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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!'”
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