Kane Brown and His Team Aim for a Radio Breakthrough In 2017

Josh Brasted/FilmMagic
Kane Brown performs at the 12th Annual Stars for Second Harvest Benefit at Ryman Auditorium on June 7, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

Brown scored a No. 1 Album in 2016 without a big radio hit.

Can a new country artist break big without the widespread support of radio? Historically, the answer to that question has been no, but 23-year-old Zone 4/Sony Music Nashville artist Kane Brown may prove to be an exception.

Brown came to prominence in ways still considered nontraditional in the country format: TV and social media. He appeared on Fox’s The X Factor in 2013 (and also auditioned unsuccessfully for American Idol). From there, he began building his social media presence by posting low key, yet wildly popular videos on his Facebook page featuring himself performing country song covers and some originals. His Facebook fan base now numbers more than 2 million followers.

“He was posting raw, acoustic covers on Facebook from his apartment,” says Sony Music Nashville executive vp promotion and artist development Steve Hodges. “No studio, no band, no stage, no lights, no postproduction, nothing. Just a guy with a unique voice, a love for the music and a story to tell. Although he has amassed a huge social platform, it all started very real, intimate, believable and small.”

In the past, country radio has rarely opened the door wide for TV talent show contestants (Carrie Underwood being among a handful of notable exceptions). And until Brown, country really hadn’t been confronted with a serious contender who — like Justin Bieber in the pop world — gained his initial fan following on social media rather than hustling through years of club gigs before landing a label deal. In fact, Brown had never played live until November 2015, shortly before he got signed to Sony.

Since then, he has made up for lost time on the touring front with more than 200 dates in 2016, including opening Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots Tour, as well as headlining more than 60 of his own shows. Many of his club gigs were sellouts, according to Braeden Rountree, Brown’s agent at William Morris Endeavor. While most of those were in 1,500- to 2,000-capacity rooms, his bigger sellouts have included 4,000 tickets at Coyote Joe’s in Charlotte, N.C., and he landed a sponsorship from Monster Energy Drink. “All of this,” says Rountree, “has been without a major hit at terrestrial country radio.”

Indeed, radio has yet to warm up to Brown. First single “Used to Love You Sober,” picked up by Sony after it had already taken off on social media, peaked at No. 35 on the Country Airplay chart in May 2016. Follow-up “Thunder In The Rain” stalled at No. 43 in October, but re-enters Country Airplay in the new year at No. 57.

“Kane created his massive and loyal fan base through very nontraditional means for the country format, and that’s a difficult thing sometimes for people to understand,” says Brown’s manager, EFG’s Martha Earls. “He got his music directly to his fans and we have, at times, found ourselves having to explain to people his authenticity. What’s ironic about that is it doesn’t get any more authentic than a direct artist-to-fan connection.”

Earls, who has worked with Brown since the summer of 2015, thinks fans were drawn to the striking, biracial, heavily tattooed and quietly charismatic artist because “they see themselves in him. They appreciate his honesty and love his traditional country voice matched with his modern image.”

His self-titled RCA Nashville debut album (for which Brown co-wrote seven of the 11 tracks) arrived at No. 1 on Top Country Albums and No. 10 on the Billboard 200 in the week following its early December 2016 release, with sales of 45,000 copies (and 51,000 equivalent album units on the all-genre consumption chart), according to Nielsen Music. Those sales were bolstered by major TV bookings on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Today, spots on multiple “artist to watch” lists at print and digital media outlets and his live shows.

“When he began touring, the fan connection became massively stronger,” says Earls. “The casual fan became a rabid fan,” and his solo dates “legitimized him as a touring act.”

Brown recently watched a recording of his first live show, in Darlington, S.C., that was packed with cover songs. “If I was a fan in the audience [that night], I would have been like ‘What the heck did I just buy this ticket for?’ ” he jokes. Since then, Brown has observed and learned from Florida Georgia Line and the other acts on the FGL tour, and eagerly absorbed advice from the duo, its band and crew.

“It’s very impressive to see how far he has come in such a short amount of time,” says WME’s Rountree, who calls Brown “a humble and genuine guy.” His success on the touring front, adds Rountree, “speaks to the kind of work ethic and attention to detail he has.”

Airplay chart numbers notwithstanding, there have been pockets of early support for Brown at FM radio. Hodges cites Brown’s hometown station, WUSY Chattanooga, Tenn., among them, along with KEEY Minneapolis, KJKE Oklahoma City, KMPS Seattle, WIL St. Louis and WKLI Albany, N.Y., which he says all “have over 300 spins on ‘Thunder in the Rain.’ ”

Brown admits that the slow going at radio has been “kind of frustrating,” but adds, “My fans are ... what got me here, so that’s what we’re living off of right now. I want them to play my songs on the radio because I’m always thinking of how much we could blow this thing up, hopefully, but you got to respect that we did come off social media, so [radio programmers] don’t know who I am.”

He also didn’t make the rounds on the kind of traditional radio tour most new country artists spend months doing, although Brown has tried to spend as much time with radio personnel as possible while on tour and work in acoustic shows for radio stations where feasible, including what he calls “a crapload of guitar pulls.”

“In country radio, everybody has such a connection and a bond,” he says, “so you’ve got to meet them.”

The label staff and Earls are taking their time choosing a third single, knowing it will be a critical swing. They’re planning to go for adds in early February. “We intentionally wanted our partners at radio, satellite, digital service providers and the fans to live with the album and ingest the music, before choosing a single,” says Hodges.

Adds Earls: “Fortunately, Kane has made a great and deep album, so we’re not struggling to find good songs. We’re struggling to narrow it down to one.”

Once chosen, Hodges says that third single will come complete with “a multifaceted campaign to support it at radio. We’ll continue to shake hands and make time for as many people that have time for us. There’s nothing like getting the chance to sit down with Kane and hear his story straight from the source. He’s a very compelling and engaging young man.”

“All of the analytics,” says Hodges, “point to success for this artist.”

Brown is keenly aware that “everybody’s got high expectations for me,” and says, “I just don’t want to let anybody down.” At the same time, he adds, “The competitive side of me wants ... to exceed their expectations.”

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