WME Nashville Co-Heads Celebrate Market Edge in Country Music, as Seen in ACM Awards Nods

The agency's Nashville toppers talk exclusively with Variety about working with newcomers as well as maintaining the hold on top talent that has them representing four out of five of the ACMs' 2022 entertainer of the year nominees.

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Courtesy WME

When the entertainer of the year prize is handed out at tonight’s Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, the odds strongly favor a WME Nashville client picking up the climactic trophy. That’s because the agency has four of the five nominees, between Eric Church, Luke Combs, Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton. Historically, the odds are in WME’s favor: the agency has claimed the ACM entertainer winner seven out of the last 10 years.

Other WME clients will figure strongly in the night, too, as the company’s roster includes three out of five female artist nominees (Lambert, Ashley McBryde and Gabby Barrett), three out of five male artist contenders (Stapleton, Combs and Thomas Rhett — and it would have been four if the agency hadn’t parted ways with Morgan Wallen last year), three of five duo nominees (Brothers Osborne, LoCash and Brooks & Dunn), four out of five female new artist nominees (Lainey Wilson, Caitlyn Smith, Lily Rose, Tenille Arts) and two male new artist contenders (Walker Hayes and Parker McCollom).

And then, if you look at the single of the year category, there are eight nominees, because of three duets being nominated. Seven of the eight are WME clients — including Luke Bryan, Jordan Davis, Jason Aldean and Kane Brown, along with the night’s leading nominee, Chris Young, in addition to Stapleton and Hayes. (Not nominated, but quickly on the upswing and featured on the ACMs show tonight, is Breland, collaborating with Rhett.)

So, suffice it to say, Nashville office co-heads Jay Williams, Becky Gardenhire and Joey Lee have a rooting interest and will not be taking the night off to see “The Batman.” Variety spoke exclusively with the trio of toppers last week for their first joint interview in several years.

Although most of the awards outside of the entertainer prize have to do with recording and not touring, the lineup is reflective of an imbalance in country’s agency space that tips decidedly toward WME. When the trade magazine Pollstar did its year-end list of the top touring acts of 2021, there were six country acts in the top 30 — and five out of those six are represented by the agency.

Williams notes the truism that “talent attracts talent,” when it comes to artists wanting to be at the most superstar-heavy agency, “but a lot of it is the culture and the talent of the people that actually work here,” which he numbers at currently around 130. “We’ve done a great job of growing a lot of agents from the mailroom up to partner level now that, by the time they’re promoted to an agent, sometimes they’ve been an assistant here for four or five years, and they’ve seen a cycle of artists develop and move through clubs and theaters to arenas. But yes, you get to a point where you have all these headliners, and so we get to be the first call for a lot of these festivals and tours looking for support slots, and it is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point.”

But Gardenhire points out that the Nashville office is not only not all-country, but “It’s not just music. We’ve had some people actually move here from our L.A. and New York offices during the pandemic. So we now have literary representation, sports representation and TV representation, along with all of our music genres, which are contemporary Christian, country, Americana, rock and pop represented out of this office too. So it’s been really exciting to see the growth of our Nashville office, especially coming off of a tough while of having to strip back down (during the pandemic) but then come right back to it.”

(Among some of the WME Nashville office clients who don’t fall under the mainstream banner: pop artists King Princess and Lewis Capaldi, rock-country crossover artist Elle King, Americana artist like Jason Isbell, Yola, the Revivalists, Molly Tuttle, Paul Cauthen and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Elle King and the War & Treaty, and Christian music stars Lauren Daigle and Mercy Me, as a sampling.)

What changed during the pandemic? “I think we’ve gotten a lot better to be able to stay in touch. We’re not actually in a physical office,” Williams says.

“The other thing is it gave our clients who are usually so tour-heavy a pause — and especially in the country space, where a lot of times it’s hard to get their attention if it comes our way and it’s not necessarily connect-the-dots music-related. TV, film, those things, it’s hard to get somebody’s attention when they’re in the middle of a tour cycle and they’re touring constantly. So I think a lot of people started reading for parts that maybe they wouldn’t have if they had been busier.”

On the list of accomplishments, they helped place two clients, country’s Randy Houser and the Americana favorite Jason Isbell, in one Martin Scorsese movie alone, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” A Scotty McCreery hit is teed up for a Hallmark movie. On the other hand, Reba McEntire, another client, didn’t exactly need a time-out to get a couple more acting jobs under her belt… which didn’t stop her from resuming touring quickly, too, as members of the team were just out last week to see her.

“The virtual shows was a whole new thing — new to most of us, anyway — and really gave our artists something to do,” Williams continues, “and a lot of income for some of the big streaming looks that people had over the last year and a half. I think there’s a way that that still continues, but it’s going to be a lot more focused around an event or an album release.”

“Talking about your crossover and your other deals outside of touring,” says Gardenhire, “we have branding and partnership agents that sit in Nashville. So Walker’s Applebee’s commercial deal, which obviously was a no-brainer if you hear that song, was done through our branded partnership team. Thomas Rhett has a Fritos commercial that’s coming out. They did also a Super Bowl ad for one of our youngest TikTok discovery artists, Spencer Crandall, with Ram. It’s pretty awesome about the different levels of artists that we’re touching through brands and other opportunities like that.”

But getting back to the core business, what shape is it in, coming out of the pandemic? Or are we out yet, given that anecdotal reports of no-shows have popped up since live music came back in a significant way in 2021?

Says Lee, “A lot of those no-shows that were being reported — or not so much reported but  just talked about — were indoor arena shows where tickets were purchased in, say,  2019 and rescheduled to a later date, and when they got rescheduled, there were mandates then that went into effect. And a lot of the no-shows maybe came from the people that weren’t gonna wear wear a mask, more so in the indoor arena shows than it was the outdoor shows.”

Adds Williams, “Where you have somebody like Reba, who’s got a sold out tour, her drop counts are 98% in some places.There’s some head scratchers in a lot of places still, in big cities that were shut down longer, especially cities in Canada where it’s not coming back as quick. And I think (the industry) really changed people’s buying habits because we kept picking up shows, moving them, sometimes canceling ‘em, refunding some places, giving people the option to hold onto their tickets on others. And I think it really confused the consumers.”

But at the top level of arenas and stadiums, the general feeling is that sales have never been robust — it’s just at the mid- and lower levels of touring where there’s still room for some improvement in the vast comeback.

“The tours that are going to sell out are still going to sell out in the on-sales,” says Williams. “The stuff that maybe wasn’t going to sell out in the on-sale is taking just a little bit longer, and it’s a little more of an effort. But the business is healthy. I mean, the on-sales that we’ve seen in the last month are getting better and better, even with shows that are playing in March and April, compared to where they were in January and February are a lot better. I just think people are waiting a little bit longer or waiting till close to the show. And there’s a lot of entertainment options all of a sudden at once, where a year ago there weren’t.”

Notes Gardenhire, “People want to go out and maybe have dinner, and you’re competing with even simple things like that. This is more at a club level, where it’s like, maybe you’re not buying six club-level tickets if you’re an avid fan, because you’re also going to do sporting events and dinner and things that you just weren’t able to do for a while. So there’s a little bit of that. But to Jay’s point, it’s a lot healthier and it seems to get better and better almost every month.”

WME’s list of superstars is as male-heavy as almost anybody’s, reflecting in part the perceived bottleneck at country radio that only allows for a couple of female headliners at a time. But the agency has made a robust effort to push women through to the genre’s upper ranks. That’s reflected in, as previously mentioned, WME having four of the five nominees for best new female artist — Caityn Smith, Lily Rose, Tenille Arts and the woman who was pre-announced as the winner, Lainey Wilson. Big breakthroughs this past year range from McBryde at the mid-level to newcomer Morgan Wade at the introductory level, with a roster of young talent just beyond the new-artist level that also includes Barrett, Ingrid Andress and Tenille Townes.

There were a couple of news stories out of the office in 2021 that had to do with people leaving: former co-head Scott Clayton, who departed for UTA, and young but troubled superstar Morgan Wallen, with whom the agency officially parted ways shortly after his N-word controversy erupted. The current co-heads indicate that the sheer number of official toppers in the office isn’t an issue — that they used to have a couple more, for that matter, but that three is enough to maintain oversight of everything needed for the time being.

As for Wallen’s exit, no one jumps at the chance to talk about him, but Williams does chime in with an attendant loss: “Well, I think we all would agree we hated losing Austin (Neal) in the deal. He’s a great friend and one of the best agents in this town, and we were cheering for him when he was here, and we’re going to keep cheering for him.” Neal, a close friend of Wallen, left WME late last year to start an independent agency with Wallen as his flagship client.

Do they look in the side mirror to figure out how to stay ahead? “We’re all pretty competitive in this business,” allows Williams, but, he insists, “we don’t sit around and worry what anybody else is doing.” If there’s a difference between WME and its competitors, he maintains that “what separates us from everybody else is that we’re a super tight-knit office, and we — all three — are available” to everyone else in the office. All three of us spend hours every week mentoring and helping people figure out issues, even with (artists) that aren’t our direct clients. It’s not siloed. You’ve got a lot of senior people helping new agents figuring out a way to sort of navigate artists through the whole cycle and growth.”