Speaking on a panel Monday (June 6) at the Billboard Country Music Summit in Nashville, singer Jason Aldean estimated he performed at least 40 showcases before he finally landed the contract with Broken Bow Records that led to his status as one of country's major stars.
The panel focused on how Aldean's career unfolded. Participating were his managers, Clarence Spalding and Chris Parr, booking agent Kevin Neal of Buddy Lee Attractions and Broken Bow senior vice president of operations Rick Shedd.
Billboard's Ray Waddell, who moderated the panel, labeled Aldean's achievements -- among them three platinum albums and the proven power to headline tours -- "one of the great artist development stories in country music," a story made all the more compelling by the fact that Broken Bow is an independent record company.
Aldean came to Nashville from his native Georgia in 1998.
"As a teenager, I knew this was ultimately where I had to be," he said.
Although he confessed he expected quick acceptance and success, it would be seven more years before his first record came out.
"We played [lots of] showcases" for label representatives who promised to show up but didn't," he recalled. "It just got to the point where you get frustrated. You can only be positive for so long before you ask yourself, 'Am I out of my mind?'"
Adding to his frustration was the on-and-off winnowing process beginning artists usually go through.
In December 1998, he recounted, Larry Willoughby, a talent representative for MCA Records, expressed interest in signing Aldean. Then Willoughby left MCA and went to Capitol Records. Capitol signed Aldean but never got around to recording any of his music. The label eventually dropped him.
"In the early days," Aldean said, "I did try to change and conform to what Nashville wanted," he said. Those compromises ranged from accepting other people's choices of songs to abandoning his trademark hat.
But after the Capitol incident, he continued, "I made a promise to myself I'd cut the kind of songs I wanted to."
In the summer of 2003, Aldean did yet another showcase, this one at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon for Broken Bow. Within a week, the upstart label offered to take him on. He signed with it early in the following year.
What was Broken Bow's appeal?
"The main thing was they offered me a deal," quipped the ever-candid Aldean. "I just wanted someone to believe in what I was doing."
Neal booked his first dates for Aldean in August 2004. The singer's debut single, "Hicktown," came out in April 2005 and his self-titled album in July.
Parr, who was then programming music videos for CMT, said he "loved" the "Hicktown" video from the time he first viewed it. His question, he said, was, "Is this the [real] act or somebody's visual representation of it?"
Aldean said he avoided introducing himself to radio stations the usual way -- via solo acoustic performances in a conference room for the stations staff -- because that wasn't a true representation of his style and sound. Instead, he volunteered to play free with his full band at live shows the stations sponsored.
"I was waiting for the part when we started making money," Spalding said, when it came time to discuss his part in building Aldean's career.
Having already achieved enormous success as the manager of Brooks & Dunn, Spalding said he made it clear to Aldean that he wasn't going to go through the "Management 101" process with him, whereby he had to explain and justify every decision he made.
One such decision was turning down lucrative offers some promoters made for Aldean before he had enough drawing power to make the promoters a profit in ticket sales. Such a short-term gain, Spalding implied, could lead to long-term negatives for an artist.
"This year, we put amphitheaters up for sale [for Aldean's concerts]," Spalding reported proudly. He said they sold out three of these venues weeks in advance of the shows.
"I feel like I've surrounded myself with people I can trust," said Aldean. "At some point, you've got to trust them."
Said Spalding, "I don't know that he's ever overridden us on a decision."
Aldean explained why he is resolute in picking the songs he wants to record instead of relying on someone else for the final choices.
"If I'm gonna go down in flames," he said, "I want it to be my fault."
He conceded that his current single, the rap-inflected "Dirt Road Anthem," was a risk.
"You're going to have your traditionalists who hear a song like that and think we're murdering country music," he said.
On the plus side, he noted, "This [song is] a monster. Before it came out as a single, the people [at the live shows] knew every word."
Shedd praised Aldean's relationship with Broken Bow as a "dream scenario."
"There's still a lot of things left I'd like to accomplish," Aldean summarized. "I barely have enough songs for a greatest hits album, and I want to be around for a while. ... I played a lot of sports growing up. I'm really competitive. I hate to lose."