Executive Profile: Co-Head, WME Nashville Joey Lee On Playing Above The Rim

Photo by Eric England

WME Nashville Co-Head Joey Lee was born to the talent business, even though he’s spent his life paving his own way, doing the work and learning how many ways the jobs could be done. The son of legendary agency owner Buddy Lee, he made it a point – whether working outside the music business, as an assistant to Sol Saffian, as the founder of 360 Artists Agency or helping drive precedent-setting artist builds at WME – to think beyond the box, create what works for each specific artist and their goals and to fly below the radar  or above the rim as required.

A youth pitcher whom other kids watched, Lee helped take his team to the Little League World Series in 1982.

That athletic acumen not only earned him a scholarship to college, it taught him the power of collective effort and discipline, as well as the importance of focus and courage to “have the ball at the end of the game.” 

If baseball was miles from the “family business,” the boldness required for sports came from his pro wrestler father recognizing his only way to stay in the game was to move from talent to promoter. Marrying a fellow wrestler, he changed roles, grew his company and eventually partnered with Hank Williams, Sr’s first wife, Miss Audrey, to create Aud-Lee Attractions.

A dynamic agent who understood the promoting game, at one point Buddy Lee Attractions was home to Garth Brooks, The (Dixie) Chicks, George Strait, Hank Williams Jr., Lee Ann Womack, George Jones and a young girl from Texas named Miranda Lambert, who’d flown to Nashville as a teen because Lee had said, “If you’re ever in town, let’s get together and talk.”

That open-door, talent-friendly policy has defined Lee’s approach to the agency business.
It also drives continued artist development for some of WME’s biggest names – from Garth Brooks to Miranda Lambert to Thomas Rhett. 

Pollstar: Sports were always a big deal for you.
Joey Lee: My Dad used to tell me “The baseball and all that stuff isn’t gonna do shit for you…” The things you learn? They’re invaluable [when it comes to strategy and teamwork]… and when you’re good at something, you have to know. I tore my rotator cuff Junior Year at Belmont. I was told you don’t come back from that, but I didn’t believe it. I rehabbed three hours a day, three days a week for eight months. Belmont was great to me; red-shirted me. I played Senior Year – and was Health Major of the Year.

Women’s basketball coach Betty Wiseman helped me graduate, showed me the power of someone believing in you. Those people you cross paths with who inspire you, change your path? She taught me that.

With “who you are,” which is a big deal, you didn’t take the easy route.
My girlfriend of six years and I were instead living in a farm house on my parents’ property – and now I needed a job. I’d done my thing (with baseball) and it hadn’t worked out. One of my Dad’s or Mom’s friends worked at the DuPont plant in Old Hickory, and they helped me get a job at the electrical company that’s a subcontractor.

It was every day, living with a group of guys as their helper, getting a ladder, going up and pulling stuff, bringing them heavy stuff they needed. The top money guys were journeymen, living paycheck to paycheck. I was making $140/150 a week. I loved being around the men, but I could see down the road.

Did your dad step in?
No, I had to ask him. It took me three weeks to ask, and he never said “no” to me. But it was a big deal. He thought about it, and said, “Let me get with Tony Conway to see when we get an interview set up.”

It came back Thursday at 3:45. I worked until 3 pretty far out of town. When I said that, my Dad told me I’d have to figure it out. So I went in in work boots, jeans, a dirty shirt and I hadn’t been able to really clean up. They gave me a job, but nobody had assistants then. Mostly busy work.

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THREE AMIGOS: Alan Jackson (center) is flanked by WME Nashville agents Joey Lee (left) and Jonathan Insogna. Lee says by knowing the artist, he can understand his specific needs and allow him to maximize his dreams – which have certainly come true for Jackson. Photo by Rick Diamond / Getty Images / T.J. Martell Foundation

Where does Sol Saffian come in?
The Williams Morris-Triad merger happened, and Sol didn’t stay. He came over to Buddy Lee and I was assigned to him. I sat outside his office every day, put in deal memos. That guy made more deals and talked to more people – and this is before cell phones.

It was a different business.
We’d end up in Tony Conway’s office every day. Tony, Sol, Kevin Neal, Paul Lohr, Brian Jones, Jeff Pringle, John Folk who’s running Red 11. Everyone would talk about their day; ask about how to problem solve or whatever.

In my 20s, I got to work with a lot of people who all had their own way of doing this.

And then you became an agent.
A year into being Sol’s assistant, a guy got a deal at BNA Records – and everybody was trying to sign him. Stan Byrd and Joe Ladd, big radio guys, were managing him and Doug Supernaw had really big buzz. Maybe because I was young, or I got him, he said, “I want you to be my guy.”

A few months later, it was Clay Walker, who had Erv Woolsey as manager. We knew Erv, because George Strait had been with us before they took it in-house. Clay became a headliner pretty fast.

There’s a difference between booking shows and doing tours, isn’t there?
Absolutely. I learned about touring stuff from Erv and Danny O’Brien. The biggest take-away was find something special you believe in and don’t make it about the money; then the career will follow. If they’re going to be an A level act, we’re going to be coming back to this market, so don’t burn radio, or fuck up a market for this one play.

People today don’t realize what a force Buddy Lee was.
It goes back to how they started. In 1964, Aud-Lee Attractions, which was about creating true partnerships with the bookers instead of finding suckers who’d pay the most money. They built alliances, which let them build acts. 

Hank Williams, Jr’s my godfather. There’s pictures of him holding me in the hospital room. The stuff he talked about hating doing? That’s that time.

But a lot of people came through Buddy Lee, and I got to take it all in. Bob Kincaid, Rick Shipp, Bobby Cudd, Ken Levitan – all were there at one point.

And we worked with some of the great promoters for this music: Bob Romeo, Gil Cunningham, Jimmy Jay, George Moffatt, Dave  Snowden. We were building something together. That’s a good way to do business.

JumpIng ahead: It has to be hard to leave a family business, which you did with 360.
I was 39, had three kids and was asking myself, “Where do I want to be when I’m 50?” It hit me like a brick. The business was changing and evolving. There’d been talk about our business being acquired; but it wouldn’t be good for everybody. I went and talked to my Mom; walked away from everything. I didn’t want to hurt anybody, told her whatever you’re thinking of leaving me, give it to the other kids. She told me, “I want you to be happy. If there’s something out there that will give you that, do it.”

I walked out with nothing. Aly Murad was an assistant at Buddy Lee. He showed up with a box of my personal stuff. I had a noncompete because, even with a family business, it’s business.

I never told a soul what I was doing.

Risha Rodgers enters here.
We were going to build a business to run it the way we wanted to. She brought Neal McCoy.

Then Miranda called me up; she was with Marion (Kraft) and Simon (Renshaw). I couldn’t make outgoing calls, but they could call me. She said, “Wherever you go, just let me know where we are going when you get there.”

JL Agents
NASHVILLE, TN – MAY 12: (L-R) Honoree Rob Beckham of WME, Kevin Neal, Greg Oswald, and Joey Lee attend the T.J. Martell Ambassador Of The Year Awards at The Rosewall on May 12, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation)

That validated it for me.

Why not a major agency?
That would’ve been a slap in the face. Plus, I wanted to see if we could take these artists, have a plan for where we wanted to be in five years and make it work.

We had some office space in Cummins Station; had to get phones, computers, build out. Henry Glasscock came over from Outback Concerts. Risha was like, “We need Angela LaSalle,” who’d started CAA with Ron Baird. They’d hired everyone out of his garage. She came over, told me what she needed, which was maybe $60-70,000, and I said, “I can’t afford that.” Risha said, “We can’t afford to not have her.”

How’d it go?
It was just us, and we did great that first year or two. At Buddy Lee, people were picking off our biggest clients. As Miranda’s success kept growing, I realized I was going to be in the same position. 

You had so much success with Miranda, country, Americana and Red Dirt acts. What changed?
We were getting courted. CAA, William Morris, Paradigm, ICM, The Agency Group were reaching out. 

William Morris was always the front runner…
It took two or three years, with a lot of conversations with Greg Oswald and Rick Shipp. Financially it made sense, but what I didn’t realize was they just wanted me. So everything fell apart. It was all of us, or none of us, because I’d built a real team. Henry, Risha, Angela all believed in what we were doing.

It took a while, but Greg kept working on figuring it out.

There was a moment, though.
Miranda was playing the Staples Center with Brad Paisley. WME had a big backstage party with hundreds of people. I open the door to say hi to Miranda and – having flown to LA earlier to meet with Ari and Patrick for 15, 20 minutes to see if I was a fit –  there was Patrick Whitsell walking up to me, saying, “Hey, Joey! How are you doing? This is my wife.”

He remembered who I was, after that 15-minute meeting, with all the people they deal with. That meant everything to me. 

JL Marion Kraft
NASHVILLE, TN – FEBRUARY 26: Marion Kraft Miranda’s Manager, Shopkeeper Management and Agent Joey Lee at BMI Honors Miranda Lambert’s for her First #1single with a 1940’s style bash and a few hundred of her friends at The Cellar on February 26, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BMI)

You really believe in people.
Absolutely. They’re everything.

Was there a real difference between WME and where you’d been?
I got over here in 2010, and it was culture shock.

It took me almost a year to get my head wrapped around how everything works. And the people who come up here, they take it all for granted. But it was this realization: I wasn’t even in the game, and I’d been in the same town for 20 fucking years. (laughter)

The information that flows through here? The access you have? And the things you have access to? Realizing for 20 years I thought I was in the game, but wasn’t even in the building – and now I’m on the court! Film, TV, branding. You can reach out in real time and get answers. You might not like the answers, but you get them.

Before when I had an idea, I would have to do the research, figure the way to what I needed, make the plan. Now it’s one ask. And I felt supported internally. I could get people on the phone. Patrick Whitsell? Mark Shapiro? I could call or text them, and it was always, “What do you need?” 

It was like that across the different departments: IMG, UFC, PBR. I’ve come to know all those people over the next couple years. That’s what makes this place so special.

You’ve had a hand in shaping today’s superstars, from Miranda to Thomas Rhett and more, creating a future for today’s legacy artists, like Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks, helping young agents grow. How do you see yourself?
I’m a change-maker, I guess. As much as touring is evolving, is it three or five or 10 years from now there’s a shift? I don’t know what it means, but I want to be on the forefront of it. I’d want to be somebody who helped change the game to whatever it is today and pave the way for whatever it will be.

One thing I keep saying: It’s not about the money. It’s about being supported – whether you’re the team or the talent or the talent’s team. It’s human nature to come together. Here the culture’s not forced, it’s built by weeding out the people who don’t buy in. 

That personal “thing” fires your philosophy, too. 
Playing the long game is always more about building the career. Truth is: Every moment is an opportunity, and if you don’t convert those people, the window closes fast. After that, if you don’t create something meaningful, you’ve limited yourself.

I believe there’s the first impression, then you have two, maybe three more times if you’re lucky. So you need to be tactical. I always ask “Where do you want to be in eight months? Three, five, 10 years?” for a reason. I ask, “Why are you doing this? What do you want to accomplish?” Then we work backwards. 

I want to have a reason for every town you’re in, even if it’s a fill-in date. It can change from where you first start. You can pivot. When you’re 18, 19, how do you really know? But short-term targets can yield long-term goals.

Your attitude about clients?
They’re making a commitment to me, so I have to make a commitment back to them. It takes time, effort and thought. You need to know them to understand what a fit looks like. Whether it’s Miranda, TR or Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, they have specific needs.

JL Miranda and Marion
(L-R) Marion Kraft , Miranda Lambert and Joey Lee attend The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.

I only get involved if I believe I can make a difference or change somebody’s life. And I grew up on this music, somewhere around Randy Travis or the backside of Vern Gosdin. As a kid, I was into hair bands, but Alabama was a big part of it. So I recognize the culture of it.

With an Alan Jackson, who’s an icon and should be treated and represented like one, there’s a different thought and strategy. But it’s the same end goal: allow him to maximize his dreams.

Let’s talk about Miranda.
We’ve been doing it 20 years. Five, six years ago, we started backing off a little on the number of shows – going back through the Erv and Danny stuff about A level clients and really putting thought into where we go and why. Vegas for us was a natural fit, because it’s a new way to do it and 20 years in, she has the hits to create something special. 

She’ll do a handful of festivals, because she’s a woman who can fill that space, as well. But her next live horizon is this residency.

Entertainer of the Year.
She got the nod at ACMs for a whole body of work – 17, 18 years of music. It’s the difference she’s made for women in this business, the way acts she believes in from Texas, she takes on the road and exposes them across the country. She’s working to give people – fans and artists – more, and it shows.

When she and (Jason) Aldean came along, the game flipped. It was Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts – here they come with ripped jeans, playing hard. There was a shift, and she was a big part of it.

And what about Thomas Rhett?
He’s constantly reaching for more: music, knowledge, presentation.

He’s so involved in every aspect of his career, from the ticket pricing to the support, looking for input on markets. That desire to grow is everything.

Biggest challenges?
Too many headliners, and people who think they’re headliners. We have too much traffic, artists at radio, then you factor in the cost to go out. 

There’s this attitude: “We gotta go play, go support the music.” If you’re building, don’t do it at other people’s expense. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Remember those promoters are partners, not suckers. Be real about where you are.

Every artist has a value of X, whatever that is. It’s important for everyone on the artist’s team to have that same understanding. So much of it is treated like Wal-Mart. 

This is where you get this idea that five, 10 items have a price attached; you can pay it or not. But No.1s don’t mean the same thing. All these artists who think they’re stars or superstars – are they? Some don’t even have record deals, and they’re asking “What tour am I getting?” Some of the young acts should be playing bars, that makes sense. The ones coming off TikTok may struggle. Know your strengths. Forty-five minutes is a long time when you’ve got one hit. Same thing with middle acts to headliners… big difference between having a great support set and being the reason people are going to pay money for a ticket. And with two years of COVID, now everybody’s trying to get on the road and it’s hard to make enough noise.

It’s bigger than that, though.
The last four, five years, you’ve seen ticket prices skyrocket. It’s not just the facility, packaging Ticketmaster fees, either. You’ve got three, four people all needing to get theirs: managers, business managers, agents, promoters, ticketing agencies, vendors, plus the artist. 

Keith Fowler used to say: advertising, commissions, trucking, vendors. On a $20 ticket, the artist might make $6. That’s a lot of pressure. During the pandemic, who was listening to the radio? There were charts, but people weren’t in their cars… So what about those songs? Those artists?

The future?
There’s a cultural shift. You can feel it. Is it the words? The sounds? There’s an appreciation for people like Alan Jackson, Reba, Brooks & Dunn, too. My attitude is if you’re going to play, then play to win. It’s not waiting for everyone else, but making shit happen.

JL Thomas Rhett
NASHVILLE, TN – AUGUST 23: Virginia Davis G-Major Management, Bob Kingsley Country Top 40, Singer/Songwriter Thomas Rhett, George Briner Big Machine Record Group/Valory and Joey Lee WME attend “Life Changes” Lunch & Listen with Thomas Rhett at WME on August 23, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

When Miranda came off  [“Nashville Star”], we created a plan before her record even came out. We had Glenn Smith and Brad Garrett, Ed Warm some. Now there’s an ongoing 10-, 12-year Live Nation partnership that began with Brian O’Connell.

I’d love there to be a place for everybody to play, and they’re all celebrated the way these artists should be. Follow your own wherever it takes you, and you will always have those people. Know why. Be true. Give the fans and buyers more than they’re paying for. It works.