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Big country: How country music conquered the world

It’s official: country music is cool.

Long stigmatised as restrictively America-centric, country, shed of many of its unfashionable ‘country and western’ trappings, is finding a new generation of loyal fans in the UK, Europe and Australasia, playlisted on commercial radio and championed by tastemakers at Vice, i-D and the NME.

Riding on the rise of festivals like AEG’s UK-born Country to Country phenomenon (now in five countries and counting), crossover success for artists such as Florida Georgia Line, Midland, and Kacey Musgraves, European radio support and the backing of the Country Music Association, country is increasingly big business outside its US heartland – with visiting Nashville A-listers, as well as a mounting number of homegrown acts, helping to build a major new touring market.

(A slice of the) American pie
According to WME Entertainment agent Akiko Rogers, global bookings for WME’s country and Americana artists have increased 14-fold in the past decade alone. “In 2009, 27 international dates were booked out of Nashville, all comprising country artists,” says Rogers, whose roster includes both country (Thomas Rhett, Frankie Davies) and non-country artists (Greta Van Fleet, Alanis Morissette), as well as those sitting somewhere in between (rising southern rockers the Marcus King Band).

“In 2018, that number went to 400 booked international dates comprising country and Americana artists, and sometimes a hybrid of both.”

Global bookings for WME’s country and Americana artists have increased 14-fold in the past decade

“The market interest in country music only continues to grow with the demand for US acts to tour internationally,” adds US-born, London-based UTA senior agent Sean Goulding, whose country and Americana roster includes Jimmie Allen, Ashley Campbell, Logan Mize, the Wood Brothers and High Valley. “C2C [Country to Country] London, the landmark international country music festival, has been growing steadily since its inception in 2013, which is a good indicator of the genre’s impact. Having expanded to Scotland and Ireland previously, it’s now visiting Amsterdam and Berlin this year. A number of our clients have performed at it over the past few years, using it as a springboard for the international market.”

The majority of promoters, agents and managers interviewed by IQ highlighted the C2C phenomenon, as well its various international spin-offs (in addition to Britain, the Irish republic, the Netherlands and Germany, there are also two Country to Country festivals in Australia) as being key to country music’s explosive growth in new markets over the past five years.

Chris York of SJM Concerts, which created C2C in partnership with AEG, says the festival’s genesis formed part of a “conscious decision” to build and grow the market for country music in the UK. “I’d always perceived country as being promoted in a very old-fashioned way,” York explains. It was all about, ‘We’ll pay them some money, put on a show at Wembley, maybe get a tour out of it…’ They weren’t interested in building a community.”

In contrast, York continues, C2C – bolstered by support from radio DJs such as Radio 2’s Bob Harris and Chris Country’s Chris Stevens – helped to establish a tight-knit community of fans, to the point where there is also now a sizeable country touring market in the UK.  “We did 45,000 tickets in London [for C2C 2018]. Four or five years ago that would have been beyond comprehension.”

“We did 45,000 tickets in London. Four or five years ago that would have been beyond comprehension”

Live Nation’s Anna-Sophie Mertens started promoting in her own right three years ago, and is now the “go-to person” for country shows in the company’s UK office, she explains. She says the number of country acts who want to play in the UK has more than doubled since then, including both big names worthy of headlining C2C and smaller emerging acts keen to stake a claim in the increasingly crowded country touring market.

Spurred on
Add hit drama series Nashville into that mix, too, suggests Milly Olykan, vice-president of international relations and development at the influential Nashville-based Country Music Association (CMA). “The contributing factors in those first five years [since the launch of C2C] were the internet, the TV show Nashville and Taylor Swift, but now we can add to that with the growth of C2C and, as a result, the volume of live touring and the radio support of the BBC,” says Olykan, who, as VP of live music at AEG Europe, set up C2C UK alongside York. “Radio 2 and Bob Harris have been long-time supporters, and this year we saw BBC Radio 1 play-listing country for the first time.

“We’ve got a momentum going now, and more and more fans are discovering they like country music.”

Anna-Sophie Mertens says the number of country acts who want to play in the UK has more than doubled in the past three years

In Germany, promoter Oliver Hoppe of Wizard Promotions also identifies Nashville as being a key driver of interest in country music – and ticket sales. “Our most successful tour so far is Charles Esten from the Nashville TV show,” he says. “1,500 tickets, five dates, all sold out.”

Hoppe, who describes himself as the main “country guy” in Germany, says the popularity of country music accelerated “six or seven years ago” after the CMA set its sights on conquering Europe. “A year or two before C2C in London started, we started to pick up shows here in Germany,” he explains. “Ossy [Hoppe, Wizard Promotions founder] used to bring Garth Brooks here in the ’90s, [but] that was a completely different animal – it was a worldwide phenomenon, and he played arenas over here that sold out instantly.

“It really picked up when the CMA put Europe on the agenda and we started doing grassroots work bringing over country and Americana acts.”

Hoppe says while the market is still “some years behind” Britain, “country is on the rise in Germany.

“It was a trickle at the beginning, but for every show we put on, more people come the second time around. We started with one country tour – the Band Perry, in 2012 – and now we’re at 25. We’ve been growing the market very organically but the interest is definitely there.”

“Country is one of the few genres of music where radio airplay can definitely move the needle”

The growth of country festivals such as C2C and CMC Rocks in Australia has been “instrumental in swinging the pendulum” towards country music outside the US, maintains Rogers. “Artists who historically did not want to travel outside of the US are standing in a queue to bring their music across the pond, to share experiences and life stories… I always love it when they return to the US with their stories of fans in Germany, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark singing all their songs back to them.

“It is so gratifying when a country artist plays a support slot on a festival, goes back in six to eight months and plays a headline club tour, goes back in another six to eight months after that and headlines a theatre tour, and then ends up headlining that same original festival.”

Like York, Rogers sees radio, as well as record label promo, as being a “huge factor” in country’s rise in Europe. “Country is one of the few genres of music where radio airplay can definitely move the needle,” she says.


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 82, or subscribe to the magazine here

The New Bosses 2018: Call for nominations

Nominations are open for the New Bosses 2018, the latest edition IQ’s annual list of ten future music industry leaders, as decided by their peers.

Anyone working in the music industry, anywhere in the world, is eligible, provided they are aged 30 or under and they have not featured in our New Bosses list before.

Ideally, we’re looking for those who are making a difference – the young players already changing and shaping the industry.

If you know someone who deserves recognition, please help to make their year and let us know. The process remains strictly anonymous, and the deadline for sending in your nominations is Friday 27 July.

We’re looking for those who are making a difference – the young players already changing and shaping the industry

We’ll be publishing a profile on each of the ten most nominated rising stars in the next issue of IQ, and this will also form the nominations for the Tomorrow’s New Boss award at ILMC in March 2019.

To nominate someone you know to become one of the New Bosses, email [email protected] and tell us their name and where they work.

Click here for a recap of the New Bosses 2017, in three parts (parts two and three can be found in ‘more news’, at the bottom of the story). New Boss Anna-Sophie Mertens, a promoter at Live Nation UK, won the Tomorrow’s New Boss award at ILMC 30.


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Introducing… the New Bosses 2017

Welcome to the new New Bosses 2017, the tenth outing for IQ’s annual spotlight on ten future live music industry leaders, as decided by their peers.

With the feature entering double figures, we’ve witnessed many past winners go on to actually become bosses – and this year’s crop already includes company leaders.

The selection process for this year’s New Bosses shortlist was fiercer than ever, but the calibre of young professionals who are helping to improve the entertainment industry around the world underlines the maturity of the live music sector in particular – and its ability to attract some of the brightest and the best.


Anna-Sophie Mertens

Promoter, Live Nation (UK)
Age: 30

Hailing from Hamburg, Anna-Sophie completed a BA in music, theatre and entertainment management at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) in the UK. During her studies, she also worked on projects including Rock am Ring and Rock im Park. She joined Live Nation UK in 2008 as a freelance promoter rep, but in 2015 became a promoter in her own right, working with talent such as Sigrid, Lewis Capaldi, Ariana Grande, John Mayer, Emeli Sandé, Ward Thomas, The Cadillac Three, Greta Van Fleet, Billy Lockett, Joy Crookes, Isaiah Rashad and many more.

Was it a difficult decision to move to London?
I didn’t have much of a choice. I stopped by Live Nation’s office for a coffee on Friday afternoon and next thing I know I was offered a temp role starting immediately. I went back to Liverpool, packed a suitcase and was living in London three days later.

What are you currently working on?
Wrapping up the last few tour on-sales for 2017 and plotting the next steps for acts like Sigrid… If 2017 is anything to go by, she is going to have an incredible 2018!

Would you encourage people to study at university before coming into the live music industry?
I had the best three years in Liverpool and you gain access to an incredible network of people. I continue to bump into alumni, and because you shared the same experience at LIPA they are more inclined to help you out, put you in touch with someone or point you in the right direction.

What would you like to be doing in five years’ time?
More of what I am doing now!


Zoe Swindells

Programming manager, The O2 (UK)
Age: 25

Zoe Swindells, The O2, New Bosses 2017

Zoe’s love of music led her to the University of Salford in the UK, where she graduated with a first-class honours degree specialising in music production and music business. Directly after her degree, she moved to London, where she landed a position managing recording studios. At The O2, Zoe started out as programming assistant, gradually taking on more responsibility until she was promoted to programming manager in October 2016.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to find a career in the live music industry?
If you can’t find someone to give you experience, make it yourself! Organise a gig, produce a band, network and make friends with as many people as possible. Just put yourself out there.

What’s the best thing about your job?
Witnessing the growing buzz of the crowd, from when they walk into the arena to the point the house lights dim and the show begins. Nothing beats the power of that one song bringing the artist and audience together – it’s such a ‘goosebump’ moment.

What do you see yourself doing in five years’ time?
As long as I’m happy and still working in music in five years, that’s all that matters to me!

Is there any practice that you would like to introduce to improve the way the business is done?
I really like the ReBalance project, aimed at female musicians and audio engineers. I’d love to promote and encourage similar initiatives across the whole of the music industry.

Where is your favourite small venue and which dream act would you like to see playing there?
It has to be Islington Assembly Hall and my dream act to have seen there would have been Jeff Buckley. However, Portishead might be more of a possibility!


Ryan Penty

Agent, Coda Agency (UK)
Age: 27

Ryan Penty, Coda Agency, New Bosses 2017

Ryan graduated from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK in 2011 with a degree in music and entertainment industry management. He joined Coda as an intern and worked his way up to join Alex Hardee’s team in 2013. Since then he has been working with the likes of London Grammar, Sean Paul, Clean Bandit, John Newman, Mika, Hurts and Ella Eyre, as well as hotly tipped newcomers Mullally, Lewis Capaldi and Billy Lockett.

What made you decide to get into the agency side of the business?
I originally wanted to be a promoter, but there is a lot more strategic planning involved in being an agent. I love being completely hands-on with the direction of an artist’s career.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned to date about being an agent?
Get the money in early!

How competitive is it being an agent?
You need to be on acts really early now. Being an agent is becoming more and more about scouting new talent and that’s definitely a strength of Coda.

Who do you turn to for advice?
There is no better mentor than Alex Hardee. He’s done it all, seen it all, told some terrible jokes and still come out on top.

If you had to choose one highlight from your career, so far, what would it be?
I’m really proud of how I’ve helped Coda to become the company it is today. It is forward thinking, constantly
adapting to the changing industry and a real testament to all the hard work everyone puts in daily.


Andrés Guanipa Figueredo

Marketing social media manager, Move Concerts (AR)
Age: 28

Andrés Guanipa Figueredo, Move Concerts, New Bosses 2017

Born and raised in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 2010, Andrés graduated with a degree in marketing and public relations. For two years, he worked as a production assistant at agency/promoter Tresymedio, before moving to Argentina in 2013, where he became a marketing assistant and social media manager at Move Concerts.

Was it a difficult decision to move to Argentina?
I knew the decision was the right one. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough to leave my family, friends and my comfort zone, but if I had to choose, I’d do it again.

What would you like to be doing in five years’ time?
Hopefully, I’ll be back in Venezuela bringing international shows and entertainment to big venues again. We need a change of government ASAP, and when it happens this will be an option.

What one thing would you like to see happen in Argentina to improve the live music business there?
More quality venues. There are few venue options for a country that receives so many great talents, and none of them offer the whole package when you organise a big concert.

As a New Boss, what advice would you give to anyone wanting to become involved in the music business?
Never say no to an invitation; don’t stay at home. Opportunities are real and come from real people. Only by communicating will you get results.

What is the biggest challenge about working in Argentina?
Everybody knows everybody. So, when I arrived, nobody knew who I was, and the challenge has been making a good impact on everyone I’ve worked with, because once you make a mistake everyone will remember you for that.


The remaining six New Bosses will be profiled in future editions of IQ’s Index newsletter. Alternatively, read it in full now in the digital edition of IQ 73: