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Until recently, country music was a tough sell to international executives at Warner Music Group's annual worldwide retreat.
"As soon as they heard the word 'country,' we couldn't get traction," recalls Warner Music Nashville's chairman John Esposito. "They heard twang even when there wasn't any twang."
But twang is no longer a turnoff, as streaming services amass users across the globe and push the radio-centric genre into new markets. Labels including including WMN, Big Machine Label Group, and BMG have recently dedicated staffers to working their country rosters internationally, and country acts such as Kacey Musgraves, Kip Moore, Dan + Shay, Lady Antebellum, Maren Morris, Darius Rucker, Florida Georgia Line and Dustin Lynch are making serious inroads overseas, generating concert and streaming revenue as their time spent touring and cultivating fans abroad begins to pay off.
Nighttime soap opera Nashville, meantime, has been spreading the country gospel in nearly 100 countries for six seasons. England's BBC2 added an hour-long weekly country show last year, and the amount of American country music on Keep It Country, a 24-hour European TV and internet channel, has nearly doubled over the past year, with the rest of its country tunes coming from Ireland, Australia and other markets. A Country Music Association study presented in 2017 showed more than 5 million adults are regularly listening to country music in the U.K., one-third of which started turning in in the past five years or less, with millennials making up the largest segment.
The opportunities are plentiful enough that "we're integrating international market visits in all our set-up plans and as recently as five years ago, that would have never been the conversation we have with certain artists," says Ben Kline, WMN's SVP of Global Revenue and Touring.
Some country acts are seeing bigger audiences abroad than at home: WMN's The Last Bandoleros drew a larger crowd in certain European cities than stateside after opening for Sting across the continent. That's why the band's debut album, San Antonio, will hit Germany on May 4, before it lands in the U.S.
"We've been able to regularly release new music world wide via digital download and streaming," says the band's manager, Martin Kierszenbaum. "This has helped the band create a close and real-time relationship with their international fans which they further cultivate by repeated visits to play live."
Big Machine Label Group's The Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston says the trio routinely fills 3,000-seats abroad, whereas in the U.S., it plays to between 400 and 1000 fans. "We're more country than a lot of country bands, but our [European] fans aren't necessarily country fans, they're music fans," Johnston says. In the U.S., "we face so many labels. Radio won't play you because you're too this or too that. Over there, they just don't care."
Country artists traveling internationally is, of course, not new, and many of the same rules apply: "I tell them to start their overseas career at the same time as the US career," says Nashville-based Trisha Walker-Cunningham. who estimates she has taken more than 350 country artists abroad since the '80s, and is co-founder of Country Night, a festival in Gstaad, Switzerland, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in September. "It's an investment in their future and they must keep going back, but it's expensive when an artist has to give up lucrative shows in the US, as well as allowing two days or more just for travel and jet lag."
Many contemporary acts got their first European exposure at C2C (Country to Country), a festival started in 2013 by AEG. The event began at London's The O2 arena as a 2-day festival, selling 17,000 tickets, and has expanded to arenas in Dublin and Glasgow. Artists play the three cities in three days, garnering ticket sales of more than 70,000. This year's March 9-11 festival features headliners Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Kacey Musgraves and Little Big Town. Last year, C2C launched Country Music Week in October, a smaller version with country acts taking over many London clubs.
C2C's initial success was far from guaranteed: "It was a risk in all the senses, we didn't know what the appetite for country would be in the UK," says Milly Olykan, the London-based VP of Live Music & Major Arena Events for AEG Presents. "Together with SJM Concerts, we started from scratch to build an audience and learn who that audience was and how to reach them. We had no previous data to work from….It's definitely grown faster than any of us anticipated it would at the time."
After playing C2C a few years ago as an opening act, UMG Nashville's Moore has returned to Europe twice, each time gathering more fans and selling more albums. "On average now, it's 2,000-3,000 seats and they're selling out faster and faster," he says.
While "there's beauty in radio still," Moore says streaming has removed the gatekeepers. "It's given people the chance to hear what they want to hear. It gives you a gauge where you have a fan base," he says, adding that he's seeing a spike in his streaming in countries like South Africa and Poland, where UMG has not formally released his music.
Audiences are gravitating toward younger country artists like Thomas Rhett and Midland, who leave America-centric themes behind. "Blake and Luke, talking about their pick up trucks and tail gating, we noticed they don't do as well," Keep It Country's Eddie King says. "People find it hard to relate to some of the very American country."
Despite the success, Universal Music Group Nashville chairman Mike Dungan says the genre is still "not growing fast enough" internationally, calling Musgraves one of the few artists "moving units" in Europe. Dungan says artists need to be willing to spend more time overseas, a difficult proposition when their US schedules are already jammed and building an audience abroad often means forfeiting major revenues stateside.
With country accounting for a small share of streaming revenues, UMG invested three years ago in the website Sounds Like Nashville in hopes of creating "a really successful digital platform where people could discover [country] music," Dungan says, but it's been "harder to pull off" than expected.
"I'm at the forefront of pushing an effort to make it happen," says Dungan, "and the truth is, looking at the numbers, while streaming has democratized it, it's still not happening the way it should be."
One key may be to broaden the scope. "In the last 10 years, England and Australia have almost become spoiled with the cycle of American acts coming through, but when you look at consumption or sales, it's still a small part of the revenue pie," says John Zarling, Sony Music Nashville exec VP of Marketing & New Business "It behooves us to broaden the list of territories we're trying to tackle."
Dungan, like many others, believes that thinking globally can increase a country artist's longevity, even if the growth is incremental. "What I say to every artist is if your game is to max your big window right now and make as much money as you can and retire, keep doing what you're doing [in the States]," Dungan says. "But if you want to play for a long time, you have to increase your footprint, no matter how weird it feels."
This article originally appeared in the March 3 issue of Billboard.
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