How Luke Combs Found Country Stardom By Treating His Fans Like a Focus Group

Jim Wright
Luke Combs

'This One's for You Too,' the deluxe edition of his debut album, is out now

Since Luke Combs hit the top spot of the Country Airplay chart with breakout tune "Hurricane" in May of last year, the 28-year-old singer has made it clear he's no one-hit wonder. The North Carolina native has also managed to reach the summit with follow-up singles “When It Rains It Pours” and “One Number Away.”

While his chart success is certainly impressive, in Combs’ eyes, the songs were destined to be hits. After all, his fans had already told him so. The country star has long embraced the internet and social media as a way of testing new music and hearing what loyal fans have to say -- a focus-group approach he says shaped the creation of his debut album, This One’s for You, as well as the album’s just-released deluxe version, This One’s for You Too.

“That’s who I really care about when I’m writing songs,” Combs says. “They’re the only reason you do your job anyway, so that’s who should pick the songs.”

He first developed this approach while writing songs in his college dorm room in Boone, N.C., a 16,000-person town where he’d play shows three or four nights a week. As soon as Combs would finish a song he was proud of, he’d share it on his YouTube channel. “When I write a song," he explains, "I want people to hear it now."

When he had trouble reaching the $3,000 he'd need record some of the songs he’d been working on, Combs took to Facebook to see if anyone wanted to help him out.

“I had 1,500 bucks I’d saved from working,” Combs recalls. “I was probably begging 50 bucks a month from my parents for groceries and stuff. [I was] paying my rent, failing out of school, and saving every dollar I had from shows, but I didn’t have any music out. And the shows were just people eating some chicken wings and a tip jar.”

Thanks to donations from family, friends, strangers, and even his high school football coach -- “He said, ‘Just don’t tell anybody,’ [but] he’s probably okay with it now,” Combs jokes -- he was able to release his first EP, The Way She Rides, on iTunes in February 2014.

When he hit about 14,000 song downloads in his first month, Combs knew he was onto something. Around the same time, he joined the then-new video app Vine, where he quickly garnered 70,000 followers – a great marketing tool for his EP. 

But it took a stumble for Combs to realize the true power of his grassroots release strategy. After writing a handful of new songs he was excited about, Combs decided in July of 2014 to surprise fans with a new EP instead of sharing them on YouTube first -- and he ended up selling about half the copies his first release did.

“I was like, ‘Why am I going backwards?’” Combs recalls. “I had more money and had done more shows, so it didn’t really make sense. Then I went to my shows and played the new stuff, and people were like, ‘Play ‘[Let It] Moonshine’ or something we know’ -- and it clicked.”

He continues: “When I put the EP out, it blew up because people already knew the songs. As crazy as it sounds, my generation is very lazy. [Laughs] When a new album comes out, it’s like, ‘Man I gotta listen to this whole thing and figure out what songs are good? I already want to know what songs are good, tell me what songs are good.’”

So Combs went back to his write-and-share process with YouTube and Vine. After he moved to Nashville in September of 2014, Combs quickly realized that the next step in his career was getting the songs professionally produced and mixed. The only problem? It cost about $200 per song, so he had to polish songs one at a time -- and back then, the only song that was ready for mastering was a little ditty called “Hurricane.”

Combs’ loyal following, who were already familiar with the song, purchased 15,000 copies of the song in its first week back in June 2015 -- a response that managed to vault the then-unsigned Combs into the top 50 of the Hot Country Songs chart.

Using money he earned from “Hurricane,” Combs was able to master the remaining five songs in his arsenal and released the This One’s for You EP in November of that year. Columbia Nashville eventually caught wind of Combs’ rampant fan base, and by October 2016, he had a record deal.

Even with a major label in the picture, Combs never abandoned his unique way of sharing music. It's why he kept the This One's for You title for his debut full-length.

“What I’m trying to do is have this rapport with my fans," he says. "I feel like I needed to build this trust where it’s like, ‘I just want you to know that what I’m doing is what I’m doing. It’s going to be country music, and it’s going to be quality music.”

As he worked on his This One’s for You LP, Combs would test out new songs through one-off shows, radio-station performances, and posts on his Facebook page and YouTube channel. Though only 12 songs made the final cut, Combs had several other tracks that were beloved by his fans – including one called “Beautiful Crazy.”

“I put up ‘Beautiful Crazy’ on Facebook the day we wrote it two years ago,” Combs says. “A couple days later someone was like, ‘Hey man, that video got like 8 million views on it.’ Someone had gotten a hold of it and shared it, and it just took off.”

 

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Similar things happened with songs like “Houston We’ve Got a Problem” and “She’s Got the Best of Me,” which became hits for him on YouTube. So for the one-year anniversary of This One’s for You, Combs put out This One’s for You Too, a deluxe edition featuring five new songs. Despite the fact that 70 percent of the album was old material, This One’s for You Too shot This One's for You back to the top of the Top Country Albums chart following its release -- definitive proof that Combs’ fan-driven release strategy is effective.

As the This One’s for You era comes to an end, Combs recognizes that he's at a place in his career where he can release new material without fearing how it will do. But no matter where things go from here, Combs insists that fans’ input will always play a role.

“It’s really cool to see it be that successful, because it really just started out as a guy that liked to sing, but wanted to be able to sing more and support himself by singing,” Combs says. “It’s turned into this whole brand now. I’m not some dude that just puts songs out anymore.”