Visiting Sandbox’s colorful new 15,000 sq. ft. Green Hills digs is a wow! experience. “I never fully realized how convenient this location would be for our clients,” says Sandbox President/CEO Jason Owen. “Clients just drop in cause they’re in the area, it’s been great.”
Owen started this full service management, marketing, creative and publicity firm in the fall of 2010. He had previously spent about ten years as Sr. VP of Artist Development and Marketing at Universal Music Nashville working under Luke Lewis. Before arriving in Nashville, Owen enjoyed a successful TV career as Director of Marketing and Talent Relations at Columbia Tristar TV, plus served at Spelling Entertainment and New Line Cinema; so his TV roots run deep.
Sandbox manages Shania Twain, Little Big Town, Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves and Dan + Shay. They also have marketing clients that include Blackberry Farm; the Hank Williams Estate; the Johnny Cash Trust; Kimberly’s Simply Southern, a GAC cooking series with LBT member Kimberly Schlapman; and new cultural destination Wilson, Arkansas.
During the past year Owen surfaced in the Nashville rumor mill and even national press as a leading candidate to take over a Nashville major label, plus Billboard recently placed him Top 10 on its Nashville Power Players list.
The following sit-down covers a wealth of candid opinions. Subjects range from song holds and voting campaigns to taking advantage of country’s international opportunities. Owen also offers insight about his final decision to remain at Sandbox and how he’s created one of Nashville’s most successful management companies in only five years.
NEKST: Switching from label exec to manager/entrepreneur was a bold decision. What were you thinking in 2010 when you left Universal to form Sandbox?
Jason Owen: I had been sitting in that label chair—doing publicity, marketing and creative—for about 10 years, learning and working with Luke Lewis who I consider one of my biggest mentors in this business. He was getting ready to retire and I had started to feel some burnout within the label system. I was working with a few really great managers, but also with a bunch of bad ones and thought why are there not more good ones? I saw an opportunity. Then Shania approached me and asked, “Would you consider managing me?” Of course I had worked with her for a long time and knew her well. I bluntly asked, “Are you going to work?” She said, “Yes, but I’m going to need your help to get back on stage.” So I went to Luke and he was so supportive. I believe he had hoped I’d stay at Universal after he left, but he was happy I’d found some passion about taking a new chance, a new leap. So I started Sandbox with Shania as my first client. And by the way, regardless of whether she was working or not, she was a great client with which to start a company—an A-list name and a superstar act.
NEKST: How is Sandbox organized?
Jason Owen: At its heart, Sandbox was formed with a PR, creative and branding mentality. Almost everything else I had to learn—how to do the touring, the day-to-day budgeting for acts and the many details that follow. Right now our staff size is about 12. One of my best gifts is identifying people that are really great at what they do, so everyone on our team has their obvious strengths and that is what makes it work. We now resemble a label because we have in-house PR and social media/digital departments. Recently we began a touring division, which is becoming an incredible asset that I didn’t realize was missing. So we have it all in-house except radio promotion.
NEKST: Why not radio?
Jason Owen: Because radio’s so expensive and there are incredible promo staffs at the different labels. To have those label partnerships and utilize those staffs for your artists is key. I always want to partner with a label, and obviously I’m not interested in running one.
NEKST: People talk about radio’s challenging future. What’s your view?
Jason Owen: Without terrestrial radio behind something as big as “Girl Crush” it would never have received the exposure, sales and energy it got. So yes, when you are marketing an artist and releasing new material there are lot’s of avenues to travel, but at the heart of it, “Girl Crush” is perfect example.
NEKST: Management and deal making go hand in hand. What’s your approach to the art of the deal?
Jason Owen: Most deal making is based upon relationships. Everything starts with an idea. You do due diligence in your head and with your staff to be sure it makes sense. By the time it then gets to the actual deal making stage it should be easy. If it takes too long, I’m the first one to pull out. Maybe there’s a reason it shouldn’t be happening.
NEKST: What about finding songs for your artists?
Jason Owen: Something happened recently which reminded me that the days of placing songs on hold are mostly gone. And maybe that’s best for everyone. We had a couple of songs on hold and like a lot of A artists, this one isn’t cutting for a while so the song is on hold for 8 or 9 months. But if an immediate, guaranteed opportunity for a single comes along, how am I supposed to tell those songwriters to keep holding it for us even though in 8 months our artist may or may not cut your song and it may or may not be on the record. Even if the immediate opportunity is not with as big an artist, if it guarantees you a first single, that could be a whole lot better than waiting for an album cut down the road. So I don’t believe anyone should be able to put songs on hold unless they’re going into the studio right away.
Moving forward for my acts I’m looking at how much great music we can put out and how to best spread it in a way that it continually offers that new music fan/artist discovery experience.
NEKST: A single in the hand is worth two album cuts in the future?
Jason Owen: Exactly. We have labels that put songs on hold that sometimes myself or the artists don’t hear for months. And obviously it starts here whether or not we are really going to keep a song. The hold system is not fair to the songwriter/publishing community and it needs to be addressed. Times have changed. An album track on an A list album used to earn significant money. But that isn’t happening anymore. And it’s also not fair to the artist in the sense that if I put a song on hold and say, “I want it,” it still gets shopped around for a better deal. So it works both ways. The hold should go away.
NEKST: Anything else you’d like to change?
Jason Owen: I’d also like to do away with CMA/ACM voting campaigns. It’s a colossal waste of money and time for labels and artists. No one pays any attention to them unless it is something completely new, but still everyone is wracking their brain and spending hours in meetings. And if you don’t do something and someone down the street does, you feel like you opened up an advantage. It should be banned. The Grammies don’t allow it, the Oscars don’t allow it. It should be gone.
NEKST: Do you think selling the crowd that music attracts, kind of like Cumulus is doing, may be a centerpiece of music’s new business model?
Jason Owen: What John Dickey is doing at Cumulus is extremely impressive. He’s creating a brand similar to ESPN but for country. It’s aggressive and costly, but will ultimately pay off. To answer your question, yes, it’s what we are all trying to do. The music is the catalyst that connects the fan to an artist. Then you try to capture or monetize that relationship with a sponsorship, a concert ticket and other ways. It’s about creating a unique fan experience. The experience used to be buying the record at Wal Mart and the excitement of opening it up and listening for the first time. Artists still get that same reaction and response but it happens on Spotify or Apple and it may be from a single or a video. Today it’s all about instant gratification, which a lot of our industry hates, but that’s the world we live in. So from a financial model standpoint it isn’t just about CD revenue or a download sale it’s about connecting the music experience with the fan and then finding the income. Moving forward for my acts I’m looking at how much great music we can put out and how to best spread it in a way that it continually offers that new music fan/artist discovery experience.
NEKST: What’s ahead for Sandbox?
Jason Owen: Our future will involve a lot of content and a lot of TV which includes YouTube, network, cable and more. Video is probably today’s most powerful medium and our genre hasn’t exploited it completely. We’ll also be using TV to help sharpen our international focus. Kacey Musgrave just sold out Royal Albert Hall in 24 hours. That’s insane. Everyone is working toward how country fits internationally and it is by far one of the biggest opportunities facing us.
NEKST: How can our industry take better advantage of international opportunities?
Jason Owen: Getting our big ACM/CMA tentpole shows aired internationally is key and we just haven’t had that. There’s a lot of licensing problems in the marketplace including some that are on cable networks that are keeping us from showcasing our genre in the best possible light. As a community we have to focus on that. If we are going to continue building country music globally, TV is still one of the best ways. Look at what the show Nashville has done for country music and our city. It’s been amazing! Nashville is one of the hottest cities in the world right now and we need to take advantage of that opportunity.
NEKST: Would you like to comment about your decision to remain at Sandbox and not lead Sony?
Jason Owen: I have strong feelings about this because of the great relationships I have with Lucian Grainge and Doug Morris, Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe, plus with Randy Goodman and the current Sony executive team, who are all incredible. I just experienced going to a meeting at Sony about a potential new act I have. It’s been a while since I sat down with everyone in that building and the energy, creativity and excitement level was so infectious. I left so excited about what’s to come. Randy Goodman is a great leader and the best person for that job. He’s going to kick ass. I’m excited for him and will do anything I can to help him make Sony successful (although he doesn’t need my help).
NEKST: It’s hard to leave a company you’ve built and love?
Jason Owen: It is. I was engaged in the process because I had such affection for everyone involved, plus the company that Galante had built and its artists. It felt like a real opportunity to lead one of the majors into the new era and so for those reasons it was definitely exciting and interesting. But ultimately it came down to also having worked so hard to make Sandbox one of the most successful management companies in Nashville. I couldn’t even remotely think of doing anything that might endanger it. So after I realized it wasn’t the right move for me and stepped away, Randy came into the picture in a brilliant way and it worked out for the best.
Jason Owen: I need to add something. Due to the Sony situation and the success of our Sandbox clients I’ve been getting a lot of media visibility lately. Truthfully, none of that attention nor the accolades or awareness would have happened without the team I have here at Sandbox. I get a lot of the credit, but if it weren’t for these professionals we wouldn’t have those successes and it’s important to say.