In January, Brent Cobb's manager Don VanCleave was analyzing a report on Cobb's Spotify listenership. "I started noticing Stockholm was his biggest streaming market," VanCleave remembers. "Amsterdam was a Top Four market. Oslo was a Top Ten market."
Armed with this information, VanCleave decided it was time to schedule some gigs. "I went to his agents in the U.K.: 'Guys, we're popping in Stockholm – give me shows,'" he continues. "This guy hadn't headlined America yet and he's selling out Amsterdam and it's only because of streaming."
Services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music are beginning to have concrete impacts on country music, helping artists to reach fans, build tours and generate income without relying on major labels and radio. "A lot of times music lanes can be a little more restricted at FM radio," says John Marks, Spotify's Global Head of Country. "Streaming is able to open up lanes of discovery, lanes of exposure that weren't available to them." "It's given the younger artist, the up-and-coming artist, a shot," adds singer Russell Dickerson, who has a pair of streaming hits in "Blue Tacoma" and "Yours."
Even as streaming has loosened the tight grip of major labels and radio, it's benefitted these gatekeepers by reducing their risks. "In the old days, you'd place a million dollar bet on your gut," says Jon Loba, Executive VP of Broken Bow Records. "The label would sign an act, go spend a bunch of money, and then you'd find out what you had. Now we don't have to." The same applies to radio programmers. "When I got in this business, radio's complaint was: Why do we have to be the ones to make the stars, expose the music, create familiarity?" Loba says. "So for radio, streaming is a positive development as well."
The country ecosystem is traditionally slow to embrace new technology: Streaming has already turned waves of young rappers and pop singers into viral stars and helped push Latin acts into the American mainstream. "[Streaming] grew quickly in pop and rap – those kids are early adopters," acknowledges Brad Belanger, who manages Sam Hunt. "Country tends to be the last adopter. It happened the same way with iTunes. It's the reason country still sells a lot of physical records. But every year there's 17- or 18-year-old kids going, 'I want to listen to country music,' and those kids are listening to it on Spotify and Pandora, just like everybody else is. You can watch the market unfold in New York and L.A. and know that's eventually going to come around to us."
These words were echoed during a recent speech by Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman. "Historically, country music always lags behind in terms of technology adoption," he said. "But it always catches up."
Sure enough, streaming among country fans is now enjoying rapid growth. A spokesperson for Apple Music says the country listenership is up 100 percent year over year on the service, exceeding the platform's cross-genre average growth rate of 91 percent. Apple's "The A-List: Country" playlist experience is dramatically outpacing average growth in playlist listenership, jumping 300 percent year per year instead of the 70 percent average growth rate. "The A-List: Country" is now the fourth biggest playlist on Apple Music. Spotify would not share comparable numbers, though their premier country playlist, "Hot Country," now boasts more than four million followers.
As a result, singers are now beginning to pick up steam in streaming before earning major label record deals and pushing for the more traditional exposure on country radio. Sam Hunt was the first country artist to make the leap in 2014. "We didn't have the money or the knowhow to get CDs in Target," says Belanger. "But we could record songs at home and put them up on Spotify or SoundCloud or Pandora. It was free, easy, quick and the way to get to all the fans, not just the country fans, since the streaming services have a much lower wall between genres than terrestrial radio or television." Others have been able to follow Hunt's path – last year, Maren Morris, Kane Brown and Luke Combs; this year, Russell Dickerson and Walker McGuire – if not quite match his streaming records.
Streaming hits are created primarily when an artist's song is placed in a marquee playlist. VanCleave saw Cobb's numbers jump when the singer's music was added to Pandora's Chris Stapleton channel. Dickerson started out in Spotify's New Boots playlist [430,000 followers], moved up to Wild Country [626,000], and then ended up in Hot Country. Hot Country still pales next to country radio – the Number One hit on the Billboard Country Airplay chart last week had 47 million impressions, according to Nielsen SoundScan – but it gives artists immediate access to a large and dedicated listenership. "Radio doesn't break anybody overnight," Belanger explains. "They don't find a song and it's popular a week later. Spotify can do that. Pandora can do that."
The possibility of landing a hit on a streaming service has fundamentally changed the calculation for up-and-coming acts. "If I have a small artist and they don't have a record deal yet, you own 100 percent of [streaming] income," Belanger notes. "I had an act recently, we put a song up on Spotify and got 22 million streams. We brought in about 150 grand in a month. That's real money for young artists: You're not having to borrow tour support, you're allowed to put together a band, buy a van, and do all that preliminary stuff that you used to have to borrow money from labels to do. That's literally a brand new thing in the past year."
And once an act earns a streaming hit, they can demand a better record deal. "It's a great leverage tool," says Belanger. "We want 25- or 30-point royalties instead of 15."
If labels have to give up bargaining power in the streaming era, they recoup by having a higher likelihood of a hit. "Streaming can help hedge bets," Marks says. Within three weeks, he knows if a song is going to land with his listenership, which, though younger than the country radio audience, still tends to be predictive of what songs radio listeners will warm to. "Think about Hot Country: You're probably getting 15,000 to 20,000 plays on a song per week," Marks notes. "That's a lot of data in a short amount of time when compared to five plays a week in overnights [at radio] for the next six months."
Marks shares his information with label partners, allowing them to be smarter about resource allocation – in the future, streaming research may help predict hit potential. "If a song's not working, wouldn't you rather know quickly, so you can figure out a plan B, or if you have a hit, to hit the accelerator?" he says. "It's a three-week commitment. If it doesn't work, I have to pull it. I'll let you know, and I'll work battle plans on how to address it."
Information from Marks – not just how many people are listening, but when people skip through a song, and how many people return for repeat listens – helped Broken Bow pick Brooke Eden's breakout single "Act Like You Don't." First the label went with "Diamonds," but Marks' data suggested that wasn't connecting with listeners. "Very quickly, he was able to tell me, 'The consumer is tuning out,'" Loba remembers. "'However, there's a title 'Act Like You Don't' that I'm seeing some early reaction to and adoption to.'" Broken Bow shifted its attention to "Act Like You Don't," and the song became Eden's biggest hit to date, with close to 18 million streams. Especially at a time when few women are getting played on country radio – "Act Like You Don't" didn't crack the Top 40 – streaming can nurture careers and prove that there is commercial demand for songs by female singers. Clare Dunn and Jillian Jacqueline have also garnered robust streaming numbers without help from radio.
In addition, streaming statistics give singers – at least the male ones – another way of making a case for their single during station visits. "Because of how much you can break down the data, we got very, very specific and strategic about our approach to translate that into radio success," Dickerson says. "We go into stations like, 'Every single day, 'Yours' is out-streaming eight songs in your Top Ten.' You keep pounding that, and finally it starts to make sense." "Yours" is now Number 25 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.
For artists that can't get on the radio, streaming still serves to boost touring. "You can see this song is really successful in Dallas, Fort Worth, whereas it wasn't quite as successful in Tulsa or Austin," says Texas stalwart Josh Abbott. "So that gives you the opportunity to say first, what have we done differently in these markets for the percentage of streams to be so different? And, second, when am I playing Dallas next?"
"Now that the live shows make up probably 80 percent or more of artists' gross income," Abbott adds, "I view the songs we put out as the marketing to get people to the product, which is now your live show, where your margins are better."
Loba watched Walker McGuire's ticket receipts balloon as the duo's track "Til Tomorrow" picked up steam on streaming. "If you have a real hit on a streaming service, it can immediately impact your touring in a significant way," he says. "When it was originally released they would play shows for 50 to 150 people. Once that song went on Wild Country and then Hot Country, several months before they were even introduced to radio, they started seeing those shows go to 750, to 1250."
Spotify shares detailed data with managers about where songs are getting streamed – the level of transparency varies across services – allowing, for instance, VanCleave to book Cobb's tour in a market that's not traditionally known for country fandom. "It can help an artist avoid a market where reaction is slower to develop, and help them go to a market where reaction is heating up," Marks says.
What's more, streaming allows young acts to put multiple songs into play at once, giving them more opportunities to connect with potential ticket buyers. The pace of movement at country radio is famously slow for new and mid-level acts – a Number One hit can sometimes take more than 40 weeks to climb to the top of the chart. Dickerson's "Yours" will rise at radio for five more months, but he already released another digital single. "Touring wise, it really can accelerate and elevate offers," Loba says.
Streaming will only become more common in country. This was the crux of Goodman's recent Nashville speech: "Now, all of a sudden, our core demographic… is sitting there going, 'Should I be on Spotify? Should I be on Apple streaming? Should I be on Amazon Prime?'"
And Loba sees additional opportunity for growth in streaming among older listeners as technology improves and services increase outreach and educational efforts. "Probably the biggest barrier to more mass adoption of streaming is just lack of knowledge of it," he says. "A lot of that I think will take place once those services are easily accessible on automobile dashboards. There's another positive with respect to voice-enabled searches and voice-enabled plays: Amazon can show you how that technology is really creating consumption in and monetization of an audience that wasn't streaming before."
In the end, VanCleave says the rising tide of streaming has lifted many boats. "It's made it much easier for us to reach people without going through traditional gatekeepers – it is a great equalizer."