The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.
Chris Kappy is the founder and owner of management company Make Wake Artists, and is in his sixth year as manager for superstar Luke Combs. During that time, he has grown the Make Wake roster by adding the talents of Niko Moon, Hailey Whitters, Drew Parker, Flatland Cavalry, Jackie Lee, Tyler Dial, Red Shahan, The Panhandlers and Keller Cox.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I was born in Texas and lived there for two years. We moved to St. Louis and lived there for two years. My dad worked for the airlines. We moved to Georgia when I was five so I grew up in Stone Mountain.
I ended up going to Georgia State University. It was a commuter school then, now it’s a traditional campus. That’s where my love for music started. I grew up in a household of music. My mom was a big believer in The Temptations, the Four Tops, Otis Redding, and Gladys Knight. My dad listened to big band music. As I was coming up, I was listening to pop radio. Z-93 and 96 Rock out of Atlanta were the stations I was listening to.
What got you interested in country music?
I met a girl in college that introduced me to the band BlackHawk, and I was like, “What is this magic?” The harmonies were insane. “Goodbye Says It All” was the first song of their’s I ever heard. Then I started digging into country music and I really fell in love with bands like Shenandoah, Diamond Rio, and Little Texas. That’s the world I got into as I was listening to everything from Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Hootie and The Blowfish, and Sister Hazel. I fell in love with country.
How did you get into the music business?
In 2000 I was working in IT selling web hosting and stuff like that. I was killing it, I was doing very well for myself for my late twenties. A good friend of mine, Andy Levine, said, “You should come work for me. We’re gonna do this thing called The Rock Boat where we put bands on a cruise ship and go out to sea with their fans. I’ll pay you a third of what you’re making now, but you’ll be in the music business.” I was like, “Man, that’s a great idea. I should do this.” And I did. I quit my job and I went to go work for Andy. That started a 15-year relationship with bands and their fans on a cruise ship in the ocean.
Sister Hazel was the catalyst. They were my college band that I fell in love with. I would travel to go see them play anywhere and everywhere. To this day, I still am very close with all the guys in the band. We’re all very good friends and I still love their music. I learned from them how important it was to have the relationship with the fan. Their big hit was “All For You.” They had all these unbelievable songs, but they had a relationship with their fans that was beautiful. They cared so much about them and then they created The Rock Boat. From that event, it spawned off to Kiss, John Mayer, Florida Georgia Line, Paramore and 311. So for 15 years, I traveled with rabid fan bases, took 2,500 of their biggest fans on vacation, and essentially gave them a backstage pass for four days in the Caribbean. I thought I had the greatest job in the world.
How did you end up in management?
I was living in Huntington Beach, California when I got a phone call from a buddy of mine named Bradley Jordan. Bradley calls me and says, “You’ve always wanted be a manager your whole life. That’s all you’ve ever talked about and you’re not doing it. You’re in your early forties. If you don’t do this, you’re going to regret it.” I was like, “Man, you’re right.” You have to have a friend like that to be able to tell you that. I packed everything up, broke my lease and moved to Athens, Georgia in November of 2014.
Bradley was [promoting] a Sam Hunt show at the Georgia Theater. This is when Sam was just blowing up. He put the show up for sale on Oct. 31 and it sold out in four minutes. He had me that day as the runner for that show, so I’m driving Brad and Sam all over town. I saw the kind of relationship they had and I was like, “I can do this.” I didn’t know what a point was on an album, I had no idea what a publishing deal was, but I remembered [a conversation I had] on a cruise with Brandi Carlile. Brandi and I had become very good friends and I remember talking to her asking, “Do you think I could do this?” She goes, “Kappy, I don’t even know what points are. I don’t care. You can do this.” That’s what I needed to hear.
[A little while later], I get a phone call and it’s Bradley. He said, “I found your guy. His name is Luke Combs.”
What was your first meeting with Luke like?
[We organized a show for Luke.] He shows up with the band in the van. They unload and start loading in and I meet Luke. He’s a nice guy. They’re starting to soundcheck and I’m like, “This guy can flat out sing!” I got to experience that moment that you have when you see Luke for the first time. The charisma and the passion that he had was there without even being in show mode. The show was awesome. I was like, “This is the guy. I want to manage this guy. I’ve got to get him another show to show him that I have some yank.”
[After another show,] I told him, “I’d like to manage you.” He goes, “What do you know about management?” I said, “Not a lot, but I got you this show. I’ve been around a lot of managers. I know that I can work just as hard as they can. I can be just as passionate as they can. Nobody will out-care me or out-appreciate what you bring to the table and we’ll do this together.”
He said, “Let me go talk to three managers in Nashville.” So he came to talk to three managers here in Nashville and all of them said he was a songwriter. He calls me up and says, “Hey, I met with all three managers.” I said, “What’d they say?” He goes, “You tell me what you want then I’ll tell you what they want.” I was like, “I want you to stand on stage every night and sing your songs, just like you do, and connect with the crowd. I’ll handle everything else.” He goes, “You’re my manager.”
I moved here Sept. 6 of 2016 and we got started.
What was it like when you guys got to Nashville?
Early on I asked Luke what one of his goals were. He’s like, “Man, I drive this piece of crap Dodge Neon. I need a safe car. I don’t know if the brakes are going to work, it doesn’t have AC, and I have to drive this to writes and I hate it because people see me in this and this isn’t indicative of who I am.” I was like, “Alright, I won’t take any commission from you until we can buy you a new car—however long that takes.” I wasn’t rich. I had a small amount in savings and thought things would get going pretty quickly.
So we started and we had no money coming in. We had just enough money to pay the bills and if we didn’t have enough, I would pull money out of my savings to put gas in the van and stuff like that. Soon I am destitute. I have less than $50 to my name. Every night I’m taking the merch bin to the green room and taking all the food and water and stuff that’s left behind and putting it in there so I have something to eat. No one ever knew. Every penny that came in that was left over went into a Maxwell House coffee can that sat on top of Luke’s refrigerator. We would just stack cash in there. We were doing that and I was bleeding my account dry trying to figure it out. I sold stuff and did whatever I could to just make it work. I was driving our Sprinter van everywhere because I [had to sell] my car. I was going to meetings in this giant Sprinter and people were just laughing at me, but I couldn’t let Luke know that.
We saved enough money. We had $15,000 and we bought a 2013 Ford Fusion for him. That next weekend we did a show. We had $500 left over and Luke goes, “I got my car now. Take commission.” It was $75 bucks and I felt like I was Mark Cuban. The very next day we got a phone call that somebody had pulled out of an ATV park show and they were desperate to get somebody, so we got a $10,000 offer. Three days later we got an offer to play a private for a guy whose daughter was graduating high school. He offered us an obscene amount of money. Instantly we made all this money and I was like, “We’re gonna make it.”
Now Luke is one of the biggest stars in our format, and you’ve added more artists and team members to your management company. Did you ever see yourself building out Make Wake to what it is now?
Absolutely not. I had no idea that it was going to turn into this. As I sit around my office and see the Niko Moon plaques, and I see the shows for Hailey Whitters, Flatland Cavalry and Drew Parker… I never thought I’d come to town and create a management company that would have 10 artists on the roster and 17 full-time employees. That was never a part of the plan. I have the weight of the careers of our artists on my shoulders and the weight of the employees that I have to take care of for them and their families. I never thought that I would ever have to worry about that stuff.
It doesn’t scare me, it’s just a lot to deal with. I’m lucky I have fantastic people out there that I can call on. I’m the first person to say if I don’t know something. I have great people that I can pick up the phone and call. I talk to either Kerri Edwards, John Peets, Clarence Spalding, or Marion Kraft once a week.
What’s something people might not know about you?
I lost 200 pounds. That’s something people might not know about. I ended up having gastric bypass surgery. I didn’t have good control of my weight, it was an unhealthy relationship. I knew that I needed to get control of it.
I remember being in the hospital after getting it done and being so depressed. I was thinking, “I can’t believe I just had to do this. You were such a loser. You couldn’t get this done.” Then I thought, “No, this is not how you need to be thinking. You just didn’t have a handle on it. You didn’t have control. You needed to get control and you got control.” I’ll see people now who haven’t seen me in forever and they’ll be like, “Woah, I didn’t even recognize you.” I talk about it because I want people to know that there shouldn’t be a stigma around it.
If someone was to ask you what your definition of success was, what would you say?
Being able to shop at Whole Foods without looking at prices. (Laughs)
When you sit with an artist and you’re like, “What are your dreams? What are your passions? What are your goals?,” and you can accomplish those. Some of them are extremely realistic, some of them are over the moon, but if you’re able to do that, that’s success. Seeing an artist on stage, seeing their fans sing their songs back to them—they’re so elated and they come off the stage and they’re like, “They were singing my songs!” That’s it, man. There’s nothing better than that.