Even in the mainstream pop world, it’s still the exception rather than the rule when an act like the Chainsmokers opts to release a whole series of singles before bothering to collect them on an album. In the country format? It’s that much rarer. But if any Nashville act has the millennial base to emphasize digital immediacy and literally put singles before albums, it’s Sam Hunt, who confirms to Billboard that, for now, with no definite album release date in sight, he’s taking the a la carte approach.
“I try to make music that’s relevant to my life and relatable to the culture I live in,” Hunt tells Billboard in an email. “Putting out music as it’s made, versus holding it until an album’s finished, allows me to be more timely and maintain balance.”
Hunt has the hottest country song of the year, and possibly of his career, in “Body Like a Back Road,” now in its ninth week at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, a peak it took the tune only two weeks to reach after its Feb. 6 release. (The song is also currently at No. 6 on the Hot 100, a new peak.) That song was preceded on New Year’s Eve by a more personal track, “Drinkin’ Too Much,” that was written as a musical apology to his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, with no intention of picking up radio airplay. As it turns out, there’ll be more where these came from, since Hunt is a long way away from finishing his sophomore album, but intends to keep releasing material piecemeal into the marketplace.
Hunt’s manager, Brad Belanger at Red Light, provided more specifics. “We want to release singles every few months until the album is ready,” says Belanger, talking about the follow-up to Hunt’s 2014 Grammy-nominated Montevallo, one of the most significant album debuts in recent country history. “There’s a good chance we’ll have three or four songs out by the time we get the record finished,” Belanger adds. “This allows us to maintain the momentum and creative pace of Sam’s career while alleviating any outside pressure to deliver the album.”
In the streaming realm, where Hunt has broken records for a country artist, this news is welcome. “I think releasing relevant music as he records it is one of the smartest things that Sam could ever do,” says John Marks, Spotify’s head of global programming for country music. “I’m not going to say that the album is dead, but I will say this is a formula that helps the artist keep their music current, and keeps the fan base from being satiated all at once and then waiting forever for the next album.
“I think the approach of compiling the album as you go and providing a musical surprise every few months is fantastic,” Marks continues. “It’s not a brand new model — there are a lot of pop and hip-hop artists who have been following that formula for some time; that’s part of the day-to-day at Spotify — but I think it’s time for country music to contemplate the use of that. Some developing country artists already do, but Sam is the one to lead the charge as a major artist.”
There’s no exact timetable in place for the coming singles, but “you’re going to feel (the singles) one after another,” says Universal Music Group Nashville president Cindy Mabe, who adds that “we’re at a point right now where anything goes” when it comes to the timing of singles versus albums. “It’s no longer the case that one size fits all.”
The traditional country model of timing an album release to coincide with a debut single hitting No. 1 on Country Radio after a slow five- or six-month climb is no longer a given. “Some people still play it that way, and some don’t,” says Mabe. “I mean, I’m launching a Chris Stapleton record where the single goes out the same week the album goes out. Everything’s different now. Not just for Sam Hunt but across the spectrum, it’s about: How do I keep the fans fed?”
That kind of one-at-a-time care and feeding of the base isn’t unprecedented among Universal Nashville acts, says Mabe, who points out that Keith Urban was a month into a third single before his Ripcord album hit the marketplace. “Keith was the same way,” she says, “working toward something, but saying, ‘I’ve got touring ahead, and I want to come back out and start to feed the base before that, but I’m not ready to tell you that I’m finished with my album.’ Both Keith and Sam are perfectionists, and you cannot pry it out of their hands until they feel like the art is really ready to be heard, and even then it’s probably somewhat prying. Until then, we just keep feeding the fans a little at a time so that they’re on the ride with us.”
In Hunt’s case, it’s not difficult to infer that part of the reason he’s prioritizing singles right now is because, well, he’s about to give up being single. In late February, he told a Country Radio Seminar audience that he’d be getting married “in a couple months.” And he has festival dates in May and a four-month amphitheater headlining tour that begins June 1, which doesn’t leave much time for both extensive honeymooning and intensive woodshedding. A delay in the full-length might not have been the preferred plan for UMG Nashville, whose chairman, Mike Dungan, told Billboard at the beginning of the year that they’d already had to change their 2016 business plan when the two hottest newcomers in the business, Hunt and Stapleton, didn’t deliver sophomore albums last year as expected.
On the other hand, the label may not be holding a delayed album against Hunt when he’s delivering record-breaking singles and practically serving as a one-man advertisement for streaming to an older-skewing genre base that’s been slower than pop fans to make the wholesale transition. “Body Like a Back Road” broke a record for country streaming, hitting the 9 million streams a week mark early in its life.
Country radio has had to pick up its arguably sluggish pace perhaps as a result of all that digital activity: “Back Road” is on track to reach No. 1 on Country Airplay in about its 12th week, Mabe predicts, moving at an almost unprecedented pace for the format. (By comparison, other recent singles by the biggest stars of the format, like Luke Bryan‘s “Fast” and Little Big Town‘s “Better Man,” took 18 weeks, the usual minimum, and Jon Pardi‘s “Dirt on My Boots” had a not atypical 26-week trek to the top.) Meanwhile, “Back Road” is just starting to be worked to pop radio, with the hope being it’ll make good on his radio crossover potential in a way that his previous biggest smash, “Take Your Time,” seemed poised to before stalling at Top 40.
As for the ultimate album release: “We do have timetables, but I don’t want to announce that yet; if he tells me, ‘I’m not ready for that date,’ then we’ll move it back,” says Mabe. “I know he’s more than midway through, and everything is starting to take shape. But I need to also give him the time and energy to be able to promote this… Do you know how hard it is to make that second record after you’ve come off of so much heat? The thing about Sam that you’ll never have to worry about is that he has such quality control of his own that he doesn’t need my meddling. I need to make sure that he’s got the time to be rejuvenated and ready to set this thing up.”
And if country is entering the era where singles are seen more as digital blockbusters in and of themselves, not a cog in an album campaign, “You’ve got to pick a lane that you’re going to go down that you’re trying to feed the most” at any given time, Mabe says. “But as long as you’re letting the fans know that you’re engaged, as I’m looking at it as a marketing person across the board, I don’t think that there’s a wrong way to do it these days.”
Still, an approach this stream-friendly can still seem radical in country, a genre never noted for an abundance of first adopters, with fans that have been slower to jump on the digital bandwagon than others.
“Country’s a bit of an older and more conservative audience and it’s been slower to catch up, whether from vinyl to compact discs or CDs to streaming. But it always does catch up, and we’re seeing it in our numbers at Spotify,” says Marks. “I think Sam will help lead the charge in some of that adoption, along with Maren Morris and others who are claiming streaming not as their sole source but saying, ‘Hey, this is a factor in the development of our careers, and we’re going to pay heed to that audience as well as terrestrial radio.'”
Marks predicts that Universal’s push to get “Back Road” on pop radio will pay dividends, since Hunt has already proven his crossover potential at genre-agnostic Spotify.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, that’s too country.’ Have you heard the song? ‘Body Like a Back Road’ is a country song, but it’s a pop song as well,” he says. “Once you get beyond the title, which is what some people will have to do, and get into the meat of the song, it will be a huge crossover.”
Now with 59.5 million plays in two and a half months on Spotify, it’s halfway to the 119 million notched on the service by his previous signature hit, “Take Your Time.” Adds Marks: “I don’t gamble, but I’d take a bet that it will beat his record as his top streaming song.”