Country Music Struggles to Keep Up With Streaming Era
In a streaming world, one of the industry's most traditionally dominant genres struggles to keep up.
Next week, Sony Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman and executive vp/COO Ken Robold will travel to Amazon’s, Spotify’s and Apple’s US headquarters to tout their heavy fourth quarter release slate. Also tops on the agenda: how to convert lagging country consumers to streaming.
Though country music accounts for 11.5 percent of all albums and track equivalent albums sold in the United States for the first half of 2017, the genre comprises only 5.6 percent of all streams, according to Nielsen Music. On Nielsen’s top streaming artist tally for 2016, which combined on-demand audio and video streaming, the highest ranking country artist was Luke Bryan at No. 35 with 894 million streams, compared with Drake, who topped the chart with 6.8 billion streams.
More recently, for the chart week ending Aug. 11, The Billboard 200’s No. 1 album, rapper Kendrick Lamar‘s Damn, earned 46.6 million streams. Country singer Brett Eldredge‘s self-titled set, which debuted at No 2, garnered 8.8 million streams, according to Nielsen.
“We have to far outpace the growth of the industry to get our numbers up there,” Robold says. “It’s a daily thing for us. Every marketing plan, there’s some element of how do we educate the consumer on streaming. We’re maniacally focused on it.”
The urgency has increased as streaming becomes the dominant consumption method: In 2016 streaming totaled 51 percent of revenue, according to the RIAA, marking the first time streaming had surpassed combined digital and physical sales.
Country consumers have not kept pace with their pop and hip hop counterparts because they skew older and have traditionally been resistant to switch to new delivery systems, labels say. “The 5.5 percent of the streaming market is up from 4 percent two years ago, but, man, we all anticipated those numbers to be bigger by now,” says Universal Music Group Nashville Chairman/CEO Mike Dungan.
Dungan is confident that country fans will eventually catch up, but fears “it’s going to be tough for country music in the short term. I worry that for one or two years [the genre] could be caught with not enough money coming in from streaming and the loss of money from the physical and [downloading] side.” Among UMG Nashville’s artists leading the streaming charge in addition to Bryan, are Sam Hunt, Keith Urban, and, despite the older demo, George Strait. “His streaming numbers are phenomenal. they knock your head back. I wish I knew why,” Dungan says.
At Sony Nashville, newcomers like Kane Brown and Luke Combs are bringing in young fans who were raised on streaming. Thanks to such artists — even though Brown is only on his third single, he is already one of Sony Nashville’s highest streaming artists — streaming accounts for almost 40 percent of Sony Nashville’s revenue, Robold says.
Labels are looking at myriad ways to bolster the numbers, while admitting there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. With so many country fans already using Amazon Prime, Robold says Amazon Music is a likely growth area. “We’ve been really focused on making country music fans feel at home on Amazon Music, whether it’s having the exclusive rights to Garth Brooks‘ entire catalog, promoting up-and-coming country artists like Levon, or sponsoring the CMA Music Fest,” Steve Boom, vp of Amazon Music, tells Billboard. The results are impressive: for the week ending Aug. 14, there were 27 country tracks in Amazon’s overall top 50 tracks. Conversely, on Apple, Robold says country music usually accounts for a handful of songs in the top 50.
Many, too, also herald Spotify’s Hot Country playlist, curated by Spotify’s head of country music John Marks, as a driver to bring in new listeners. While Marks notes, “there’s plenty of headroom for growth in the country market,” the Hot Country playlist has almost 4 million followers, making it Spotify’s fifth most listened to playlist worldwide. Pandora is also making inroads, and like Apple, Spotify, and Amazon, has offices in Nashville.
Streaming services are wooing country fans offline. Amazon has organized Echo campaigns around Miranda Lambert and Brooks. Spotify ran a national TV commercial featuring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill the night they premiered their new song on the Academy of Country Music Awards in April. In 2016, Apple ran a television commercial featuring Kenny Chesney and currently Brantley Gilbert stars in an Apple spot. For a recent Old Dominion show in Nashville, fans were given laminates with a 3-step process on how to sign up for Spotify.
While labels and streaming services are focused on the younger consumers, they are not abandoning the older fans, whom they desperately need to convert to get up to scale. “More and more people are going to get smart phones and realize that can have all the Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert music they want for $10 a month,” Robold says. “We’re not giving up on them.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2 issue of Billboard.