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Race, COVID and the Return of Live Music Dominated Country in 2021

A look at headlines from Nashville this year.

It seems appropriate that Luke Combs took the Country Music Association (CMA) prize for entertainer of the year in November.

Combs used downtime during the pandemic to create a raft of new material and stepped forward in a moment of extreme vulnerability in February to join Maren Morris in a Country Radio Seminar (CRS) panel about racial issues via Zoom, forsaking old photos that depicted him with a Confederate flag. He packed in a ton of live shows at the end of the year and unveiled several stadium dates for 2022 as he moves toward a bigger future, shared with as large an audience as possible.

Race, COVID-19 and the return to live concerts were among the most significant storylines of the past year, which ends with the genre celebrating its handful of Black artists and hoping to expand its reach into non-stereotypical sectors of the population. Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen won CMA trophies. Mickey Guyton is thrice-nominated on the current Grammy slate. Brittney Spencer debuted on the Grand Ole Opry and plotted her first headlining concert tour. Expanding on multicultural efforts, Latinx vocalist Frank Ray has a top 40 Country Airplay single with his debut release, “Country’d Look Good on You.” And Brothers Osborne’s T.J. Osborne became the first current hitmaker to come out as a gay male country artist.

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As the calendar hurtles toward a new year, the CMA uncorked a research road map on Dec. 7 that should assist the genre’s decision-makers in embracing a changing landscape that’s at odds with stereotypes about country music and its fan base. Conducted by Horowitz Research, a polling firm with a 30-year history of multicultural studies, the survey found that one-half of minority adults in the United States listen to country on a monthly basis. One-quarter of Black and Latinx consumers use country weekly, while 21% of Asian adults tune in weekly.

Those numbers aren’t overwhelming, but the monthly 50% figure is probably larger than most executives would have predicted, based on cultural beliefs. The research provides a baseline for executives and creatives to build on and suggests that by better connecting with more casual listeners of color, it’s possible to enlarge the fan base. That’s an important step that streaming services are already undertaking by developing pockets of new country fans around the globe.

But it’s also essential amid changing American demographics. While the U.S. Census found that population grew 6.3% from 2010-2019, the majority white population declined by 8%. The Caucasian corner of the market is projected to dip below 50% of the population between 2040 and 2045. If country, which originated as a niche format, is to remain a mainstream style, it needs to change with the times.

“It’s increasingly a multicultural majority nation,” Horowitz chief revenue officer/insights and strategy lead Adriana Waterston told CMA members during a Dec. 7 webinar. “When we look at many of our urban markets and … younger generations of Americans, then we see that that’s actually already the truth. If being relevant to younger audiences, being relevant in the biggest markets in the U.S., is important to you, then multicultural audiences — Black, Latinx, Asian and others — need to be firmly in your crosshairs.”

The industry is already taking some of the steps suggested by the study, such as increasing the diversity of its performers and mixing more often with artists from other genres. But the effort will not be a walk in the park. Funded by the CMA board in 2020, the study began in earnest in January 2021. Less than a month later, Morgan Wallen’s much publicized use of an ethnic slur exacerbated racial issues.

Just weeks after that, Combs and Morris talked during CRS of their evolving realizations about the pain — and prevalence — of racism.

Indeed, the study showed that 20% of people of color have experienced harassment or racial profiling at country concerts. An equal portion of non-Hispanic white fans have witnessed those negative behaviors.

The Wallen incident did not taint the study — “We didn’t hear a lot about that conversation in any of this research that we got back,” says CMA senior director of consumer research Karen Stump — but his continued popularity and muddied messaging perpetuated dissenters’ beliefs that country is racist at heart.

The country industry seems to be overcoming 2021’s other major road blocks. Concert tours are rolling again, with many artists cramming an accelerated performance schedule into the last six months of the year. Where jobs were scarce just 18 months ago, many companies, particularly in the live arena, are hiring again. And the CMA is confident enough in progress with vaccines and COVID-19 treatments that it expects to hold the C2C Country Music Festival in the United Kingdom in the spring and to reinstate the CMA Music Festival in June after a pandemic-induced, two-year hiatus. It may be scaled down a bit to make it more manageable, but it will still be a full-scale event.

“We’re planning on being back in the stadium,” says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern.

The multicultural study, meanwhile, shows the industry is likewise looking to solve the biggest issue of 2021. The racial chasm is not exclusive to country, but making the genre more appealing to people of color is essential from both moral and economic perspectives.

“I firmly believe country music should be inclusive,” says Trahern. “The exciting thing [about the study] is it shows that there’s an appetite for the music among different fan groups that people may not traditionally think of right away as country fans.”

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