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Music City Money Man

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Mar 24th, 2017
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Richland native Bryan Bolton shares how helping farmers manage their finances prepared him for the unique challenges of being a banker to some of the biggest stars in the world

Article by MICHAEL DEVAULT | Photo by ED RODE PHOTOGRAPHY

The last place Bryan Bolton ever pictured himself was kicked back in the dressing room of a country music icon or on the red carpet of the CMA Awards — at least not in the way he’s arrived here. If the bright lights of show business were in a young Bryan’s future, they were shining on him while he performed.

A year out of high school, he had visions of becoming a rock star. For much of his time at Mississippi College and for all of his four years at Rayville High, Bryan had played baseball, but music fixed that.

“I was a pitcher,” he recalls today, more than 20 years later. “I realized I could play music, stay up late, and not have to work out in the mornings. So about a year and a half in, I quit baseball and formed a band.”

That band was Max Cherry, and beginning in 1998, Bryan’s band started to play shows around Jackson. Before long, their reputation had grown, and freed from the constraints of a hectic baseballer’s schedule, Bryan was free to tour – which they did. From 1997 until after graduation, Max Cherry toured extensively across the American South, playing shows in Pensacola, Austin, Atlanta and all points between.

“We were kind of all over the South for a while,” he says. “We had our own music, but we really were just a good party band.”

In 2001, Bryan’s future seemed pretty set. His music was popular enough that it kept him busy, and his studies were winding down. Music, he knew, was going to be his full-time avocation. Then, everything changed.

“My father was diagnosed with ALS and dementia,” he says. “When you’re diagnosed with something like that, there’s a 100% mortality rate.”

Visions of rocking weddings and sorority parties aside, his path was clear. Without hesitation, he hung up his guitar and returned to Rayville to spend as much time as he had left with his father.

Though Bryan knew one day, sooner than later, he would be back in the saddle, until then all he could do was to bide his time – and find a job. Mississippi College finance training had provided him with a solid grasp of money concepts, and growing up in Rayville, going to Rayville High, and spending his youth in the cotton and corn fields provided more than enough knowledge to adequately assess the health and productivity of things that grow out of dirt. So, he applied to work at Bancorp South, where he was put to work as a crop inspector.

Bryan’s strong people skills quickly caught the attention of the larger banking and financial community outside of Rayville. While Bryan was working with farmers to help them make the most of their crops, higher ups were turning gears. Not too long after he started, Cross Keys Bank approached. They wanted to open a branch in Rayville, and for that they required his help. The opportunity to be a part of a new banking branch proved invaluable to Bryan.

“I learned then about building and maintaining relationships, and how those relationships are the key in banking – being personable with your client, knowing them and, more importantly, knowing what they’re going through,” he says. With small town clients and many farmers in his accounts list, Bryan relied heavily on his knowledge of farming, of the local economy and the unique stresses that come with the up-and-down world of family farms. A solid banking career well under way and music somewhat behind him, at least for the time being, Bryan settled back into the small-town routine.

His father died in March 2004. Three months later, he met the woman who he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Two years later, they married, and it was time for Bryan’s attention to return to music. Less than a year later, in 2007, the young couple moved to Nashville. Bryan wasted no time diving right back in.

“I got here and started doing writers’ rounds, trying to get a publishing deal,” he says. Any optimism or youthful cockiness quickly gave way to a realization thousands of aspiring stars come to. “I realized pretty quickly to make it as a professional musician in Nashville is probably the hardest place in the United States to make it, even though it’s the music capitol of the world.”

Writing songs, playing music and getting your name out there is one thing. Supporting a wife as you’re anticipating starting a family while doing so is another matter altogether. Bryan needed a job, and Bryan’s banking background opened up a lot of opportunities in the thriving commercial mecca that is Music City.

Atlanta-based southern banking juggernaut SunTrust had carved out a toehold in the competitive, if complex, music banking industry. Not only was Bryan a career banker who spoke music, he’d also worked with farmers who, like musicians and the financial infrastructure that supported them, experienced really great years that were often followed by several not-so-great years. They put him to work almost immediately.

As a music banker, Bryan helps artists and management teams navigate the complex interactions of credit-lines, deferred royalties and the arrival of that fabled, career-changing “mailbox money,” the massive checks that arrive sometimes months, if not years after a songwriter publishes and sells a hit song.

“When a writer pens a hit song, he won’t get paid for that song until a year or more later,” Bryan explains. “We work with their publisher – companies like BMI, ASCAP or SESAC – and look at the projections. Working off those projections, we’ll provide a loan for the songwriter. When those royalties flow in, they then flow straight to us, we pay down the loan, and pass through the rest to the songwriter.”

In this capacity, Bryan and his coworkers provide a modicum of stability in an industry known for Everestian peaks and Marianas-esque troughs. Along the way, Bryan’s helped guide the financial success of some of the biggest names in country music. Though he demurs with a banker’s discretion when asked for names – professionals in this business never namedrop – a glance at his photo album provides some insight. When pressed, he chuckles.

“I certainly never thought I’d be sitting backstage at a client’s festival, hanging out with someone, whose music I covered at the Pickin’ and Ginnin’ Festival in Rayville 25 years ago,” he says.

In addition to helping songwriters by day and kicking back in the fabled Opry green room after hours, Bryan assists music industry professionals organize and fund tours, setting up the lines of credit that enable artists to hit the road. For two or three months, while the artist rehearses, builds light rigs, plans and sells the tour, instead of tapping valuable capital, they can draw down the lines of credit and, when the tour kicks off and begins to generate income, the line of credit is paid off.

Another vital service banking professionals like Bryan provide are the financial planning to help level out the highs and lows of music income. He uses for his example again a young singer-songwriter. For the first few years of their career, they’re living meagerly on a meager $20,000 publishing draw. Suddenly that all can change.

“Then, they’re posting a $10 million year – just a few years later,” Bryan says. But such success is fickle and rarely holds out forever. “When something changes and they’re back to making $100,000 or less, it’s our job to make sure we maximize those big years, so they can make it through the smaller ones.”

Bryan’s job is as much providing sound life advice and career coaching as it is about selling a banking product or setting up a loan. At heart, he’s still the crop inspector, assessing this year’s output with an eye to the future.

“The thing I like doing is getting with a young artist – maybe at a write-around or a showcase – and then I can connect with them before they’re big enough to have a business manager. That way, I can connect directly with them,” Bryan says. As their career grows, so too does his relationship with them. “Eventually, they get a business manager, build a team and I work with the team.”

Last September, Bryan’s career took yet another of the kind of organic turns that have brought him to where he is today. First Tennessee Bank approached him to build a music banking division there.

“The fun thing about music banking is that, while most bankers work 8-to-5 in suits, we’re there 8-to-5 in blue jeans,” he says. “And then we’re going to the parties and the awards shows after hours. “That’s a big difference between music banking and regular banking.”