Seth England heads the Big Loud Mountain partnership which discovered and launched Florida Georgia Line. “We’re serial entrepreneurs,” says the five-year overnight success. “I was born an Illinois rural farm kid and raised with a work upbringing.”
England went to college in Greenville, Ill. During Freshman year he and a friend decided to promote a show, “that our friends would like to see,” because they were frustrated by the out of touch campus activities board. “We called an agent in California not knowing if we were doing it the right way, but just using common sense,” England recalls. The show sold out and a business was born. “We became concert promoters in college, it was our side job.”
England loved football, but the school also had a music business program which he attended. His first Nashville summer internship was split between Harlan Howard Songs and Vector Management around 2005. “That year I learned to respect the history of country music on the publishing side, but also got management training,” he says. “At first, I wanted to do just publishing so the following year I interned at Big Loud Shirt.”
“The first time I met Big Loud Shirt founder Craig Wiseman,” says England, “I was literally outside pulling his weeds. It was a slow day, I grew up on a farm and don’t mind working.” A year or so later England returned to Big Loud full time. “This is the only place I’ve ever worked and I’m forever thankful to Craig. One of the toughest things in business is it’s hard for people to see you in any way other than when you first met. That’s human nature. But Craig has never been like that and to be honest it’s one of his best attributes as a business owner. He is able to see people for their potential and put them in a higher position, quicker than anyone else would. He’d say, ‘If you want to play in the fire, jump in the fire.'”
The following interview done in England’s Big Loud Mountain office is stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with observations and new ideas. Topics include the label’s unique artist development strategies; the “real story” behind FGL; what’s going on with the music; country’s success; and more…
NEKST: As VP over all the Big Loud companies, how would you describe the flow charts?
Seth England: The short answer is we have Big Loud Shirt (publishing) and Big Loud Bucks (admin) owned solely by Craig Wiseman, plus Big Loud Mountain (label) with four partners, and there’s a studio downstairs. We’ve established a culture here which Jimmy Harnen would describe as—we hire slow and fire quick. We want to make sure we have the right people in the room because one rotten egg can send the house awry. My role is like the GM or right hand man. I just redid my deal and my new title is VP over all the companies. The day I started working for Craig he told me his vision was to look outside his window and see half the parking lot with vans and trailers and the other half with Range Rovers. The idea being that one group will help the other and work together.
NEKST: What about Big Loud Mountain?
Seth England: We signed Joey Moi to a publishing deal here about 4 years ago when he was coming to the end of his run with Nickelback. Rodney Clawson and I helped him get some tracks to cut on the Jake Owen record. He just killed it and it created opportunities for him. He’s one of the best producers I’ve ever seen, so I told Craig we need to partner with him. Joey said, “I’d love to be the production element, but if I can give some advice you need to meet this guy Kevin ‘Chief’ Zaruk who is my manager, he tour-managed Nickelback and his perspective on the road is unparalleled.” So the four of us joined together and started a publishing company, a management company and a record label that at the time was meant to be a development or production company. The premise was four equal board members at the table from different backgrounds which has proved a great decision. It allows us to move fast and toward the same goal. Having everyone in one location has also made a great difference. We can say “let’s all meet here in five minutes.” So far we’ve never had one artist complain about us being able to make decisions quickly.
NEKST: There are so many legends and rumors about FLG. What is the true story behind the duo’s rise to fame?
Seth England: Here’s the facts. To this day Brian and Tyler go out and invest in themselves, because they are the hardest working guys I’ve ever met. In 2011, my roommate Lee Krabel, HoriPro Creative Director, was saying to me, “You need to see these guys.” I missed several opportunities, but finally dragged Craig with me to see them at 12th and Porter. They had a song called “Bad Ass Truck” that we still joke about and say, “If you can sing the chorus to ‘Bad Ass Truck’ you can be in this part of the decision,” that’s how we know who was really there from day one. The showcase room started clearing out and I said to Craig, “Shall we go?” He answers, “Hell no, this is awesome.” What Craig saw was 20 or 30 girls dancing in front of the stage singing every song. Craig taught me a lesson that night, he’s never cared who’s leaving the room, he’s always looking forward. So I brought them in the office to meet Craig hoping they’d be dressed like artists, but instead they show up in work clothes with paint on them. They were painting houses at the beginning of each week so they could make enough money to tour on the weekends. Craig loved it and put them in a co-write room with Rodney Clawson. The first song they wrote was called “Tip It Back.” Rodney was excited and said, “Dudes, these guys speak the language of the kids today. They aren’t professional songwriters yet, but they are coachable, teachable and their ideas are amazing.”
NEKST: What happened next?
Seth England: Brian and Tyler had no other offers on the table of any kind. But yet they were working a lot, had a vision and seemed to know themselves artistically. I was nervous, but begged Kevin Neal to take a meeting with me to talk about representing FGL. “I know who they are,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for them to get a team together.” Kevin was an enormous addition. He’s a booking agent with vision and still sits at the small table with us for FGL decisions. Then one day Brian sings me a few lines from a new song he was writing with some friends. “Baby you’re like a song you make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.” He had that part. The verses were different and there was no bridge, but the structure of the hit song was there. He played it for Rodney, then Tyler and Joey and the three of them sat in the studio and edited and rewrote it to what it is now. Literally the day they signed with us they started recording “Cruise,” just before Christmas in 2011. I never asked permission to launch the single just forgiveness, but nobody could have predicted what happened.
Seth England: We hired Jerry Duncan and Marco Promotions to cover secondary radio, Jensen Sussman as publicist and the stars aligned. Every time a secondary or MusicRow station added their song the guys called the programmer saying, “You don’t know what this means to us, we appreciate it.” To this day they still have genuine relationships with the smallest stations. Then John Marks (SiriusXM) went on it and we started seeing a major shift across the U.S. and Canada. “Cruise” started selling almost 20k singles a week even though they were still unsigned. At that point they could have gone anywhere they wanted. The next transition included a lot of great people from Big Machine Label Group like Scott Borchetta, Jimmy Harnen, Allison Jones the Lippmans and more. I remember a breakfast at the Hutton Hotel where we were so impressed with Harnen’s leadership. We knew these guys could provide the missing piece, mainstream country radio. Once again it was, don’t be too prideful to say you need a partner.
NEKST: We’ve seen indie labels like RPM, HitShop and Bigger Picture raise the white flag recently. Many of them talked about new models, but mostly relied upon country radio and staffing expensive promo teams. You guys don’t have a promo team. Why?
Seth England: The easiest way to define what we do is active artist development. Even major label heads will admit they don’t have enough time to develop artists so we felt it was a natural place for us to be. The people most difficult to explain our structure to were artist attorneys. It was tough. The active part comes in because an artist can begin building a fan base while developing and growing. With respect to the other labels you mentioned, perhaps people are only able to believe in what they’ve experienced. Most of the people in those business models previously experienced success at country radio and the fruits of that labor, so why wouldn’t they create a business model that attacks what they know. What we knew was artist development so that’s been our first play as entrepreneurs. We don’t have a full promotion team, but because country radio is a big career component and we don’t want to miss anything we’ve brought radio vet Bart Allmand on board. He is a liaison for Brian and Tyler, joins Republic staff meetings and then he can also get on an airplane with Chris Lane and Dallas Smith to meet program directors.
NEKST: How does a developing artist grow a fan base?
Seth England: In 2012 FGL played on the side stage at the Country Throwdown tour with some younger major label signed artists who played after us. If those artists signed and met fans at the merchandise table, they rarely had anything to give them. Many only had a song on iTunes. Today, we’re starting to see the majors catch up and create EPs, something with which to engage fans. FGL had an EP and many times, if fans asked, just gave them away. I remember we played in front of Brantley Gilbert in 2011 in St. Louis. The show was sold out and they killed it. The promoter owned a smaller club about two blocks away and I booked FGL to return in 8 weeks. We sold tickets for $7 in advance and $12 the day of the show. I wanted to build up the on-sale. We were scared because we had accidentally picked a Friday night home game with St Louis in the World Series. We still sold 330 tickets and that is a real number. Eight weeks later when we returned the fans knew every song on that EP. This hard core group of fans started a Facebook Florida Georgia Line Missouri fans page, they were a community. So we engaged them and kept delivering content. To this day Brian and Tyler have two video guys on the road. After every show, by the next day there’s a highlight reel from the night before that looks awesome. Whenever you get a break or special exposure you have to be ready to surround it and maximize the opportunity. If not, you may not fully capture, the moment.
NEKST: Have you had success stories like this with any other artists?
Seth England: Right now we are in the process of launching a song from Chris Lane. We hired two secondary radio staffs, a publicist and he’s got a great agent. Sirius XM The Highway is supporting the song which has expanded him to Canada so we hired Ron Kitchener to run our Canadian radio campaign. Surprisingly, it went Top 3 on iTunes the first week in Australia, so we hired major radio and publicity support there. All of this is out of our company. The one thing we are not doing yet is actively promoting to major country radio. That being said, there’s still stations adding the song because they see Chris is a real artist. At the right time we’ll need a partner who specializes in major country radio because if you want a long career in country, it remains a crucial component. And we know that.
NEKST: Let’s talk music…
Seth England: I probably know what’s coming.
NEKST: People are focusing on lyrics, but just as important is the party feel and steady boom-boom on all four beats, not just on one and three, for example. The format has moved a long way toward mainstream music. Are we losing our identity in the process?
Seth England: No. We are gaining, growing. Country is cool. The other day a reporter asked me about BroCountry which they now want to brand as Alcohol Party country. With total respect to publishers, record labels, radio program directors and people that write articles, sometimes I think our jobs are centered around overthinking every decision. To quote Joey Moi, “You cannot intellectualize creativity.” Breaking down every lyric, verse, chorus, beat, melody and rhythm may be fun to do for some knowledgeable people in our community. But for the fans we depend on to buy our music, it’s not that complicated. Music is simply on or off. It doesn’t mean these conversations about how the genre has shifted aren’t relevant, but Johnny Cash was a rebel, he was different and he changed our format. Willie changed our format, now he’s a legend. Hopefully that means that Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and FLG will be legends someday when we look back. Maybe our genre is doing better than the business overall because our artists have been more accessible to the younger female audience which buys. I’m not just about money or sales. But in the end we are all in a position to overthink this conversation because we get a paycheck directly related to music. If you go see FGL, Jason Aldean or Luke Bryan live you’ll see each artist has their own identity because that’s all they know how to do. I saw this quote the other day that sums it up, “Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken.”
NEKST: Off or on equals emotion?
Seth England: When riding in the car with my girlfriend I don’t tell her what’s playing whether it’s FGL mixes to decide the next single or songwriting demos. All she knows is that she doesn’t know the songs. I learned this from Craig, don’t announce or ask about the music, but wait for her to look up and ask, “Hey what’s that?” Cause that’s what she’s going to do with a new song on the radio. Scott Borchetta once told me when I was worried about a decision we made, “Seth the one thing I learned through Taylor is the haters are loudest, but fewer numbers than you might think. The number of people that will spend their day to go on Facebook and write a hateful word are few in numbers. It causes debate so let people talk about it.”
NEKST: But still, country album sales are down about 18% and single sales are off 20%. Is the money coming through new channels?
Seth England: True. That’s why the happiest guys about where our genre is right now are probably Brian O’Connell (Pres. Nashville Touring, Live Nation), Louis Messina (Nashville concert promoter, The Messina Group) and Michael Rapino (Live Nation CEO). That’s because country artists like Jason, Luke, Kenny, Taylor and FGL are selling the same amount of tickets if not more and faster than major tours in other formats.
NEKST: What do you see going forward?
Seth England: The music business needs to learn ways to slide into normal content billing that consumers already want like cable or cellphones. As companies evolve and become more diversified, they become more comfortable allowing fans to obtain music by any means necessary. That doesn’t mean free or giving up their rights, but I’ve been more willing–right or wrong–as FGL’s manager and publisher to look at the big picture. If the opportunity on the artist end is 3 or 4 times the opportunity on the publishing side then we are going to take a look at it. If you were in our shoes you would too. I find we don’t have to sell our business model to young artists, most of the time people understand it now.