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 Kahn, 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.
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11) CINDY MABE, 42
President, Universal Music Group Nashville
Now in her second year as president, Mabe is having a banner 2015. When Easton Corbin, Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt placed Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on July 18, it was the third time this year UMGN had scored a musical hat-trick. It also didn’t hurt that her name surfaced as Jason Owen’s proposed No. 2 when Sony was courting the Sandbox Entertainment CEO to run its Nashville division. The year also began with a new addition to her family: Mabe and her husband adopted a 10-month-old girl in December.
12) BRIAN PHILIPS, 54
Senior vp music strategy, CMT
After Viacom shifted CMT to its Kids and Family division and ordered layoffs in March, Philips’ team-building leadership quickly restored confidence. In the last year, he and Fram have rolled out new music franchises CMT Ultimate Kickoff Party and Fram’s pet project, the Next Women of Country Tour, which helped break newcomer Kelsea Ballerini. The flagship CMT Music Awards on June 10 drew almost 17 million viewers.
13) MARC DENNIS, 45; ROD ESSIG, 66; JOHN HUIE, 59; DARIN MURPHY, 49
Co-heads, Creative Artists Agency, Nashville
Huie says turning Zac Brown Band into a stadium headliner and returning Shania Twain to the road after a decade’s absence are the high points for CAA’s Nashville division. (According to Dennis, Twain’s North American jaunt will gross $75 million, and an international leg may follow.) Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini also have scored chart successes in the last year.
14) CLARENCE SPALDING, 58
Partner, Maverick Management
So far, Spalding is the only manager of country acts to join Guy Oseary (U2, Madonna) at Maverick Management. His roster includes multiplatinum stadium headliner Jason Aldean, who has sold 1.1 million tickets (second only to Luke Bryan) on his current tour and grossed $53.3 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. Other clients include Brooks & Dunn, who have sold 23.8 million albums, and Rascal Flatts.
15) TROY TOMLINSON, 51
President/CEO, Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville
BMI has named Sony/ATV country publisher of the year for each of the 10 years that Tomlinson has led the Nashville office, and since the first quarter of 2010, when Billboard began tracking the top country publishers, his division has finished first in 19 of 21 quarters, including eight of the 10 quarters before Sony/ATV assumed administration of EMI Music Publishing (which significantly increased its market share).
16) JOHN MARKS, 61
Senior director of country programming, SiriusXM
With SiriusXM’s The Highway, Marks has built a nimbler, national alternative to terrestrial country radio, and his readiness to take chances on unsigned acts helped break Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Chase Rice and, in the last year or so, Old Dominion, Logan Mize and Clare Dunn. In the process, he has accumulated half a million active Facebook followers for the channel.
Country’s Greatest Change in the Last 10 Years: “With respect to the Cashes and Haggards of the world, artists coming up today have much broader musical influences, including contemporary hip-hop.”
17) JOEL KATZ, 71
Chair, global entertainment and media practice, Greenberg Traurig
JESS ROSEN, 60
Co-chair, Atlanta entertainment and media practice, Greenberg Traurig
They are the most powerful legal team in Nashville. Katz represented Scott Borchetta while the Big Machine CEO spent the last eight months entertaining offers to buy his company (ultimately re-upping with Universal); he was in the thick of Sony Music’s restructuring of its Nashville office and represented the senior management team that was recently installed. Rosen, meanwhile, co-represents Little Big Town with Katz and, on his own, a long list of top talent that includes Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Brad Paisley.
18) BRAD BELANGER, 40
Founder/president, Homestead Management
President, KP Entertainment
TOM LORD, 39
Head of marketing, Red Light Management
Coran Capshaw may be Red Light’s frontman, but this power trio is responsible for some of the company’s biggest business in Nashville. Lord works with the firm’s roster of artist managers to coordinate album, tour and brand partnership cycles, which often involve Edwards’ clients Luke Bryan and Cole Swindell (the ACM’s 2015 artist of the year and new artist, respectively) and, through Belanger, breakout newcomer Sam Hunt.
19) BENNY BROWN, 74
President/CEO, BBR Music Group
Brown oversees a successful boutique enterprise that consists of publishing company Magic Mustang Music, BBR Management and three labels: Broken Bow, Stoney Creek and Red Bow. The label group, which built Jason Aldean into a star, now includes Trace Adkins, Dustin Lynch and Thompson Square.
Biggest Misconception About Country Music: “That bro country is over. There will always be a place for it in the format.”
20) SARAH TRAHERN, 51
CEO, Country Music Association
A year-and-a-half into the job, Trahern has proved a good fit for the country music trade organization. Its three TV properties, including the CMA Awards, improved their ratings in 2014, and in June, Trahern, who has almost 30 years of TV experience, helmed her second CMA Music Fest, staging 500 acts for 87,680 fans. The event will air as Country’s Night to Rock on ABC in August.
21) CLINT HIGHAM, 43
Partner, Morris Higham Management
During the past 10 years, Higham’s star client Kenny Chesney has sold 12 million tickets, and his current outing, The Big Revival Tour, has grossed $55 million from 33 shows since March. Higham’s latest act, Old Dominion, has sold nearly 224,000 downloads of its debut single, “Break Up With Him.” He has an influential new partner, too: Scooter Braun’s SB Management bought half of Morris Higham this year.
22) JEFF KAPUGI, 50
VP country programming, CBS Radio; Program director, WUSN Chicago
A former adult contemporary programmer at CBS Radio’s KEZK St. Louis, Kapugi was tapped by the broadcast group in 2011 to lead country music programming out of WUSN in his native Chicago. Four years later, the station draws the largest audience of any in the format, with 1.4 million weekly listeners, and in April, won its first ACM station of the year award.
23) MARION KRAFT, 50
Founder, ShopKeeper Management
It’s Kraft’s style to accentuate her artists’ individuality, right down to being extremely selective about brand partnerships. In 2014, she matched Miranda Lambert with Ram Trucks and arranged a cross-country Airstream trailer tour to promote Lambert’s album Platinum. The LP debuted atop the Billboard 200, and its Grammy, CMA and ACM wins upped Lambert’s pile of major industry awards to 60.
24) ALI HARNELL, 47
Senior VP, AEG Live/The Messina Group
As the Nashville face of the world’s second-largest promoter, Harnell oversees booking and operations for some 200 shows annually, including tours by Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town. As a founding producer of the Country2Country music festivals in the United Kingdom, She also has been on the cutting edge of developing country music artists overseas. In March, the London show grossed $2.4 million, according to Boxscore, and doubled its 2013 attendance to 30,000.
25) CRAIG WISEMAN, 51
Owner/partner, Big Loud Mountain; Owner, Big Loud Shirt
SETH ENGLAND, 29
Partner, Big Loud Mountain; Vp, Big Loud Shirt
CLAY HUNNICUTT, 47
President, Big Loud Records
It has been a big, loud year for Wiseman and England due to the success of clients Florida Georgia Line and the Big Loud Shirt writers, who composed 10 of 2014’s No. 1 Hot Country Songs. In June, Big Loud Mountain also lured Hunnicutt away from iHeartMedia to head its Big Loud Records label startup.
26) JOHN PEETS, 48
Founder, Q Prime South
Peets is so involved in shaping the narratives of his acts that he’ll even shoot album art, like he did with Eric Church’s 2014 album The Outsiders. His attention to detail has paid off: All three albums released in 2014 by Q Prime South-managed acts — Church, Nickel Creek and The Black Keys — were nominated for Grammys, The Outsiders was the top-selling country album of 2014, and, with 900,00 tickets sold, Church’s tour has broken attendance records in four cities.
Early Gig: Guitarist in a rock band called Absurd Circus.
27) BOB ROMEO, 57
CEO, Academy of Country Music
Romeo, the son of late talent-booking pioneer Don Romeo, took the annual ACMs to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the event’s 50th anniversary, and the gambit paid off: The telecast attracted 16 million-plus viewers, according to Nielsen, its highest rating since 1998. “We worked on that for five years,” he says.
Country’s Greatest Change in the Last 10 Years: The lack of female artists today.
28) BEN VAUGHN, 39
Executive vp, Nashville, Warner/Chappell Music
Thanks in large part to Vaughn’s golden gut and business acumen, Warner/Chappell owns at least a piece of 54 songs that have reached the Hot Country Songs chart in the first half of 2015, including such No. 1s as “I See You” by Luke Bryan and “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town.
What Distinguishes Nashville From NYC and Los Angeles: “Collaboration among competitors. I talk to other publishers every day.”
29) BOB DOYLE, 67
President/owner, Major Bob Music and Bob Doyle & Associates
Launching longtime client Garth Brooks‘ first arena tour in 13 years — 2.5 million tickets sold so far — tops Doyle’s list of recent achievements, followed by songwriting clients Cary Barlowe and Jesse Frasure’s Hot Country Songs No. 1 for Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze.” Brooks says Doyle’s combat-pilot duty during Operation Desert Storm is good for business. “Under fire, he remains calm and insightful,” he says.
30) BERNIE CAHILL, 50; WILL WARD, 45
Founding partners, ROAR
MATT MAHER, 45
By forming a strategic partnership with Universal’s John Varvatos Records, Big Machine Label Group and Republic Records, the trio of managers behind the Zac Brown Band propelled the group’s latest album, Jekyll & Hyde, to the top of the Billboard 200 and landed No. 1 singles on two different airplay charts: “Heavy Is the Head,” featuring Chris Cornell, crested the Mainstream Rock chart for two weeks in May, and “Homegrown” led the Country Airplay chart for three weeks in April. Only Bon Jovi has done the same.
31) MARY HILLIARD HARRINGTON, 38
Owner, The GreenRoom
Harrington has won the CMA’s publicist of the year trophy three years in a row for her work with A-list clients Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum. Since 2010 she has managed Billboard cover star Dierks Bentley, who in the last year embarked on his first amphitheater tour and has emerged as the most nominated male artist of both the CMAs and ACMs.
Treasured Possession: Photos of 18-month-old daughter Scarlett, which Danny Clinch will take every year at Bonnaroo.
32) CALLIE KHOURI, 57
Creator, ABC-TV’s Nashville
BUDDY MILLER, 62
Executive music producer, Nashville
An average of 8 million fans tune in to ABC’s “soap opry” for the drama, and as a bonus get some of the best-crafted country music being produced today. Oscar-winning screenwriter Khouri (Thelma and Louise) and roots-guitar maestro Miller have created an engaging alternate country music universe that has moved 900,000 units of 13 Music of Nashville soundtracks and 4 million song downloads.
33) BOBBY BONES, 35
Radio personality, iHeartMedia
Radio still rules country music, and Bones is its fast-talking, prank-playing alpha. His syndicated morning show out of WSIX-FM Nashville draws 4 million listeners daily in 90-plus markets, not counting iHeartMedia’s online and mobile-app listeners. The DJ broke 2015’s top-selling country hit, “Girl Crush,” by Little Big Town and helped Chris Janson get a record deal with Warner Brothers after playing an MP3 of “Buy Me a Boat” that Janson emailed to him.
Treasured Possession: A microphone once used by late-night talk-show legend Jack Paar.
34) STEVE BUCHANAN, 58
President, Opry Entertainment Group
PETE FISHER, 52
Vice president/GM, Grand Ole Opry
This duo has expanded the Opry’s show schedule from two to four nights a week (five in the summer). It’s also behind the release of Opry 9.0, Vol. 1: Discoveries From the Circle, the first of a series of compilations showcasing new artists for the Opry’s upcoming 90th anniversary. Buchanan is also producing Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, which opens in Dallas this fall.
35) KENT EARLS, 43
Executive vp/GM, Universal Music Publishing Group
In the first half of 2015, two of Earls’ writers — Ryan Hurd and Cole Taylor — scored debut Country Airplay No. 1s, and during one fortuitous week in November 2014, the top five songs on country radio were penned by UMPG talent (including Andrew Dorff’s “Neon Light” and Luke Laird’s “Sunshine & Whiskey”). “In my nearly 18 years here,” notes Earls, “that had never happened before.”
36) CURT MOTLEY, 50
Co-head of music, Paradigm Talent Agency
“We’re a music office,” says Motley, explaining that Paradigm’s Nashville outpost isn’t just about country. “I hung out with Taylor Momsen at the Ryman Auditorium,” he adds. “Having her at the mother church made sense to me.” Momsen’s band The Pretty Reckless and Fergie are among the office’s 100-plus acts, as are 2014’s meta-modern country breakthrough Sturgill Simpson, neo-outlaw Jamey Johnson and Motley’s longtime friend Toby Keith.
37) ANN EDELBLUTE, 40
Owner/manager, The H.Q.
While others lament country music’s lack of female voices, this manager’s star client, Carrie Underwood, has defied the odds by selling 15.2 million albums in the United States. In the past year, Edelblute has guided the singer and new mom through the release of her Calia by Carrie Underwood lifestyle line and a greatest-hits album; the latter’s single, “Something in the Water,” crowned Hot Country Songs for seven weeks, a personal best for Underwood.
38) ROBERT DEATON, 54
Executive producer, CMA Awards
As producer of the CMAs telecast, the association’s Country Christmas and Music Fest specials and the Billboard Music Awards, Deaton offers valuable TV exposure to talent. Crossing genres — and generations — is key, he says. “I want to be able to pair Ariana Grande with Little Big Town. But at the same time I want to pair Kacey Musgraves with Loretta Lynn.”
39) GARY BORMAN, 62
Founder/president, Borman Entertainment
Borman credits his success to keeping his roster small and focused. His artist management firm has guided the careers of Dwight Yoakam, Faith Hill, Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum, and he predicts his next breakthrough will be “Better Than You Left Me” singer Mickey Guyton. “We’re just a song away,” he says.
40) JODY WILLIAMS, 59
VP writer-publisher relations, Nashville, BMI
Since Williams took over writer-publisher relations in 2006, 80 percent of CMA and ACM award winners have been BMI acts. He also attached the organization to the growing festival market early, with sponsored stages at outdoor events like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits that provide 750 showcase opportunities for BMI’s 650,000 artists.
41) TK KIMBRELL, 59
Owner/president, TKO Artist Management
Kimbrell’s clout is largely powered by client Toby Keith, who has sold 26.5 million albums since 2000 and in June was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. One of his firm’s most recent signings, Chris Janson, broke into the Hot Country Songs top 10 with the wise-ass hit “Buy Me a Boat” on the July 25 chart. It’s a sensibility that Kimbrell shares. His “Hangman” videos, in which he pranks gullible passers-by as he talks on his cellphone, can be found on YouTube.
42) MICHAEL MARTIN, 53
Vice president, ASCAP Nashville
Thanks to a massive internal upheaval at ASCAP Nashville, Martin is the fifth person to hold his position in as many years. “Most companies don’t go through that much transition in a 30-year period,” he says, adding that the Nashville office has still grown its market share from “the low 30s” to 47 percent and assisted more than 70 writers with publishing deals.
43) BLAIR GARNER, 51
Host, America’s Morning Show
For the last two years, the 2013 National Radio Hall of Fame inductee has hosted America’s Morning Show on more than 30 of Cumulus Media’s country stations, and reaches nearly 1 million listeners weekly. And after 30-plus years in radio, Garner says the biggest change he has seen is that with Web cameras now installed in his Nashville studio, “you have to shower and dress nicely for work.”
44) JESSIE SCHMIDT, 50
Owner/president, Schmidt Relations
Previously known for handling Carrie Underwood’s post-American Idol PR, Schmidt’s 18-year-old agency is now riding the rocket ship that is Luke Bryan’s career. Meanwhile, the biggest change in perception that Schmidt has overseen involves her client of 16 years, the Grand Ole Opry: “In the last five years, we’ve seen the managers of new talent want them at the Opry, rather than the Opry having to reach out to them.”
45) JIMMY HARNEN, 52
Executive vp, Big Machine Label Group; President, Republic Nashville
Business continues to boom at Big Machine Label Group, and Harnen has played an integral role in that success, whether it’s Maddie & Tae and A Thousand Horses topping the Country Airplay chart with their debut singles or the genre-jumping steamroller known as Taylor Swift.
46) EBIE McFARLAND, 34
Founder, Essential Broadcast Media
McFarland has grown her boutique roster to 24 clients — including Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, Eric Church and Hunter Hayes — and says she’s proudest of “being part of the think tank that [put together] the Cowboy Rides Away Tour and story for George Strait.” His final show packed 104,793 people into AT&T Stadium, a North American indoor concert attendance record.
47) MARY ANN McCREADY
President, Flood Bumstead McCready & McCarthy
McCready’s business management firm, which counts Blake Shelton and Keith Urban among its clients, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. But McCready is almost as well-known now for civic boosterism, having helped create the Music City Music Council with outgoing mayor Karl Dean. “I think who our next mayor is will really be critical for the city, in balancing the growth with quality of life for the people who do live here,” she says, referring to Nashville’s controversial building boom.
48) PETER STRICKLAND, 52
Executive vp/GM, Warner Music Nashville
The music business is a game of numbers, and Strickland’s numbers are strong. During the past year, he has helped raise Blake Shelton’s Country Airplay No. 1 count to 20, and the ACM’s 2015 new artist of the year Cole Swindell landed two No. 1 singles on the Country Airplay chart in 2014.
49) DOC McGHEE, 64
Chairman, McGhee Entertainment
SCOTT McGHEE, 56
President, McGhee Entertainment
When McGhee Entertainment — the firm known for its work with Bon Jovi and Kiss — opened a Nashville office in 2005, it foreshadowed the marriage of country and rock so prevalent today. The McGhees manage two of country music’s game-changers: former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker and breakout band A Thousand Horses. Rucker’s roll includes four No. 1 Top Country Albums and six No. 1 Hot Country Songs.
50) KEN LEVITAN, 58
Founder/co-president, Vector Management
Levitan’s recent ventures are proof that Nashville’s renaissance is about much more than country music. While Vector remains home to such artists as Trisha Yearwood, Trace Adkins, Hank Williams Jr. and Emmylou Harris, Levitan has added celebrity chefs to his client list. He has partnered with California cuisine pioneer Jonathan Waxman to open two Nashville restaurants (Adele’s, Bajo Sexto) and collaborates with client Kings of Leon and concert promoter C3 Presents on a two-day food and wine festival in Nashville. Levitan insists Vector remains true to its country roots, though. “I really love singer-songwriters,” he says. “They’re such an important part of what Nashville is.”
Contributors: Mike Corcoran, Chuck Dauphin, Shirley Halperin, Jewly Hight, Garrett Kamps, Elias Leight, Katy Lindenmuth, Paley Martin, Brian McManus, Nick Murray, Melinda Newman, Glenn Peoples, Alex Pham, Deborah Evans Price, Phyllis Stark, Nick Williams, Eugenia Williamson
Inclusion and rankings on Billboard’s Nashville Power Players list are determined by subjects’ business impact, market share, the chart and/ or touring performance of artist clients and local influence during the past 12 months.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.