With five Grammy award nominations and two crossover hits that have cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, Hunter Hayes, 23, is among country music’s most identifiable young newcomers. But with digital downloads in steady decline (down 10.5 percent year to date, nearly 50 million units behind the first five months of 2014) and streaming on an upswing, can the “I Want Crazy” singer-songwriter help usher in a much-needed digital era for country?
The May 21 debut of his latest single, “21,” which premiered on Spotify and 125 iHeartMedia radio stations, marks the beginning of country’s biggest digital experiment to date: Hayes plans to roll out an EP’s worth of singles primarily through streaming services (and eventually iTunes), eschewing physical retail partners altogether.
“We’re constantly looking for new ways to get music to the fans in a quicker and more exciting fashion,” says Hayes, a studio rat who notes that he recorded 10 times the amount of songs (14) that ended up on his 2014 sophomore album, Storyline. “Now it’s just a matter of letting the fans speak. Change is not a bad thing — it’s a beautiful thing.”
Adds Warner Music Nashville president/CEO John Esposito, “When we’re launching a Hunter Hayes project, we talk to him about his vision in its entirety and figure out how to make it a reality. He has great instincts about his fans and where the music business is going.”
Hayes is the latest in a series of Warner Music Nashville artists — Jana Kramer, Michael Ray and Ashley Monroe among them — to test a digital campaign with services like Spotify before taking a single to the gatekeepers at country radio. “We’re starting to see an effective strategy in building a digital story first with 18- to 24-year-olds,” says Jeremy Holley, Warner Music Nashville senior vp consumer and interactive marketing, who allows that country radio is “still the No. 1 discovery format, but not the be-all, end-all.”
Taylor Swift‘s full-tilt switch to pop in 2014 also would appear to have something to do with country’s digital catch-up: Last year the genre’s market-share rank in track-equivalent sales slipped from third to fourth place, according to Billboard estimates, swapping places with pop after Swift’s 1989 album became the year’s best-seller. Streaming adoption paints an even gloomier picture: According to a first-quarter 2015 analysis by Nielsen Music, country accounted for only 5 percent of all streaming activity, compared with 25 percent for R&B/hip-hop. Also worth noting: Country fans are the second-largest demographic that buys music in its physical format (behind Latin) with 68.2 percent of CD sales. But as listeners become more digitally savvy (Little Big Town‘s slow-to-radio “Girl Crush” tops the Hot Country Songs chart for a fourth week, with half of its chart points from sales; airplay and streaming split the remainder), could the genre’s top sellers like Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean soon adopt similar strategies?
“Blake has an older audience, and the country audience in general traditionally skews older,” says Holley. “Not all of his fans understand or know about platforms like Spotify — they’re still buying CDs at Walmart. It would probably be more challenging, but it’s not something we’re necessarily afraid of.”
Hayes has been a key player in diversifying Spotify, which, since launching stateside in 2011, has identified country fans and Hayes’ young, digitally native followers as stakeholders. He was the first artist to perform at Spotify’s New York headquarters and has since amassed more than 4.6 million followers, who have made 4 million-plus playlists featuring his songs on the service. In addition to Hayes, Spotify has featured Universal Music Group Nashville’s Sam Hunt and Sony Nashville’s Cam in its Spotlight emerging-artists program, which helped Hunt’s “Take Your Time” cross over to top 40 radio.
“There’s a lot of discovery of new country on our platform,” says Steve Savoca, Spotify’s head of content. “An artist like Hunter has an active core that serves as a great jumping-off point for us to accelerate our marketing communications with more users.”
Hayes, for his part, is open to wherever the new trends take his music. “You could call this an EP, but I’m not even sure what this becomes yet,” he says. “We’re going to let the fans decide.”
Becoming more digitally ubiquitous already seems to be paying off overseas. Hayes is currently in the midst of his third European tour in the past year, selling out mid-size venues like Manchester Academy even without the aid of a major international hit. “This past trip we did, they knew every word to each album cut,” says Hayes. “The fans are finding the music on their own.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.