River House/Columbia Nashville artist Luke Combs celebrated with a No. 1 party for his third consecutive chart-topping single earlier this week in Music City. That milestone is the latest in a steadily-growing number of accolades, including a platinum album (This One’s For You), three platinum singles including “Hurricane,” “One Number Away,” and “When It Rains It Pours,” as well as the album track “Beautiful Crazy,” which has earned Gold certification.
For Combs’ manager, Chris Kappy at Make Wake Artists, the sales numbers and sold-out shows at venues including the historic Ryman Auditorium are a sweet payoff. Kappy worked at music cruise company, Sixthman before he took a chance on Combs, a newcomer with songwriting talent and a booming, burly voice.
MusicRow spoke with Kappy about what it takes to succeed in artist management and about guiding the career of rising superstar Combs.
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: You started in the music industry at Sixthman. What lessons did you learn that you brought into management?
My years at Sixthman afforded me the opportunity to be in situations where everything that can go wrong is going wrong, and you still have to put on a show. And, you are in the middle of the ocean. So it’s about having those problem-solving skills and determination to keep the show going. The great thing was the owner was my fraternity brother, and I was the company’s first employee. Andy [Levine] hired me away from the tech sector in Atlanta where I was making six figures while in my 20s. He called me up and asked me if I wanted to work with him and make a third of what I was making. I said, “Absolutely.” So I have him to thank for this life.
MR: Then, you saw Luke play a show in Georgia and decided to work with him. What were those first months like working with Luke?
I was driving the van, doing whatever I needed to do. I told Luke, “I’m not going to take a commission until the band is paid, the bills are paid, there is money left over and you are in a comfortable place in your life; then, I’ll take my first commission.” That took nine months.
We went into this with the road map of playing shows. I looked at bands like Jason Isbell, Blackberry Smoke and Sister Hazel. I said, “Luke, if we do this the right way, even if we don’t get radio [airplay] or get discovered, you can play music for the rest of your life with your band and play 2,500-seaters all over the country. You can make a living doing that.” That was originally our goal.
MR: Even as Luke’s star keeps rising, you have been committed to keeping his concert ticket prices reasonable. Talk about the strategy behind that.
I looked at some concert stats about four months ago, and there was another artist who has six more Number Ones than he does. That was out charging him per head by about $30, and Luke sold three times the amount of people in the same size room. I thought, ‘This is the perfect example of why we sell a $45 ticket,’ because selling to 6,500 people at $45 is a lot better than selling $75 to 1,500 or 1,800 people. You have to make sure you don’t get greedy and you are looking out for the fans. We want to give them the experience. The main reason we didn’t do a ticket over $45 was because he said, “I don’t need the money from fans as much as I need the passion.” I think that’s the beauty of who he is.
When we were doing the Jason Aldean tour, we didn’t do a VIP program. The main reason why was because we had so much to do with radio before the show, and then he’s direct support for Jason. We would have been doing a disservice to a fan who paid for that VIP experience, because he can’t do it after the show, because he’s just spent. And before the show, we would have had to rush through it. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to have that moment with fans all over the country, but we knew it would be a bad experience, so what we do now is choose fans from the fan club and meet with them.
MR: How was his early streaming success an asset once the label came into play?
He had streamed “Hurricane” a million times before industry members began getting involved. He was really discovered through a digital medium; first through Vine and then to YouTube. Before we had a record deal, we never had a physical product. At every show, we would push people to buy on a digital forum, like iTunes or to stream it. We trained our fanbase from the beginning to do it that way. His fanbase is 50/50 male/female, and 18-44. We have the younger generation but also the older generation. Then Sony came along, and we sold a lot of physical product, which was great.
MR: What is a typical day like for you as a manager?
The biggest thing is passion and always watching out for the artist and the fan. A manager to me is the hardest job in the industry because you have to manage every single silo. There’s the label and PR and agents and lawyers and so many things, and you have to quarterback all of that. Every one of those things are very important.
You have to know what’s going on with all of it, especially at this time. Other managers tell me it will eventually plateau and you’ll have more time to focus on strategy but right now you are in the eye of the hurricane. My day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. at night. I’m always looking at charts and who’s adding it, and then I’ll go to Twitter and I’ll read every Twitter post. I need to see where the pulse of the fan is. Do they like a song, how do they find it? By the time I’m at the office at 7:30 that morning or a breakfast meeting, I’ve gotten the pulse of the fans and looked at the charts. But it’s a good thing because it means my guy is hot and people want to be in his world.
MR: Part of his career success can be attributed to his connection with his fanbase. How do you keep that consistent?
Before we had the label deal, we were doing Facebook Lives. I would go to a show, I would stand there at front of house and I would just go live on Facebook. There were other platforms out there like StageIt, but I wanted it to be free because I wanted fans to be a part of it.
We still answer every single message that comes through social media platforms. I have two people that do that full time. You have to be able to talk to the fans and leave that portal open. Do I get crazy messages? Sure. But a lot of things are like, ‘I went throughout a really hard time, and your music helped me cope with it’ or ‘I met my now wife at your show, thank you so much.’ But we want fans to make sure we hear them.
MR: How does what he needs from you as a manager change at this point in his career?
I think as it gets crazier; there is more of a comfort level there. We passed on our biggest paying show to date, because it wasn’t the right move for him. When he comes offstage he is spent because he sings with his whole body. We had breakfast three weeks ago in East Nashville, and I had told him six months ago, ‘I’m slowing your schedule down for you. I’m going to say no to a lot of stuff.’ We were sitting there eating eggs and having coffee and he was like, ‘Thank you. I’m feeling the schedule slow down a bit and I appreciate it.’ He’s not the lovey-dovey type; he’s not that kind of guy. But it’s those moments when you know you’re doing the right thing and watching out for your guy. As this gets crazier, the biggest part of it is that I’m vetting the right people, also keeping the wrong people away and being more of a gatekeeper. He looks at me like a managing partner in his career, and the managing partner needs to be able to communicate with the principal owner, being Luke, and he has to be able to have that trust that I am doing what is best for him. If he doesn’t like it, we change direction.
MR: What advice do you have for new managers?
There is a documentary on Netflix about a legendary manager named Shep Gordon [Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon]. I watch it probably every 10 days and it’s the most amazing story of a guy who does it the right way. I have him as my spiritual mentor—I’ve never met the guy. You need to work as hard or harder than the act. When I was on the road with him, Monday-Wednesday, I was Manager. On Thursday-Saturday, I was Tour Manager. On Sunday, I was Business Manager. If you are coming out of school and want to do this, go all in. But, do it because you believe in the person you are working with.
MR: What has been one of your proudest moments so far working with Luke?
We were standing side stage in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2017, where Luke played his first arena show in his hometown. I look over and see Luke’s Mom and Dad, and I just broke down. I was sobbing. I was watching them be so proud of their son, and the love they have for him. I have that same pride! When I think of all the days where I was like, ‘We have to drive 10 hours in the van to go play when it’s not even light yet and you’re going to hate me and this drive.’ But, he trusted me, and when you see him playing an arena show in his hometown, it’s an amazing feeling and all those miles and early mornings were worth it.
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