Music Streamers Chase an Overlooked Audience: Country Music FansBy
Online retailer, rivals staff up in Nashville in star search
Country fans aren’t far behind rock ’n’ rollers in online use
Kelly Rich, who worked at Taylor Swift’s label for 10 years, jumped to Amazon Music a few months back to help bridge a gap between the tech giant and a segment of the listening public that’s been slow to change.
After snagging exclusive streaming rights to country music legend Garth Brooks last October, Amazon.com Inc. began moving to expand its country music fan base. The Seattle-based company recruited Rich from Big Machine Label Group to manage label relations at its Nashville, Tennessee, office and backed Brooks’s live tour.
“Nashville is a very close-knit community that requires someone working from within to best promote and achieve our goals,” Rich said in an email. Relationships are “based on trust, understanding and results.”
Paid-music streaming has become the largest revenue source for music, helping to stem a two-decade drop in sales. But country fans have been slower to log in. Even with growth of 83 percent last year, on-demand streaming generated just a fourth of country music consumption, 14 percentage points less than the industry average, according to Nielsen data.
Amazon, along with competitors Spotify Ltd., Pandora Media Inc. and Apple Music, is trying to change that by planting a flag in Nashville, the home of country. The companies are tapping local industry veterans to run their operations there and build ties to labels and fans, which number about 107 million nationwide and span every age group, according to the Country Music Association.
At the organization’s CMA Fest, the four-day festival that takes over downtown Nashville in early June, the streaming services made their appeals to fans.
Pandora offered a free concert. Amazon Music set up an interactive exhibit. There was a free screening of Brad Paisley’s visual album “Love and War,” which was exclusively on Apple Music for a while. Spotify offered playlists for every stage. More recently, Apple, Spotify, Amazon and Pandora featured CMA Fest playlists for ABC’s three-hour TV special that aired this week, according to the CMA website.
“Fish where the fish are,” said Jon Loba, executive vice president of Nashville-based BBR Music Group, a country label owned by BMG Rights Management GmbH. “If they want to reach that core consumer, that’s an effective use of marketing dollars.”
Amazon says it’s seeing results. Its listeners stream twice as much country music as the industry average, according to the company, and “Top Country” is its most popular station. Amazon still sells a lot of CDs, which made up 37 percent of country music volume last year, according to Nielsen.
“We do have a really strong focus on continuing to grow the country music business,” said Ryan Redington, director of Amazon Music.
Competitors aren’t ceding any ground to the online retailer. Oakland, California-based Pandora, which offers an online service similar to radio along with a paid on-demand streaming product, attracts approximately 60 million country listeners, according to the company.
Rachel Whitney, head of country programming for Pandora, joined the company almost two years ago from the Nashville office of Borman Entertainment, the agency that represents Keith Urban and Alison Krauss.
She finds new music for Pandora by scouring websites, going to live shows and monitoring who the record labels and publishers sign to discover fresh talent. Her job also includes creating curated playlists for Pandora listeners.
“I know who’s putting out great music, and I know where they are,” she said.
Getting country fans to stream more means changing old habits -- just as it does for rock ’n’ roll fans, another big part of the $7.7 billion U.S. industry. Conventional radio remains the top format for listening and the dominant medium where fans discover new country music, according to Loba of BBR. The popularity of car radios and CDs, the comfort consumers have with them, and the lack of broadband connections in some rural areas all hamper the transition to digital for country music.
Even with those obstacles, the genre isn’t far behind rock, where just 26 percent of the music consumption happens on streaming services, according to Nielsen.
John Marks, global head of country programming at Spotify, joined the company almost two years ago from Sirius XM Holdings Inc., where he was known for promoting young country acts like Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell before they made it big. Spotify opened its Nashville office in May 2016. He disagrees with Loba.
“FM radio still breaks out artists, still plays new artists, but not to the degree that Spotify is able to do it,” Marks said.
Pressure to generate radio ratings generally punishes new and unfamiliar music, forcing stations to limit the new music their audience hears, Marks said. He credits Spotify with helping to discover Grammy-nominated Sam Hunt and more recently Luke Combs, whose debut single reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
The lagging adoption of streaming by country fans shows that for all their growth, online music services are still in their formative stages, Marks said.
“We’re all developing new businesses when it comes to this idea of enticing customers into the on-demand music area of streaming,” he said. “It’s going to be up to all of us to distinguish ourselves and our brands and what we offer uniquely to the consumer.”