“Until you’re a major superstar, isn’t everyone a developing artist?” notes Warner Music Nashville EVP/GM Ben Kline, drilling into the crux of his marketing philosophy. With a roster that includes Kenny Chesney, Dan + Shay, Blake Shelton and the breakout female trifecta of Ingrid Andress, Ashley McBryde and global phenomenon Gabby Barrett, Kline is stewarding one of the most diverse rosters at a time when many of country’s traditional tools for breaking artists aren’t available.

“The number-one thing I’m dealing with is that you can’t show people how big and unprecedented Gabby’s success is,” he laments. “A female artist in our genre has put out two of the most-streamed, -played and -awarded songs in our genre—and two years ago, no one knew who she was. Lots of people have hits, have streams, but Gabby’s making an impact beyond a song. And it’s global, at a time when there’s been zero opportunity for anyone to go to Europe. She can barely go to awards shows, and yet, the power of her voice and these songs… It’s like Faith or Shania, but without the touring.”

Universal Nashville SVP of Marketing Lori Christian knows the value of personal connection and the power of the music. When 61-year-old Alan Jackson dropped a 21-song double album, she went into overdrive, making sure the fans knew he’d had an almost-three decade career, in an effort to create next-gen magic. Sit-downs with Apple Music and other DSPs, a The Tonight Show performance and a featured spot on the ACM Awards kept the focus on the man and his music.

“We made sure physical was available, because we know his fans want to own the entire body of work, not just a track or two,” Christian explains. “He not only debuted at #1 but he sold more copies the first week than a lot of other younger stars—and he keeps selling, because the fans he’s made through his songs want all of his music. He’s still #3 on the sales chart, because he’s been someone who’s been there, and as people hear Where Have You Gone, they’re turning other people on to how good it is.”

BMLG EVP Label Resources Mike Rittberg concurs. “This is a high-touch genre,” he says of the fan/artist sales/consumption component. “Touring is a high-touch piece, where the artists go out and engage with the fans. Radio is high-touch on our side too. When that went away, suddenly you’re looking for nuances: ‘Why is my artist special, how do I amplify that and make it stick out?’ That’s what lets you get creative.”

Whether it’s post-traditionalist Carly Pearce sweeping awards shows, Tyler Rich and Avenue Beat getting TikTok traction or Thomas Rhett being named 2020 co-ACM Entertainer of the Year, Rittberg uses the shutdown to refine the marketing attack. “With Brett Young, everything we’ve shot video-wise, we’ve also stripped down and put into a very raw-feeling presentation. On the streaming platforms, we’re trying to take advantage of the content to show you who some of these artists are on a deeper level.

“Last year,” Rittberg continues, “we all got sent home in March and thought it would be four to six weeks. We had all the artists on their socials ‘connecting,’ and that burned out pretty quickly. Then everyone was doing livestreams, and everyone got burned out on that too. Our focus is to find ways to get the fans more connected to the emotions and the music.”

Big Loud VP Marketing Candice Watkins knows not just about the power of emotional connection, but the ways fans want to engage. A veteran of major labels (UMG) and artist management (Keith Urban’s day-to-day), the woman behind Hardy, Jake Owens, Morgan Wallen and several unique female artists wants to widen the reach.

“Country music has done a great disservice by marketing only to a certain kind of fan,” she offers. “Country-music lovers are everywhere. LGBTQ, pop and Black audiences all love country music, but that means more than just this ‘Who likes Kelsea Ballerini?’ marketing.

“I love TikTok marketing-wise, because it really removes the barrier. As an indicator, it’s amazing how reactive it is—and they’re very friendly to content creators, very independent-minded. Look at Lili Rose, who was literally down to her last dime, got rear-ended, didn’t have the money to take her car to the shop. She did her ‘Villian’ TikTok, went to bed and woke up with a million views.

“Yes, people talk about wanting a viral moment, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get one, so you have to be ready when you do. And like Ashton Craft, who we signed in the middle of the pandemic, or MacKenzie Porter, it’s creating lanes for these women who really are different. They all speak so far beyond what people expect from country music.”

But navigating the differences between the two primary avenues of consumption can be vexing, Sony Nashville SVP Marketing Jennifer Way points out. “Kane [Brown], Luke [Combs], Maren [Morris] and Miranda [Lambert]—I’m always about my superstars,” she acknowledges. “But the reality is, you have a radio format and you have a streaming format. The trajectory at Country radio can be a year for a single, whereas the streaming services can go through an entire album in a year. So you’re working with two different verticals at the same time, but they keep intersecting, and that’s where some interesting opportunities emerge.

“It’s been two years without CMA Music Fest, two years without a real audience at the ACM Awards. How do you keep something alive, focused and growing for 40 or 50 weeks? You keep creating content—static, lyric, official, performance, acoustic videos—but it’s also about using this time to really expand the sense who these artists are.

Tennille Townes has the biggest heart; she’s been cause-based since she was 15, with her Big Heart Foundation raising over a million dollars. She engages with fans in such a personal way; we’re aligning her with the Girl Scouts in America, and through Sony’s Social Justice Impact Fund, she’s part of the Creative Girls Rock. It’s personal, real and engaging beyond touring.”

Keeping it personal is critical, according to Girlilla Marketing founder Jennie Smythe, who found that the pandemic created a pocket for artists to really examine how they communicated to their fans, so that being trapped at home actually afforded sustained focus.

“We’re used to having the rug pulled out from under us—or waking up to another platform,” says Smythe, who does digital marketing for Darius Rucker, Lucas Nelson, Kristen Chenoweth and Maddie & Tae. “ The pandemic has slowed everyone down; it’s given artists an opportunity to really see and learn how these platforms work. We’re seeing huge growth spurts, not only in followers and engagement but in the ease and comfort all the clients have with creating for the platforms. To see them become so empowered means stronger socials.”

Veteran artists, too, are learning new tricks. “Terri Clark has been tremendously open to digital opportunities. She and Darius on-boarding to TikTok was so easy, and she really killed it.”

As someone on the frontlines, Smythe recognizes not just the potential for social saturation but also the negative impact it can have. “It’s one thing to tell people, ‘Limit your screen time.’ We have rules of engagement, but this is our hunting ground—and it can suck you in. Over the last year, it’s been interesting. Even with the most benign posts, the intentions were second-guessed, the meanings were twisted. What was posted or not posted, no matter what you did, somebody had an opinion—and it wasn’t good.”

Nonetheless, Smythe finds some positives in the chaos. “We’re expected to be available 24/7, mostly circled up during crisis—but now I think we’re all more mindful about people’s boundaries, setting limits so we can all remain healthy. When I had cancer, I was sitting up in my bed pretending I wasn’t barfing so people wouldn’t think I wasn’t taking their account seriously enough. Now, beyond the time for real one-on-one conversations with the clients, we’re all making time for ourselves and each other.”

For WMN’s Kline, as important as the explosive success of Dan + Shay has been, it’s also about the roots of the music. While prepping a Deluxe Storms of Life, the seminal debut from Randy Travis, Kline enthuses, “Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and Randy all did the Grammys—and I went out the next day and bought all three records. I’d never bought a country record before. And that’s a big part of this: We’re so quick to run to the future without paying attention to the past. That’s our job too—we are caretakers of the genre. So, for this reissue, we’re doing a documentary, tons of events, really creating the kind of moment an album like this deserves. We’re putting it on the front burner and creating not just a moment but a true understanding of Randy’s impact and what this album meant.”

For UMGN’s Christian, it’s also opening up the genre to artists who aren’t clinging to the tropes. Mickey Guyton has become the face of Black country music. And Parker McCollum, who’s already a sensation in Texas, is heading to Country radio with a strong sense of high-cred songwriting and squeal appeal.

“Parker is always the bad guy in his songs, but you just love him because he’s so honest about his faults—and his songs just break your heart,” she says. “He is such a product of youth culture; you get blown away watching thousands of college-age kids screaming every word to these songs, yet he’s also coming off his first #1 Country-radio hit, connecting with the main audience.

“Mickey, who has been writing Remember Her Name for the last decade, is closing that chapter of her life. She’s taken some of the highest highs and the lowest lows, just turning it all into music and truth and opportunity. Even as she was becoming a mother, she made her Grammy debut, she co-hosted the ACM Awards and has done The Root, Bustle, Essence, Ebony and Vogue, and Amanda Petrusich just profiled her in The New Yorker. She’s always been about empowering people with her music—not Black people, not women, but everyone. It makes marketing her easy, even though people get focused on one thing.”
Willie Jones strikes the same chords for Sony’s Way. “Willie is so far from the center. Everybody wants to talk to him about being a Black man in country music, and when he was growing up, there weren’t any male Black country singers, but he heard country music. It permeates the R&B, soul and hip-hop that’s also part of his sound. He can recite hundreds of rap lyrics, but he can also recite hundreds of classic country songs with ease. You couldn’t fabricate or synthesize those things if you hadn’t lived it. That living is why we went to Louisiana to film his first video and show people his world, really drive the flavor of that home.

“That’s the thing: Country music is very different in every market. Through the DSPs, people can find what works for them, and their sense of what country is changes place by place. That’s the beauty: You can break an artist with radio—or you can do it through these other channels. Now that we’re coming out of lockdown, that means the artists can take the music to the fans, and I think we’ll do that better than ever before because of the time we’ve had to home in during the last 16 months.”

Big Loud’s Watkins takes it a step further. “In our meetings with the new artists, radio’s the last thing that comes up. We want to really establish these artists before we go to radio, so it’s a meaningful part of the equation when we do.

“You look at someone like Hailey Whitters, who’s part of Nicolle Galyon’s Songs & Daughters label co-venture; her fiancée told her that, instead of a ring, he’d pay for her record. Now she’s done Living the Dream, an expanded recording of her critically acclaimed The Dream, with guests Little Big Town, Brent Cobb, Trisha Yearwood, Jordan Davis, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna. They’re her friends and collaborators, but they also make her debut record so much more.

“That’s the trick: Take who these artists are, then make them so much more.”

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