Tim McGraw: The Big Show (Second of Two Parts)

It’s nice work if you can get it, and Tim McGraw has made the most of his position as a best-selling country music superstar. In the latest issue of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Journal of Country Music, CMT.com reporter Edward Morris takes a closer look at McGraw’s various revenue streams and business plan. The full story is available in the JCM, but this final except in the two-part series centers around McGraw’s endorsements and his work as a record producer.

Tim McGraw does deny himself one major source of revenue that other artists of his stature routinely tap into — songwriting royalties. Even if a recording artist has no songwriting skills at all, it is common practice for successful songwriters to “co-write” with the artist. It’s a practice that financially benefits both parties. The legitimate songwriters are virtually guaranteed that the artist will record their joint compositions, thus gaining their songs commercial exposure. And the artist gets a share of the royalties these songs generate from airplay (performance royalties) and from record sales (mechanical royalties). Because McGraw sells so many records and gets so much airplay, there’s probably not a songwriter in Nashville who wouldn’t jump at the chance to “co-write” with him. But McGraw plays it straight and declines this easy money, preferring to produce albums by other artists, for which he also receives a share of sales royalties.

“First, I don’t think I’m any good at songwriting,” he says. “I’d love to be able to sit down and write a song, and maybe one of these days my focus will change. But producing is a real artistic outlet for me. It’s a way to look at music and try to get things out of it that I can’t necessarily get out of myself — to go at it at a different angle, to try to make music at a different angle from [that of] an artist. I’ll hear something and say, ’Man, Jo Dee [Messina] could really tear this up. This is what I would do if I could do it. I can’t, but I know Jo Dee can.'”

Over the past year, McGraw showed up faithfully at the several No. 1 parties thrown for writers who had penned his hits. But he invariably stayed in the background and left the spotlight to them. He moved in for pictures only when asked. One party was for Craig Wiseman, Jeffrey Steele and Al Anderson, who co-wrote “The Cowboy in Me.” “Craig kept my career going there for a while,” McGraw told the celebrants. He said he met Wiseman at the Hall of Fame Inn Lounge on Music Row the day he moved to town in 1989. Wiseman had a band, and McGraw asked him if he could sing a song. “You’d better be nice to people,” Wiseman observed. “You never know where they’ll end up.”

McGraw has balanced the absence of songwriting royalties with a string of product endorsements that yield big bucks, both in direct financial support and in spurring ticket and record sales. “One of our huge endorsement partners has been Bud Light,” says Scott Siman, McGraw’s manager. “When I first got involved, that was one of the things I was tasked with — to go out and look for endorsements and sponsorship opportunities for Tim. Early on, we were able to put together the Bud Light deal. One year, the deal was with Uniroyal Tires; but the second touring year I was with him, we were able to secure the deal with Bud Light. They’ve been wonderful. They’ve given him the opportunity to do national television commercials. Not only do they give us money to make our tours better and to promote and market our tours and do the national TV commercials, they’ve also been really good at looking for special opportunities. For example, last year they spent a million dollars to buy a spot on the Academy Awards show. This year they did the same on the Super Bowl. So it’s not just been about what works for them; they’re also doing things that work for us. They bought spots on the American Music Awards, the CMA and the [Academy of Country Music] awards.”

To get a major sponsorship these days, business manager Chuck Flood explains, “you’ve either got to be a superstar or a hot new act — I mean platinum, or close to it.” But, he adds, such sponsorships can be “extremely lucrative because there’s not much in the way of additional costs associated with creating that income stream. Except for commissions, it all flows to the artist’s bottom line.” McGraw is in the middle of a multiyear agreement with Bud Light. Siman declines to say how much the company pays McGraw directly and in support of his records and tours.

Complex as his current life may be, McGraw says he has no nostalgia for his simpler days of struggle. “Being in my late teens and 20s and playing music on the road was a lot of fun. But the stress mentally of thinking about what you’re going to do with your life to be successful and wanting a family — all that stuff far outweighs the pressures, to me, anyway, of being a successful artist and maintaining it. That’s opened up a lot of doors and given me a lot of freedom, artistically and personally.”

With his multi-million-dollar business machine cranked into overdrive, McGraw enjoys his work. “I’m hungry about making better music,” he says. “I like going out and doing my shows and knowing that they’re selling well. Playing’s not as much fun if you go out there and see empty seats. It’s a lot of fun when they’re packed. Forty thousand people in an arena create a lot of energy. You can’t ever get tired of that.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.