Country Music In The Age of Streaming 

By Marcus Dowling 

Worldwide, the past 18 months have been unprecedented on all accounts. However, the popularity that streaming was experiencing in Country Music before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic merged with how essential digital-first access became during quarantine. What ensued is one of the most unlikely music industry occurrences ever: Country Music fans finally adapted to streaming. In the wake of this occurrence, a discussion with executives at Amazon and Spotify about what has transpired since streaming surged on the scene in Music City and ushered a century-old genre into music’s DSP streaming age is worth having. 

Country Music was one of the music industry’s final holdouts to adapting and adopting streaming as a significantly viable and worthwhile platform and process for accessing music. However, this is not a new development. Before the COVID era, 2017 Country Music Association streaming research noted that “the No. 1 reason cited [among Country Music fans that were using music streaming services] for not using streaming services more to listen to and discover Country Music was a lack of understanding about the features and benefits of streaming apps, or that they are too hard to use.” 2018 CMA research also highlighted that “Country Music fans spend $100 more on music than the average fan, at $392 over the past year which includes a larger share on physical and digital albums and songs. Half of the audience has also bought music and concert tickets, with 36% saying they have downloaded music.” 

By 2019, Country Music was clearly at a solid  and yes, lucrative  split between long-held traditional ways of accessing music and a wholesale buy-in to streaming’s possibilities. In a 2017 article from The Tennessean, Ken Robold, who was then Sony Music Nashville Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, stated, “I’m absolutely optimistic because there’s no question obviously that [streaming] is the future…Our genre needs to grow at a much faster pace than it is in order to offset the declines we’re seeing in physical sales and digital downloads.” 

Enter COVID. Moreover, enter Gabby Barrett, Luke Combs and Kane Brown. Country Music’s slow-to-sudden adaption to streaming  and its benefits  can be witnessed by observing the three performers’ growth. Moreover, regarding their success and its long-tail impact, it’s appropriate to borrow the gospel-style hook from house music tandem Disclosure’s 2013-released dancefloor stomper, “When a Fire Starts to Burn”:  

“When a fire starts to burn, right, and it starts to spread. She gon’ bring that attitude home….”  

Amazon Music Streaming Lounge at Fan Fair X in June during CMA Fest 2018 in downtown Nashville. Photo Credit: John Russell/CMA

Combs released This One’s for You as an EP in 2015 and as a major-label album in 2017. It grew by nearly 4000% in purchases in 18 months. Combs’ re-released version of his November 2019 album What You See Is What You Get as What You See Ain’t Always What You Get one year later debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart with 70% of its sales coming from 102 million streams. It’s a clear sign of streaming’s impact on an artist emerging as a superstar. 

As for Barrett, the 21-year old vocalist was a third-place finisher on “American Idol” in 2018. By October 2020, she was featured in the notable TIME article “Why Country Music Is Thriving During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” In this article, her 2019-released debut single “I Hope” was described as “[exploding] in popularity, topping the three major Billboard Country charts and becoming the first debut single by a woman to top Billboard’s Country Streaming Songs chart. Though Barrett was a known commodity, her “immediate” explosion in popularity in many ways supersedes the stories of artists like fellow “Idol”-borne Country stars Carrie Underwood and Lauren Alaina. It’s astounding for sure. 

As streaming becomes a powerhouse tool for today’s consumer, playlisting has become the essential gateway to success on these platforms. Making music that fits on a variety of playlists with sizable followings is a direct pipeline to access and convert new listeners. Brown is a prime example of this. With collaborations that include blackbear, H.E.R., Khalid, Swae Lee, John Legend, and Marshmello, he has honed a cross-genre appeal that spans playlists and platforms. As listeners are exposed to artists via playlists and continue to consume a variety of genres, users are actively converted from idle listeners to engaged fans. The numbers certainly reflect this idea, as Brown’s reach continues to climb, surpassing that of some of the most popular artists in the genre.  

Spotify Music Streaming Lounge at Xfinity Fan Fair X in June during CMA Fest 2018 in downtown Nashville. Photo Credit: Caitlin Harris/CMA

This study around the impact of artists tapping into diverse genres effectively precedes CMA’s recent comprehensive multicultural study which reinforces these findings. This 2021 research (coming soon to members) taps into the overall makeup of both the Country Music consumer and the Country Music rejector, as well as typical avenues for consumption and users’ feelings toward the genre as a whole.  

“The Country Music industry is finally developing streaming-first strategies, and this shift is diversifying our industry in incredibly exciting ways,” says Brittany Schaffer, Spotify’s Head of Artist & Label Partnerships, Nashville. “The beauty of streaming is that each artist can now release music based on what works best for their art and their fans, instead of having to fit into a one-size-fits-all mold. It’s been incredibly exciting to watch this shift over the last few years.”  

As well, Kelly Rich  while still in her position as Amazon’s Head of Country Music  added, “The Country genre has always performed well on Amazon Music, going back to when we started selling physical music more than 20 years ago. It continued to grow with the launches of our streaming tiers, and the share of Country streams on Amazon Music continues to be more than two times the industry average.” 

Rachel Whitney, Spotify’s Head of Editorial, Nashville, continues with a note regarding how playlists  as a music industry innovation borne by streaming platforms  have allowed songs to be featured in groupings similar to being added to radio for spins. In her estimation, this has transformed Country Music and the music industry at large.  

“Streaming has already had a huge impact on Country. Hot Country is the most influential playlist in the genre, just celebrating its fifth anniversary with over six billion streams.” Plus, she adds, “Spotify data is mined heavily for insights, on playlists and off, by a variety of industry stakeholders and decision-makers. In addition to Hot Country, we have over 100 playlists on the platform dedicated to the genre and Country Music is represented across many more of our all-genre and mood and activity playlists. That just goes to show how engaged the Country fans are and the variety of fans and music we’re committed to serving.” 

Concerning how an environment where Country’s still-significant dependence upon industry traditions like radio airplay and touring interact with streaming’s surging importance in the marketplace, Rich notes that the future allows for songs to have hastened cycles to the top of the Billboard and Mediabase charts: “Country radio and the DSPs have many opportunities to work in tandem when promoting new music. The Country consumer has a plethora of music to choose from, but working together to promote the current focus song from an artist could help ignite the trajectory of a song to No.1 at a faster pace.” Continuing, she offers that Amazon’s live streams, Amazon-only “Original Songs,” and special merchandise packaging have proven successful. Several 2021 Country chart-toppers, including Barrett, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Combs, Florida Georgia Line, Underwood and Keith Urban, were all noted for working with Amazon’s digital and streaming teams as a significant part of the rollout of their successful releases. 

As far as looking into the future, Whitney highlights an artist like BRELAND as a “superstar talent” who is “just getting started.” The singer-songwriter’s 2020-released viral Tik Tok and streaming “My Truck” achieved Platinum-selling success from nearly 50 million Spotify streams alone. A follow-up, hip-hop-influenced ‘Country-twerk’ collab, with Urban, “Throw It Back,” was streamed 400,000 times in the first three days past its June 4 release and entered the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot Country charts soon after that. If the viral-to-digital to real-time success of an artist like BRELAND points to anything, it’s that there’s a place in Country Music’s future where the genre’s traditional bellwethers of success pair well with an environment where streaming is both commonplace and essential. 

In the past five years, Country Music’s adaption to the music industry’s streaming-led environment has been a rocky  yet still sudden and noticeable  transition. However, if anything, it’s put the art, music and fans first again. This, instead of industry-established notions of what sells being pushed to fans, which then trickle down to the music and the art of its creation. Positively about this advancement, Whitney notes that in a space where established artists like Brooks & Dunn and Church compete with more recent Country stars like Maren Morris, a positive balance emerges that could eventually define Country Music’s best way forward. “Now with streaming, it’s truly all about the listener…[whose tastes are influencing] the types of music that will continue to define our genre well into the future.”