For a long time, the divas in Jason Owen’s life — be it the ones he watched on early MTV as a kid in rural Arkansas, his former roommate, Tori Spelling (the two shared a Los Angeles address at the peak of her fame), or longtime client Shania Twain (the two parted ways amicably in 2016) — were his life.
Not anymore. Having established himself as one of the top music managers in the business, Owen’s priorities have shifted. “Managers are always the first to get blamed and the first to get fired, but these kids can’t fire you,” he jokes of his three children. “They are the best things that ever happened to me. All my friends who have kids used to say that and I was, like, ‘OK, I get it, whatever’ — but until you really do it? Then it’s, like, ‘Oh, now I understand.’”
Owen has been married to Crown Merchandising owner Sam Easley for two years but they’ve been together for 14. With no exaggeration, they’re Nashville’s preeminent gay power couple. “Nashville has progressed since I moved here in 2002,” says Owen. “I feel like it has finally gotten the credibility it deserves and I think it’s getting even better.”
Indeed, it speaks volumes that Variety’s Hitmakers Manager of the Year is based in Nashville — as opposed to New York or L.A. — but that’s not necessarily a point of pride for Jason Owen. For one thing, he sees himself as more than a manager to Kacey Musgraves, Dan + Shay (with Scooter Braun), Little Big Town, Midland, Kelsea Ballerini and Faith Hill.
“I always felt very responsible for the artists and took it to another level,” he says. “When I was working at labels, I started to realize there aren’t a lot of great managers in this town. And even then I knew a … not better, but a different approach for artists. What I am the most proud of is that I have nothing on my roster that would be considered an overnight success,” he continues. “The longevity comes with artists that take the time to build careers, and I feel like we’ve done an excellent job of that with Kacey, and without question Dan + Shay. They’re also on their third album and they’re on f—ing fire.” No doubt: singles “Speechless” and “Tequila” landed at Nos. 22 and 38, respectively, on the Mediabase year-to- date all-genre airplay chart, having crossed over to pop earlier this year.
The duo, currently riding another wave of crossover success with “10,000 Hours” featuring Justin Bieber, describe Owen as like “a family member.” Says Dan: “He believed in us before anyone else did. He champions creativity. He champions art. Kacey is doing her thing; we’re doing ours; we all create our own lanes. And he’s great at fostering that. We work super hard, but Jason Owen works harder.”
Owen’s 360-degree approach to artist development incorporates branding, publicity and whatever else is required. But also, he adds, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Nashville-based manager.’ I feel like that’s very shortsighted. From a work perspective, I speak to more people in L.A. on a daily basis, and the success I’ve had as a manager has come from my relationships.” (Ironically, Owen serves as a Nashville 411 for his industry friends from the coasts.)
In fact, his perspective extends far beyond the music-business capitals, and even past this hemisphere. “The global piece of it has been part of my vernacular since I moved to town,” says Owen (pictured above with Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta0, who previously worked in television and at Universal Music’s Nashville operation before delving into management. “Country music never spent a lot of time expanding in other territories, but it’s certainly become really successful internationally, especially in the U.K. and Australia, and I hope to have played a small part in that.”
Owen sees his influence on the globalization of country reflected in Musgraves’ success. “She’s responsible for a lot of the genre’s growth from a global standpoint,” he says. Not only is she one of the few country artists to sell out Wembley Arena but she’s also toured across Europe, Asia and South America. “Obviously the songs speak for themselves, but Kacey is amazing at the fashion part of it, the creative vision, the branding — all the different pieces that inspire fans across the world.”
The importance of image and style isn’t something he necessarily had to learn. “I know what makes a good diva, maybe because I am one!,” he laughs, before continuing more seriously. “I’m adamant about the creative with all my artists during the phase of a record. The looks have to feel very specific to that time. I learned that at a very young age from Madonna.”
Owen’s outlook may have been informed by videos from the ‘80s, but it was revolutionary in Nashville. “The format has always been radio-centric,” he says. “The way it’s always been done was not working anymore. Unless we changed the way we presented music and artists in our genre, we wouldn’t be able to build superstars anymore, and some of the biggest in the world came from Nashville: Dolly, Shania, Taylor. And the reason those women were successful is because they didn’t do the same thing everyone else was doing. Neither have I,” he says. “I’ve always had conviction in my decisions — and I’ve never been afraid of the consequences.”
This seems to be the running theme that unites Owen’s personal and professional paths and, not coincidentally, the secret of his success. “That’s a great way to put it,” he says, “and I’ve always been like that.”
See the full list of 2019 Hitmakers here.