Kevin Neal knows all about the ups and downs of the country music business. With a 25-plus year career that began with a stint working alongside his late father, legendary agent/manager Bob Neal at the Neal Agency, he has helped orchestrate the careers of everyone from George Strait and Waylon Jennings to current country superstar Jason Aldean.
Now in his second go-round with iconic 48-year-old Nashville agency Buddy Lee Attractions, the company’s president and three-time winner of the International Entertainment Buyers Association’s [IEBA] Talent Agent of the Year said he’s happy to see how the slow-and-steady approach has worked with Aldean.
What do you offer to your roster that some of the bigger agencies don’t?
With Jason [Aldean] as in the past with Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, George Strait — whom we represented before they were headliners — from day one it’s taking time to develop and invest our time in their careers. It’s about believing in them because some of those did not happen overnight. I met Jason several years before with his father when a friend of mine introduced me to him and he was a work in progress. He went to a bunch of showcases and he landed with [the label] Broken Bow that day. And that day we started working on the plan to develop his career and try to build him up as a hard ticket.
What was your pitch to him?
With him, a lot of faith goes into this business. Jason was getting ready to move back to Georgia. He was done with it and we [made the deal] with him at his last showcase. I had been to several showcases and been supportive of him and there was nobody else at the showcase from any other agency. I just scratched my head going, “why doesn’t somebody sign him?”
At a time when superstars are harder to build in every genre, how do you go about building up an act like Jason?
His first single didn’t come out until 2005, but he went on the road in 2004 playing clubs, fairs, anything in markets, especially radio markets, to get him exposure. I knew that when radio stations saw the live show and met him they would get it. Seeing is believing. His first single [“Hick Town”] came out and did very well and at the same time we represented Miranda Lambert. So, in early 2006 we put them on a run of 12-15 dates together as a hard ticket when each had just one single out and called it “Country Gone Wild.” It did well for two new acts and we played one show in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and sold close to 3,000 tickets. We played anywhere from large clubs to colleges, up to 3,000 capacity.
Then we did an opening run for Rascal Flatts where he did 15 minutes. He’s one of the only artists I’ve ever seen make an impact in 15 minutes. The following year was as a middle act on a Rascal Flatts tour. Between that, we did hard ticket dates from 1,200 seaters to 2,000 seaters in addition to support in the right places with Tim McGraw and Toby Keith.
The balance is you can become the perennial opening act, or you can go, “okay I can play this festival in this market or I could go headline a building in this market and get people to pay to see me.” There’s no value if you’re playing that market every year for free.
What were you able to do for him that other agencies might not have?
There wasn’t an attitude of any market being too small to play. If someone is paying for a ticket and we’re the big fish in a small pond, we’ll make impressions. We’ve had good partners in promoters through the years and Jason was probably a rarity in that he was one of the first artists who could capitalize because of his young demographic on social media in places like Facebook. We had to really think about that balance in talking to his management, whose thought was that he needed to go out with a low ticket. Other ticket prices were going up, our ticket was low. We went and headlined the first time with a $19.75 ticket. Even now, with him being one of the biggest live acts, the ticket price is still low at $49.75 for a P1. Nothing’s new. [Former client] Garth Brooks was the one that jumped out there with a low ticket and he succeeded. I talked to Jason and remember the phone call where we talked ticket price and he said he’d rather have 5,000 people come see him for $20 than 2,000 at $50. He got it.
How do you hold onto him?
You can look at the success. Jason’s comfortable, not complacent and we have plans for the next two years. He’s a very loyal person and he knows that I would stand in front of a truck for him, which comes with an eight-year working relationship. We’re close friends, we’re close family friends — I don’t think there’s any part of his career that he wants that’s not being taken care of. Some artists you see that will switch, whether from us or CAA or WME, because they want to be something else, or think they’re going to be a movie star, something bigger will happen when it’s not. Jason’s got a lot of growth left for whatever he wants to do. He knows everything here is taken care of for him.
What’s it like running a boutique agency amid the competition from the CAAs and WMEs of the world?
My father had an agency that sold to William Morris in 1974. I’ve learned that this is a relationship business. You’ve got to manage the expectations of the artists, which is a big thing. We’ll do everything we can to work them and put them in the best situation possible to advance their career. But it has to be a team. Jason’s got great management. Live Nation is doing [most of] his tour and doing an outstanding job. Everybody cares and is passionate. And not just because Jason’s a headliner. We’ve been passionate since he was playing 150-seat clubs.
Jason is on a tear: winning big at the ACM Awards, setting a record for the biggest RodeoHouston crowd. How do you plot out his next move?
We know the music will be there, we know the passion of the record company and, it may sound cocky, but it’s not if the next album will go platinum, it’s how quickly and how much bigger? It’s looking forward. His music is real and it speaks to people across the lines. It’s sort of Southern rock, he wears a beat-up straw hat and two earrings and his band’s a bunch of guys with spiked hair. Is this country?
What’s going on in the country industry now? How is it changing and how are you keeping pace?
Country will always cycle. You’ve got Lady Antebellum, who are very pop and you’ve got Jason, who’s a rocker and [my client] Colt Ford, who is described as a country rapper and who goes out and sells 2,000-5,000 tickets a show. The lines are blurred and if you look at a kid’s iPod they have everything from hip-hop to hard rock and country. Country has become more mainstream and we have artists who are not getting airplay on terrestrial radio, but getting it on satellite radio and selling. It’s also a bit of a changing of the guard with artists like Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Eric Church and Luke Bryan.
With his recent Academy of Country Music wins with the Kelly Clarkson duet, are you positioning Jason for a crossover move?
No, it just happens. This goes back to last year at the CMAs, when he won Vocal Event and Album of the Year. He had the biggest-selling [country] album of 2011; “Dirt Road Anthem” went double-platinum and he did a version with Ludacris that sold over three million copies. But there’s no plan. If he crosses over and it comes to him, that’s fine. He will sell out every show this year. For a long time, Nashville country artists weren’t selling in Texas. Then he went down and played his first show in Paris, Texas, in 2005 at a club and he told me, “It’s tough, but we got ‘em.” He said he was going to break Texas and we played three Dallas market shows in a 90-day period and just hammered it. And now he just set a record for attendance at the Houston Livestock Show.
Changing direction a bit, do you think the IEBA conference is a good place to do business? [U+2028]
I think IEBA is the best conference that there is because it’s an artist showcase. You have no showcasing at Billboard or Pollstar and IEBA keeps growing and I think it will grow more and probably move into more pop artists showcasing because you’ve got most of the major talent buyers there. Nashville is great because it’s centrally-located, so if you want to see what’s new and will be the next big thing, come and see it. If you can see artists showcase and you have some foresight … at our showcase, Variety Attractions saw Jason and put their chips on him as the next new thing and bought 25 shows for the next summer, and we still do dates with Variety. You hear the talk after the showcases. I had a group from Australia, the McClymonts, who have gotten major work out of IEBA.
With the constant talk about how record sales are soft, do you see more opportunities for country artists, or less?
Country has pretty much always been a North American music, though people listen to it in all parts of the world. I think we’re getting some more looks from corporate America in terms of sponsorship and marketing. Artist’s careers are built gradually. You go to a Jason show and see 30-year-old parents with their kids who love “Dirt Road Anthem” and it’s not an older audience, but it will be a loyal one that will continue to grow with him. I sent out a letter in 2004 to buyers and I said, “I’ve not seen an artist with this much charisma since Garth Brooks,” and people bought [shows by Jason] and they believed me. And they’d have him live and say, “you’re right,” and bring him back and help develop the market. Jason was opening for Tim McGraw and he got on the bus and he said, “when is it gonna be before I’m playing bigger venues and selling 5,000-seaters?” I told him, “you’re only three-and-a-half minutes away. You need a big old hit.” Right after that was “She’s Country,” which started it all.
Contact: Kevin Neal, (615) 244-4336