Inside the Ears of SiriusXM Country Programmer John Marks

SiriusXM's John Marks (right) with country artist Cole Swindell.

When country record label execs tell the tales of how their songs became hits, two words are nearly always part of the story: John Marks. SiriusXM’s senior director of country programming is not only thought to have some of the best ears in the business, he’s also willing -- even eager -- to take chances on new music on the channel for which he handles day-today programming, The Highway. And that music doesn’t always have to come from the usual sources.

According to Stoney Creek Records vp promotion Chris Loss, who felt Marks’ influence with his band Parmalee.

“When Johnny Marks sinks his teeth into an act on The Highway, it absolutely moves the needle with active, music loving fans who possess disposable income,” he writes in an email. “Before they were in the rare air of the Billboard No. 1 airplay zone, Florida Georgia Line, Parmalee and Cole Swindell were all success stories with John, his team at The Highway and most importantly, SiriusXM subscribers/music lovers.”

The Highway gave early support to both FGL and Swindell before they were signed to major labels. Among the singles currently enjoying the same support are Dallas Smith’s “Tippin’ Point” and Glen Templeton’s “Ball Cap.” Sam Hunt’s recent signing to Universal Music Group came about “in large part,” Marks says, “from Highway support of his song ‘Raised On It.’”

Another artist, Chase Rice, “represents the most seismic moment of late... in terms of the raw numbers and Highway fan acceptance,” Marks says. “The Highway has supported Chase as an unsigned artist since we played ‘How She Rolls.’ It was a large Highway fan favorite. Then he shattered every benchmark the Highway had for response with his latest single, ‘Ready Set Roll.’"

With the freedom to take chances, and the fearlessness to do so, Marks has propelled his mainstream country channel into one of the top five channels on the SiriusXM platform, and has earned the respect of the Nashville music industry along the way since he joined the company in August 2010.

In our Q&A with Marks, we go inside those ears and find out how he picks the hits, what works for his audience and how far afield he’ll go to find music.

Many readers in the music business are likely wondering ‘How do I have a shot with this guy?’ When you’re listening to music, what stands out?

The thing that we listen for is something that’s unique, interesting, and maybe just a tad out of the norm, and sometimes maybe even way out of the norm in terms of what country music may be today. One advantage that we have, and the thing that is the most fun about it, is to perhaps find a song or two from time to time that really tests and pushes the boundary and... see if we can’t dent the wall a little bit with this song.

What’s a current example of that?

“Dirt on a Road” by the yet unsigned band Old Dominion. I think it’s a good, catchy country music song. But for whatever reason it is really generating a lot of discussion in the social medias about what is country music and what is not. I think it’s because there’s some sampling at the front of the song. At the end of the day, it’s generating a lot of sales. It’s one of those songs that may be a love/hate, but it is definitely generating heat. That, to me, shows true potential in a song.

You obviously go off the grid for songs sometimes, but how far afield will you go to find them?

We work with everyone. It could be booking agencies, managers, producers, of course the labels. But what we try to do is fulfill the expectations and the interests of our listeners in searching for the music we play. That’s what helps to set The Highway apart and SiriusXM apart from other services, both curated and not.

We want to play the hits, of course. Everybody wants to hear the hits. But we go out and search wherever we can for an interesting song, an interesting production, and when we find it, we give it to the listeners and ask for their guidance and support for whether or not we should continue playing it. It’s a formula that works very well for us.

Is there a difference between the songs you look for that will work with your audience and what terrestrial country radio PDs look for?

Those metrics are a little bit different. We have a little more freedom to be able to stretch the boundaries of what would be conventional in country music. And because Highway listeners are paying for the experience, it’s becoming expected that we provide, as a part of that service, a curated list of music that is typically not available in any other radio outlet. We work to achieve that by just trying to find the best new and interesting music that we can from whatever source happens to provide it at the time.

What’s your hit-picking secret?

It’s not about so much the ears and the gut, although there’s some of that that comes into play. Between me and [senior vp, GM music programming] Steve Blatter, we wanted to make The Highway the best listening experience that we possibly could for new country music. When we let a song into The Highway, the massive footprint of The Highway audience is really what helps a record along. It’s the response, or lack of it, that really is the sole determiner of how that music does on The Highway once it gets on the air. Once that happens, the subjectivity is really released and we go with the data. We go with the response. We go with the sales. And that... determines the viability of future airplay for any song that we play.

Do you feel an obligation to break acts, or is that just a happy byproduct of serving your listeners?

We started out [with] a mission to be able to break some national artists. It was a goal and objective that we had established for ourselves. We have this platform -- why can’t we go out and find some artists and break them nationally? We’ve done that.

What’s the best part of your job?

There are any number of great pipelines to find interesting music in Nashville. We just have a unique opportunity to be able to tap into that. That is the most fun that you can have as a programmer is to have all of this availability of music and get to choose among it, and do it for the listeners. To see a song take off and succeed, and especially when it’s someone who is trying to build their business from the ground up and you see this help them move their career forward, it’s very rewarding.