Artist manager Brad Belanger parlayed experience in concert booking and doing photography/video work into managing star acts such as Sam Hunt and Dustin Lynch.
Growing up in Virginia in the early ‘90s, Belanger was immersed in the DIY music culture embraced by teen punk rock bands in the area. In addition to handling lead vocals and guitar for a local band, Belanger started his own indie label at age 15.
“I liked booking the shows, making the fliers, designing the T-shirts and how the invites looked,” Belanger tells MusicRow. “I was way more into that than writing great songs or practicing. It was very much a mentality of having your own label, booking your own shows, and tapes and mailing lists,” he recalls. “I was very lucky to grow up with that mentality in Virginia because it’s kind of the template that I’m doing now, almost 30 years later, just with the internet now.”
After attending Middle Tennessee State University, he began working with APA’s Steve Lassiter, before transitioning into doing photography and video work. That strategic move would bring a host of career opportunities, including his management role with Sam Hunt, the artist behind the 5x Platinum-selling single “Body Like A Back Road” and 3x Platinum-selling album Montevallo.
For more on artist management and the teams behind some of Nashville’s biggest artists, pick up a copy of MusicRow’s current Artist Roster print issue.
MusicRow: How did you transition from concert booking into doing photography and video work?
Belanger: I wanted to be a little more hands on with music. Right around that time the internet was popping up with YouTube and MySpace and everything. Marketing music digitally was just starting to form and I thought, “That encompasses everything I love.” I quit the booking agent job and picked up a video camera and some video editing and graphic design software. I taught myself in my late 20s how to do that. I knew that would be a major part of marketing music.
MR: What was your first job doing video?
Belanger: The very first person who ever hired me was a 17-year-old Taylor Swift. They hired me to make a behind-the-scenes video clip for “Teardrops On My Guitar,” and soon after that Keith Urban and his team hired me. They were one of the first to hire a full-time photographer and videographer on staff, and I did that for Keith for about five years.
MR: Is that how you were introduced to Sam Hunt?
Belanger: Yeah, that introduced me to Sam, through [the Hunt-penned hit for Urban] “Cop Car.” I loved his music and this was back before he had a record deal, and he’d never played a live show. He had no photos taken, and he was just coming up on the idea of being an artist when he and I met. He said, “I need some headshots and I want to do some video stuff.” He sent me some demos of “House Party” and “Take Your Time” and everything, and I loved it so much I said I would do it. We hung out and talked about things we loved and after about a month, he was like, “Man, you’d be a great manager. I’m looking for a manager.” So I quit working with Keith and began working with Sam.
MR: You first began managing Sam when he had no label, no previous manager. How does what he needed from you then as a manager differ from what he needs from you now as a manager?
Belanger: When we first started, I took every photo and directed probably the first five music videos—shot and directed and edited. Designed the cover for Montevallo. The first few years I as very hands-on with building the brand. As his career grew, people I was inspired by visually, we were able to call on those people and bring in big directors from England. They came to Nashville for the first time and began shooting the videos. We transitioned from doing the creative to now overseeing and becoming more of a traditional manager.
In the beginning there was just five of us and a van. We did everything on the cheap because we didn’t have any money. Now there are 50 employees and it’s a huge company and I’ve transferred into managing that whole company. It’s a lot more 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a lot less 7 p.m. – 2 a.m.
MR: Sam Hunt is a songwriter at heart. As a manager, how do you balance his need for time and space to be creative, with a music cycle that now constantly demands new music?
Belanger: I don’t balance that. I look at it the same way [Red Light Management’s] Coran Capshaw looks at it. We go play the poker game and Sam gives us the cards to play. The cards are the songs. For me, I absolutely respect his process and how he wants to do it and how long he wants to take.
From day one when we were living on credit cards and driving in a van and dead broke, we always said, “We will leave money on the table. We will not think about money first or chase it, and we will not feel bad for taking time off for being with our families.” This year he’s playing 25 shows. Last year he played 45 shows. With [Belanger’s management client] Dustin Lynch, he plays 100 shows. But the number of shows doesn’t matter to us.
MR: How does it differ working with Dustin, who had an image and career already built before you started working with him, versus working with Sam, whose career you helped build from the ground up?
Belanger: I’m just such a fan of Dustin as a person. He’s one of those people you love to be around. He has a great work ethic. Everybody wants to see him succeed. He just needs a few more pieces put together to really step to that next level. That’s what really attracted me to work with him. I am just interested to come in at this point in his career—six or seven years in—and see how I can help and refine a few things.
MR: Can you elaborate on what things you want to refine?
Belanger: My team is able to help define his brand a little more. He had started doing that already right before I came along, with his daily video blogs. Everybody knows he has five No. 1s and he has hits, but when you ask someone, “Who is he?” they have a little more of an ambiguous answer. My goal is to really define who Dustin Lynch is as an individual. Then as a fan, you are not only a fan of the songs, but you are a fan of him as a person. Luke Bryan fans are fans of Luke Bryan. Same thing with Sam Hunt or Carrie Underwood. They love Carrie, not just a group of songs. They love her. So I’m just trying to shine more light on who he is.
MR: Is the album format dead?
Belanger: No, I think it is still alive and well. When it is needed, it’s needed. It’s not needed all the time. Some people I look at and go, “Dude, no one was waiting on another album. Don’t put one out. Just put four good songs out.” There is a time and a place. Obviously, Sam Hunt last year, where he was at in his life and career, just putting one enormous song out did just fine. We sold every concert ticket and every piece of merch. But it was coming off Montevallo.
MR: Will The Nashional Music Festival still happen?
Belanger: Absolutely. We just ran into some hiccups as far as licensing. We’ve still got it on the dashboard and ready to pull at any time, but we all decided the next most important thing is a record. Let’s focus on finishing the record and then jumping off of that might be the best time to do this festival.
The best thing we can do right now is follow up Montevallo with a great 10-song record with a bunch of hits on it.
MR: When will the album come out?
Belanger: Probably not this year. Next year would be the goal.
MR: Who have been your biggest mentors, and what has been the best advice they haven given you?
Belanger: Coran Capshaw and [CAA’s] Darin Murphy as well. He was the first person I called when I thought about quitting work with Keith to go work for Sam. They give big-picture, long-term advice. In the first few years coming up, everything was a desperate struggle to keep our vision true and to make people in love with it. This is a long-term business and you don’t have to fight every day. Not every battle needs to be a blood-and-guts battle.
- CMA Honors Robert Deaton With Chairman’s Award - December 4, 2020
- Nashville Symphony, Nashville Musicians Association Reach Agreement - December 4, 2020
- Zach Williams’ “Chain Breaker” Is Most-Added On ‘MusicRow’ CountryBreakout Radio Chart - December 4, 2020