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At the recent CMA Nashville Music & Brand Forum at C2C fest, Drake White, CMA ruler Sarah Trahern, Charlie Worsham and CMA's Damon Whiteside wonder if there will be BBQ or butter sandwiches.
Just how big is country music in the U.K.? We’re glad you asked. C2C Festival took place for the fifth year in London at The O2 this weekend, and served as a hotbed of activity for the burgeoning British country music scene.
According to the Country Music Association (CMA), 39% of the U.K. music listening audience tunes in to country, with 30% of those starting to listen in the last five years. Millennials take the lion’s share of new listeners at 64%, with the overall demographic 49% female and 52% male. The data was collected from an online consumer survey.
Universal, Sony and Warner have all invested in country with homegrown acts The Shires (Decca), Ward Thomas (Sony Music CG) and Catherine McGrath (Warner Bros U.K.). Ward Thomas hit #1 with their Sony debut last year, while The Shires have sold over 200k across two albums and have just become the first ever U.K. country act to win a CMA award (pictured). McGrath has over 82k monthly listeners on Spotify with just one EP and single to her name.
C2C was launched five years ago by Festivals and Events Director at The O2, Milly Olykan. It sold 17k tickets for the first edition, and has grown to shift over 40k in London this year. The brand tallies 60k over the weekend in total, with sister events in Dublin and Glasgow.
During CMA's Brand Forum on Friday, Spotify Nashville expert John Marks said that in the U.K., 25% of Spotify plays are dedicated to the country genre in some way, whether through artist plays or playlist exposure. Its Very Nearly Nashville U.K. playlist has gone from zero to 40k followers within a year. C2C is directly influencing consumption on Spotify too. Brad Paisley’s streams were up 30% in the days before his Friday night headline show. “The country audience is loyal, they want to do their homework, know the artists and their music,” Marks added. The appetite has also been driven by TV Show Nashville, which airs on Sky Living in Blighty.
Adult contemporary station BBC Radio 2, the most popular station in the U.K. with 15.3m listeners, has been backing the cause with presenter Bob Harris—described as the ‘John Peel of country music’—broadcasting live from C2C over the weekend, as well as covering the CMA Awards and hosting his own weekly one-hour show dedicated to country music. Director of BBC Radio Bob Shennan sits on the board of CMA. Will youth station BBC Radio 1 get on board?
In terms of live, CAA had 19 acts playing at C2C, and Nashville agent John Huie said U.S. country artists are waking up to the benefits of breaking overseas. The cash they make from doing so may not immediately match up to the fortunes that can be earned in North America, but could play dividends in the long run, said agent Nigel Hassler (who reps The Shires and Dixie Chicks).
The secret to making money on the road in Blighty is a desire to return, book a two-week Europe wide tour, and use C2C as a stepping stone to greater things. Case in point: Zac Brown Band supported Kings of Leon in 2013 at Hyde Park, playing to an audience of around 1.5-2k, did C2C, and then sold out the 12.5k cap. Wembley Arena. After playing the Yamaha Stage for a showcase at C2C last year, Maren Morris returned to play the main stage on Sunday (to rave reviews), and is now selling out 2k. cap. shows in London and 1.5k regionally. Lady Antebellum, meanwhile, sold out 7k tickets for their October London gig at The O2 in one morning.
So what’s different about country artists? “It’s a great genre to work in,” said Hassler. “Rock and pop can be bitchy and catty, and there’s lots of jealousy. But the country community as a whole is very supportive. It’s like family and that reflects on the way the artists perform and on their fans, who perhaps feel more involved.”
Selling sponsorship deals for country gigs in the U.K. has been tricky to date: the genre is still seen as niche, a bit uncool (think stetsons and line dancing). Despite their involvement in the U.S., Olykan has had reticence from brands like Levis to get involved. That’s changing, however; Yamaha is the first guitar brand to get on board with C2C this year, alongside whiskeries Southern Comfort and Buffalo Trace.
“I think we are on a fantastic growth trajectory,” said Olykan. “Country music is going to become more mainstream and be on more radio stations. We’re starting to see more tours developing and Spotify is helping by moving consumers away from genre-based consumption. The U.K. fanbase is massively enthusiastic and they want more.”
Announced off the back of C2C this weekend was Country Music Week - a week-long series of shows from new country artists across various venues in London from 10/2 - 8.
From the sound of things, Nashville will be working ever closer with Blighty in future. And after witnessing the talents of Drake White during an intimate performance on Friday, we’re totally on board with that.