Nashville has long been a town that preached one particular gospel: if you want to make it in country music, you have to break through on country radio. Slowly but surely, though, Spotify, along with other streaming-music services like Apple Music and Pandora, are trying to change that, investing huge amounts of capital into Music City and persuading fans, and the industry itself, to ditch — or at least diversify — their dedication to physical CDs and terrestrial radio in favor of the cloud. So far, it’s working. Case in point? A once little-known local artist (and now Grammy winner) Maren Morris.
“Just from being placed on a playlist, it caught like wildfire. It made all the labels in Nashville say, ‘Who is this girl and what is happening with this song?'” Morris says about having her breakthrough “My Church” added to a playlist prior to her signing a record deal. “Spotify really changed the game in that it put an unknown artist’s song on a much bigger platform, with more eyes than country radio was doing at the time. It was an amazing experiment of testing out songs before research ever came into play.”
Breaking new artists is a cornerstone of Spotify’s strategy in Nashville, but their main focus is breaking in new fans. Last summer, in the sweaty thick of CMA Music Festival, the coolest place to be was Spotify’s Hot Country showcase at Ole Red on Broadway. Over four days, the service hosted free performances by rising country-music talent, from Dillon Carmichael and Muscadine Bloodline to Clare Dunn and Morgan Wallen, in the air-conditioned confines of the Blake Shelton-branded bar. It was Spotify’s popular Hot Country playlist brought live and in the flesh to fans — many of whom weren’t yet Spotify users.
Popular on Rolling Stone
Since establishing a presence in Nashville in 2013 and opening an office there three years later, Spotify has put the full-court press on country music listeners, staging Fans First events with stars like Kacey Musgraves, Kane Brown and Keith Urban, peppering the cityscape with billboards of Carrie Underwood and, presently, Randy Houser, and recognizing early on that country fans’ musical tastes aren’t limited to their genre. But while the CD has long been on its way out, it remains king for country audiences, and persuading them to embrace the cloud is an ongoing battle.
Still, the transition to streaming in the country market is clearly underway. Last year, country music streams increased 46 percent since 2017, according to Nielsen Music’s year-end report.
During CMA Fest, Spotify devoted a full day to introducing country listeners to its platform, setting up an interactive display at a designated shared booth (Amazon Music and iHeartRadio each manned their own day at the booth) among the autograph lines and T-shirt stands in Nashville’s convention center. With the help of guest artists like Cam and Steve Moakler, fans learned the ins and outs of Spotify’s system and were able to create their own tailored playlists. Call it Streaming 101.
Now, Spotify is hoping to reap the rewards of introducing new country fans to streaming, while fending off the advances of Amazon Music, Apple Music and YouTube, who are all swarming Nashville to cozy up to the city’s power players.
“If you’re going to be involved in country, you have to have a presence in Nashville,” says John Marks, global head of country music at Spotify. “I’ve been in places where they’ve tried to program it out of New York City or other areas and there’s nothing like having a presence in Nashville to be able to connect with the artist and with industry people. That is one element of what drives Spotify and I’m sure other streaming services. But as far as Spotify is concerned, we treat Nashville as its own music market.”
To Spotify, Nashville is an oil-rich final frontier. While it’s undeniably ground zero for country (and Christian) music, it’s also cultivating powerful scenes in rock, pop and hip-hop, along with country’s cousin, Americana, that will eventually bear fruit.
“It’s a music territory for us. The primary component is country music, but we know that’s going to adjust over time and we want to be at the ready for that,” Marks says of Spotify’s forward-looking operations in Nashville.
For now, however, the focus remains on country and reaching those potential subscribers, both in traditionally country-listening markets and elsewhere. Over the past year, Spotify has hosted fan-artist engagement events in Nashville, New York and London, where Musgraves presided over an afternoon tea. On the Fourth of July, Carrie Underwood and Dan + Shay anchored a Hot Country Live concert in New York’s Seaport District.
“One of the things we found was how diverse the country music audience is. It’s really easy to think in terms of stereotypes, but when you dig into who the audience is, it’s so much more,” says Brittany Schaffer, head of artist and label marketing at Spotify in Nashville. “It’s all races, all ages and it hits at the big cities and middle America. People try to reach that audience, but don’t know how to do it in an authentic way.”
Schaffer says Spotify approaches streaming from a fan’s viewpoint and drives home the idea that digital music doesn’t have to replace CDs or country radio.
“It can be complementary,” says Schaffer. “It’s about access, and how you can access music any time you want. As the country audience learns about that, they learn streaming is the way people are consuming music these days.”
Oftentimes, they’re consuming many of the same artists they hear on country radio. The current Hot Country playlist of 52 artists reflects an unmistakable overlap with the Top 40 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart: Luke Combs, Kane Brown, Dustin Lynch and Jason Aldean are common names on both surveys.
That similarity, and especially the lack of female artists represented in the Hot Country playlist, has been a source of criticism for Spotify. Presently, only one woman — Kelsea Ballerini — is included in the service’s most popular country compilation. (Pop singer Becky G has a cameo on a Kane Brown track).
But Marks says that will change.
“We understand the concern and have been working diligently with artists and the industry to ensure that we provide great opportunities to showcase great female country artists when possible. Spotify is proud to support all female artists, regardless of genre. We support many great signed and unsigned female artists in our lists such as New Boots and Wild Country, such as the rising stars Maddie & Tae, and are always excited to discover and nurture new talent,” he says.
Marks also cites various Spotify marketing campaigns that have utilized female country artists, including last fall’s “crop circle” stunt that depicted the faces of country singers like Kelsea Ballerini in fields of corn, the July 4th Carrie Underwood concert and Musgraves’ London meet-and-greet.
Discovering and championing new artists — like they did with Morris — is key to Spotify’s ongoing Nashville takeover. Marks, the former senior director of country programming at SiriusXM who helped launch Florida Georgia Line, cites it as a “primary mission.” During Spotify’s Hot Country showcase at CMA Fest, he and the Spotify brass from New York were on the hunt for a fresh face to open Underwood’s concert that July. Almost immediately, they settled on Tyler Filmore, a modern-country singer in the vein of Sam Hunt who performs under the name Filmore.
In many ways, the 28-year-old is the perfect test subject for Spotify’s Nashville campaign. An independent artist who can most benefit from the platform’s support, his 2016 song “Headlights” caught the attention of Spotify, who added him to a playlist. Each song resonated with listeners more than the last and the Missouri native soon found himself on Hot Country, with its audience of more than five million. Eventually, his face graced the cover of the playlist — the first unsigned country artist to do so.
“Spotify is a real reaction to how fans are listening to music. There’s no game. If your song is standing the test of time on Spotify, you’re proving that people want to hear that now,” says Filmore, who has three different songs on the current Hot Country playlist. “There are real data and analytics. I’ve built an entire headlining tour off of my Spotify insights.”
Keenly, Filmore and his management use the Spotify data — who’s listening to what songs in what parts of the country — to plot his live shows. If research shows he’s being streamed frequently in the Midwest, he’ll route a whole tour through the region. For a self-sustaining artist like Filmore, such sure-thing tours mean less financial risk. In turn, that success furthers Spotify’s reputation as a career-maker.
“We want to be a part of bringing that next crop of superstars up, and giving people the opportunity to reach fans, make a living off of their music, and be the next Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean. When you have a platform that now gives everyone the ability to distribute their music, whether they’re signed or unsigned, with that comes a responsibility to give artists the tools they need to be able to reach the audiences that may become fans of their music,” says Schaffer. “If we can help them understand how people are consuming music, and where their fans are located, we can help an artist grow their career.”
And Spotify can grow its country listenership — which will ultimately plateau after growing faster than any other genre among streaming audiences, a result of slow-to-hop-onboard fans playing catch-up. Still, the service is constantly brainstorming ways to introduce new listeners to their platform.
“It’s getting people to form new habits,” says Schaffer. “For us, once you get them on to the service and they experience the service, it’s an easy habit to form. But we have to get over that initial threshold.”