There’s a whole world of people out there beyond America, and a surprising number of them are primed for country music.
That’s the initial takeaway from the Country Music Association’s (CMA) first international research study, which found that one-third to one-half of the adult population in some of country’s most obvious global targets already listens regularly to the genre.
Australia (at 34 percent) and Germany (at 35 percent) represent the lowest level of penetration, while Canada (at 51 percent) and Scandinavia (at 49 percent) hit the top end of country listenership in other regions. Some 43 percent of respondents in Ireland self-identified as regular country listeners, while 39 percent are part of the fan base in the United Kingdom.
The study, “International Country Music Consumption Habits,” delves only into those six countries or regions, providing a cursory snapshot of one of the genre’s most difficult marketing quandaries. Country was born in the United States and grew during the course of decades from a regional idiom to a mainstream format. Given its Southern heritage, many Music Row executives have historically been content to think of the States as the extent of the marketplace. In recent years, the mindset has changed. Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and Shania Twain have toured extensively outside America, but some other acts have hesitated — costs are prohibitive, and it has been hard to predict what kind of reception they might receive.
“We really didn’t have any current data on international markets and the consumer for country music — how many there were, what they might look like,” said CMA senior director of consumer research Karen Stump during a presentation on June 11 at the Hilton Hotel in Nashville. This first study should be viewed as “a baseline to help us size the opportunity,” she said.
Some of that opportunity can be traced to the Internet. As the World Wide Web matures, it’s increasingly allowing people to discover and access music cheaply, and at home. That’s particularly important overseas, since radio operates differently in the United States than in most of the world, where music is not divided as specifically into stylistic formats. Country artists compete for air time with acts from every other genre, and they’re often not identified as “country.”
Radio is still the primary listening source in foreign territories. Deeper data provided on three of the countries that were studied — Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom — shows that roughly half the country audience listens to the genre on terrestrial radio, which remains the biggest platform. But digital media are increasingly important. One-third of the fan base listens to country via YouTube, and one-quarter cites streaming services — primarily Spotify — as a place where it accesses country.
While the listening source is fairly consistent in those territories, the makeup of the consumer differs. In the United Kingdom, seniors and millennials are the most avid part of the fan base, with 57 percent of adults 65-plus listening regularly to country and 47 percent of the 18-24 cell using the format. Every other age bracket fell in the 30-37 percent range. Not surprisingly, the artists that are top of mind for them are mostly classic country (Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette) and Swift, a current, genre-leaping act.
The Australian fan base is more consistent across age demos, with 25-30 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds listening regularly, and 35-36 percent of the 35-plus demos also engaging in regular consumption. Urban and fellow Australian Slim Dusty were cited among their favorite acts, along with Cash, Parton, Willie Nelson and current hitmaker Carrie Underwood.
Canada skewed notably younger. More than half of the under-35 respondents listen to country regularly, while the 35-plus audience is at 49 percent. Not surprisingly, three of the six artists that are top of mind for them — Underwood, Swift and Blake Shelton — are at their commercial peaks. Two of the remaining three, Garth Brooks and Canadian native Twain, made their biggest chart impact in the 1990s.
The study is just a start on understanding the rest of the world. The CMA hopes to follow with more intense research in some of the same markets and to begin looking at data in other countries, too. But it’s a step forward for a genre that has often focused almost exclusively on the States and lumped every other country together under a “global” banner. Sorting through the unique makeup of those different audiences won’t happen overnight.
“It’s an expensive exercise doing this kind of research,” said Entertainment Edge CEO Rob Potts, an Australian promoter who has been on the CMA board for more than a dozen years. “And it’s a big world out there.”