Striking a chord

Virginia Davis lights up Music Row with G Major Management

When Virginia Hunt Davis was 11 years old, she learned a business lesson that sparked her entrepreneurial spirit.

“I had a firewood chopping business,” Davis recalls of her childhood. “My dad would pay me $10 an hour to chop firewood. One evening, I went to the Exxon station with him, where he sold the wood — the wood that I had chopped and neatly stacked and arranged in the truck bed — for more than $100. I said, ‘But I just did all that for $40. Where’s my cut?’ And my dad looked at me and said, ‘Well, I own the tree.’ So, from that point on, I’ve been trying to own the tree.”

A little over two decades later, Davis finally owns the tree. In September, Artist Nation — Live Nation’s artist management division — announced its partnership with Davis in the launch of her G Major Management, headquartered on Music Row.

The start of the business follows a three-year partnership Davis enjoyed with former Live Nation Executive Chairman and Front Line Management CEO Irving Azoff (who was named number one on Billboard’s Power 100 list in 2012) and Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta. Their joint venture, B.A.D. Management (a play on the first letters of their last names), was rewarding for Davis, and the decision to go solo reflects the maturation of her business relationships with two men she calls “smart, charismatic and incredibly talented.”

“The relationships evolved as our business evolved, and we arrived at a place that works better for all of us,” she says.

Davis says that, though they are no longer partners in the management company, Azoff continues to be a mentor and friend, and Borchetta serves as a consultant to G Major. All of G Major’s artists — Thomas Rhett, Jewel and season four The Voice winner Danielle Bradbery — are on labels within Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group.

The Wall Street Journal recently called the 33-year-old Davis a “veteran music manager,” but after more than 20 years of running her own businesses, the description is both apt and accurate.

Davis grew up on a farm in Kenna, W. Va., and between her wood chopping operation, a babysitting service that she ran on weekends and during the summer, and cleaning her father’s law office after school, she had saved about $8,000 by age 16. As soon as she got her driver’s license and finished high school early, she left town, and then put herself through college at the University of South Carolina through a combination of part-time jobs, scholarships and student loans. She graduated from USC at the age of 19.

“I believe that having the opportunity to work and earn at such a young age gave me a real sense of self-confidence and self-worth,” Davis says. “I could see how wealth was built, and how my actions and work ethic had a direct correlation to my success. It was a simple lesson, but I learned it very young, and it directed my course from there on out.”

Davis, who married songwriter Patrick Davis in 2001, moved to Nashville the following year. The young couple arrived in town a few months after 9/11, and with a tough job marketplace, Davis launched her own PR company to make ends meet.

“I just did what I knew to do,” she says. “I had a business degree [and] I had worked in a venture capital firm before moving to Nashville, so I knew that I could assert my marketing skills in some way to help the bands and artists that I was meeting. It was more out of necessity to survive, if you will, and to use the skills that I had to bring value to someone. That was my endgame.”

After a stint as national marketing and sponsorship director at Nashville Songwriters Association International, Davis was hired as a consultant by Warner Music Nashville to write a business plan for RAYBAW, Big and Rich’s label imprint. She presented her business plan and Warner hired her to run the label shortly thereafter. Davis was 25 at the time.

After two years as RAYBAW’s general manager, Davis transitioned into artist management with her first client, Jewel, who Azoff was managing at the time. In 2010, the two teamed up with Borchetta to launch B.A.D. through Front Line Management, with Davis overseeing operations.

When Davis prepped to forge out on her own — a move precipitated by Azoff’s decision to step down as Live Nation Entertainment’s chairman in late 2012 — she pondered the same questions she asks every time she has considered making a seismic career shift.

“Any time I've made a big career decision, I ask myself if I’m creating an environment where I can make what I earn and invest in myself,” Davis explains. “Does the risk match the reward? Is the sky really the limit? Are their other limitations to this opportunity?”

One thing that Davis did not question was the fundamental principles that have guided her business ventures from day one.

“With G Major — as with B.A.D. — I’ve continued to operate off of some pretty basic core values with which I started my first businesses as a kid,” she says. “I believe in treating others with honesty and respect, and I try to foster a community within our office — interns included — that is peer-to-peer supportive and encourages education. I deeply believe that learning, and the pursuit of learning, is one of the most important things that we can do for both our businesses and our personal lives.”

Failure can be helpful

In terms of learning, Davis views failure — which can be frequent in an industry where art doesn’t always play nicely with commerce — as the ultimate learning experience in the business world.

“We all hope for grand-slam successes in this business, and very few of us ever get them,” she admits. “But slow and steady will win this race. We tell our artists that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I think we also need to remind ourselves of that. And I have learned far more from failure than I ever have from success. If you aren't failing a bit here and there, you might not be reaching high enough.”

And in the music business, failures are much more frequent than successes. Labels spend millions of dollars investing in artists, and management companies like G Major invest time, energy and overhead.

Unlike a manufacturing company that — when purchasing a piece of equipment — can assess the risk of the investment versus the projected profit, there’s no formula to ensure an artist’s success in the music business. Realistically, there never will be, because the investment always involves humans. With people come multiple variables, many of which are beyond the label or management’s control.

“There are things you never know about an artist until you go down a very expensive road with them,” Davis explains. “You can’t really explain this job to anybody. You don’t know if they can handle everything it takes — the pressure, fame, rejection — and if they really have a head for success. You don’t know that until they’re in it. The second thing is that until you put them on stage, you don’t know if they really shine, and if people are inexplicably drawn to them. You don’t know either of those things until you get them out there.”

Just as she doesn’t balk at the prospect of failing, Davis said that she never panicked about going it alone, saying that her credo has been “Fortune favors the bold.” Specifically, she handled the negotiation regarding her enterprise with Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, who describes Davis as “one of the best in the business” noting, as an example, that G Major is off to a strong start with the signing of Danielle Bradbery.

After the negotiation, Davis then assembled the necessary attorneys and business managers to work out the logistics, laying the groundwork for G Major.

While her venture capital background certainly prepared her for the undertaking, Davis says that growing a management company has its distinctive challenges.

“You do have to watch overhead and current income and hire for growth when the time is right,” she explains. “And sometimes it’s not always obvious; you feel it before you see it. Honestly, it can take years for a developing artist to make any real income, so it’s a constant balancing act.”

Davis explains that there are two parts to the artist management business. Running clients’ careers and working with their team — the touring crew, business managers, label representatives and such — is one aspect. Then there’s the management company itself, even if most them don’t have large staffs. G Major now has three full-timers an intern program that rotates in five people at a time.

Davis stresses that artist management is a service-based industry, and that she and her small staff have to be very conscious of how they spend their time.

“In a product-based business, if demand increases, you increase supply,” she says. “I’m a service-based business, and I only have 24 hours in my day and seven days in a week. It’s very different and you have to be very careful about what you spend your time on, and who you invest your time in.”

While operations at G Major have been running since January, the official announcement regarding the company’s partnership with Live Nation was announced in late September, giving Davis an opportunity to survey what she had built in such a short time.

“I think the moment it hit me was when we officially made our announcement and it ran in the press — it became 'real' to everyone around us, our clients and partners in the industry,” she says. “It’s a great feeling to work on a deal for months, see it come to fruition and have the validation and support of your peers and friends.”

Ambition and balance

Another career milestone was the addition of the aforementioned 17-year-old phenom Danielle Bradbery to the G Major roster just after her victory on The Voice.

“The moment I saw Danielle on The Voice, I knew that this young girl was very special and was a talent desperately needed in our format,” Davis says. “I flew out to L.A. to meet with her, her family and the show's producers on the weekend of the finale. I was lucky enough to spend a little time with Miranda [Lambert] and Blake [Shelton] as well, discussing the potential for Danielle’s future. That night, she won The Voice, and after it was all said and done, we decided that working together was the best fit.”

Davis acknowledges that working with a reality competition winner like Bradbery is different from her own management experiences. While Jewel had long been an established star when they began working together, Davis started managing Thomas Rhett before he had even played his first full-band show, and she’s been with him every step of the way since.

Today, Rhett is one of the emerging male artists in the country music format; he had enjoyed three chart-topping singles from his debut release for Valory and performed in front of sellout crowds at Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Georgia’s Sanford Stadium as the opener for Jason Aldean’s Night Train Tour earlier this year. But reality TV brings yet another variable in the mix.

“There’s a reason why everybody who wins a singing competition doesn’t instantly become a big superstar,” Davis says. “It takes hard work; you’re still building a foundation of real fans who are passionate about that artist and the music they’re creating, and you’re building it one fan at a time, whether you started out with a TV show or not.”

Davis, thoughtful yet strategic in G Major’s growth and the allocation of her resources, knew that Bradbery was the kind of artist she wanted on her team.

“I always ask myself before taking on a client, ‘How can I help them build their business?’” Davis says. “She’s a young girl who sings pure country music, and she has such an undeniable voice. I felt that I could add some value to her team.”

Speaking of “young girls,” Davis is something of an anomaly in the heavily male-dominated artist management industry. She is also refreshingly straightforward and pragmatic when attention is paid to her age or gender.

“In Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, she shares that Warren Buffett has claimed — rather generously — that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was competing with only half of the population,” Davis says. “Some of the leadership in the music industry could say the same.

“There are certainly some unique challenges women face in any business,” she continues. “When careers are hitting a stride, that is also often the time to make life choices about family and children. That can take a woman off the field and out of the game for some time, if not indefinitely. And statistically, that is when dramatic fall-off of women in business occurs. On the flip side, I work with some incredible business executives in our industry who thrive as mothers and wives as well. So I know firsthand that it is possible to stay in the game and have a family if one chooses that path.”

While Davis does not have children, she is well aware of the tug of war between career and motherhood that many women struggle with. And being a young female leader of a company in the tradition-influenced Bible Belt and in the conservative-leaning commercial country music industry presents its own challenges.

“Being labeled as an ambitious woman is not always a compliment in our culture,” Davis admits. “Sometimes we find ourselves outside of accepted gender roles, and we can be criticized if we want to take the bull by the horns and really go for it. I've had the good fortune to have very supportive male and female colleagues and mentors, as well as a husband who encourages me to chase after my career full-throttle. Plus, I take it as a compliment to be called ambitious.”

Ambition runs in the veins. Davis’ late grandmother and namesake, Virginia Brown, was the first woman to head a federal independent administrative agency, appointed by then-President Lyndon Johnson in 1969 to oversee the Interstate Commerce Commission.

“She gave me a real-life example of how a woman could thrive in a career field dominated by men, and she did it with such grace and honor and poise,” Davis says. “She also had two daughters in her thirties. She was on the covers of BusinessWeek and The Washington Post and she started her life’s journey as a West Virginia farm girl, just like me. What I learned most from my grandmother was that where you start in life does not determine your outcome. I saw how it could be done; I had an example.”

As G Major grows, Davis will have to make difficult decisions. About risk versus reward. About artists who might not “shine” or employees who might not be the best fit for her team. But as long as she continues to rely on the guiding principles that have led her to this point, it’s possible she could become not only the most powerful woman, but the most powerful person on Music Row. And like so many successful entrepreneurs before her, she’ll accomplish it by banking on her most solid investment: herself.

“It has been a journey for me to figure out how I could create a situation in which I have equity in myself,” Davis says. “There is generally more risk involved when you are betting on yourself, rather than taking a guaranteed paycheck. What I have found is that you are actually investing in yourself and your future. Frankly, I couldn't afford not to.”