Published Oct 16, 2018
The Two Grads Who Manage Tim McGraw's Brand
James Stewart and Brian Kaplan have managed to achieve a dream — as best friends and colleagues, they’ve built dual careers by helping each other out. Now, they’ve teamed up to market one of country music’s biggest stars.
When James Stewart and Brian Kaplan graduated from the Recording Arts program in 2004, they had no idea that it would be another 15 years before they set foot on campus again — this time speaking to students about their careers.
James and Brian currently serve as co-vice presidents of EM.Co, a boutique creative agency that reps a single client: country superstar Tim McGraw. They’re part of the five-person team responsible for marketing and managing every aspect of Tim’s brand — from sponsorships, philanthropic partnerships, and brand extensions to international tours, music videos, and content distribution. They’ve been lucky enough to tour the country with Tim and each other, capitalizing on a personal and professional synergy that stems from years of friendship and mutual support.
“Back in school, we must have come up with a million different ideas for businesses,” says James. “So the goal and the drive was always there. It was a meandering path. But the drive, the friendship, that never changed.”
After graduation, James moved to Nashville where he landed a job as a mastering engineer at Sun Records, the famous studio and independent label responsible for launching the careers of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash. Meanwhile, Brian headed to Los Angeles, where he got a gig working in Universal Music’s emerging digital marketing department. They two friends kept in touch, occasionally helping each other out professionally.
“I’m working at Sun Records, and one day my Instant Messenger goes off. It’s Brian. He goes, ‘Hey can you edit this for me?’ And he sends me an audio file. I open it up, and it's Snoop Dogg. I edit it for him, and I send it back, and he goes, ‘Thanks!’ And I don't hear from him for two weeks,” laughs James. “I'm sure it made him look like a rock star because he turned something around really quickly.”
“I needed some extra help. I knew a good friend could help me out for free,” adds Brian. “After a few years at Universal in L.A., I met my now wife, and we decided Nashville would be a good place to raise a family and have a house and live a comfortable life. And James was there, which was a bonus.” He put in for a transfer.
James went to work for Universal in 2009, with Brian moving over to Sony Nashville to run their digital marketing department. When Universal and EMI merged in 2012, James found himself caught up in the layoffs.
“I was lucky,” says James. “I started working with a guy named Scott Siman, who was Tim McGraw’s manager. They had a distribution deal through Sony Nashville, which was another connection to Brian. So we were both doing digital marketing.”
Scott decided to launch EM.Co in 2015. He brought along James and soon, Brian moved over to join the team. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind cycle of album launches, tours, and even some unexpected wins. James, Brian, and their team were honored with a Clio Music Bronze award for a viral, pay-it-forward marketing campaign promoting Tim’s single “Humble and Kind.” To date, the video has more than 64 million views on YouTube.
“It was the second or third single off Tim’s last solo project,” James recalls. “It came out at the very beginning of 2016, before the election. There was a lot of political turmoil and infighting, and a lot of weird things happening on social media. The rest of the country music community was focused on songs about trucks and girls and booze, and here we are putting out a ballad about humility and kindness. It really went against the grain of what was happening at the time.”
The employees of EM.Co faced a challenge: How do you market basic human decency in polarizing times? They started by choosing their partnerships wisely. Several commercial brands approached Tim and his team about using the song in their own branding campaigns, but it felt counterintuitive to leverage the song’s message to sell something. Instead, they partnered with celebrities like Oprah and Tyler Perry to promote a campaign focused on fostering kindness and good deeds in communities all over the world.
“We started seeing videos where elementary schools would participate in a “Humble and Kind Week,” says Brian. “The first videos were classes of maybe 20 kids. Then we started getting videos with 100 kids, and then thousands all singing the song and learning about how to be more giving and kind.”
“It resonated with people,” adds James. At a time that was really tumultuous. It was amazing to see people seeding stories of inspiration and hope.”