Streaming services chase country music listeners

Mr John Marks, global head of country programming at Spotify, says the streaming service helps unearth talents such as Luke Combs (left), whose debut single, Hurricane, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
Mr John Marks, global head of country programming at Spotify, says the streaming service helps unearth talents such as Luke Combs (left), whose debut single, Hurricane, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NASHVILLE • No country for streaming?

Not if Mr Kelly Rich, who worked at singer Taylor Swift's label for 10 years, can help it. He jumped to Amazon Music a few months back to help bridge a gap between the tech giant and a segment of the listening public that has been slow to change.

After snagging exclusive streaming rights to country music legend Garth Brooks last October, Amazon began to widen its country music fan base. It recruited Mr Rich to manage label relations and backed Brooks' live tour.

"Nashville is a very close-knit community that requires someone working from within to best promote and achieve our goals," he said.

Paid music streaming has become the largest revenue source for music, helping to stem a 20-year drop in sales.

But country fans have been slower to log in. Even with growth of 83 per cent last year, on-demand streaming generated just a fourth of country music consumption, 14 percentage points less than the industry average.

Amazon, Spotify, Pandora Media and Apple Music are trying to change that by planting a flag in Nashville, the home of country.

They are tapping local industry veterans to run their operations and build ties to labels and fans, who number about 107 million nationwide, according to the Country Music Association (CMA).

At its CMA Fest, a four-day event that takes over downtown Nashville in early June, the streaming services made their appeals to fans.

Pandora offered a free concert, while Amazon Music set up an interactive exhibit.

There was a free screening of Brad Paisley's visual album Love And War, which was exclusively on Apple Music for a while.

"Fish where the fish are," said Mr Jon Loba, executive vice-president of Nashville-based BBR Music Group, a country label owned by BMG Rights Management.

"If they want to reach that core consumer, that's an effective use of marketing dollars."

Amazon says it is seeing results and that its listeners stream twice as much country music as the industry average. It still sells a lot of CDs, which made up 37 per cent of country music volume last year, according to Nielsen.

Competitors are not ceding any ground to the online retailer.

Pandora, which offers an online service similar to radio along with a paid on-demand streaming product, attracts about 60 million country listeners.

Getting country fans to stream more means changing old habits.

Conventional radio remains the top format for listening and the dominant medium where fans discover new country music, said Mr Loba.

The popularity of car radios and CDs, the comfort consumers have with them, and the lack of broadband connections in some rural areas all hamper the transition to digital for country music.

Even with those obstacles, the genre is not far behind rock, where just 26 per cent of the consumption happens on streaming services, according to Nielsen.

Mr John Marks, global head of country programming at Spotify, joined the company almost two years ago from Sirius XM Holdings, where he was known for promoting young country acts such as Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell before they made it big.

Spotify opened its Nashville office in May last year. He disagrees with Mr Loba, saying: "FM radio still breaks out artists, still plays new artists, but not to the degree that Spotify is able to do it."

Pressure to generate radio ratings generally punishes new and unfamiliar music, forcing stations to limit the new music their audience hears, Mr Marks said. He credits Spotify with helping to unearth Grammy- nominated Sam Hunt and, more recently, Luke Combs, whose debut single, Hurricane, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.

The lagging adoption of streaming by country fans shows that for all their growth, online music services are still in their formative stages, Mr Marks said.

"We're all developing new businesses when it comes to this idea of enticing customers into the ondemand music area of streaming.

"It's going to be up to all of us to distinguish ourselves and our brands and what we offer uniquely to the consumer," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Streaming services chase country music listeners'. Print Edition | Subscribe