At the third annual Billboard Country Summit, held June 4-5 in Nashville, there was a marked departure from the grousing that has dominated music business gatherings of all stripes for the past decade. Positive energy bounced off the brick walls of the Cannery Ballroom. The reason? While country certainly faces the same challenges as the rest of the music business, the genre is outperforming the general market by several measures.
Whether it was Luke Bryan touting the importance of forgoing short-term rewards to invest in breaking new markets, Willie Nelson speaking up for artistic (and personal) freedom or Dwight Yoakam connecting the dots between the legacy of Ralph Stanley and the immediacy of the Internet, the general tone of the summit was overwhelmingly upbeat.
The dialogue alternated between sophisticated multimedia strategies and financial discourse and old-fashioned woodshedding and sweat equity. While always a work in progress, the recent track record shows that country music is a genre that has, in multiple ways, cracked the code.
That includes artist development at a time when conditions make that difficult. Country music is breaking new headliners and hitmakers at a rapid pace, and not at the expense of established artists. On the first of two touring panels, Live Nation Country Music president Brian O'Connell pointed out that country is fielding 11 arena-level contemporary headliners this year, the most anyone can recall, ever. And next year, with artists like Bryan stepping out on his own and Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney - now touring together - returning to their normal touring schedules, country will trot out 18 headliners, according to O'Connell.
That many headliners means, based on O'Connell's math, up to 54 supporting slots, and he says the country talent pool is deep enough to deliver that many meaningful artists. He added, though, that 55 would be a tougher nut to crack.
And for those developing acts that don't snag one of those supporting slots on a major tour - a difficult get, especially for artists on the fringes like panelist Shooter Jennings - touring can be tough sledding. Jennings talked about the financial strains of touring in the absence of label support, telling one talent-seeking small-venue operator in the audience, "$1,000 and a ham sandwich and I'm there."
Country has weathered an industry-wide slump in 2012 by pricing conservatively and packaging synergistically, both longtime staples of the genre. Country "packages better than anybody," said Rob Light - Creative Artists Agency partner/managing director/head of the music department - in one keynote Q&A. "Country has done better than any genre at being really sensitive to ticket prices and packaging and allowing the consumer to go out three, four, five or six times a year because they are getting value and can afford to go," said Light, whose agency unveiled new Nashville offices during the summit. "Other genres of music just push the envelope way too far."
One factor that helps country keep ticket prices in check is a heavy and growing involvement of corporate brands in country tours and events. Brand reps and marketers peppered the audience, and the sponsorship panel featured heavy-hitters that are increasingly seeking to align with country music - blue chippers like Clorox, Chevrolet, ConAgra and Shell Oil (whose Pennzoil brand is in the midst of a campaign with McGraw).
Not only is country attracting the attention of brands, but also investors. A session on capital investment in music featured Y Entertainment Group CEO Rick Stevens, whose company was in the mix of those kicking the tires of Warner Music Group and EMI and ultimately ignited its foray into music by acquiring booking agency Artist Group International. Stevens made it clear, if his presence at the summit did not, that Y was very interested in Nashville. As an investment, country hits on all cylinders: publishing, record sales, touring and merch revenue, branding and sponsorships. "It's got legs," Stevens said of the country music business.
The rare dissatisfaction expressed at the summit was generally directed at radio, specifically around short playlists and slow chart development. It was noted during Bryan's "Artist Development Case Study" that his debut single took 39 weeks to top out at No. 5 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart ("a nightmare," according to Bryan), and the topic popped up with frequency.
"When you have a record taking sometimes 35-50 weeks to get up the charts, you really slow down the process," Vector Management president Ken Levitan said during the "Manager Roundtable" that opened the summit. "It hurts breaking new acts. It hurts a lot of things."
Still, radio is king in country, and reflective of that clout was an entire final afternoon dedicated to radio content (sponsored by Sony Music Nashville), including an in-depth look at the role of radio consultants, and a Q&A with Clear Channel Media and Entertainment chairman/CEO John Hogan, who sat with Billboard senior chart manager Wade Jessen on a day when his company announced a landmark royalty deal with Big Machine Label Group (see story, page 8). Yoakam, who in his session with Billboard Country Update editor Tom Roland, eloquently and frequently displayed his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, also recognized that the Clear Channel/Big Machine announcement was a critical development, saying, "I think that may be good news and maybe a sign of music having [found] a way to maintain itself financially."
As in this town at large, songs and songwriters cast a long shadow at the summit, most captivatingly in the "Journey of a Song" session, also moderated by Roland. That session re-traced the convoluted path of Thompson Square chart-topper "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not?" While Bryan's story was another one of an artist's path to stardom beginning with publishing, hard-touring artists must be prepared to go outside their own notebook for material. "You've got 30,000 registered songwriters in [Nashville's] Davidson County," Thompson Square's Keifer Thompson said. "While you're out touring, they are writing your next hit."
While decades apart on the career arc, Bryan and Nelson both exemplified the kind of work ethic that turns art into commerce. And every single panel addressed in some way the power of the country music fan, even as thousands of them began pouring into town for the Country Music Assn. Music Festival to begin later in the week. Singer Mike Farris has parlayed his fan support into financial backing, raising $14,000 to fund an album through Kickstarter. "It was extremely humbling to think that blue-collar people put down their money just so I could have a chance to be heard," he said on the investment panel. "The fans are the investors."••••