Martha Earls. Photo: Angelea Presti
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.
Martha Earls is the owner of management company Neon Coast, and personal manager to Platinum-selling artist Kane Brown. Signed to Neon Coast is country band Restless Road along with other music and non-music clients. Together with Brown, under the Neon Coast name, she started Sony joint venture record label, 1021 Entertainment, and production company Demasiado.
Demasiado has produced award-winning music videos, awards show performances and television commercials. More recent signings to the management company include Nightly, Dylan Schneider and Feather. Earls started her management company following a successful run in music publishing. She has been honored multiple times by Billboard and the Nashville Business Journal.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I was born in Ohio, but grew up in central Pennsylvania. I obviously had no idea about the music industry. I was good at playing the piano and I was good at track and field. I got a really great college scholarship based on my piano playing, so I went to a small music school in New Jersey. That’s where I met Mike Molinar and how we became friends. He’s from El Paso, but he moved up there to go to this music school.
What a coincidence. Did you know what you wanted to pursue while in college?
You had to declare a major and I didn’t know what I wanted my major to be. I didn’t want to be a teacher and I didn’t want to be a performer. I didn’t even really like playing the piano that much, I just got this great scholarship. While looking at majors, I found one and was like, “Oh my God, that job only works twice a week and makes a full salary. I’m going to major in church organ!” [Laughs] It was so ridiculous.
Two or three weeks into it, I was miserable, but I toughed it out for a year. The school was really small with only around 350 students, but there was one girl there who was graduating and going to NYU for law school. She said she was going to be an entertainment lawyer. That opened my eyes to the entertainment industry. Over the summer after my freshman year, I started looking online and discovered MTSU and Belmont. I knew I wanted to move out of the northeast, and being from a small town, country music was massive. I came down here to visit and just loved MTSU.
Pictured (L-R): Martha Earls, Kent Earls, Chuck Wicks, Luke Bryan, Rusty Gaston
How did you start your career while at MTSU?
I started interning at Warner Chappell. Dale Bobo was there at the time. Him and Michael Knox hired me for my internship. Tim Wipperman ran the company and he was amazing. I was in the catalog room, which was the last stop writers would make before they went out the side door into the parking lot at Warner Chappell. They would always drop by and hang out. I loved it. I really fell in love with the creatives. That was the start to my music industry career.
I interned that summer of my senior year and then told them I was having such a great time and didn’t want to leave. They let me do another internship. They didn’t have the budget to pay me but I didn’t care. Then the receptionist left and they offered me that job. I was still in school and taking a decent number of classes, but I was like, “Yes, absolutely.” In March of my senior year, they promoted me to a full time position in the tape room.
About a year later, they promoted me to a junior song plugger. I found during my time at Warner Chappell that I really liked working with the artists-songwriters even more than the regular songwriters. I really enjoyed taking the meetings with artists rather than going and meeting with other A&R people. For whatever reason, I could really dial into the artists. I got to work with Jason [Aldean] early on and Little Big Town.
What was next for you?
Next, I went to BMG publishing. At the time, Karen Conrad and Ron Stuve were there. That was great because it was different than Warner, where we had like 100 songwriters. At BMG, Ron and Karen ran it more like an independent—they only had about 20 songwriters. And again, I kept [being drawn to] signing artists. We signed Jake Owen, Chuck Wicks, and a couple other guys.
Pictured (L-R): Braeden Rountree, Martha Earls, Kane Brown, Liz Kennedy, Randy Goodman
Then you started a publishing company with Mike Molinar.
I felt a constant pull to do more. Mike was working for Cal Turner at the time. We decided we needed to start a company. I always felt a desire to have my own company and Mike was ready to spread his wings. We went around town and pitched our idea to start a publishing company to everybody. Nobody was really into it. We finally found an investor and he really believed in Mike and I.
He invested in our company and it was very family-oriented. Mike and I signed three or four songwriters. We had some success, we had some big cuts, and we got it going. The investor ended up buying us out, which was great. It gave us the capital to start the 2.0 version of the company, but it was all very bare bones.
When we started building the next version of the publishing company, I started feeling like I wasn’t maximizing myself. I always felt like the shoe didn’t quite fit. So when Mike and I started the 2.0 version of the company, we decided to sign more artists and producers. We signed an artist named Greg Bates, who was at Belmont at the time. Jimmy Harnen heard about him and invited him to come to Big Machine. He played at Big Machine and Jimmy signed him. Then I just started handling everything for him.
So that’s how you got into artist management.
I don’t even know if she knows, but Kerri Edwards is such an important example for female managers in the music industry. At that time, I was thinking, “Kerri started working with Luke [Bryan] out of the publishing company. I’m just going to follow that mold until it doesn’t work anymore.” It came so much more naturally to me to manage an artist’s career than this literal decade of publishing experience. That was what got me into management.
Things were going well with the company that Molinar and I started. Scott Borchetta didn’t have anything like that, so our company became what is now the publishing company that Mike Molinar has. He’s done such amazing things with it. I was able to be at Big Machine for a year while we transitioned that company over, and that was amazing. Even though everybody knew I was going to do management full time, I got to learn so much. It was right when Taylor Swift was releasing Red and making her jump from being a huge country artist to being a global superstar. That’s what I got to witness.
Fast forward to now, with what I’m doing with Kane, that experience was such a gift. It was placed in front of me for me to learn anything is possible. Scott had no fences built around anything.
What did you do after your time at Big Machine?
I knew I wanted do management full time, but I felt like there was more to learn. I went over to Sandbox and was there for two years. That was a whole different experience. They released Kacey Musgraves‘ Same Trailer, Different Park album on a Friday and I started on the next Monday. It was really interesting to watch an artist blow up without having the traditional country radio piece.
At the end of that, I was asked to be a consultant for Michael Blanton and his company. In exchange for two hours of consulting a week, he gave me an office. Jay Frank, who had his own digital marketing company, called me and asked me to run his independent label. I had never done anything for an independent label before, but he needed somebody to oversee it. That was crazy, too. I learned how to make a music video for $5,000, how to get vinyl pressed, and all that kind of stuff.
Pictured (L-R): Kane Brown, Martha Earls
How did you end up working with Kane?
One day Jay said, “We have this guy that somebody on our staff found online. He’s country and we signed him to a management agreement if you want to help out with that.” I don’t think Jay really knew what he had with Kane at the time. I met Kane and I was like, “Jay, all this other stuff you’re working on is nonsense. This is the thing. Kane is the thing.” I just jumped in feet first with Kane.
In 2016, it became just me and Kane. We’ve just been building what we’re doing ever since. It’s kind of a mixture of the tenacity that Scott had that says we can have great success and do anything, and then also the understanding of you don’t have to do things the traditional way. From having created my own publishing company and really struggling, I didn’t get defeated by anything.
Now Kane is a multi-Platinum superstar, but what were those first few years like?
[The first thing we did] was put out an EP called Chapter One that had “Used To Love You Sober” on it. Florida Georgia Line and Seth England could see things early with him, so they put him on tour. He was first of four and got to play for 15 minutes, but it was amazing. We were having trouble at country radio with “Used To Love You Sober,” and there was a lot of preconceived notions about who people thought Kane Brown was, because of how he looks. He’s biracial, he had tattoos, he had success on social media.
Kane met Dann Huff. Dann cut “What Ifs,” a song that Kane wrote. “What Ifs” wasn’t a single yet, so we put that [Kane Brown] album out with no single on the radio, and it still did really great. In 2017, we got a new radio guy at RCA when Dennis Reese came over. He’s been Kane’s biggest champion at the label. He’s such a wonderful guy. He came from the pop world, so he didn’t have any boundaries. [With Dennis on board], “What Ifs” became an eight-time Platinum single. It’s one of the biggest songs in the history of country music. That got things going and we’ve just been building on that ever since.
Pictured (L-R): Clay Bradley, Michael Giangreco, Ernest, Rusty Gaston, Kane Brown, Stevie Frasure, Jesse Frasure, Kent Earls, Levon Gray, Vanna Moua, Martha Earls, Spencer Nohe, Dennis Reese. Photo: Steve Lowry
In the last few years, your company has grown substantially. You and Kane have built a joint venture record label with Sony Music Nashville, as well as a publishing company with Sony Music Publishing.
We were out in LA for for the “Saturday Nights” video shoot. I was feeling like it was time to start growing. I asked him, “How do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as an artist who tours six months out of the year and then takes six months off and chills with his family? Or do you see yourself like a Florida Georgia Line, who when they’re not touring, they’re still writing, producing, signing artists, running a publishing company and a clothing store?” He said, “I want to be like that. I don’t know how long everything will last.”
That was when we decided to expand the company. I saw all these different verticals. I could see a joint venture label, where we sign artists, as well as a publishing side of things. We started a production company and signed other management clients, too. Kane gets a taste of all of it because I want him to feel invested in everything.
If someone were to ask you how to be successful in this industry, what would you tell them?
That’s a great question. You can measure success so many different ways. I feel like what it is is being comfortable, satisfied and proud of the work that you’re doing. Owning your space and acknowledging to yourself that you deserve to be there.