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HomeMusicCountry State of Mind: The rise of country music | IQ Magazine

Country State of Mind: The rise of country music | IQ Magazine

Historically bolstered by cowboy western movies and the likes of US servicemen stationed around the world, country music has been something of a niche international genre. But now, with a multigenerational audience and impressive growth figures around the planet, country music is everywhere, with acts appearing on mainstream festival stages and selling out arenas. Gordon Masson reports.

With the likes of Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey set to release country music albums this year, countless million new fans will be switching on to the genre, further elevating its success both at home in the United States and around the world.

Statistics show that country music was the second most popular genre in the US last year, behind only pop and rock, while it also showed year-on-year sales and streaming growth of more than 20% in 2023, according to American publication Newsweek.

And that growth curve is being replicated internationally where promoters are exploiting newfound interest in the genre to organise concerts and festivals for a loyal fanbase, which is expanding rapidly with an eager – and younger – set of converts.
Underlining that progress, the streaming of country music in the UK has grown by 380% in the past five years, and one in every 100 tracks streamed there is reportedly a country song.

“The UK is one of the strongest international markets for country music, and it has been building steadily for many years, but most recently, we’ve seen an explosion in the genre with ticket sales doubling and tripling and several artists selling out UK arena shows in minutes, such as Morgan Wallen, Shania Twain, and Chris Stapleton, all of whom we work with,” says Anna-Sophie Mertens, VP touring for Live Nation UK.

“Morgan Wallen played his first European show last December at The O2 [arena], which sold out in minutes, and we are already able to bring him back to headline Hyde Park six months later; this simply underlines how fast country music is growing and the size of the audience it can now reach.”

“I’m not a promoter. But I do know the country music industry”

The growth of the country genre in the UK has been helped by radio presenter Baylen Leonard, originally from Bristol, Tennessee – the birthplace of country music – but who has been living in London for the last 24 years.

While working at the BBC, Leonard recalls he always wanted to broadcast country music. “If it was a bank holiday and everybody else was away, they’d let me do a country show, which helped them cotton on to the fact that country music was a thing, so I started doing that more on Radio 2 with Bob Harris and then moved into commercial radio when Absolute and Bauer launched their commercial radio country station,” he says.

“I’d also always wanted to do a festival, and somewhere along the way, I was linked up with U-Live and met [general manager] Dawn Jones, who I now do the Long Road Festival with. Dawn and U-Live are very robust and know what they are doing, because I’m not a promoter. But I do know the country music industry, so we trust each other and do our thing.”

Having launched the first event in 2018, Leonard reports that debut attracted about 12,000 fans. “In terms of looking at a heat map, the audience comes from all over the UK, and that was one of the reasons we located it in the Midlands so it was easily accessible, because lots of people come from Scotland and the likes of London, Bristol, and Birmingham. There are also a chunk of people that will fly over from Europe.”

Non-English-speaking markets
Another European operation expanding its presence in the country scene is TAKK ab Entertainment, which formed in July last year when it brought together three generations of promoters – Swiss business pioneer André Béchir, TAKK Productions founder Sebastien Vuignier, and IQ new boss Théo Quiblier.

“We strongly believe in the genre, and we put a lot of effort into convincing artists and entourages to include Switzerland in future tours”

“André promoted all the major country artists back in the years, including Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, The Chicks, Willie Nelson, and many more,” states Vuignier. “He was also doing a country music festival at the 12,000-cap Hallenstadion every year in the 1980s. This created a strong country music fanbase in Switzerland, which we can still count on today.

“We strongly believe in the genre, and we put a lot of effort into convincing artists and entourages to include Switzerland in future tours. Thanks to a strong fanbase, we are able to reach really good figures, and we recently had sold out shows with Luke Combs and Brad Paisley, for instance.”

Across the border in Germany, Wizard Promotions is another long-term specialist. Speaking to IQ from Nashville, Wizard managing director Oliver Hoppe says that country music has been the company’s second-biggest genre, after rock, for many years.

“It’s interesting in Europe, where now you have Live Nation coming in strong, and AEG is building good things, but we’ve been doing country for a long time – we promoted Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks back in the day, and we did Brad Paisley’s first show in Germany,” says Hoppe.

“Back in 2014, the Country Music Association [CMA] decided it was going to put a bigger focus on Europe, and that’s ramped things up, but we’ve been working with country acts long before that. At the moment, the market is quite strong, and most acts come back to Germany and do better figures each time.”

“The constant stream of American artists coming and playing for the theatre-capacity audience is something new, and it’s happening throughout the year”

Further north, Live Nation Norway’s Vegard Storaas is also following a long tradition of country music promoters. “Our company founder, Rune Lem, had a poster of Garth Brooks from 1994 when he sold out Spectrum in a matter of minutes, so country has had a strong foothold here for a long time.

“There are nearly 5 million people in the US claiming Norwegian ancestry, which is almost equal to Norway’s own population. When people came back to Norway from the States, it created some sort of cultural bond between the two countries, and the music came with them. I think there are similar situations in Ireland.”

Detailing the recent local growth in the genre, Storaas says, “Before Covid, there were maybe two to four acts visiting us each year and going into the semi-big venues. You had Brad Paisley coming every once in a while, or Garth Brooks, or Shania Twain doing her thing. But the constant stream of American artists coming and playing for the theatre-capacity audience is something new, and it’s happening throughout the year. We also have a domestic group of artists, but they have their own musical direction, which is different from Nashville – they’re somewhere between country and Bruce Springsteen.”

Having specialised in the country genre for the past five or six years, Storaas says he’s witnessed a sea change. “After Covid, the willingness of American artists to invest in coming to Norway really changed – it’s gone from two or three per year to 20-30, including neighbouring genres like bluegrass and Americana.”

He points to Luke Combs as the potential catalyst. “For his world tour, he sold out, upgraded, and again sold out all his rooms in Europe,” reports Storaas. “That showed Nashville that there’s a big market here, and the reason Americans are just coming to Norway is because they can now see on their streaming charts that sometimes Norway ranks number five, behind the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. That’s a really strong fanbase for a small population.”

“The big record labels look at trends and see that Gen Z is pushing up the streaming numbers for country artists”

That support is backed up by Norway’s P10 Country radio station being one of the most listened to in the nation. “The big record labels look at trends and see that Gen Z is pushing up the streaming numbers for country artists, so I think more acts will be encouraged to record country music tracks,” adds Storaas.

Changing attitudes
There’s also been a noticeable difference in the way that American-based country acts are viewing the rest of the world when it comes to career planning.

“We’re finding that more younger acts are visiting here from very early on in their careers because they want to grow internationally as much as they want to grow in the US market,” comments Sina Hall at Semmel Concerts in Germany. “So sometimes our country shows start out in the small caps, and then we go up all the way to the arenas, depending on what artist is coming along.”

That pattern is also acknowledged by agents Sarah Casey and Beth Morton in UTA’s London-based HQ, who have been working hard to develop business internationally for the company’s country music clients.

“We are working with artists earlier than ever to develop international strategies for them,” confirms Morton. “It used to be that US artists would develop over there and then think about touring [internationally], whereas more of the clients that we’re working with now are considering international at the same time as they start thinking about the US. For example, Oliver Antony wanted to start his tour in Europe: we started in Scandinavia and finished in Ireland, and his shows blew out in minutes, especially in the UK. Dylan Gossett is another really good example. He kicked off his global tour in Europe, and again, those shows sold out in a matter of hours.”

“It can be tricky with American country acts because their international touring periods tend to be very short”

Morton cites UTA client Megan Maroney as one of the rising stars to watch. “She came over to do a UK tour last August, and we just put a September tour on sale for her. She’s very keen to go into markets that aren’t just the UK, so she’s going into Scandinavia, we’re opening up Switzerland, as well as Netherlands and Germany.

“What’s brilliant about her is that her management have been really focused on trying to build out Europe, the UK, and Australia from quite an early stage. Her hit, Tennessee Orange, was such a huge viral moment for her that she could have been booked every weekend throughout the US, but her management were keen to carve out time to come to Europe and Australia, too.”

That trend is embraced by Mertens at Live Nation. “Artists are developing international careers early at club- and small-theatre-level, and they love the experience and reception they get from their UK fans and [therefore] commit to international for many years to come. This has led to some US country artists selling more tickets in London than they do in the US, as they are so well received over here.”

She continues, “Australia, Canada, and the UK are leading the charge, followed by the Netherlands, Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), and Germany all now being part of most country artists’ touring schedules. This is sometimes extended into Belgium, France, and Spain for the right acts, and artists can easily have a two- to three-week window across Europe for touring these days.”

Semmel’s Hall hopes that period of commitment for fans of country music will be further extended as the genre becomes more popular. “It can be tricky with American country acts because their international touring periods tend to be very short, meaning we cannot have them playing as extensively as we would with other international talent. But country stars coming to Europe was once a rare event, whereas now they seem to be a lot more enthusiastic, so it’s moving in the right direction,” she says.

“The US is very single-driven because of country radio. But here in Germany, if people like an artist, they will listen to their entire catalogue”

Hall also details differences in the way that fans in Germany and fans in America consume music. “The US is very single-driven because of country radio. But here in Germany, if people like an artist, they will listen to their entire catalogue.” That, she says, has led to some interesting moments for those acts who ask their fans for song requests. “People hold up signs [for] all kinds of stuff, where artists are like, ‘Oh, my God, no one ever has requested this song before. How do you guys know this one?’ And then they are astonished when everybody can sing along.

“So artists are learning how respectful and tuned in people are to their storytelling and lyrics here in Europe, whereas at home in America, where it’s single-driven, it can be all about getting your own momentum and fighting for it. It’s quite a nice change of scenery to come over here and have such a respectful and appreciative audience.”

Fellow German promoter Hoppe, with whom Semmel has co-promoted a number of country acts, observes, “The cycle of breaking country acts in the United States is much more streamlined because if they are picked up by country radio, it can really accelerate. In Germany, as with most places internationally, we don’t have that media, so the way acts build their fanbase is by playing in the market. That’s why we encourage acts to come to Germany early in their careers to begin that build.

“What we’ve found with some acts is that they are capable of going to London to play to maybe 3,000 people, and then when they see that the German show might be in a 1,500-cap venue, they decide it’s not financially worth it. But if they do it and build up sensibly, then it does pay off in the end.”

“At WME, we’ve seen our volume of international country touring activity increase by 50% over the past few years”

Agent Shannon Saunders at WME in Nashville confirms that enquiries for her clients are picking up from overseas. “Interest in country music touring is certainly growing outside of North America,” she says. “At WME, we’ve seen our volume of international country touring activity increase by 50% over the past few years. Not only are we seeing substantial increases in ticket sales for these artists on headline touring, but we are also receiving more interest than ever from contemporary festivals to include these acts on their lineups.

“The UK and Australia have traditionally been the strongest non-NA markets for the country genre; however, we are seeing some exciting new growth in South Africa, Switzerland, and across Scandinavia. I suspect these trends will continue further into mainland Europe and into South America over the next few years.”

Summing up the evolution of the genre, veteran agent Neil Warnock at UTA says, “Considering the state of play 17 odd years ago, working with the likes of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, we’re now seeing a tsunami of interest in country music around the world. The perception change has been like night and day.

“By having such a great relationship with our Nashville office, we’ve developed something of a fraternity between Europe and America, but it has taken a long time to get to where we are.”

Warnock adds, “What’s most encouraging to me, is seeing the young artists and young managers more involved in developing acts outside of Nashville, having the trust in agents and promoters here, and ultimately seeing the value in Europe and the rest of the world. Country is really a catch-all for so many genres and styles, so we’re going to see more crossover of artists into other areas, where they’ll only continue to be accepted in more mainstream spaces going forward.”

“We made the strategic decision to work in the genre. We felt there was the potential for it to break out of a niche and move into the more mainstream market”

Strategic growth
Hall explains that Semmel first became involved in country music in 2018. “That’s when we made the strategic decision to work in the genre,” she says. “We felt there was the potential for it to break out of a niche and move into the more mainstream market. But to do that it would need a strategic approach, especially when it comes to marketing and communication.”

As a result, Semmel founded its Sound of Nashville brand for anything in the country or Americana field. “It was based on the idea that we needed to start out with small club shows, which usually don’t have a lot of marketing budget. So we’d kind of bundle them a little bit to get the most out of the budgets,” continues Hall.

“Funnily enough, right after we decided to do that strategic approach with Sound of Nashville, AEG approached us about the C2C festival in Berlin, and that obviously made total sense with our setup. We launched the first C2C in 2019, with Keith Urban, which sold out right away. Then we came back with an extra day for a three-day festival in 2020, which was one of the final events before the lockdowns came along.”

While the ban on live events was brutal, Semmel pushed ahead with its Sound of Nashville planning. “We did a lot of editorial content and reached out to artists to keep building those relationships. We did a couple of livestreamed shows, but we also took the Berlin C2C footage from 2020 and turned that into a three-hour stream that we broadcast on the date that C2C 2021 was supposed to happen. So there was a lot of activity on our side during the pandemic to keep the spark going.”

And that investment in the concept is paying dividends. “When we started out in 2018, we looked at all the data that we had access to, and the demographics told us that the average age for anything country music-related was 55 years and up. But if I pull that data now, we’re looking at an average age of 35, which is significantly younger in a very short time.”

“The big development is that we are now seeing far more headline touring playing in bigger buildings”

WME’s Saunders also believes the genre grew during the coronavirus crisis. “The heart of country music has always been with the songwriting. We saw significant growth in country music streaming during the pandemic, as consumers were drawn to music that reflects the human experience in such an authentic and universal way,” says Saunders. “This streaming growth has not slowed down. And now, with the return of the touring business, the live shows hold up.”

The genre’s continuing expansion is in no small part down to the hard work of the Country Music Association and its board, of which both Sina Hill and Anna-Sophie Mertens are directors.

“I joined the CMA board in 2020, becoming a vocal ambassador and advocate for what has traditionally been a niche genre outside of the US,” says Mertens, who has been a fan of the genre for most of her life, courtesy of her parents’ record collection.
Mertens developed and launched Live Nation UK’s first country event Highways in 2023, in partnership with the Royal Albert Hall. “The inaugural event featured Kip Moore, Morgan Wade, Jackson Dean’s UK debut, and Stephen Wilson Jr. whilst also hosting additional events such as Highways Songwriters Round, Country for Kids, Late Night Special, Official After Show Party with media partners Absolute Radio Country, and a month-long exhibition of the Nashville Portraits by Jim McGuire,” she tells IQ.

That debut last year was such a success that the 2024 edition of Highways has been extended to two days and nights of programming at the Royal Albert Hall. But Mertens acknowledges that events like CMC Rocks in Australia and the travelling C2C extravaganza in Europe paved the way for her and others to follow.

“The big development is that we are now seeing far more headline touring playing in bigger buildings, and with audiences growing, we are making compelling offers to get acts over for hard ticket tours,” says Mertens. “New events like Highways offer a different and very exciting offering to artists and fans alike.”

“The landscape, especially when it comes to festivals, seems to be getting busier”

Agent Morton concurs. “The landscape, especially when it comes to festivals, seems to be getting busier,” she observes. “In the UK, there’s also the likes of Black Deer, which is an Americana and country-leaning festival, and there are new properties in Australia as well. Frontier, who promote CMC Rocks, launched Ridin’ Hearts last year in Sydney and Melbourne, for example, and and Semmel Concerts in Germany are launching the Sound of Nashville event this year.”

Indeed, Semmel will promote 20-30 Sound of Nashville-branded events throughout Germany this year. But that’s hopefully just the tip of the iceberg.

“As country music grows in more countries, hopefully the international timeframes will expand so that Nashville is not just cramming in Europe, UK, and Australia within a three-week time period,” says Hall. “At the moment, that’s all you get when you’re international. But I think we will see more touring as acts realise they need that to really break the market… It takes more than one show in Berlin to break the entire German market.

“You need to be aware that because of country’s range, it will attract different fans. There is not necessarily just one country fan who consumes everything, so you have to market artists differently if it’s Zach Bryan or Luke Combs or Kacey Musgraves,” opines Hall. “Knowing those nuances and being tuned into what’s happening in Nashville, what the labels are doing, and the feedback we’re getting from our community are absolutely essential to do the right marketing.”

A global genre
At Frontier Touring, COO Susan Heymann says, “CMC Rocks has been building the profile of country music in Australia since 2008. Our business has been focused on bringing international country artists to Australia and building the local scene through the large audiences that the international acts draw for the festival.”

“An artist can make more money playing a state fair or rodeo a couple of hours from where they live as they’ll make spending two weeks touring internationally”

She recalls, “When we started in the genre, there were only a handful of international acts who considered Australia or New Zealand as a market worth putting the time into.” But she doesn’t blame them. “An artist can make more money playing a state fair or rodeo a couple of hours from where they live as they’ll make spending two weeks touring internationally.”

Nonetheless, the metrics are changing. “There are now a lot more artists who see this as a market worth investing in. We’re now at a point where we’re selling out the festival every year, we feature 16-20 internationals on the bill, we’ve started building a sister event called Ridin’ Hearts, and we’re touring international country artists year-round, outside of the festivals,” says Heymann.

While the rollout of more events in markets where strongholds of fans have been consuming country music for years is a welcome development, Morton believes brand-new markets could be on the horizon.

“It’s pretty early stages, but I am hearing about a potential country music festival starting in the Middle East, either the end of this year or beginning of next,” she reveals. “More and more promoters in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and France are getting involved, while Live Nation are particularly keen to get into this space. But with artists like Megan Moroney and Dylan Gossett, we’ve had all the major promoters come to us wanting to work with them.”

And she is also witnessing more mainstream avenues open up. “We had Brittney Spencer open for Bruce Springsteen at BST Hyde Park last summer. That was an amazing look for her. The War and Treaty are our clients, and they’re performing at Love Supreme this summer, which is a jazz festival. So we’re definitely seeing more mainstream festivals try and get into this, as well as mainstream media starting to cover the genre as well. Dylan Gossett got one of his first plays on radio in the UK on Radio 1, and for a tastemaker like Jack Saunders to be playing a country artist like Dylan on Radio 1, I think is brilliant for the genre.”

“The C2C team has driven the growth of UK country touring out of the festival, and we promote a large number of tours each year, from clubs to arenas and beyond”

AEG Presents promoter Rachel Lloyd works closely with SJM Concerts in promoting C2C in London, Glasgow, and Belfast. She has been working in country music since 2017 but says she has been really focussed on the genre since returning to AEG Presents in 2021.

“The C2C team has driven the growth of UK country touring out of the festival, and we promote a large number of tours each year, from clubs to arenas and beyond,” says Lloyd. “It’s a great model. To be able to introduce new artists at the festival, put them in front of excited fans and the media, and then bring them back for headline touring, hopefully over and over. Ashley McBryde is a great illustration of this, she worked her way up from the [C2C] Spotlight Stage and now does incredibly solid numbers over here.

“The wave of artists that first came over [for C2C] all reported back the same thing – that UK audiences are some of the best in the world. That tempted more and more to follow, and the exponential growth of the fanbase over here pushed US teams to take it seriously.”

While C2C currently plays to audiences in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands, at TAKK, Vuignier is hopeful the juggernaut will one day expand its routing to Switzerland. “We have been trying hard to get C2C over to Zurich, but at the moment, the festival is only running over two weekends. However, we are closely and constantly talking to all parties involved, and we are trying to get the C2C acts to play mid-week shows in Zurich, in between both weekends.”

He continues, “Drake Milligan, who sells out 5,000-cap venues in the US, played the 500-capacity Mascotte around C2C and enjoyed it a lot. This was his very first headline show in Europe, and he played for almost two hours instead of the 90 minutes planned, because the audience was so hot.”

“There is generally a lot more crossover with country music these days. Country is now cool!”

In the UK, Jack Dowling at SJM Concerts has been working in partnership with AEG’s Lloyd for two years. “Chris York was the original pioneer of C2C from our company over a decade ago and deserves a huge amount of credit for where the genre is in the UK,” he states, adding, “C2C Presents is a combination of SJM and AEG; we promote a lot of tours outside of the festival under that banner in the UK.

“We are seeing a lot more US-based acts looking to build their business in the UK from the off – they are coming in at grassroots venues, circa 250 capacities. The genre really has exploded here in the last few years, and people have seen it’s a market to invest in early.”

And Dowling is one of the many execs who is excited by what is being referred to as ‘the Beyoncé effect.’ He tells IQ, “I think this is really helping to get the youth into the market. They hear these songs and do a bit of digging into what else is out there. Similarly, people are listening to great acts like Hozier, then they find Zach Bryan because of it. There is generally a lot more crossover with country music these days. Country is now cool!”

That’s hardly news to Baylen Leonard and his team at the Long Road Festival. But his plans for future editions of the festival are simple. “While we want to grow, it’s step by step, slow and steady, because we want to maintain what the festival is, without losing sight of our values,” he says. “If you grow too big, you can lose that special atmosphere. And I think that’s one of the things people really like about the Long Road.”

Looking to the future, Mertens comments, “I am particularly excited for artists such as Lainey Wilson, Tyler Childers, Jordan Davis, and Brett Young who are all doing phenomenal business in the UK. Both Lainey and Tyler are having an incredible career moment, and both will no doubt be headlining arenas in the not-so-distant future.”

On Beyoncé’s new country album, Cowboy Carter, Mertens adds, “I hope it will help see some of the more mainstream outlets – radio, TV, all genre playlisting in streaming – dive deeper into the genre and embrace it, giving current country acts a chance. Add in Shania Twain also playing Hyde Park and landing the coveted legends slot at Glastonbury 2024, another huge moment for the genre.”

“The market is definitely increasing in size. And I think this is just the beginning”

At Frontier in Australia, Heymann notes, “Mainstream artists having country albums may not resonate with the core country fans, but the appeal of country music is so much broader than what the core fans want, so it can only help build that audience and introduce indie and pop fans to new artists and music they might not otherwise explore.”

Wizard boss Hoppe says, “The new Beyoncé album will definitely have an impact, but I see it as more of a stepping stone to help develop the market even more.”

Considering Lana Del Rey’s forthcoming album, too, AEG’s Lloyd echoes Hoppe’s sentiment. “They are such mega artists that they need to be treated like outliers to the conversation generally,” she says. “But by the sheer statistics of their reach, they will make people take notice, so if they use their platforms to highlight other artists or musicians firmly in the genre, they will create new fans.

“What would be great is to see them, or any other artist who claims the genre, invite country or Americana artists as supports on tour. That would be huge for so many emerging artists and really put the spectrum of country music directly in front of people. I’m a firm believer that there is a country sound for everyone, so I hope all this will encourage fans to do some digging.”

Saunders at WME is also embracing the Beyoncé effect. “Ultimately, this helps to widen the lane for what it means to be a country artist, creating more opportunities for all,” says Saunders. “The country music genre is more sonically diverse than ever before. I welcome any creators who want to collaborate and push boundaries to create great music for everyone to enjoy.”

In Norway, Storaas predicts busy times ahead. “The market is definitely increasing in size. And I think this is just the beginning,” he says. “Maybe 15 years ago, indie was the number-one genre; ten years ago, it was EDM; five years ago, it was rap. So maybe country could now be number one for a couple of years.”

Live Nation colleague Mertens concludes, “We are certainly seeing younger fans at concerts, especially in the 18-35 age bracket, which is super exciting. At Megan Moroney’s first London show, for instance, we saw an overwhelming amount of young fans, mainly female, and what was even more interesting was seeing fans wear t-shirts of acts such as Imagine Dragons, Troye Sivan, and others. It blew me away as I wasn’t quite expecting that association, which made me very excited for the future.”


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