BY KAREN BLISS
Brooke Dunford is the talent buyer for the Boots and Hearts Music Festival and Burl’s Creek Event Grounds, her family’s 600-acre property in Oro-Medonte, Ontario, the site of the marquee multiple-day country music festival, and 2019’s sole Canadian date by the Rolling Stones, which drew a reported 70,000 people.
At the events company, Republic Live, she is director, booking & business development. The growing independent business has just added a management division called RLive, launched with Canadian country chart-topper and 2024 Juno Award nominee Tyler Joe Miller as the first client.
Created in 2011 by Stan Dunford, the trucking mogul had no prior experience in the music business but did not want to retire. He had built Contrans Corp into the largest publicly traded trucking company in Canada, and when he sold it he got this idea to put on a multi-day country music festival. With wife Eva, they created Republic Live and through a friend booked Carrie Underwood for the inaugural Boots and Hearts in 2012. The venue was the 25,000-capacity Mosport Park racetrack, which they rented.
Looking to expand, the couple purchased Burl’s Creek in 2014 — the site of concerts by Jack Johnson (2008) and The Tragically Hip (2012) and the long-running Barrie Automotive Flea Market held there since 1983.— putting millions into making it fan-friendly and concert-ready, to accommodate one permanent stage and three natural amphitheaters and up to 33,000 cars and 16,000 campsites.
Boots and Hearts continued to draw, bringing in some 40,000 people a day, but their Coachella-like Way Home Music & Arts Festival, which launched in 2015, and brought in names like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and the Killers, was short-lived, put on “pause” in 2017 and has not returned. The classic country music and camping festival Big Sky was also a one-off in 2019 — the same summer as the Stones concert.
Brooke joined Republic Live full time in 2016 and became talent buyer in 2019.
She tells Making Noise RepublicLive now has a full-time staff of 15, including her parents and sister Rachel, a wardrobe stylist who assists with merch design and branding; Hannah Buske, booking manager; Anne Stirk, director of marketing and brand strategy; and, for RLive, Alberta native Casadie Pederson, director of artist management and development. All staff work out of their Toronto home offices, except for Brooke and Pederson who are based in Nashville.
Republic Live has announced a portion of the 2024 Boots & Hearts line up (Aug.8-11), headlined by Cody Johnson, Thomas Rhett and Jason Aldean, with another big announcement coming Feb. 13, of a genre-mixing act.
Brooke spoke to Making Noise about the new management division, RepublicLive’s artist development strategy, the benefit of living in Nashville, the unexpected booking of Nickelback last year, and where country music is going.
The management division has been in the works a while. Boots and Hearts has the Emerging Artist Showcase, and many of those performers have graduated to bigger stages, which is exciting and one of the best things about this business. But management is hard. What made you decide to enter into it?
We are so passionate about the country music scene and we work really hard to build a fan base and build a relationship both with managers and agents, north and south of the border, so we just wanted to take our team and our passion for artists and development and expand into something that we feel really passionate about and we feel like we can we can really support them with the ecosystem that we’ve built with Boots and Hearts.
Out of all the artists that you’ve had on the emerging artist stage, why Tyler?
We’re really excited about Tyler Joe Miller. He fits what we’ve always loved in artists. He is passionate. He is a fan. His live show is incredible. He’s either talking about beer drinking or good times, and stays true to himself with that traditional country voice. So, when the opportunity came up that he was looking to expand, we already loved his team and how much they’ve done to grow and introduce him to the market, so timing was everything. We’ve been a fan of him for a really long time. We’re just excited to really push the boundaries and see how far we can go with him and support his talent.
If I was an artist, I would say, “You’ve grown and developed this amazing country music festival, but how will you manage my career?” which would not only include live, but recordings, sync placements, partnerships and sponsorships, even crises, all the things you have to deal with in management. What were his questions for you?
It was a special opportunity because his manager Casadie came with him to our management division. So he’s had the day-to-day management with her. She really knows him and what his goals are and has supported him. It was a perfect marriage of that day-to-day person that’s been with him and knows what his vision is. The idea is now is that we have our ecosystem of support, whether managing our relationships with radio and sponsorship and socials, or the relationships we have in the U.S. with tours and other artists. We’re ready to lean into all of the conversations that we’re already having and just support him with what his day to day was in the past.
Did you meet Casadie first and then had a lightbulb moment to bring her in to head up a management division or were you already planning to open one?
We’ve known her for quite some time, and we noticed she had a lot of passion for emerging talent. It’s not always sexy to be spending time looking across Canada and her being in Nashville, she had a personal passion to get to know artists, to help them along the way, and this was something that she wanted to grow into. When we met, she was helping us with the festival from an onsite perspective and extra work when we really got busy. So when we found out how passionate she was about new talent, and how she really wanted to take that to the next step, we’ve always had dreams of going into that world. It was a conversation, and we were all ready to take the next step. We gave the opportunity for her to take that and run with it and build something from the ground up. That’s when Tyler Joe Miller said to her that he’d love to come with her.
You are in a unique position. You know everyone. You’ve met and worked with all this amazing talent and their teams on every level. You’re not just dealing with their agents, but then you meet the management, the publicist, sometimes radio. It’s a good position to be in in order to maximize the opportunities for your artist.
Yeah. And it is a family. That’s what we’re so excited about is we’ve always approached it this way, where we love working with so many managers and so many agents and so many different parts of this country music scene. We’ve supported their artists; we’ve seen support back. It really is just leaning on those relationships. If everyone supports each other and grows, one artist will grab someone and build that relationship. We’ve seen that on the side stage and then they go on to tour together. We feel lucky to be in another division of it and get a little deeper. But again, it’s a supportive family and we’ve always viewed it that way. So we’re excited to have a new family member and have a new side of this business.
You moved down to Nashville two years ago. What have you been able to achieve that you couldn’t in Toronto?
I will strictly focus on the talent buying. That’s been something I’ve really enjoyed and will continue to do, and keep management with Casadie and Stan. They’re really passionate about that. But I’ve noticed coming to Nashville, it’s been a really welcoming city. It’s this small-town city vibe, where you’re always going to showcases and if you stay home one night, you might miss out on meeting that new relationship with a different artist or their team and hearing about new songs and what everyone’s working on. I’ve learned that it’s a really supportive community, whether an artist needs a talent buyer or an agent or a publisher; everyone’s looking to support someone in some way because it’s so connected. That’s really helped because we want to make sure that what we’re bringing to Canada is something fans have either never seen before, or there’s those moments where you listen to an artist and you realize how passionate they are, and their songs are great and it’s working on what they’re putting out on social media. So, we get excited to build those plans, whether it one year down the road, five years down the road, it really helps planning and being around it to understand at what time that should come to Canada or how we bring them into a country they’ve never been to.
Hannah is also part of your team.
Yeah, as we grow it, it was important to make sure that us, as a talent buying team, had the opportunity to expand into other genres and develop the venue. And with that, Hannah’s joined us. She actually was an intern for us in 2019 and worked so hard and fell in love with the live business, but then had dreams to work within the agency world. She moved on, worked in an agency, and then worked for a manager. And then, just recently, she was like, “I really do miss that live format.” But, for us, as a smaller company that touches a lot of different things, it was so great to have her knowledge and experience from where she’s come from and be able to now support a talent buying team with the management side of things she knows well. We’re excited because when you’re part of a small team, you get to do a lot of different things in one.
How is your sister involved?
She is a fashion stylist, so she is on the pulse for all merch and all design, which both my mom and her work on yearly just to make it exciting. The fans love our merch. It’s always a hot topic and sellout. They’re really passionate about it. My mom is making sure that she [Rachel] is the one person that’s kept this brand consistent in front of fans.
You kind of took a chance on booking Nickelback last year, a rock act, but you were spot-on. Your first-ever sold-out night, 45,000 fans. Chief, who manages Nickelback, manages a lot of country acts. How was the idea of booking Nickelback broached?
It definitely was a risk. It’s funny because looking back, now that we’ve watched where music’s going and how people listen, and watching them now tour with country acts themselves, it seems like a no-brainer, but certainly at the time, I think a few people looked at me like I was a little crazy. But, at the end of the day, what we do is for the fans and we know at Boots and Hearts that the fans love a good time. They are listening to lots of different music when you go into the campgrounds. We’re seeing people like Hardy, for instance, already blending the genres together and following a path of their own, where they are doing a bit of rock and country mix. So, it by no means was myself that just thought of that idea. We’re following what the fans are listening to, whether it’s a curated playlist that has all different genres or the artists themselves writing and working with other people in the different genres. It’s something that I was excited to try out with Hardy being on the lineup and him already blending it. And, as one of Canada’s largest festivals to have a Canadian headliner, and know of the band being so iconic live and great for our party fans and festivalgoers, I knew it would be a unique experience. That’s what a festival’s all about.
And Nickelback didn’t countrify their songs for your crowd; they just did their normal rock show. Chief said you’ve opened doors now for them. They are now on Coast City Country [in Vancouver, April 19) and Stagecoach [in Indio, Calif., April 26].
Yeah, they have lots of festivals on the books now in the country genre, and I’m so proud of them because it’s just been beautiful to watch them come back stronger than ever and just be loved by so many in different age groups. The music resonated. It’s a memory that we’ll never forget. It was iconic and I’m so happy that they’re just getting started to go down this road because country is a fun and great place to be. They’ve really taken advantage of a new audience that just loves to have a good time.
Since you are on the pulse, almost 30 years ago it was Shania Twain significantly taking country in a pop direction. Taylor Swift did the same. Now it’s rock. Do you foresee that continuing or is there something else that you’ve got a glimpse of?
It’s just encouraging to see how the genre is growing and taking different avenues. So, as a fan — because I was always a fan first — and as a talent buyer, you’re watching the Zach Bryans and Noah Kahans happen before your eyes where it’s a new type of the genre being appreciated and celebrated. You can tell it’s authentic, for themselves. It’s just exciting to see authentic new types of sounds being celebrated. As an artist, whether it’s authentic to you to lean into the rock or lean into your singer- songwriting, pick your passion. That’s what fans seem to be celebrating and they’re really noticing when an artist is being themselves and putting themselves out there.
You have announced some of this summer’s Boots and Hearts lineup, including the headliners. You’re a woman in this industry. There is a lot of attention on diversity. Is it important to you to book a good amount of female acts?
Yeah, it’s always important to us to make sure that we’re representing diversity and diverse opportunities. When you have a four-day festival, each year is different. We celebrated [headliner] Shania Twain and we had an all-Canadian female main stage. So when you have moments where you can celebrate and build a splash around something that’s never been done before, or shine a light on Shania’s career and have her inspire other artists, that was special. A lot of it too is availability. What people don’t always see is the amount of offers that go out to artists. It’s sometimes a logistics issue where half the time if you’re wanting someone to make it, they’re in another part of the country. When there are other opportunities for artists, I get excited when they get on a big tour. You want to support them no matter what.
There are people who will take that festival poster and remove the male-fronted acts to reveal how many women are on a bill (Coachella used to be nicknamed Brochella). For headlining slots though, sometimes an artist is not available.
For example, you’re watching someone like Lainey Wilson, who is headlining arenas and it’s incredibly exciting to watch, but touring would be her goal this year. So we’ll go and buy tickets and be a fan there, but if an artist is touring, you don’t always get them on your festival.
What is special for this year’s Boots and Hearts?
We’ve never had Cody Johnson before and watching him, when I was in Nashville, he is an entertainer like I’ve never seen. Every song that he is singing, it’s as if it’s his encore. An amazing performer. I can’t wait because the Ontario market has never seen him before. So it’s special to create that moment at Boots and Hearts. I’s gonna be a really special year. We’ve got some surprises, which we love doing at Boots and Hearts, genre blending.
And will Tyler have a spot?
He just played last year. Again, I’m always working with management companies to ensure a long healthy plan. So, unfortunately, he is not on this year, but he is touring and about to go on tour all across Canada. All of the fans can catch him with Shawn Austin and Andrew Hyatt [April 9-May 4].
Will you start a label too and have the entire ecosystem handled?
I’ve learned to always expect the unexpected. The more we learn about this business and work to compliment it and support our artists, you never know.