
Founder Allsep considers Biddy “the yin to my chaotic yang.” The two heads of the Nashville nonprofit have secured over $40 million in health-care cost reductions and helped more than 9,700 music professionals in the organization’s six-year history. In April, MHA’s live benefit for John Berry, who was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in January, raised over $300,000 for the veteran artist and the nonprofit, featuring Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt.
*Declined to give age
Contributors: Jim Asker, Dave Brooks, Britina Cheng, Ed Christman, Camille Dodero, Deborah Evans Price, Adrienne Gaffney, Gary Graff, Steve Knopper, Katy Kroll, Joe Levy, Geoff Mayfield, David Menconi, Taylor Mims, Melinda Newman, Cathy Applefeld Olson, Paula Parisi, Annie Reuter, Tom Roland, Taylor Weatherby, Deborah Wilker, Nick Williams and Xander Zellner.
Methodology: A committee of Billboard editors and reporters weighed a variety of factors in determining the 2019 Country Power Players list, including, but not limited to, Billboard’s 2018 Top Artists and Top Tours rankings; nominations by peers, colleagues and superiors; impact on consumer behavior as measured by such metrics as chart, sales and streaming performance, social media impressions, and radio/TV audiences reached; career trajectory; and overall impact in the industry. When available, financial results are taken into consideration. Where required, U.S. record-label market share was consulted using Nielsen Music’s market share for album plus track-equivalent and streaming-equivalent album consumption units, and Billboard’s quarterly top 10 publisher rankings. Unless otherwise noted, Billboard Boxscore and Nielsen Music are the sources for tour grosses and sales/streaming data, respectively. Nielsen is also the source for radio audience metrics. Unless otherwise noted, streaming figures cited represent combined U.S. on-demand audio/video totals.