Something dramatic has happened to country music since the Great Recession of 2008.
The uncertainty and instability created by the downturn in business sectors, coupled with ongoing technological changes, led large segments of the U.S. population to rethink their lifestyles and re-prioritize their spending habits. The country genre, according to a research study commissioned by the Country Music Association (CMA), seems to have benefited greatly with an uptick in fandom across most groups, but particularly among people who have not been traditionally thought of as core country fans: young people and minorities.
The study, conducted by the Futures Company by sampling 3,400 U.S. adults in late 2015, found a 54 percent increase in country consumption among 18- to 24-year-olds during the last decade. It also found that seven out of 10 non-white adults listen to country on a weekly basis — practically matching the percentage of Caucasian adults who consume country every week. Minorities don’t necessarily spend as much time with the genre, but the fact that they’re even sampling it suggests country has grown beyond the stereotypical limitations many assigned to its audience.
“This is one of the biggest surprises for me out of this research,” says CMA senior director consumer research Karen Stump.
The music holds the same appeal within every demographic. Its basic messages — family, home, hope, making the most of life — resonate with its followers, whether they live in a rural Midwestern state or a dense coastal city.
“What people like about country is its emotional aspect,” says Stump. “It’s authentic, it’s a storytelling genre, and that’s what everybody says that they love about country music as a genre regardless of their age, their race, where they live.”
Those emotional themes perhaps carry more weight with modern millennials — adults aged 18-35 — than they did with the same age groups 20-30 years ago. The impact of 9/11, the subsequent increase in terrorism and the uncertainty of the 2008 recession shaped their belief systems in a way that aligns more with traditional country values. That represents a large opportunity for country decision-makers since the U.S. millennial population numbers 78 million, larger than either the Gen X population or the baby boomers.
“We bounced back from that economy, but the patterns and mind-sets that came out of that recession, and after 9/11, remain with us and are stronger in the millennials,” says Stump. “It’s not about getting ahead. It’s about living a good life, and spending is not about having more things. It’s about having more connections. That just aligns so well with our genre and the songs.”
It also aligns with new consumption models. The streaming economy provides access to more songs without requiring ownership. The study discovered that the average millennial spends $400 annually on music. It also found that consumers who pay for streaming subscriptions and concert tickets tend to spend more — an average of $700 per year.
The conclusion is that those heavy consumers may not be spending less than they had in the earlier economy, but they are spending their money differently. Thanks to online purchases and instant music awareness — a la Shazam and other information avenues that were unavailable just 10-15 years ago — music buyers respond differently than they did when they had to plan a trip to Tower Records to buy a CD or stand in line on the on-sale date for tickets to a high-demand arena show.
“With the millennials especially, the two basic elements of the purchase decision are buying in the moment and buying sort of on demand when they want to,” says Stump.
That suggests that the ability to purchase in conjunction with an event — buying an artist’s new album at the concert, or ordering music immediately after it has been shown on TV — will continue to gain in importance. It might also mean that albums released for a limited window of time, the way Garth Brooks has launched some of his titles, might be conducive to the top artists.
Ultimately, the expanded potential audience is good news for the genre, though it comes at an awkward sociopolitical juncture. While the country audience has its share of Democrats (the industry itself most certainly does), the genre is widely considered a red-state format. Some red-leaning Southern states — notably North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee — have considered or passed legislation that targets minorities based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. And the national presidential campaign has fostered Republican rhetoric considered hostile to immigrants. That can’t be helpful to country marketers, should they follow the new data and increase their efforts in marketing to non-white audiences.
On the other hand, focus groups conducted in four markets — Philadelphia; Orange County, Calif.; Minneapolis; and Birmingham, Ala. — leave Stump optimistic. “When we’ve talked with people in this audience, I think that they separate [politics],” she says. “Music is music, good music is good music, and that’s why they listen to it.”
The CMA will explore the results of the study in greater detail during a three-part webinar for members on successive Tuesdays, beginning May 3. The first webinar is full.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.