As Gen Z Matures, Country Music Moves Into a New Age With Huge Potential

Lindsey Grace Whiddon
Tegan Marie and Cam attend the 2017 Billboard Country Power Players reception at The Westin Hotel Rooftop on Aug. 1, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.

Tell 13-year-old Warner Music Nashville signee Tegan Marie that teens in another era might have been laughed at by classmates for listening to country music, and the reaction is one of complete disbelief.

"Really?" she scoffs.

"It's a very family-friendly genre, and a lot of my friends love country music," she adds. "They want to hear good music and listen to it with their parents, and have a good time with it."

Marie is a card-carrying member of Generation Z, a block of adult-bound consumers that marketers are increasingly targeting. The age group is important for country music's future -- today's youth are tomorrow's adults, and though country has its roots in adult audiences, it seems more palatable to younger music fans every year.

"You go to a Kelsea Ballerini show and look at the -audience, there's a younger audience than ever," says Disney Channels Worldwide vp music strategy Phil Guerini, who oversees youth-driven Radio Disney Country and its terrestrial outlet, KDRC Los Angeles. "There's daughters and their moms, and the same can be said -- only maybe slightly older -- at a Florida Georgia Line show. I went to a Sam Hunt show a few weeks ago, and if I didn't know that Sam Hunt was a country music artist, it could have been a Shawn Mendes show. It could have been any number of things."

That development is partially a result of a long-term effort by the country music industry to reach younger consumers. Alabama in the '80s and Garth Brooks in the '90s were among the artists who increased the genre's success among college students. Taylor Swift made the music even more youthful by reaching teenage girls in large numbers during the late 2000s.

Younger consumers are an attractive segment. They have fewer responsibilities and thus tend to spend a larger percentage of their income on entertainment. Plus, if they're introduced to country at a young age, they're more likely to continue consuming the genre as they mature. By 2020 -- just three years from now -- they're projected to make up roughly 40 percent of the American consumer base.

"We're all, I think, setting up for a better and more sustainable future by ensuring that we're bringing younger fans into the space," says Guerini.

Members of Gen Z -- like the Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers before them -- are generally shaped by their relationship to world events, cultural trends and technological developments. Aged 4-21, according to Sweety High CEO Frank Simonetti, they were born after the introduction of the internet. That has made it easier for them to sample large quantities of music on demand, but it has also become simpler for ambitious artists to connect with music decision-makers.

"They have access to everything they want in the palm of their hand, so they are much smarter and culturally literate a lot younger," says Simonetti, whose media company grew a management relationship with Marie through its focus on Gen Z females. "Social media has made it [possible to] broadcast yourself, so the concept that you could put yourself out there is something that's just a complete norm for Gen Z."

Using YouTube videos was the introductory route for Kane Brown, who -- at age 23 -- is only two years older than the most mature Gen Z members. Marie similarly impressed Sweety High execs by posting repeated videos, eventually leading to a management deal and to the WMN recording contract that has her currently recording new music with producer Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay).

Even 13-year-old EmiSunshine, whose raw, mountain vocal style and acoustic-leaning instrumentation might seem ill-suited for marketing via binary code, has boosted her career over the past four years through the internet, racking up 460,000 Facebook followers and amassing a reported 14 million YouTube plays, including almost 3 million for a street performance of "Folsom Prison Blues." Sunshine released an album, Ragged Dreams, on Aug. 25, stocking it with her own songs about robbery, death and even autism.

"Some of it's going to be a little bit sad and depressing, but it makes me happy in a way," she says. "A lot of people listen to a lot more party songs and different things like that, but I feel like you need to appreciate the songs that bring out the heartache and the misery to get to the happiness."

Sunshine's brand of country is something of a throwback. Infidelity, prison, hardship and heartbreak were the stuff of such classic songs as Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" or Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart."

But modern Nashville songwriters are more focused on feeding radio's desire for more uplift and celebration. And that penchant for positivity connects with youth, as MV2 Entertainment artist David Fanning discovered. Fanning, who has co-produced hits for Thompson Square and Parmalee, is rolling out a brand of country that mixes the genre with electronic dance music. Dreamers, the first title in a four-EP series to be released over the next year, is loaded with encouragement, and that's an ideal message for Gen Z, which is looking to build its future.

"You don't know the feeling of heartbreak as much when you're 13 or 14," he says. "You're thinking you want to get out there and do something."

Conditioned from the cradle to expect access to the music they want when they want it, current teens are thus more likely than their older relatives to jump among genres in their listening habits.

"Younger kids are more passionate now about music then I've ever seen," says Fanning. "They just move from one to the other quicker."

They're also more likely to respond to their parents' tastes. Born into a violent post-9/11 world, with the United States constantly at war and mass tragedies frequently in the headlines, they're more likely to look for guidance from their parents, which also makes them more prone to pass music back and forth with their elders.

"What we see with Gen Z is they are very collaborative with the parents," says Simonetti. "They share content, they share travel; for better or for worse, that's a change that we can identify between the millennial generation and Gen Z."

That's great news for country. With less stigma attached to it, with the music more in line with younger listeners' attitudes and with its family-friendly branding, country has a big opportunity with Gen Z.

While most of country's teen acts in earlier eras -- particularly Tanya Tucker, Marie Osmond and LeAnn Rimes -- were required to sing songs with more mature messages to reach older listeners, that's no longer the case. Marie, EmiSunshine and Danielle Bradbery (at 21, she sneaks into the top end of Gen Z) have the ability to speak the language of their peers and to connect right alongside the pop and rock acts that more historically targeted their age group.

"The net effect is a new generation that doesn't have a lot of preconceived notions but gets served a wider variety of things," says Simonetti. "It also has a much greater potential to love a wide variety of things."