Russell Dickerson

Russell Dickerson, one of the picks for Spotify’s RISE emerging artist program, performs at Topgolf Nashville. 

Kate Cauthen for Spotify

Nashville's music scene is as powerful as it is variegated. While country music may be the city's most renowned and lucrative export, pop and rock staples like KeshaKings of Leon and The Black Keys also call Music Row home, and the city has only scratched the surface on its local, burgeoning hip-hop and R&B talent, with artists like R.LUM.R and producer Jim Jonsin (Beyoncé, Usher, Kid Cudi). The enduring success of local conferences like Music Biz and the Country Radio Seminar, and of music industry programs at local educational institutions such as Belmont University, reinforces the fact that Nashville is as serious about business as it is about art.

Such a diverse landscape creates a complex but exciting opportunity for a streaming service like Spotify. On one hand, country music has been stubborn to embrace streaming: not only does the genre remain the third-biggest radio format in the U.S. with 68 million weekly listeners nationwide, but it also accounted for just 5.6 percent of all streams in the first half of 2017, according to Nielsen Music. On the other hand, country may elevate Nashville but no longer defines it, as younger, more entrepreneurial artists of different creative backgrounds are flocking in larger droves to the city.

Over the last few years, Spotify has been investing more and more resources into both "sides" of Nashville: not only educating country-leaning major labels on the value of streaming, but also treating the city as a key focal point for improving relationships with indie and up-and-coming acts.

The streaming service addressed both camps at its Open House in Nashville on Dec. 5 and 6, the first event ever held at the brand-new venue Analog at the Hutton Hotel. Several Spotify execs -- including but not limited to Troy Carter (global head of creator services), Tiffany Kumar (global head of songwriter relations), Dave Rocco (global head of artist marketing) and Brittany Schaffer (newly-minted head of artist & label services for Spotify Nashville) -- took the stage to walk the audience through the service's various tools and features for artists, including but not limited to the Artist Insights dashboard, vertical video integrations in playlists, pre-sale concert ticket targeting and original content programs such as the live Spotify Sessions recordings.

Spotify has been actively hiring in Nashville since 2013, recruiting local industry veterans Copeland Isaacson (former digital marketing director at both UMG Nashville and Sony Nashville) and John Marks (former director of country programming at SiriusXM) to head artist & songwriter relations and global country editorial, respectively. One of the four inaugural picks for Spotify’s RISE emerging artist program, Russell Dickerson, is a Nashville native.

But Spotify is far from the only streaming service in town. Pandora has also had a significant presence in Nashville since 2013, and Amazon Music is slowly growing its local headcount, having recently recruited Kelly Rich (former svp of sales, marketing & interactive at Big Machine Label Group) to head up its local label relations arm.

What's more, country music under-performs on Spotify compared to rival services. While country artists would be lucky to land even one single on the top hits playlists for Apple and Spotify, country regularly accounts for over 20 percent of the top 50 most-streamed songs on Amazon Music, and is Pandora’s second-largest genre audience with 60 million listeners and counting (second only to hip-hop). In fact, major labels are already focusing on Amazon Music as a home base for country music fans, due to Amazon's unique positioning as a bridge between physical and digital music products in a single online marketplace.

One key lever Spotify is pulling to gain influence over the competition is its wider ambition to globalize local trends, which has already proven successful with Latin and K-pop music. As for country music in particular, several industry sources cite Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK and even Indonesia as key international markets that need more direct cultivation.

"The reality is that country music’s current international fanbase cannot be the end, and as a company we’re really interested in helping to expand that footprint," Rob Harvey, global head of artist and label services at Spotify, tells Billboard. "We are a global company with global reach bar none, which enables us to be really smart about how we engage with the artists coming out of Nashville and how we connect them to audiences around the world."

A second strategy that has been slightly more difficult for Spotify to navigate is strengthening relations with local songwriters and publishers. The service first hired consultants in Nashville around 2015 to help convince rights holders that streaming was an ally rather than an enemy, but outreach efforts got off to a rocky start, in part because major-label country mainstays initially saw Spotify as a less lucrative replacement for radio.

Since then, the narrative has changed dramatically, such that the majors think country listeners aren't embracing streaming quickly enough. Major-label execs told Billboard that they anticipated country's H1 2017 streaming numbers to be much bigger, and as a result have become “maniacally focused” on educating country music consumers about the new format.

There is also a need for education on the business side: a big misconception raised during Spotify’s Nashville Open House was that succeeding as a country artist on streaming is a matter of treating playlists like radio stations -- i.e. hounding the top playlist editors with singles, in the same way record companies push songs to radio programmers. Instead, Spotify argues, it's about understanding the service as a complex, global ecosystem of 4,500 owned-and-operated playlists, offering multiple entry points for music discovery and audience development that can coexist with traditional channels like TV and radio, while allowing nontraditional artists to build legitimate careers from the ground up.

“What works for a country artist with a strong radio relationship and a fan base developed over several years shouldn’t be the same as how you approach a brand-new hip-hop release coming out of Atlanta,” says Harvey. “It’s really all about understanding the options and tools available, both traditional and modern, and applying them in a strategic way.”

The local indie community is also attuned both to Spotify's value as a versatile discovery tool and to the dangers of putting all eggs in one basket when it comes to fan engagement. “No distribution channel -- be it Spotify, terrestrial radio, MTV, iTunes or your local record store -- should be singlehandedly responsible for fostering a relationship between the artist and the fan,” Jeremy Burchard, member of country duo Moonlight Social, senior music writer for Wide Open Country and associate editor at Texas Music, tells Billboard. “Ultimately, it’s the fan’s decision whether or not to connect with the artist, and it’s the artist’s responsibility to make that relationship available and open."

At the Open House, Spotify also discussed how it was doing its part in educating listeners about the value of the songwriting community. In June 2017, Spotify launched its Secret Genius initiative commemorating songwriters and producers, which to date has included an awards show, a podcast series and a network of recording studios catering to DIY artists (one of which is based in Nashville). Not coincidentally, the initiative was launched a mere 13 days after the streaming service settled two class action songwriter lawsuits and established a $43.5 million fund to compensate rights holders for past copyright infringement.

With Secret Genius, Spotify seems to be attempting to veer the conversation away from royalty payouts towards talent discovery and development. “Secret Genius is mostly recognition-based, and I don’t think what Spotify is doing with it right now should be the endgame,” Josh Collum, co-founder of film/TV music company Sorted Noise and non-country trade group The Other Nashville Society, tells Billboard. "That being said, recognition is a great place to start."

Overall, the streaming service's outreach strategy seem to be working so far. “This is the first time I’ve seen labels here adopt and integrate tech into their systems so quickly,” Cassie Petry, CEO of Nashville-based marketing agency Crowd Surf, tells Billboard. “I’ve seen how Nashville had to catch up to MySpace, Facebook, Instagram, even iTunes and ringtones, and it seems that Spotify is much more on par with the labels’ goals.”

As for further opportunities to expand in Nashville, some sources suggest Spotify target the mainstream conference and festival circuit, building a stronger presence at Music Biz, CRS and CMA Fest. Others insist that the city's younger talent, which has always been quicker to experiment with and adopt new technologies, is paving the way for the service's future.

“I started signing sync deals around five years ago with artists who were 21-year-old students at Belmont University making $1,000 a month from streaming -- that’s already a part-time wage from pure passion,” says Collum. “That really opened my eyes to this brand-new ecosystem that today is only 20 percent of what it’s going to be in a decade.”