During Monday evening’s (April 11) CMT Music Awards, country music’s current crop of stars weren’t the only ones walking the red carpet. A group of six rising artists and managers also attended the awards ceremony, as CMT and Nashville-based management services company mtheory announced the first participants of the newly-launched Equal Access Development Program.
The 12-month program is designed to provide access and training for underrepresented demographics — including Black, Native and Indigenous, Latino, LGBTQ+ and female artists and managers — in the country music industry. The program aims to help build the participants’ networks through connections with key industry leaders, as well as offering education, mentorship and artist development.
“Two of our candidates are working managers who have worked in other genres and have interest in country, but didn’t know how to network into it,” says Cameo Carlson, president, mtheory Nashville. “Nashville is very different and it’s hard to break through and understand how it operates.”
The three managers taking part in this year’s program are Charlene Bryant, Kadeem Phillips and Marques Vance.
Belmont University graduate Bryant spent years working for major record labels before launching her own management company, Riveter Management, in 2018, and working with hip-hop artist Trippie Redd. Bryant was also named to Billboard’s Hip-Hop and R&B Power Players list in 2020 and 2021 — and within the country music genre, hopes to focus her efforts on producers and songwriters.
Middle Tennessee State University graduate Vance spent the past three years promoting and marketing gospel artists, including Kirk Franklin, DOE and Koryn Hawthorne. He also led marketing initiatives for producer Tay Keith’s Drumatized record label. He aims to help cultivate country music marketing, while bring the genre’s roots in Black art and storytelling to the forefront.
Fisk University and UT Knoxville graduate Phillips saw a need for producer management in his Memphis hometown, and launched the full-service management company PowerHouse Management, working with producers and artists including Chuck Indigo, ProducedbyNigel, Jai, Real Red and more.
“I really want to stay independent and continue to cultivate artists,” Phillips tells Billboard of his goals for his company. “We love starting with an artist from ground zero and building from there. One of the biggest things I want to take away from the program is the opportunity to change the game for people in country music as well. In R&B and hip-hop, I’m big on knowing when to partner up with people and make bigger opportunities for artists.”
This year’s artists taking part in the program are Madeline Edwards, Miko Marks and Valerie Ponzio. Marks made her first foray to Nashville in 2005, intent on pursuing a career in country music. Though she performed during CMA Fest and released the 2005 project Freeway Bound, followed by 2007’s It Feels Good, Marks found herself disillusioned with the industry. She moved to California to continue pursuing music. Last year, she released her third album, Our Country, as well as the project Race Records. She is also part of CMT’s Next Women of Country Class of 2022.
Latina country artist Ponzio competed on Season 12 of NBC’s The Voice in 2017 (joining Blake Shelton’s team) and has since released the EP Timeless and the single “Orale.” Edwards made her national television debut on the 2021 CMA Awards, performing alongside Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer. This summer, Edwards is slated to open shows for Chris Stapleton’s All American Road Show Tour.
“We have been in this industry for a really long time, grinding hard, and we’ve had success — but we’ve also had doors shut, so it’s really cool to have that hand extended to us,” Edwards says. “It’s a hard industry to be in, no matter where you come from, so when you get a chance to excel above what you are already doing, that’s a cool opportunity for artists.”
In addition to weekly planning sessions unique to each artist and manager, monthly programs will be held to offer education and mentoring with industry leaders in areas including marketing plans/budgeting, touring, publishing, DSPs, record labels, content optimization, and publicity/media. Following the completion of the year-long program, the artists and managers will become part of the alumni network, receiving ongoing support, while also becoming supporters of the next class.
Carlson was inspired to start the program through her work with Mickey Guyton, both at mtheory and at Carlson’s previous role at management company Borman Entertainment.
“It was just working with Mickey and seeing the struggles that she had, and having conversations around why she wasn’t given opportunities,” Carlson says. “Also, Mickey has taken it on personally as her mission to help other artists of color not have the experience that she has had. She will find artists on Instagram or social media, and she would send me links to their music and ask me to help them. There weren’t really teams in Nashville that had people of color on their teams. I help artists and managers with strategy and development, so I thought, ‘What if we applied that to the pipeline issue?’ We brought managers and artists into the mix for this project.”
Beyond just education, mentorship and networking, the program will provide each artist and manager with a five-figure financial stipend to be used for career development, thanks to CMT’s involvement.
“The financial aspect of it is really important, because at the end of the day, I’m still an independent artist,” says Edwards, who is a member of CMT’s Next Women of Country Class of 2022. “This year I will be on tour with Chris Stapleton, and you want to make sure that you are putting out your best, high-quality work. Anything I put out now, there is a heavy magnifying glass on it, just because things are happening. This is CMT saying, ‘We have full confidence in what she’s doing. We are putting our money where our mouth is and giving her the opportunity to show Nashville and the music industry that she deserves to have these types of opportunities.’”
CMT has long been a champion of female artists and artists of color, through its Equal Play and CMT Next Women of Country initiatives.
“For us, the female initiative and Equal Play meant a lot, because the percentages on terrestrial radio are very low,” Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vp, music strategy and talent, tells Billboard. “Fast forward and we really wanted to make sure that diversity was part of this. When someone joins CMT Listen Up or Next Women of Country, we want to help them as much as we can. We work alongside them all year so the development part of it, every artist can benefit from them. Let’s just start helping our artists and our artist community,” Fram says.
“Everyone we’ve spoken to so far is interested in helping connect those dots and making sure when they are done with this program, they can pick up a country artist, any country artist, and navigate them through a successful career in country music,” Carlson says.