Back in 2015, while country star Luke Combs was quietly building a small-but-mighty fan base at shows in Georgia, Chris Kappy was living his best life in California, being an entirely different kind of force in the music business industry. Was it fate that brought the two men together to form the kind of artist-manager relationship that would become the business model for all others? Or was it simply a matter of Kappy holding fast to his decision to pivot, and Combs being there when he did?
It seems like it was a beautiful, crazy collision.
Kappy now sits at the helm of Make Wake Artists, a company that wasn’t built with the same business model of other Nashville-based artist management firms. His title is Founder, Chief Navigation Officer. And his motto, he says, is to wake up every day and G.A.F. (give a fuck). Between that and his fans-first mindset, country music could learn a thing or two from this Nashville newcomer. Because within just about five years of meeting each other, Combs has become arguably the biggest thing to hit country music in decades.
Kappy enthusiastically shared his story with Holler, and makes it sound like the Make Wake empire he’s built in just five short years came as naturally to him as it did to Combs.
There’s almost an art to becoming an artist’s manager, right? Like you have to know people, know how things work, and typically, start at the bottom. But that’s not the way you started, is it?
Not at all. I was with Sixthman for 15 years, throwing music festivals on cruise ships. I cut my teeth with them, and I was exposed to very passionate fan bases. All I did was work with the fans, so I experienced what it meant to be a ‘super fan’. You have such an opportunity to really understand the fans. But I’d always wanted to be a manager. One day, my best friend called me and said, “Kappy, you’re 42. You’re not getting any younger. You have to take a chance.” And six months later, I met Luke.
Still, though. You had no experience in artist management. Did Combs take a chance on you when you took a chance on him?
I just thought, “This is my chance. This is my shot.” After watching his show, and seeing the fans singing along and losing their shit, I was like, “This is the guy. I’m in.” I remember sitting backstage with him back then and eating pizza and laughing and shooting the shit, and knowing I just liked him. And I knew he was gonna listen. He was gonna take advice. He had the fans. He had the passion. His It Factor was already there, even though at the time he had nothing behind him: no team, no record label, no agent. So I said, “I’m in.” But it did take me three months to convince Luke to hire me as his manager, and then we started the journey together.
What was it like to dive into a job you hadn’t done before?
It was actually several jobs. I was doing the job of manager, tour manager, production manager, business manager, and merch manager. It was a seven-days-a-week job. We did that for a year, just Luke and I. We boot strapped it. I was 42, I was all in and I immersed myself into his world.
The first day I moved to Nashville, I drove downtown to the Kinko’s at Broadway and Third Avenue and made laminates for the band. I printed a piece of card stock with Luke’s logo, and had them all laminated. I showed up to van call that day and handed out these homemade laminates to everyone and told them to put them on. They were like, “Why?” I said, “Because you’re a band now, and bands wear laminates.” That was how we were boot strapping it. And every day that we had a show, I drove the band van and Luke sat shotgun. We had very deep conversations about fan appreciation. Man, I beat it into Luke’s head that that was all that mattered. Everything else will come after if you put fans first. That’s one of our mantras. Other managers might tell you that streaming is all that mattered, but if you ask me how many streams of 'Hurricane' Luke has, I couldn’t tell you. But what I could tell you is that we have 734,000 people in our fan club.
A couple of years ago, Combs told me - after securing his record deal, releasing his debut album, having his first song hit No.1, and winning the Country Music Association’s new artist of the year award – that you were the first person to really see something in him. But you’ve said yourself that it took you a while to convince him to hire you. Were there other managers in the running for the job?
I told him to do me a favor and talk with three other managers before he decided. I wanted him to know that I’d never done this before, but I knew I could do it. So he talked to other managers, and all three told him he was never gonna make it as an artist. Songwriter, yes. But never an artist. He called me and said, “You tell me how you’d manage me.” I said, “I want you on stage every night. I want you to sings your songs. You handle everything on stage, and I’ll handle everything else.” He said, “Deal. You’re my manager. When can you move to Nashville? You believe in me, so let’s go.”
You make it sound so easy, but there had to have been some struggles along the way?
Again, I was boot strapping it. During some of those nights when we weren’t making much money, I was bleeding myself dry. I was down to my last $50, and I was living off of water, ramen and food I would take out of the green room every night. I was sleeping on my own couch because I had someone living in my bedroom who helped pay the bills and watch my dog. I’d sold my car. And then the very next week we got an offer to do a private show for $10,000 for a high school graduation party. It was a test. It was karma. I felt like I was being taken care of. I dug out of that hole for six months before we built up some momentum.
Once you had some money coming in, is it safe to say you reinvested it into your new company?
Yes. I had been working out of an accounting firm office, but I got out of that and was able to get out of my lease in East Nashville. So I rented a house on Music Row. I just knew we needed to look bigger than we were. I wanted Luke to have a presence.
Now that you’re firmly established as his manager, and he’s firmly established as a star, what is your favorite part of the job?
It’s this: he is absolutely the same guy who’d play for a half-empty bar or a sold-out stadium. He’s the same guy with zero No. 1s or with nine No 1s. He is the same. His heart is the same. He has not changed one bit. And that is so, so rare. The fame and money and everything haven’t changed him one bit. He is still so humble. He is good. There’s no other word for him. He is a good human.
How did you go from just being Combs’ right hand man to being able to bring on other artists?
One of our other mottos is fail forward. Meaning, you’re allowed to fail, just fail forward and learn from it. I want my team to take risks. I learned early on that I needed the right people and the right culture before I started bringing on new artists. We all figured it out together. I have ten full time staff team members, a 50/50 male-to-female ratio, and I’m a big believer in promoting from within. I have worked hard to get us to feel like a family. We have ten commandments we live by, things like, “Make everything a win-win situation,” “Never say ‘That’s not my job,’” and of course, “Give a fuck.” You have to trust the artists, and you have to trust and empower your team members. We work hard to build that culture and support the fans. We are not here because we want to get rich. Getting rich is just a by-product of the job. As an artist, your job is to create music and create a connection with your fans, and then replicate that over and over and over again. And if you do that, you’re wealthier than you’ll ever know.
The Make Wake artist roster includes Combs, Hailey Whitters, Drew Parker, Niko Moon, Ashland Craft, brother sundance, Flatland Cavalry, Jackie Lee, Jason Nix, Taela and Tyler Dial.
Photography by Emma Golden / Zack Massey