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.
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.
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The evolution of the internet for a DIY artist
Working with punk rock and DIY acts over the years has taught me the importance of respecting and cultivating a community.
With technology catapulting our artists’ work on a global scale, allowing them to create their own communities to speak and listen to, we are in a new and exciting era of the music business. DIY artists currently have the ability to create a powerful and, if properly tuned, extremely beneficial digital engine.
Six months ago, two digital agents joined the UTA team here in London, bringing enthusiasm and access to digital strategy, and giving our music agents a new dimension of representation.
I’ve since found myself in conversations advising clients on how to effectively fine-tune their digital engine online, and how to think differently about new technology. Similarly, brand partnerships, if executed correctly, can help finance an artist’s creative pursuit in the digital space. I have witnessed this with clients becoming plugged into a larger team in our North American offices.
When it comes to the essentials of my job as an agent, crafting tours for clients, I too have had to evolve. Being able to make well informed (yet still gut-instinct) decisions with promoters on when and where we tour and how we market to fans is something we still do every day, but exactly how an agent discovers, markets and tours an artist has changed. We no longer rely on traditional indicators like radio and TV stats – now analysing digital stats has become the norm. Tour marketing is vital to our thinking, and knowing how an artist directly communicates with his or her fan base is key to effectively crafting a marketing campaign.
We have created tours from scratch for acts on my roster in this new era. Take for example the Juno award winners for group of the year 2016, Walk Off the Earth. The act first made a name for themselves with unique cover versions on YouTube, including a cover of Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ (with all band members playing on one single guitar). Access to YouTube enabled them to create videos gaining a significant amount of online attention (they currently have over 660 million views on their YouTube channel). To harness this fan base and build up their headline touring, we scrapped the traditional tour-marketing model in order to emphasise digital marketing – a tactic that is now our norm. Consequently, Walk Off the Earth sold out London’s Roundhouse without a shred of print advertising.
“Working with punk rock and DIY acts has taught me the importance of respecting and cultivating a community”
When I discovered them through their managers Marc and Jonathan (the MGMT Company), the band was selling out 1,000-cap. venues with no radio or traditional street promotion. They soon sold out venues across North America and Europe, like London’s Brixton Academy, and Paris Olympia, and are booked for festivals such as Lollapalooza Paris, Pinkpop and Mad Cool Festival Madrid.
Another client of ours, Jacob Sartorius, a 14-year-old actor, musician and all-round entertainer, is evolving from online stardom to the mainstream by following a path of his own. Sartorius ignited the Musical.ly movement and is now one of the app’s largest users with 17 million followers. Now, his own music is being consumed in the tens of millions on YouTube, Spotify, etc. His first self-released single, ‘Sweatshirt’, achieved RIAA Gold status in America last year; he self-released his first EP, The Last Text, in January 2017, with an accompanying video gaining over 8 million views on YouTube. The release coincided with a world tour within which his first ever European dates sold over 10,000 tickets.
While crafting that new tour earlier this year, we looked at things in an innovative way – our digital department was able to study a number of online analytics. That intelligence pointed geographically to cities where we could discuss headline shows with promoters. It was then a matter of developing marketing plans to amplify what would be broadcast on Sartorius’s social channels to promote the tour. Sartorius’s fans listen to his music on YouTube, but his footprint on Facebook and Instagram are now substantial enough to invest marketing dollars for touring in those locations that made sense – money well spent.
That said, on one of Sartorius’s shows, we sold a 1,200-cap. room with very little spent on advertising. You don’t always have to spend big, but rather spend wisely.
Digital strategies are being used across our global roster and the ability to amplify creativity grows by the day. However, one thing still hasn’t changed – if artists deliver a good show, fans will always come back, spread the word and support them.
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