Alex Alvga – Kane Brown
cover of Pollstar’s July 19, 2021 issue
“I’ve got people who like all kinds of music, and say, ‘I don’t like country music, but I like you’,” Kane Brown, perhaps the most equalizing and far-reaching artist in today’s new country world, admits, laughing about his different audiences. “There are country radio fans, who hear the songs that are hits, and the Kane Brown fans who know songs radio doesn’t touch. And it’s all good.
“A song like ‘Lose It,’ unless you’re a diehard fan, you’re maybe not gonna pick it up and play it; but when it comes on, it’s so rocking live, just in-your-face live, that it works. You know, it doesn’t matter how they hear it.
“I’d just say, ‘I’m a guy who wants to make people realize you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.’ I’m just somebody who’s wanting – no matter what race you are – if you like country music, if you want to be in country music, then you can be. Just look at me, and come on.”
Signed through massive Facebook reactivity and the iTunes-exploding No. 1 “Used To Love You Sober,” the mixed race – Black, white, Cherokee – superstar represented a different kind of career trajectory. Not groomed by a publisher, nor emerging from one of Nashville’s music business programs, he was just a kid raised in rural northwest Georgia and in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area who’d been in seven elementary schools, five high schools, worked at Lowe’s mixing paint, played sports, found a refuge in music and, yes, he always looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch model.
Alex Alvga – Cold Spot, Hot Shot:
Kane Brown is one of the few artists of any genre taking in arenas this year, with the “Worldwide Beautiful Tour” kicking off in September following outdoor summer dates.
Unlikely. But so is selling out the Staples Center in 90 minutes in 2019, followed by an 88-minute sellout during COVID lockdown, which is what happened when his “Blessed & Free Tour” tickets went on sale in April.
Manager Martha Earls remembers the early days: “The Nashville thing is to say, ‘Well, that’s not real…’ The Facebook numbers, the iTunes No. 1, everything. He had an RIAA platinum record in hand for ‘Used To Love You Sober,’ and people were still saying that. I mean, ‘WHAT?!’ Do you think the Easter Bunny brought us that plaque?
“And race wasn’t even part of the discussion. We were just doing what we were doing. He was making music, coming the only way he knew: social media. It was insane. But, fine. We put ‘Used To Love You Sober’ up on Oct. 15 – and people were downloading and streaming; we saw it happen.”
“Kane didn’t have the luxury of musical instruments, getting in the van like a lot of kids do,” offers Sony Music Nashville Chairman Randy Goodman, who ultimately signed him. “We had to suspend everything we knew, to go with our gut, because clearly Kane Brown was a star. It was a whole new playbook, but you’d talk to him – he was and still is a man of very few words – and you knew this was a lot more than a good-looking young man with social media heat.”
Earls counters, “The good news is we had nothing to lose. We didn’t have to please anyone. When you’re not worried about people’s approval, that’s freedom. We’ve always done what’s right for Kane … We do what we do, try what feels right.
“For us, opportunity isn’t where you rest, it’s what you build on.”
Currently, Brown has the No. 1 Country single, “Famous Friends” with Chris Young. He just dropped a song with blackbear, “Memory,” featuring cover art by digital artist Captvart. He’s had eight No. 1 country hits, but he’s also had high-profile collaborations with everyone from former classmate Lauren Alaina on the 7x platinum “What Ifs,” Khalid and Swae Lee on the platinum certified “Be Like That,” Camila Cabello on “Never Be The Same,” Marshmello for the double platinum pop smash “One Right Thing” and John Legend on “Last Time I Say I’m Sorry.”
He was the first solo country artist to perform – from the Ryman – on “The BET Awards.” He has presented on the ESPYs, played in the Major League Baseball All-Star Softball Game, performed at the NFL Draft-A-Thon livestream party online alongside DJ Khaled and Lil Wayne and the first country artist to build a tour via NBA arenas, taking him to both Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center this fall. Sixteen RIAA Certifications, five American Music Awards and in April became the first Black artist to win the Academy of Country Music’s Video of the Year for the come-together song of healing, “Worldwide Beautiful,” which he debuted on – you guessed it – “The BET Awards.”
Alex Alvga – The Damn Thing Called Rodeo:
Kane Brown during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at NRG Stadium March 9, 2019.
Ironically, by breaking all the rules, or perhaps smearing all the lines, the man The New York Times called “one of Nashville’s most promising young stars and most flexible” has opened the genre up in ways previously unseen. As an age of reckoning for the format dawns and Darius Rucker’s Hootie-familiarity affords Brown, Jimmie Allen, Blanco Brown, Shy Carter and Mickey Guyton a platform for artists of color, Kane Brown emerged as a superstar in every sense of the word.
Humble, he says of his success reaching beyond prejudice, “I’m biracial. Kids like me have to work the hardest, because we don’t get seen as either. Black people see my skin and see me as white; white people see my skin and think I’m Black. So, I fit nowhere and everywhere at the same time – and I feel all the responsibility in the world to all of those people, to get people to see past the differences to all the things they share.”
Jennifer Way, Sony Nashville’s SVP of Marketing, tethers those worlds together. “Kane’s audiences are fans of other kinds of music, hip-hop, pop – and most of his collaborators are fans or friends. They recognize Kane reaches beyond any one thing, or things.
“Even with the NBA and NFL, Kane gives them access to the country consumer, which can be very specific, but when you put him on that stage, he looks and appeals to the general audience, to people who don’t maybe like country music. So, you really get all people through Kane – because no matter where he goes, people respond to and love him.”
Way marvels at Wikipedia search jumps from Brown’s Thanksgiving Halftime Show performance – “we saw a 2,486% increase in searches and over 102,000 daily page views” – and the BET “Worldwide Beautiful” performance – with “over 1,000% at Wikipedia and searches at the different streaming services.”
That is the Kane Effect. When people see him, they want to know. When they hear him, they want to hear more music.
“People see themselves in Kane,” says Rich Schaefer, AEG Live SVP of Global Touring. “They see themselves in ‘Worldwide Beautiful’ terms. The audience is so diverse: young, old, Black, white, Latin, gay, straight, whatever. It’s just his energy – and people respond. In a place where there’s so much division, here’s this guy who’s stepping up and embracing diversity.
“Nobody looks at him as Black or white or anything. He’s Kane, and that allows some of the audience to feel safe where they might not, to feel welcome in a really palpable way.”
Palpable is a good word for the soft-spoken performer. While he didn’t come out of the gate with the typical garage band resume, he took to playing for fans with the same laser focus he’d developed playing sports.
Earls explains, “As with all things Kane Brown, this was nontraditional. We knew we needed to find some places out of the way to play for experience. Kane’s guitarist knew a guy who owned a bar in Darlington, South Carolina. And if you don’t think Kane’s country: Darlington, South Carolina!
“It was November 13, 2015. The owner put it up on sale in October, no advertising, no promotion – and it goes clean. It was like that everywhere. The Bluestone in Columbus, Eight Seconds in Indiana…
Joey Diaz – Kane Brown
during the Dallas Cowboys halftime show Nov. 3, 2020.
“Kane was studying. Literally sitting for hours on his phone, studying Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, hip-hop acts, to see what made them work onstage. He literally learned on the fly how to be a performer – and he killed it.
“I call it quarterback confidence,” Earls continues. “Kane can literally drop back with everyone rushing at him, and just calmly see the field and know what to do.”
Goodman marvels about that period, citing Brown’s live component as the thing Sony Nashville leveraged with radio. “Early on, we went to Indy to see a show – no radio, it was all about the digital space – and it was another world. This club was massive and it was packed! Big acts didn’t sell it out, and the radio people were floored.”
Growing up in public, or rather coming into his multi-platinum status in front of everyone, saw a progression from those nine months of headlining clubs to first of four with Florida Georgia Line (“15 minutes completely in the daylight,” Earls recalls), then first of three on Aldean’s tour with Chris Young in the middle; opening for Young; opening for Brad Paisley; and direct support for Aldean.
“The power of that live touring came before anything else,” Goodman declares. “Long before radio, to the point Steve Hodges and his team would call a station early on; they’d not even realize [Kane]’d been there – and Kane would’ve sold out 5,000 tickets.
“You’d ask them, ‘What is it with this guy?’ to understand their reticence. I remember a radio guy telling me, ‘Well, he has tattoos all over, on his neck and stuff.’ I said, ‘Keith Urban has tattoos in all the same places…’ Clearly, it wasn’t about the tattoos.
“But Kane kept coming and building. His instincts – and Martha, his team’s – were so good. They did unconventional things with real reasons, and it kept expanding. And Kane was never afraid to be put out there.”
Tour promoter Schaefer concurs. While COVID derailed their plans for world domination, he watched the Georgia/East Tennessee sensation move through Europe without all the headliner fringe benefits, nor the shelter of the Country Music Association’s “C2C Tour” apparatus.
“He’s in arenas here, but in February 2020, he played 1,500- to 3,000-seat rock clubs in Berlin, Paris, Dublin, London, a few other markets. He did that tour, sold every ticket, zero ego, no complaints – and that’s with the ability to be played on Radio 1, because of the pop collaborations.
“Some artists want to go where it’s easy and comfortable, but Kane is willing to be uncomfortable. He’s going where can reach his audience the best, whatever that is – and that’s why The O2, the Mercedes-Benz Arena and stadiums in Australia are all part of the plan.”
For Brown, it’s as much about building a community as it is the size of the fanbase. Along the way, he’s been committed to recognizing diversity in unexpected ways. While his Mixtape, Vol. 1 was an Academy of Country Music Album of the Year nominee, the project was designed as a way to pull together all the musical one-offs that existed beyond his more straightforward country offerings.
In a genre known for punishing artists who reach beyond the format, Brown is an exception. “What helps, maybe, is they now know what we send then will work on country radio. What helps me, too, is they know I’ll always be there for them; I’ll never have a pop single without having a single at country radio.”
Sony Nashville’s Way confirms the cooperative attitude around Brown’s music and concert appearances. “When a radio station looks at Kane, they know he brings a diverse audience of fans. Radio is looking to grow their audience, so no matter where he goes, he brings people.
“Any time he’s hosting or does a takeover at a station, they see it. He’s got one of the most active social audiences – and he brings them with him. They tune in, they engage. So when he’s coming, we’re working with Top 40 and country, because both want to be a part of what he’s doing.”
The community building extends beyond radio. “Worldwide Beautiful” suggests a place where external realities don’t matter and people are seen for their hearts.
“I’d had that song for over a year,” Brown explains. “We were saving it for my album, but listening to all the people in the media, all the different people on social media, even my family where everyone is so worked up about what they’re thinking, people are just shouting and no one’s listening. That wasn’t going to solve anything; just make it worse. So, like the song says, ‘One love, one God, one family.’ If we start there, we’ve got a chance.
“Together is what I’m talking about. There’s two sides to everything that’s going on, different ways at looking at all of this. Trouble is everybody is right where they are, but it doesn’t move you any closer together. We need to come together…”
Joey Diaz – Family Man:
Kane Brown during the Cowboys Halftime show at AT&T Stadium Nov. 3, 2020, not long after birth of daughter Kingsley.
With his first three weekends of the “Blessed & Free Tour” sold out, most dates with only a handful of tickets left, his team is working to facilitate a “Family Zone” to make it easy for fans who’ve never met to find each other at the shows. Earls explains, “Like Kenny Chesney, we’re finding people travel to the dates, and they have these online friendships, where they meet because of loving Kane and his music. Anything we can do to foster and support these people, who maybe wouldn’t meet any other way or place, we want to create those opportunities and make things easy.”
Brown also began eschewing the big-dollar VIP experiences a few years ago to create a space for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to bring 16 kids and four chaperones to his shows. With their own dedicated room, a delicious meal – often shared with Brown – it is an opportunity to meet someone who comes from challenging circumstances and realize they, too, can transcend their reality.
“Yes, he could be making that money,” says Earls. “But it feeds all of our souls in much richer ways. Sometimes the kids are bold, and they’ll sing for him. Sometimes, they’re shy and he has to talk to them. But every night, Kane hopes they’ll see him and start to imagine whatever dream they might have as a reality.”
Mix Tapes ‘N’ Famous Friends: A Pollstar Field Guide To Kane Brown