When Wheelhouse releases a new Runaway June single, “We Were Rich,” it will mark a big moment for the trio, which managed to regroup after the departure of Hannah Mulholland.
Remaining members Naomi Cooke and Jennifer Wayne could have dissolved the act, or they could have moved forward as a duo, and both of those options were considered before Natalie Stovall ultimately filled the vacant position.
It’s a level of complication that solo acts never face, but that also represented an extra layer of drama for Runaway June’s manager, F2 Entertainment president/CEO Fletcher Foster. He essentially gets the same commission he would receive from a solo artist after assisting the trio through a transition that focused on personality and compatibility as much as it did on sound.
“The music elements, all of those kinds of things that [are apparent] in the front, you can figure those out,” he says, “but it’s the behind-the-scenes things that really make the machine work.”
Groups are like a marriage, since each individual has his or her own entity while the relationship between any two people can have its own separate dynamic. Because of that complexity, bands were pariahs in country music for years because of the potential issues that Runaway June’s lineup shift represents. Managers — as well as labels and booking agencies — staked their own careers on an act’s reliability, and as an act’s size increases, so does the likelihood that it will suffer from some career-ending pitfall.
Alabama, a quartet that made its Top Country Albums debut with My Home’s in Alabama 40 years ago on the chart dated June 14, 1980, made managers more willing to gamble on bands when it launched a series of multiplatinum titles and arena sellouts. But some of the fears about bands played out during the group’s run: Drummer Mark Herndon was a hired hand rather than a shareholder, and the internal strife during Alabama’s tours was significant, according to Herndon’s autobiography.
Those same doubts still exist. Nashville record labels turned down Old Dominion — which has won the Country Music Association’s vocal group honor the last two years — specifically because it was a group. And Morris Higham Management president Clint Higham repeatedly resisted when producer Shane McAnally (Midland, Sam Hunt) approached him about managing the act. Higham gave in only after he was persuaded that Old Dominion had the stability and dedication to match its talent.
“He just kept after me,” notes Higham. “When the guys came in and I realized, ‘OK, they’re a unit, and they’re committed to their craft by touring in a van and doing it all themselves,’ that was inspiring.”
The challenges in band management are numerous. In addition to dealing with more personalities, larger circles of influence from friends and family, and the occasional possibility of a lineup change, decision-making can take longer and it’s more difficult to establish a brand. A solo artist can use the cult of personality to drive their story — every country fan has a sense of who Carrie Underwood or Luke Bryan is. But it’s often difficult for that same consumer to identify all the different members of a group beyond the lead singer, let alone develop a composite sense of their characters.
That’s an issue Red Light Management executive Mary Hilliard Harrington encounters daily while guiding LANCO.
“They all have very distinct personalities, but the reason that they’re connecting with fans is the live experience. It isn’t because of what they ate for breakfast,” she observes. “And by the way, as a manager, that’s what I want because that’s building longevity and a touring career that can go on for 20 years if we keep building it one show at a time versus it being based on whatever they’re doing in their yard at home or whatever the shtick of the day is.”
The difference between the group dynamic and managing a solo artist is particularly apparent to Harrington now as she continues to handle Dierks Bentley‘s career while overseeing the management of his pet project, Hot Country Knights.
“Choosing what the album cover is going to be is way easier when it’s just me and Dierks,” she says. “When there’s six opinions, obviously that’s going to take a whole lot longer. And when there’s six opinions in what I guess you would call a comedy project, all of the opinions are often off-color, and they’re really just oftentimes doing things to get a rise out of me. I’ve learned a lot more patience.”
Working through the financial components is likewise an issue. Morris Higham client Kenny Chesney keeps all his profits after he pays commissions, fees and expenses, while Old Dominion divvies up its receipts among five participants. As a result, a change in production costs can have a larger effect on each band member and his family, and that puts even more stress on a band during its developmental stages. Attitudes during that period are key.
“We try to focus our business model on growing the pie versus talking about slicing the pie,” says Higham.
Ultimately, though building a band is more difficult than managing a solo career, the very nature of focusing on music rather than personality offers large potential rewards even when a founding member leaves. Higham points to country/rock’s Eagles, rock ensemble Journey and country trio-turned-duo Sugarland as acts that were able to survive key lineup changes, mostly because the quality of their music outshined any individual contributor.
That makes a key crossroads, such as Stovall’s arrival in Runaway June, that much more crucial. For both the group and the manager, the critical element in an ensemble’s success still comes down to finding the right individual.
“You go through the list of who’s musically fit for this, you know, who is visually fit for this, and then you get to this hard part,” says Foster. “Who do you want to have in the bunk above you or beside you on a day-to-day basis on this journey? That becomes the biggest part.”
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