To friends he’s known simply as Brian, but to the hundreds of touring artists, road crews and stadium managers he visits every year, he’s The BOC, a force of nature behind the biggest country acts in music.
Brian O’Connell, now Live Nation’s President of Country Touring, got his start working for Cellar Door Productions in the 1990s, and after a run of successful tours for country legends like Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw — and now Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley — O’Connell has risen through the ranks as the top country music promoter in North America.
He’s created over a half-dozen festivals — although he told Billboard he wasn’t ready to talk about the deadly mass shooting at this year’s Route 91 Harvest Festival, an event he helped create — and pioneered the Country Megaticket, a popular season ticket program to the hottest country shows at Live Nation venues across the U.S..
On Jan. 22 in Nashville, O’Connell will be honored with the Country Music Association’s Touring Lifetime Achievement Award. Billboard recently caught up with O’Connell to learn about his life on the road, and his long career in music.
What was your reaction to winning CMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award?
It completely took me by surprise. To win an award from the CMA is a big deal. A couple years ago, they brought back the awards for touring personnel, and I thought it was a great idea. CMA has always been about the artists, but to have this recognition to the guys around us and the behind-the-scenes people on the road is incredible. For me, it feels like a happy accident, because there are certainly a million people that deserve this before I do.
Who are some of your mentors in the industry?
The first is Jack Boyle with Cellar Door Productions. I remember the day that Jack interviewed me — only one of us was wearing shoes. My wife and I picked up with our two-month-old and moved from Chicago to South Florida, where I got to learn the business. Jack saw something in me back then that I certainly didn’t know anything about. I sat next to Jack for three years in Florida, and then three years in D.C. — it was the greatest education anyone could ever get. When he finally sold to SFX, he told me that he was going to move me to Nashville.
Were you happy about the news?
I thought I was being punished, leaving the No. 5 market in the country. He told me, “You’ll always have a job if you’re in Nashville.” And that’s where Michael Rapino comes in. Michael took over Live Nation shortly thereafter, and gave me the opportunity to continue what I had started with Jack.
How did you decide to specialize in country?
In the ’90s, when I was trying to establish my career, it was difficult to blaze my own trail, because there were so many people who occupied a part of the business. The only way to make a name for yourself and put food on the table was to find something different that you’re good at. I saw an opportunity with country, as everything was being consolidated, to put the flag in the ground and say, “I’m that guy.”
When do you feel like things started to take off?
First when I did Shania Twain’s tour in 1999; she was being managed by Jon Landau and George Travis, and it was like being on the road with Springsteen, because I knew those guys from the Cellar Door days. When I came to Nashville, probably the first major act I worked on was Brooks & Dunn, and then the Alabama farewell tour.
For Brooks and Dunn, the relationship was built out of Florida — I jumped up and got in everybody’s face and said “I want to be in the Brooks and Dunn business.” That relationship carried over until I came to Nashville in 2000, and they had this idea for the Neon Circus Tour. The concept was to do this daylong show with a bunch of absurd stuff, like a goat that blows up balloons and a guy on stilts. We started the tour in Birmingham, Alabama, and I remember telling their manager Clarence Spalding that I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up, and [then] walking up over a hill with him and seeing the line of kids down as far as you can see, and thinking to myself, “Boy, we’re on to something here.”
How do you find new acts to promote?
One thing tends to spawn something else. I remember doing a Tim McGraw tour eight or nine years ago and this kid Luke Bryan was a support act. Luke and I got to be buddies out there, and I could see what was happening. When I met Jason Aldean, he was pushing his own road cases as the first of three acts for Rascal Flatts.
When you’re on the road as much as I am, you get to know people. You get to see the great shows and you get to see the shitty shows, and you learn the difference between the two. I do this ridiculous traveling circus of my own for 45 to 46 weeks a year. I’m not here, I’m with them. I’m on the road. I’m sitting in a concrete parking lot, in a cinder block room for 250 days a year. The success or failure of whatever it is that I’ve done has to do with being present, and not much to do with whether I’m stupid. It’s just being there.
How many tours are you promoting at one time?
Usually seven or eight, but often as many as 12.
Do you just bounce between tours?
I like to go places that are not the obvious place, where when you show up, it means something. Like Brookings, South Dakota on a Thursday night in February when it’s 15 below. That’s meaningful. You want the artist to know you’re there all the time — you can’t be everywhere all the time, but it appears as though you are there all the time.
I’ve always wanted to have credibility. Credibility is a big thing with me. I want to be able to tell every artist why we’re playing their market. I can give them an encyclopedia of knowledge, because I’ve been there probably 50 times. And that puts the artist, the manager, the agent and everybody at ease. I know that’s not particularly sexy, but it’s effective.
Nashville has gone from a sleepy town to a cutthroat music market for the big agencies and promoters. How has the city’s music industry changed since you’ve landed in town?
It’s still a small town. I don’t play in the cutthroat games, and I don’t deal in gossip and all that. I don’t care. I think that what we’re seeing coming out of Nashville is a broadening of the genre, which is a good thing. There’s plenty of room inside this tent for everybody, and people that ignore history are destined to repeat it. I see Nashville as a place where artists can be artists, and they don’t have to necessarily conform to a specific way of doing things. There is room to create, there’s room to expand.
The whole reason that we’re here is to create opportunities for artists to perform their craft. We owe everything to the artists and the songwriters and the people that create music. What we do with it after that is, again, another collaborative process. Nashville is a town of collaboration. I don’t tend to look at it cynically. I look at all of the opportunity that’s out there with great young acts that are getting their voices heard.
What’s the most important part of your job?
My job is to get the artist in front of as many people as possible, for as long as they want to do it. I’m a concert promoter. I’m not a manager. I’m not an agent. I’m not a musician. I do one thing, and that’s what I think Nashville is all about — good collaboration. I’m not a threat to anybody. I’m not trying to take anybody’s gig. Every artist has a different team, and my job is to be a really, really, really good teammate, and being a good teammate is the biggest compliment that anyone could pay to me.