As country music fans from around the world descend upon Nashville for the 2014 CMA Music Festival, the genre seems to be in a pretty good spot right now. The nightly concerts at LP Field have long been sold out, and the artists and songs coming from Music Row seem to be more plugged into the musical mainstream as ever before. Why is this? Billboard examines the reasons for this growing trend in a new series where we talk with some of the most powerful men and women in Nashville, concerning why they think the visibility of country music seems to be stronger than ever.
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Though the format has always gotten attention from the mainstream -- thanks to artists like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, more country artists are appealing to fans outside of the normal avenues of the genre than ever. Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, and Jason Aldean have taken their unique styles of music from the arenas to the stadiums, with bigger success than ever before.
You can also hear more elements of the genre in other radio formats, such as pop, rock, and rap/hip-hop. Though artists from country have always had a strong sales presence – with Garth Brooks and George Strait being two of the biggest music sellers of the past quarter-century, neither act took their singles to pop radio. Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes did so in the late 90s with songs like "You're Still The One" and "I Need You," respectively, but now it's a little more commonplace for artists from the genre to find success on the Hot 100, such as Swift or Florida Georgia Line. And, it works both ways – with Darius Rucker becoming one of the top recording artists in the business and a member of the Grand Ole Opry – as well as a successful launch of Sheryl Crow as a country artist by Warner Brothers last fall.
Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, feels that the media definitely looks at the genre differently than in the past. "In recent years, country music's breakthrough artists have gotten more access from mainstream media outlets – both due to the success of the trailblazing artists that came before them and also because marketers and outlets no longer perceive country music as a regional format but understand that the country consumer and fan is a highly desirable national and international target who is tech savvy and has disposable income," she told Billboard. "So when the channels open for country music artists to reach a wider audience, the level of talent from our format rises to the challenge."
Gary Overton, Chairman & CEO of Sony Music Nashville, feels that the past few years have really seen country live up to its image as "America's Music," as the fans seem to be running the gamut.
"Mainstream America is in love with country music, and corporate America has noticed," Overton told us. "Today's country music is young and exciting. It's a party. It has a rock edge that kids love - and so do the Baby Boomers, who are tired of 30 to 40-year-old classic rock. Because of this we have increased opportunities for major TV exposure in both programming and national product endorsements in advertising. We have country artists acting in major studio films. We have fragrances, shoe lines, clothing lines."
Some within the industry have expressed concern that the format might be getting a major bit of influence from outside forces – such as rock or rap -- but longtime Nashville exec Fletcher Foster feels those sounds have always been there. But look very closely and you will still find the familiar sounds of the past as part of the mix. "Country music isn't a niche genre anymore. It really is mainstream," said Foster, who recently started his own company, Iconic Entertainment, after successful stints with Capitol Nashville and Red Light Management. "Within the 'country' umbrella exists rock, pop, flavors of hip-hop, and yes, you can still find some traditional elements – but, sometimes it's harder to find these days." Foster feels that the more diverse the format is, the potential is there for the business to thrive as it has. "To have all that within a genre -- without it splintering, can be the strength of the format in many ways. Especially when it comes to brand marketing -- one call can get you everyone from George Strait and Chris Young, to Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean, to Carrie Underwood and Lucy Hale."
Who deserves the credit for this trend? Overton says you can spread it around, but the ability of certain country acts to go from the arenas to venues such as Fenway Park was key in the recent upswing. "I think it started with artists like Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean who were so hot they were selling out stadiums and we're creating a huge all-day party atmosphere with their country-meets-rock shows." Others came to the table with their own brand of pizazz, said Overton. "Then, you have acts like Jake Owen, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line who brought in an even younger and new country convert crowd." The Sony exec also gave credit to a trio of female superstars who have put their own unique stamp on the format. Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift have all "sold out tours and actually sell more albums and tracks than their male counterparts," Overton says.
To some degree, the growth of country music is cyclical. When asked how long the trend could continue, Overton stressed that "This success will continue to be self-perpetuating until another genre of music becomes popular with the general public again and steals back some of the transient fans who have come into our format looking for great new music," but he was optimistic that the fans would latch onto something that would keep them involved in the format.
At the end of the day, cliched though it might be, country music has grown – because it is the music of the people. It simply feels like an old pair of shoes, or an old friend. At least that's how The Band Perry's Kimberly Perry sees it.
"We have always said that country music is the people's music. Much like hip-hop and rock, country music tells the stories about real life and where we all come from."