How Satellite Radio Is Breaking Country's Next Big Stars

From bona fide superstars Florida Georgia Line to upstart guitarslinger Clare Dunn, SiriusXM's the Highway is shaping country music's future

Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley (left) and Tyler Hubbard flank SiriusXM's John Marks. Marks was essential in breaking the country duo by playing their song "Cruise" on the Highway. Credit: Charley Gallay/GettyImages

Every day, plenty of tourists in Nashville pass by the gleaming Bridgestone Arena Tower without so much as an inkling that its upper floors house SiriusXM's Music City studios. Right next to Lower Broadway's strip of honky-tonks, the nerve center of popular satellite radio stations like Outlaw Country and the Highway is hiding in plain sight. And you could say the same thing about the influence the Highway wields in the country music industry — it's possible to miss it if you don't know what you're looking for.

For a good, long while, there was pretty much one path to country radio airplay — airplay that remains essential to gaining any kind of foothold in mainstream country music. An act had to be signed by a major label (or a heavyweight indie like Big Machine Label Group), sealed in the most commercially savvy packaging possible and delivered to terrestrial stations with a pricy radio-promotion push. For an unsigned act, it was a prohibitively expensive proposition. But it's no longer the only option.

After migrating from a program director post at terrestrial country radio to Senior Director, Country Music Programming, at SiriusXM in 2010, John Marks slowly but surely began steering contemporary country satellite radio channel the Highway toward a mixture of current hits — the same Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean tunes you'd hear on any station — and unknown quantities that he deemed promising. Thanks to Marks, acts with no label backing whatsoever have gotten a taste of national airplay. The Highway's audience of SiriusXM subscribers may be dwarfed by the number of listeners who tune in to FM country, but its reach stretches from Albuquerque to Anchorage.

Kevin Neal, a booking agent whose clients Florida Georgia Line benefited mightily from satellite play, puts it this way: "You get on the national stage immediately, as opposed to getting your song tested in Bossier City."

After FGL's debut single "Cruise" got airplay on the Highway in May 2012, the duo not only circumnavigated Bossier City, Louisiana — they went on to sell a slew of downloads on iTunes, sign with Republic Nashville, part of Big Machine Label Group, and dominate terrestrial country radio for nearly half of the next year.

"Trying to find acts to break nationally" is part of Marks' stated mission at the Highway. A weekend show called On the Horizon introduces new music, and throughout the week, select new songs are repeatedly spotlighted as "Highway Finds." "[The listeners] want to hear the hits, yes, of course, and we play the hits," Marks tells Rolling Stone Country with the crisp, even-toned affability of a guy who has spent a good chunk of time around commercial radio. "But a large reason of why they're tuning in to SiriusXM is for the curation of new music, us helping them understand what new music is out there and suggesting songs they may want to hear."

A program director at a terrestrial station probably wouldn't be tossing around a term like "curation" or touting the appeal of music discovery. The opposite of novelty reigns at FM, the idea being that listeners are less likely to start channel surfing when songs they already know come on.

"I'm hardly an expert, because I haven't been there for a long time," Marks notes diplomatically. "But the [Portable] People Meter ratings methodology [of terrestrial radio] punishes unfamiliar music, by and large. That's my understanding. So radio used to be an active medium, and now it's turned into more of a passive medium."

The Highway relies on more direct feedback. Its DJs — or hosts, as they're sometimes referred to at SiriusXM — monitor Twitter and Facebook, where listeners post a steady stream of comments and requests. Like, "Hey, I'm on my way to roller-derby practice, could you play an upbeat Trace Adkins song, pretty please?" And "'Afterparty' by Sandra Lynn is my latest fave song! So catchy, can't get it out of my head! Please keep it playing!" Or "For the love of all that is holy please stop playing Walk 500 Miles!!!"

Those who have signed up to be part of the channel's Highway Patrol complete an online survey each week, and data analysts look at that and social media, along with factors like how many streams and downloads a song is racking up. Depending on the response it's getting, a Highway Find could wind up making it onto the Highway's Hot 45 chart or getting bumped off the playlist altogether after a trial run of four or five weeks.

"Once the song is out of my hands and into the pool with the listeners," Marks points out, "the only opinion that matters at that point in time is what the listener thinks. My perspective on the song is totally removed. And that makes it very easy, because there's no politics. There's no agendas other than, 'Hey, is the song working or not?'"

There's a growing number of Highway Finds alumni — Green River Ordinance being the first example, and Florida Georgia Line being the most famous — whose songs worked and whose careers gained some momentum as a result. Those who landed record deals in 2014 alone include Chase Rice, Brandy Clark, Logan Mize, Ryan Kinder, Clare Dunn and breakout act Sam Hunt. That's not to say that getting spins on the Highway was the sole reason for their success, but it definitely had a quantifiable impact.

"It was available for download on iTunes. We had shot a $500 music video and put it on YouTube. But I mean, nobody would've gone and looked for it unless they heard it on XM," Hunt's manager Brad Belanger says of his client's first single, "Raised on It." "There was no promotion behind it — no money, no label. So it was on XM and it was living on YouTube and iTunes and that was it. They were the first gas."

Marks put Dunn's debut single "Get Out" into rotation when she was a hard-touring, unsigned songwriter-guitarist hauling her band from one date to the next in a Ford F-150 pickup with no money for radio promotion. "The Highway gave validation that my music was connecting with people," Dunn tells Rolling Stone Country. "They were playin' it, and then people were showing up [to shows]. In this day and age, you have to prove yourself a little bit more so on the front end than maybe you had to 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago. [The song's] gotta work, I guess. That's what the Highway helped give me — [confirmation] that this music was gonna connect."

It also gave Dunn instant status in her hometown, the tiny ranching community of Two Buttes, Colorado. "Because there's so much land to cover out there, a farmer or a rancher can easily drive in and out of radio range all day long. So SiriusXM is a big deal out where we're from, because you can have it with you everywhere," she says. "When I started getting played on the Highway, people were like, 'Oh my God! She's made it!'"

Having access to a mover and shaker like Marks is a big deal for a striving artist. He actually accepts direct submissions from performers, as well as from the informal network of booking agent, manager, producer, publisher and label contacts he's cultivated in Nashville. Dunn made her umpteenth friendly visit to the Highway to officially announce her recent signing to Universal Music Group Nashville on the air and thank the channel. Annie Bosko, whose "Crooked Halo" is currently a Highway Find, posted a YouTube video documenting her nervous drive to meet with Marks for the first time — and the cartwheels she turned when she finally heard her song premiere. After making a couple attempts to deliver her press kit to what turned out to be bad addresses, her "friend's husband's boss," who had business dealings with SiriusXM, contacted Marks on her behalf. Already Bosko's seen an uptick in "booking opportunities" and "girls who are posting pictures on Instagram with the hashtag #CrookedHalo."

When Neal, the powerful booking agent, called Marks about a new client who "sounds like nothing you've ever heard," Marks told him to bring her over for a meeting. On the appointed afternoon, 19-year-old Haley Georgia waltzed into the small conference room with her guitar, Neal and her publisher, Arturo Buenahora Jr., who set a bottle of red wine on the table for later. Marks prompted Georgia to tell her story, which involved scaring off a bunch of risk-averse Music Row types before she found the intrepid souls who were there in the room with her. She handed Marks a CD, apparently fresh from mastering, and he popped it in the player. The first track grabbed his attention — along with that of all the staffers in adjacent offices — the attitude of the lyrics and inflections of the sung-spoken delivery frank, flip and razor pop-smart, like country in the key of Kesha.

When it was finished, Marks pronounced with a grin, "I will tell you this — that will get something going." Whether it would be a smash hit or a polarizing conversation-starter he couldn't predict, but the implication was either was better than a song failing to register with an audience at all.

There were more songs to hear, one on the CD and a couple on guitar, a toast with that very good wine in some very plastic Solo cups and the discussion of a tentative timeline to develop Georgia's web presence and get her slyly provocative song on air. They'd come to Marks now, rather than shopping her to labels right away, because they hoped to put at least a track's worth of her undiluted musical personality out there before anybody else got involved in shaping her.  

For all of the overlap between the Highway's Hot 45 chart and the Billboard Country Airplay chart, which keeps up with the hits at FM, Marks has tried out a lot of songs from a lot of acts that wouldn't have much of a chance with terrestrial programmers ever — or at least not until their mainstream viability's been proven — from rougher-edged, rural-rooted, country-rap like Colt Ford, the Lacs and some of their indie label mates to the atmospheric folk-rock duo First Aid Kit.

Marks chose the latter for a campaign called Fresh Female Voices. For one week this past August, the Highway doubled down on playing new and emerging female acts as a practical response to the dearth of solo women on either satellite or terrestrial country radio.

"We presented the widest possible variety, type and style of music we could within the time limits that we had for a week," he explains. "And really, the one who we already knew was resonating with the audience was Clare Dunn. She just continued to bubble up. And the rest were good, but nothing that sparked that, 'Oh, wow, we have something here' kind of hope that we were looking for when we embarked on that idea. So it didn't work in that respect, in finding somebody brand new on the Highway. But what it has done is it's let people know that the Highway is interested in finding fresh female talent to expose on the radio."

Dunn landed on the cover of USA Today after that, and the Highway's overall industry impact was reported on in Wall Street Journal and Billboard articles at other points in the year. Even in his powerful programming position, Marks will tell you there are some things that he can only do so much about; he can sprinkle the playlist with acts that don't incorporate hip-hop-style production and songs that don't mention drinking and partying — both of them powerfully popular elements of current country that appeared early and often on the Highway — but he can't independently swing the pendulum toward an entirely different aesthetic.  

"We've only been living with this for a couple of years, if that much, as a phenomenon, as a thing," Marks reasons. "I think like with all elements of music, it all adjusts and corrects. And I don't fear that. . .Whatever I think about it isn't relevant so much. It's what I need to provide to our subscribers and customers. And if that's what they're looking for right now, it's my job to give it to 'em. But it's also my job, uniquely speaking, to say, 'OK, we're giving you a lot of this. Why not try some of that?'"