Since signing with BMLG in 2016, Midland’s Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson have earned accolades most newcomers dream of, including the breakthrough single “Drinkin’ Problem.” The track earned the trio two Grammy nominations, and in 2018 they picked up an ACM Award for New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year. Last year, they opened for Thomas Rhett’s Life Changes Tour, and have opened shows for Little Big Town, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, among others.
Among those helping guide the BMLG trio’s career is BRND MGMT President Matt Graham. Based in Los Angeles, Graham co-manages Midland with powerhouse Sandbox Entertainment manager Jason Owen.
BRND MGMT also counts among its clients Emir, Corey Harper, Nicky Romero, The Score, Jasmine Thompson, XYLO, Zolita and more. Additionally, the company launched the label Tuxedo Records, with Desure, Harper and Zolita.
Prior to launching BRND Management, he was Sr. Manager at Scooter Braun’s SB Projects.
MusicRow Magazine caught up with Graham to discuss his career trajectory, launching BRND Management, and breaking Midland.
MusicRow: You were a history major at Emory University, and you were doing club promotion. How did you get into promotion?
It started with meeting Scooter Braun at my first day at school. That’s how I got into promoting. He walked up to me at a bar. I was sitting there with some beautiful young women and a beer and he said, “I think you’ve figured out college. How would you like to come work for me?” He was a club promoter and that’s how I got into the club promotion business and music in college.
After I left school, I worked at [music magazine] The FADER in New York and worked there for about 18 months before I signed my first act on my own to Interscope and that had nothing to do with Scooter.
Scooter was starting to have success with Justin Bieber and I thought, “Let me talk to him and see what his plans are.” He asked me to help him build a management company. We signed Cody Simpson about 7 ½ years ago. He was 14. I managed Cody for a year from New York, while Scooter was in Atlanta. Then Scooter moved to Los Angeles and opened the SB Projects office and asked me to come with him.
MR: For you as a manager, what were the risks of working with a young artist like Cody, and how did that pay off for you?
It was a huge departure for me to do the teen pop thing and I was very reticent about it. I didn’t know that space, because I had worked at FADER and listened that type of music. Scooter gave me a lot of confidence to grow into that space. We took Cody from doing YouTube [videos] to selling out theaters around the world and becoming a pretty big celebrity for a time. It was like getting my MBA in being a manager. We did the award shows, released multiple albums, CDs, features, did film and TV stuff. There was a seemingly endless amount of new deals and projects, which teaches you how to do everything. We did over 100 licensing deals. With Midland, I’ve never done one [licensing deal]. But a lot of managers have no experience in those aspects of the job.
Also, it was in the pre-streaming economy but also the post-really healthy download economy, so if artists weren’t getting big radio hits, they weren’t generating income. Teen pop was this weird universe where through social media you could build a huge audience without radio and monetize it through ticket sales, brand partnerships and merchandise. That was interesting to me that we could build a post-radio, multi-million dollar business. With Justin Bieber, once you had the radio success and you combined those aspects, it was astronomical.
MR: You left your role as Sr. Manager at SB Projects to start BRND Management, and later began working with Midland. What was it about Midland that convinced you to want to work with them and also begin working in the country genre?
They are the complete package—incredible musical instincts, amazing performers, moving culture they are so different than anything else out there. Having worked with a lot of teenagers, it was exciting to work with guys who are in their 30’s with real experience and real stories to tell about heartache. And they know what it’s like to lose. That brings with it humility that you can’t get in a teenage artist.
I first met [Midland’s] Cameron [Duddy] and had a shared vision for a lot of things. We wanted to make movies and I thought if I can help him navigate to the top of the music video world then I can also help him get a first movie made. We started down that process and he brought me a Midland demo. He told me, “Hey, I know you really wanted to make movies and I want to make movies, too, but really my first love is music. These are two guys I’ve played in bands with for years and we decided to record a demo.” He gave me the demo on CD, which I thought was ridiculous because this was like five years ago—I didn’t even know you could still burn CDs five years ago—but I listened to it while I was driving down PCH in Malibu. I fell in love with Mark [Wystrach]’s voice and the stories they were telling.
I remember having met Mark a few years before that and I told Cameron, “Don’t tell anyone else about this band or about Mark, because I think that guy is the biggest, most undiscovered star on earth right now.”
MR: When Midland debuted, people were talking about their aesthetic. To use a word that was thrown around a lot, they have a “throwback” image. How did you make sure that the messaging was consistent from the look to the sound?
When we got together, those original demos, which I hope we release at some point, are even more traditional, certainly from a production standpoint. We talked about it and said, “If we are going to do this we have to do it to the best of our ability.” I felt we needed a Nashville insider, so we reached out to Jason Owen [who now co-manages Midland with Graham]. One of the first meetings he set up was with Shane McAnally and the guys hit it off. And then Shane and Dann [Huff] took this traditional sound that would have found this rabid but small fanbase, and made it acceptable enough to play on country radio.
They could have easily gone in with like a Dave Cobb, who has done amazing things for Chris Stapleton, but that kind of sound may have made Midland a little too left-of-center, and maybe they wouldn’t have had commercial radio success. With Jason and Shane working on this, they were able to nudge it over enough to the center without saying, “Hey guys, cut this other song we have.” Because that was never on the table. Midland was never going to cut an outside song.
MR: Country music went through a bit of a traditional-tinged resurgence just before Midland broke. What is your take on that?
When we came to town, this was not working. I remember sitting in meetings with A&R people and publishers, and they would be like, ‘But the traditional country thing will never get played on radio.’ No one cared.
If Chris Stapleton didn’t start to experience success and people like that in town, I don’t think we could have come through that door. I’d been in Nashville for two years before we got that label deal, and I could see that shift as Chris Stapleton happened. People started asking, “What about that Midland band?” And then there was the showcase where [BMLG Sr. VP, A&R] Allison Jones saw them and said, “I have to have this.” At the same time, Bruno Mars wanted to sign them to Atlantic Records and we had this bidding war and then everyone wanted to jump in.
MR: How have you learned to be efficient in handling the numerous deal offers you come across?
Every artist is different. With Cody, for the most part, the answer was yes, because there was no notion of selling out. To a 15-year-old girl, the more brands that are out there talking about Cody, the more he seems like a big star to them. You want brands like Coca-Cola and 1-800-Flowers saying yes. What teens buy into the most is celebrity culture, the rise of the influencers, the notion that you need to be famous.
That’s very different than a Midland, where in general the answer has to be no. We have credibility, and credibility is such a fragile thing. You have to be cognizant in how you align yourself, because of things you can’t control. We looked recently at doing a big beer deal, and ultimately we turned them down. A lot of people, including our label, were like, “Why?” It was a very Texas-centric beer, it had national distribution but it is a beer that everyone in Texas drinks. We felt like we are a regionally successful act, but with the second album we are going to become a more nationally-recognized brand and we are not sure this beer is. They were not willing to open up their marketing plan to us and they just wanted to attach their brand to our brand, and to have Midland on cases and use them in our music videos.
MR: What advice do you have for new managers?
Find great mentors. Make sure you have the appropriate infrastructure and mentorship to make these musicians successful, because these are musicians’ livelihoods. And it’s important to find something you are passionate about because this is a 24/7 job.
MR: Do you foresee adding additional country artists to the BRND Management roster?
We have Desure that Midland introduced me to. I see him occupying somewhere between alt and country. I’m looking at another young artist I just discovered and I’m really excited to see how things go. And Jason is such a brilliant manager, I would love to work more with him.
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