John Marks, Spotify's New Nashville Ace, Digs the Swedish Vibe, Addresses Data, 'Freemium,' and Breaking Acts

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

When he joined SiriusXM five years ago, after a 30-plus-year career in terrestrial radio, John Marks quickly had to learn the distinct differences between the music that works over the air and the music satellite subscribers want to hear. In his job as senior director of country programming, he soon became known for having some of the best ears in the business, helping establish several artists on SiriusXM that went on to explode in popularity at FM, including ParmaleeCole Swindell, Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line and Chase Rice.

Now, he’s doing it again.

In the midst of what he describes as a "fairly steep learning curve" in his new role as head of global programming for country music at streaming service Spotify, Marks is curating playlists, discovering not only what streaming audiences respond to best, but also what fans of country music outside the United States like to hear.

Those questions are precisely what drew him to the job, along with what he says is Spotify’s "commitment to country music and to Nashville." His new position was announced Nov. 2, about six weeks after his departure from SiriusXM. Like the label’s other Nashville staffer, Copeland Isaacson, Marks is working from home.

A central element of the Spotify gig was the opportunity for Marks to continue helping expose new and developing artists, a part of the job he loved at SiriusXM -- even if it meant he was so sought-after that his voicemail and email boxes were perpetually maxed out.

So, while he often had to say no to people, Marks says his priority was, and remains, being "as honest and straightforward as I can. Even though I never succeeded fully, I just tried to stay in as close touch with people as I could, tried to be as responsive as possible, and do what I could to listen to the … submissions [and] just treat people with respect [and] understand that this is their life. This is a dream and a life pursuit. [I tried not to] forget that when you’re working with whoever it may be, from the largest to the most beginning of artists, they all have that one thing in common, no matter where they are on the ladder."

The successes he's had in that pursuit are "the stuff that keeps me going. Just to watch these artists come into their own, gain some national notoriety, get signed to a label -- it makes me happy and proud like a parent … I’ll have friends for life as a result of it, and that means more to me than I can say."

His new gig comes with other challenges too. While Spotify has plenty of support, some artists, including Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean, have pulled their music from the service because they are unhappy with the company’s freemium model (temporarily in the case of Aldean, who has returned his latest album New Dirt to the service). While Spotify has a dedicated label relations team, label and artist relations are also part of Marks’ job description.

"Obviously with the Aldeans and Taylor Swifts of the world, everybody has varying opinions about royalties in general," he says. "That is not my world. All I can do is what I would do every day in my previous [job, which] would be to tell anyone -- from the largest of the large artists to the most developing of the new artists -- to be reachable, searchable, clickable, viewable, curatable wherever you can possibly be, because it’s an on-demand market … To not be available in other places probably puts someone at a disadvantage with their audience and their market. That advice and that thought [pre-date] me being at Spotify, and I still think that."

His September departure from SiriusXM shocked the Nashville music community, and an announcement citing "personal reasons" for his departure caused ripples of concern. Marks is "humbly apologetic" for that, and the fact that when the announcement was made he was out of pocket due to covering a concert for SiriusXM in Chicago and unable to immediately quell the speculation.

Just a few weeks into the new job, Marks has already spent a week at Spotify’s headquarters in Sweden, which he describes as "a loose -- and I say ‘loose’ in a complimentary way -- culture of people … It’s just a very relaxed, yet intense, atmosphere." As he got to know his fellow programmers Marks also picked up on "a really solid esprit de corps among these disparate groups of individuals from all over the world."

As impressed as he is with the staff, he’s equally excited by the company’s data resources, which allow employees to "watch how songs and music perform … in real time." Another selling point for Marks was the opportunity to open country music up "to audiences in other markets across the world that haven’t had a lot of exposure" to it, as well as potentially exposing international country acts to U.S. audiences.

"The consumer is driving all of this," he says of Spotify’s growth. "The consumer wants streaming services. The consumer wants on-demand music, and it’s the smart businesses who provide that. That’s what brought me to Spotify. We’re in an on-demand world, and I want to be a part of helping to set that up on behalf of country music." Plus, he adds, "Once I get my arms around how all of this works, I look forward to bringing some new and undiscovered artists to national prominence again."