HITS Daily Double


When WME co-head Scott Clayton moved to Nashville in 1994, he recalls, “You could barely find a good meal, and now we’re a foodie destination.” Clayton, who reps John Mayer, My Morning Jacket, Dead & Company, Michael Franti and Kings of Leon, was also a unicorn: the rare non-country agent who’d decided to make Music City his home.

“My sense was that Nashville was a great place to live, and my clients could just live elsewhere,” he says of his unorthodox decision. “You can buy a great home, raise a family and have a great quality of life. But now, there’s also a great infrastructure if you’re in the music business, especially for the musicians.”

WME co-head Jay Williams, who saw bluegrass wunderkinds Nickel Creek turn platinum with three CMT videos, put Eric Church in arenas without a #1 and stewarded Luke Bryan to stadiums, concurs. “In the ’90s, when an A&R person from one of the coasts came, people buzzed. Then it was monthly visits. Now, starting with Kevin Williamson from Interscope, they’re moving here.”

Maybe it’s Bonnaroo, Callie Khouri’s hit show Nashville or the allure of authenticity. CAA co-head Brian Manning—the man responsible for Demi Lovato, Charlie Puth, Pentatonix and Niall Horan—admits, “As a New York City native and almost 20-year L.A. resident, I probably wouldn’t have considered moving here even five years ago. I’m not sure my clients would’ve accepted an agent outside the country space being based here either. But now, even people who haven’t visited have felt that Nashville’s booming. It transcends genre. The dynamic nature of this town, the heartbeat, pulse and creative energy—it’s exciting.”

Since arriving three years ago, Paradigm’s Jonathan Levine has been reshaping his always-eclectic agency in even more eclectic ways. “We’ve brought in Jackie Nalpant, who does Walk the Moon, Dr. Dog and Ron Gallo, from our Monterey offices, and Lenore Kinder, who spent 10 years at AEG and just won Pollstar’s Rising Star Award, is working on Kacey Musgraves.

“We’re curators who work from the fringe—very left-of-center people with left-of-center tastes. For us, it’s the success we’ve had with Sturgill Simpson and The Lumineers that speaks for itself. To me, if it takes two, three, four records, that’s fine; it’s not about ‘the single’ but building the base.”

Levine points to Margo Price. “Her three nights at the Ryman were epic, and a significant milestone for us,” he says. “I sent her a note that said, ‘Sometimes the longest way is the shortest way home.’ She’d toured and toured and toured, and look what she built.”

But it’s not just the coasts coming to Nashville. Even veteran agent Curt Motley—described by legendary regional promoter Ben Farrell as a “managerial agent,” who heads UTA’s Nashville division—is bullish on where agencies in Nashville are heading. Quarterbacking Toby Keith’s 25th anniversary Should’ve Been a Cowboy Tour, he’s seeing life beyond radio-driven touring working for both the iconoclastic Jamey Johnson and retro acts.

“Jamey went out last year with a reprisal of The Last Waltz, and we did a one-off on Waiting for Columbus with Warren Haynes, Don Was and Michael McDonald in New Orleans,” Motley points out. “We’re able to be more creative with some of the artists. And I don’t know when you begin to be an icon, but with discovery, the kids are on fire for the ’90s stuff. Sammy Kershaw, Collin Raye and Aaron Tippin are a package that's selling like crazy. It’s all #1s, the crowd is super-young, 22- and 23-year-olds who know all the words.”

The notion of discovery is critical in a world where country singles for all but the biggest stars can take well over 40 weeks to hit the Top 5. Live Nation country kingpin Brian O’Connell sees this trend as a positive. “It’s helpful to have these larger platforms, or an accelerated spotlight, if you will, in the mainstream media for our artists. They’re being heard in significant ways from so many sources, which allows us to grow these artists from the beginning—and expand normal artist development. The name recognition and music being heard, whether it’s streaming or social media, makes a huge difference as you’re trying to develop artists.”

“Look at Kane Brown,” says Jay Williams. “Radio is finally kicking in, but with all that streaming, he was able to build a real touring base. He sold out [Fort Worth’s legendary supersized honky-tonk] Billy Bob’s long before he had radio.”

CAA co-head Marc Dennis recognizes the power in reaching beyond terrestrial radio—even if it’s still not an exact science for country. “With the DSPs now, you can really start the touring machine a lot earlier,” he explains. “We may have a client with 50 million streams before they even go to terrestrial radio. The challenge can be, ‘How do you quantify that?’ and the question, obviously, is ‘How early is too early?’”

On the same topic, CAA co-head Darin Murphy, who’s been Keith Urban’s agent from the beginning, notes, “We’ve seen the metrics, but unlike other genres, we’ve not always seen it translate into actual tickets. Still, the indicators allow us to know where the pockets are and get the artists where the fans are. Being able to create super-specific targeting is a great way to build the base.”

Brian Manning points to CAA’s team of data specialists, who interpret from myriad sources to give the agency an edge. He also cites their nontraditional agents, from radio legend Michael Bryan to ninja tour accountant Ina Jacobs and marketing creative force Lucy Kozak, as ways to get in front of the traditional “have a couple hits and tour” model.

Messina Touring Group’s founder Louis Messina, the man with Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and Ed Sheeran in stadiums around the world this summer, views all of the above, plus solid fundamentals, as critical to the massive summer on the road.

“I don’t create headliners—they create themselves,” he says by email from Italy. “But I pay attention to new bands. Almost everyone has been an opening act, so I look for work ethic, their relationship with the audience and, of course, their talent. And their team, which is so important. One of the main problems I see is people trying to rush to the top too soon. You have to know your craft if you want to be around for a while.”

Likewise, Live Nation’s O’Connell is concerned about people short-circuiting careers in the rush to the big time. “Career development is key,” he insists. “One hit does not make a headlining show that runs 90 minutes. Slow down, y’all. What’s the hurry?”

Organic live discovery remains the one place you can’t game the process. For CAA, it can be mixed-genre hookups like Little Big Town’s tour with Kacey Musgraves and Midland, or their genre-hybrid pairings of Maren Morris with Niall Horan, and Zac Brown with both OneRepublic and Leon Bridges, as well as the Outlaw Music Festival, which teamed Willie Nelson with Alison Krauss, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Brandi Carlile and Van Morrison.

Marc Dennis, who also cites what Hunter Williams is doing in the EDM space, notes that “Any good package starts with artists who are compatible, but that has nothing to do with labels. It’s about music, and we work to find good fits. Our clients are unique; they deserve special strategic plans—and that’s not always about genre.”

Adds Clayton, “Sam Smith invited Cam to open his arena tour, and it was amazing. I think the more we give music fans a broader palette of music, the more interested they become. When you expose fans to different things, it lets us do it even more. Look back on what Bill Graham did: He was always creating interesting events, whether it was Otis Redding with The Dead or Miles Davis with some Bay Area rock band, the fans knew it would be cool.”

Jay Williams picks up the thread: “The Black Keys and Jack White sort of legitimized the non-country part of Nashville, just like O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a huge part of bringing Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris to the mainstream. It’s the festival thing too. People look to festivals for discovery, and even if it’s for a couple thousand people in the afternoon at Bonnaroo, it’s a creative marker for other bookers, or music fans in general.”

For all the boom, there’s a consensus that the festival space has become too crowded. Yes, the Bonnaroos, Stagecoaches, ACLs, and Lollapaloozas remain coveted, but as Louis Messina notes, “There are way too few acts who are really headliners. Festivals are supposed to be special and unique, but when the same acts are headlining, or even playing, every festival, what’s so special about that?”

Dennis agrees. “It felt like there was one in every city, but that’s actually pulled back.”

The oversaturation is being felt, and there’s constriction as a result. Also being felt, Williams notes, are ticket prices. “One thing we’ve learned this summer is that there is a ticket-price sensitivity. You can get a price in a secondary market, but for some of the bigger tours, we saw that as an artificial indicator. If you want fans to go to four-to-six shows in a summer, pricing is a factor.”

Still, with so many tours, there are plenty of support slots to go around, and ways for an artist to tour before—or even without—radio. It’s a revolution of sorts, or perhaps a return to artists going out and winning their fans, city upon city, show by show.

For Paradigm’s Levine, who’s seeing Colter Wall, Tyler Childers, Brent Cobb and Ashley Monroe breaking through, the future looks bright. “It’s the next wave, and then the wave behind that is already gathering. That keeps it fresh and exciting, and it keeps what we do relevant.”