Spotify's John Marks on Growing Country's Streaming Profile

Interview by Todd Hensley

Spotify Head of Country Music John Marks is demonstrating every day that new frontiers are opening up for Nashville acts and country artists worldwide. But after withstanding the conversation below, he probably wishes he could delete us from his playlist.

From where you sit, what are you seeing as the biggest changes in Nashville and country music right now?
There’s such a positive influx of music creators from New York, L.A. and London, and all of that is changing the landscape in the most audible way. I think the collaborations between cross-genre artists and songwriters are going to demonstrate how much bigger country music can get, and how the genre is going to grow in consumption and global appeal. I’m seeing that process begin to accelerate. That to me is the most profound change that we’re undergoing right now.

How does that affect what you do? 
Just working with all the creators and keeping an ear to the ground for some of the new, interesting sounds that are coming out of the studios right now. And also working with global partners such as Canada and the Netherlands, trying to understand–and create understanding of–the global potential of the music. Part of my job, in addition to cultivating the playlists and growing those, is to reach those markets, and work to increase global consumption of U.S. country music; to consider it an “export,” and also import music from those international markets; to cross-pollinate. It’s one of the most exciting things I’m involved with, quite frankly.

What are the biggest markets outside the U.S. for country music consumption? 
Certainly, Canada is already an established market. I looked at Canada for that combination of U.S. and Canadian country music, and I cooperate closely with the Canadian creators, labels, artists, producers and songwriters like we do here. I point at Canada as what the possibilities could be.

We’re looking at London and the U.K. as one example of very organic growth in country consumption. It all started with C2C Country Music Festival several years ago, and through that we’re seeing consumption grow for streaming and Spotify for those markets. We’re seeing a growth of U.S.-based entertainers touring the U.K. and Europe and cooperating with music creators internationally to find places for their style of country music in U.S.-based playlists. Two of the ones I’ve worked with most regularly from the U.K. are Ward Thomas and The Shires, and there are others we’re working with as well to get some coverage in the U.S. to enhance their markets and grow their artists, just as we’re asking our international counterparts to grow the U.S. market of country music in those areas.

One thing I hear is that there’s this perceived ceiling on country music at Spotify. What advice do you give to labels, managers or artists?

It certainly speaks to the question of creating a better global position for country music, because Sam Hunt has found himself a global position, as have Thomas Rhett and some others. But those are the two that have really caught a global wave. Spotify is working hard to blur genre lines; I think some of the collaborations we’ve talked about are going to move the process forward.

I fear that country music, without a stronger global presence and a stronger crossover presence, is likely to get marginalized as we look at aggregated streams and plays as a measure of success globally. That’s why I’m engaged in these efforts to grow the product more internationally, and there’s a level of comfort that I think is beginning to give way to an understanding that if we want to compete with the likes of Ed Sheeran and others, we’re going to need to play a global game and be able to create more “crossover” music.

I’m hearing more and more about acts starting their development at Spotify, as opposed to the traditional path. Can you tell me about some you are proud of? 
We have done a couple with real success. We began that process with Ryan Hurd before he signed with Sony. Then, along with Sony and his Triple 8 Management company, we put our heads together and implemented this plan even after he was signed.

You are doing the same with Jillian Jacqueline, yes? What was the plan?
Ryan and Jillian both are kind of mirrors. We would playlist across all our primary Country lists: Wild CountryNew Boots and Hot Country. We put them on all three lists and tested the reaction. They released songs every two or three weeks, so we have right now “Reasons” and “Hate Me” with Jillian in rotation. We found that with a new artist that Spotify feels is worth investing in–one that has that crossover potential and broad appeal globally–we can accelerate visibility and put a lot of music in front of people quickly. That’s been a combination that has worked very well for these two artists.

It worked for Ryan Hurd, certainly. And I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s helped his touring and the acceptance of his music in the marketplace. I’m getting similar feedback from Jillian Jacqueline’s world, even though we’re only halfway through this campaign. In Hot Country, it’s a little tougher list; they must measure up to stay in, and right now, just like Ryan Hurd, Jillian’s music is measuring up, which is very encouraging.

One of the things I found interesting was some of the play on the platform is from other genres–singer/songwriter, acoustic and so forth. I think it’s great, but some worry that terrestrial Country radio might not accept them as country artists.
I still hear that, which is a disappointment. Good music is good music–I understand that in radio their space is more limited than Spotify’s. I can forgive some of that argument, but nonetheless there are some types of music we play, such as Lady Gaga’s “Grigio Girls” and Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away,” where I don’t look at that any differently than I look at Sam Hunt or Thomas Rhett going to pop. I try to lead by example in doing those things and the songs research well. We have the space to be able to do that and take those musical chances. In radio it’s a little more difficult, and I respect that, but nonetheless the spirit of adventurism needs to continue in every area, in my opinion.


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