Executive Profile: Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell, President of Live Nation Nashville, has worked with some of the biggest names in country music including hugely successful tours with Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, and many more.

He is a director for the Country Music Hall of Fame, the CMA, the ACM and the CRB (Country Radio Broadcasters). He has won four “Promoter of the Year” awards from the Academy of Country Music and was recognized by Pollstar with the 2006 Bill Graham Promoter of the Year Award.

Click here for the PDF version, which includes additional photos

Click here for Executive Profile Archive

He also developed the highly successful Country MegaTicket, a multi-show offer featuring multiple country artists at Live Nation venues. Fans choose from a variety of ticket packages featuring multiple artists, seating options and amenities that has been offered for nearly 12 years at the start of the new live music season.

O’Connell, born and raised in Chicago, began his career by booking shows in college at Western Illinois University, participating in the university entertainment committee and deejaying on nights and weekends. From there, O’Connell began working with music and sponsorship in the Chicago area where he met Live Nation’s current president of the Carolinas, Wilson Howard, and ICM agent Terry Rhodes. O’Connell was working with The Beach Boys and The Moody Blues and began building his relationship with Rhodes, longtime agent for the band.

“I was the new guy from the sponsorship fulfillment company calling these established promoters who had a lot more on their mind than speaking with me about where to place logos,” O’Connell said.

He continued to grow and build relationships.

“I’d met most of the guys across the country,” he said. “Through sponsorship I developed a great relationship with Wilson Howard, who along with Terry, recommended me to Jack Boyle, the cofounder of Cellar Door Productions.” Boyle eventually asked O’Connell, in 1993, to join the Florida division of his company.

“I had never been to Ft. Lauderdale in my life,” O’Connell said. “I went to work in the marketing department and had no idea what that even meant. All I knew was I wanted to be in the game, no matter what the gig was. I was prepared to move across the country to get my shot.”


Those are some great mentors.

Every minute of every day that I spent around Jack Boyle was worth more than any other piece of information, any other tactic or skill that I’ve learned.

So you were around for the SFX rollup?

Yes. In 1996, Jack moved me to Washington, D.C., when his partner, who was head of D.C., Dave Williams, took ill. Jack moved me up to Washington to basically do whatever needed to be done. And that’s when I started mainstream talent buying. I was doing country as a side project the first three years at Cellar Door because no one else did it. There were no rock promoters in 1993-95 that were really involved in the fabric of the country music business. Now they’ll all lie and say they were, but history tells you differently.

But how did you migrate from Washington to Nashville?

Jack called me into his office one day. There were several people in the company who will attest to this – I thought I had done something wrong. I swear to you.

At that time, I was heavily into the Nashville country scene. I had developed the Megaticket in D.C., and I had begun to build the Touring platform for Cellar Door with the first Shania Twain tour, and The Judds tour around that time. Jack called me in and told me he was moving me to Nashville. I was sitting in the No. 5 market in the country, with all the history in Cellar Door, Jack and everybody else, and I was floored. I thought I had absolutely done something wrong.
And I’ll never forget him telling me, “You belong in Nashville. That’s where you’re going to excel and you’ll always have a job as long as you’re there.” And he was right. It was where I should have been all along.

Was country music always part of your background?

If you’re asking me what my musical tastes were – did I have every Don Williams record? No. I’m a huge fan of singer/songwriters, from The Beatles to John Prine.

But country music, as people are figuring out now, isn’t pigeonholed. You know how everybody says if Eagles came out now they’d be a country band? Then I’m guilty; I was a country music fan.

I’m a music fan. I’m a music freak. Anybody who knows me knows that the music I have in my head is the bad ’70s stuff, I love it

I’d say if I was any one type of music fan it would be the singer/songwriters.

Country songs can be crossover hits. Considering you just said you’re a music fan, can you tell when one will be a hit with a wide audience?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I rely on my friends at the labels and radio to tell me what will be commercially successful. There is a huge difference between what works live, and what works at radio. I can absolutely tell you if a particular song will fit in the show, or not fit, but as far as hearing “the single,” that isn’t my gig. The Flatts guys and I always laugh when they are getting ready to put the record out – the stuff I like rarely even makes the album!

What are your thoughts on Music City?

I can tell you that we have a quality of life that may be unmatched anywhere in the country. The current mayor is doing a phenomenal job on the revitalization of our downtown area, with the new convention center, the Country Music Hall of Fame expansion etc. This is an exciting time to be in Nashville, and yet, it’s a 15-minute commute to just about anywhere you want to go. That, to me is a little slice of heaven.

What is your favorite piece of the creative process, as far as the artists are concerned?

Look, some of the greatest times in our world are on the road, when guys and girls are out there writing the records. Most of the artists write on the road, or have writers come out with them.

And that’s a blast because you get to see and listen to the process. You sit down and you’re fortunate enough to be in the company of these people and you hear the birth of a song, and it doesn’t have a genre.

It’s really kind of weird. The process is what’s fascinating to me. It has nothing to do with genres and boundaries. If you are lucky enough to witness the writing of a hit song, it will absolutely freak you out. And I’ve been so fortunate to see lots of them. And it’s still one of my favorite parts of this entire business.

Live Nation Nashville has had a role in bringing many young country artists to the next level. Is there a protocol?

First of all, the acts I work with – every one of them – I met when they were baby acts. I met Toby Keith in 1993 when “Should Have Been A Cowboy” was a new single. I met the Flatts at a party at Ronnie Dunn’s house. Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw – all the guys I’ve been fortunate to work with in my career have all been opening acts.

I can see talent and I can see work ethic. I can hear when it works. Everybody I’ve been fortunate to work with, I’ve seen them from when they were pushing their own gear around to the pinnacle of their careers. And to say I had something to do with that – just a small part – makes me very proud.

But is there a protocol? No. Is it about teamwork? Yes. It’s all about commitment and teamwork.

People will laugh but one of the things you get with me is 24/7. People send me emails at 4 a.m. and I’ll get back to them at 4:05. Teamwork and information are the keys. When you’re on the road as much as I am, you’re kind of a vampire. You’re upside down. Mornings suck, but this last year I counted 44 weeks on the road. I see the acts out of their element, I see them in the small towns across the country, and then I see them in major venues across the country.

I get to see who they really are and what they are about. That gives me all the information that I need.

I’ve seen them all grow to superstar status and the look in their eye, the way they go about their craft and their attention to detail, and their individualism, is what really stands out.

The media has noted New York being the No. 1 market for country music, yet it doesn’t have a country radio station.

Well, New York – that’s Math Olympics. That market has the most people living there so, per capita, if 1 percent of them buy a record, it’s going to win. Do I think New York should have a country radio station? Absolutely. I don’t run radio stations, though, and radio is having enough trouble everywhere else. Do I think the person who figures it out will have a bonanza? Absolutely. Am I openly cheering for it? Absolutely.

But, look – we have a country music radio station in Long Island. And we have this funny thing called the Internet now.

God bless it, it has a tendency to reach out and touch a lot of people. I view pretty much every market the same.

A New York Country station would be great for our business, but we manage to do OK without one. I don’t worry about what we don’t have; I try and worry about what we do have, and make it work.

Last year we asked you who would be a breakout artist in 2011 and you said Luke Bryan. Who is it for 2012?

The Band Perry.

I think they’re going to be the next big act to break. I told you two years ago to watch out for Luke Bryan, and he had a huge year this year, out with Tim McGraw, and then headlining his own dates in the fall. Next year he’s out with Jason Aldean, so look out for that one.

If you had asked me five years ago, I would have told you Jason. It’s a process. You just watch the year Jason’s going to have next year. Oh my God. It’s going to be so over the top.

Country music business is perpetually strong, and artists tend to build their careers. Is there anything the rock world can learn from it?

I learn every day. The world changes every 30 seconds. I think that whatever you are doing, you have to look around and see why certain things work, and adapt accordingly.

I can tell you my theory, though.

Rock ‘n’ roll and the rock ‘n’ roll business is, by its very nature, exclusionary. The country music business, by its very nature, is inclusionary. Country music is a community.

In the rock/pop side of the world, you have all these sub-genres. Top 40 Pop AC, Hot AC, Classic Rock, etc.

Everything from Michael Bublé to Anthrax. If you’re a certain kind of music fan, in pop, rock or hip-hop, you have to hunt for what you want to hear or see. It’s fragmented and getting more fragmented by the minute

In country, you just have country. And it’s a family. Anybody who thinks that’s hokey or inaccurate has never worked in this segment of the business.

You’ve got 10-year-old kids to grandparents at every show. Toby Keith: there’s little kids; there’s grandparents. Taylor Swift: little kids, grandparents. Jason Aldean. Just pick an act. We encourage the acts that are coming up through the ranks, meaning the support acts, we want them to grow. We want them to get bigger. And I’m not saying other genres don’t want that to happen, but we have to put down the roots as an industry. We only have our little corner of the music business and we try to root for each other, and try to have each other’s backs.

We try to go out and further the reach and scope of our little piece of the music business and hand it down to the next generation of artists and people in the business, and leave it a little better than we found it. It sounds very pollyannaish or disingenuous, but it’s true. We fight like cats and dogs every day but watch one of our awards shows. Watch how the artists all talk to each other. Watch how the people in the business go to lunch every day and hang out with each other. We’re all happy with our jobs. We compete, because we all have agendas, but we also look out for the industry by serving on various boards that allow us to leave our individual agendas at the door, and work together to strengthen our industry.

You’ve received your share of awards including four Promoter of the Year awards from the ACMs.

Well, I’m lucky I guess. Those awards are a big deal to me. Any time that your peers honor you with an award is extremely gratifying, but at the end of the day, it is a reflection on the great artists that I am fortunate enough to work with, and the unbelievable team we have at Live Nation globally.

A few rapid-fire fluff questions for those who just might want to know a little more about you:

What is your favorite golf course? Patriot Club, Tulsa Okla., because of what it stands for. If you go to FoldsofHonor.org, it will answer all the questions.

What sports teams are you devoted to? Well, you know where I’m from. I’m a Cubs fan, a Notre Dame fan, a Bears fan and a Blackhawks fan.

Any favorite restaurant? Well, my favorite food in the world comes from a place called Portillo’s in Chicago.

So what’s life like under the Live Nation mantle?

Michael Rapino has let me run the country music division of Live Nation and, now with Bob Roux and Mark Campana as the co-presidents of North American Concerts, these are guys that trust me and let me do what I do. That’s important to me. Without their trust, I couldn’t function.

And they know that when I bring them something, I’ve already researched it, I’ve done my due diligence and I believe in it. And they believe in me, and that’s what matters to me. I still think this business is about trust. And to have Rapino’s and Irving’s trust, and Mark Campana’s and Bob Roux’s trust, means the world to me. I will take the field with our team any day of the week, and am confident that we are the absolute best.

What could someone do to make sure you’d never take their phone call again?

Be disrespectful.

What agent does it right?

All of them. I’m a huge supporter of the agency system.

I have tours with William Morris, CAA, Buddy Lee and Paradigm. The agents are some of my best friends and I enjoy the check-and-balance. And I’m blessed that I work with some of the best artist managers in the world. It’s a true partnership, from routing dates to settling shows to record release dates and cooperative marketing plans.

You’ve gushed on social media about some of the recent shows.

There’s nothing more exciting than a live show. I started my twitter account (@boccountry) this last year to give the fans a peek behind the curtain. I do Q&A sessions on the bus most every Thursday on the way out of town. I like to tell them what I see from my point of view.

Jason Aldean, for instance. When I first met him five or six years ago, I saw Jason Aldean as a band. The show he puts on with that group of guys is amazing. It’s really something else. It’s different, and it’s cool. It’s got all the pieces. I tell the fans what I see in all the markets, and hopefully answer their questions.

I still get excited by that. I thought this year, for instance, Rascal Flatts, after 10 years, had put together their best tour from a performance standpoint. After 10 years of nothing but touring, they huddled up, got re-energized, came out and blew the doors off.

There’s nothing more exciting to me than seeing the actual performance. Sitting behind a desk and filling out forms and looking at ticket counts? That’s not being a promoter. To me, being a promoter is being involved at the show, exploring, watching, evaluating and helping. I used to dream about it. When I figured out I wasn’t going to play center field for the Cubs, I thought I’d better find something to do. And there isn’t a day I don’t get up and say, “Wow. Guess what I get to do today!”

So, yes, I do “gush.” Whoever isn’t thrilled by the opportunity to work in this business should go do something else.