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Country Music In the Digital Age, From Apps to Festivals

Leaps forward in smartphone purchases, festival attendance and selfie culture have invaded country music, changing what the fans want and how they want it.
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Taylor Swift takes a selfie with fans during the red carpet at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas. (Christopher Polk/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)

Taylor Swift takes a selfie with fans during the red carpet at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas. (Christopher Polk/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)

By Courtney E. Smith

Garth Brooks remains one of country music’s biggest names, with 134 million albums sold worldwide, RIAA certification of his position as No. 1 selling solo artist in U.S. history and 25 No. 1 radio singles. And on July 10, 2014, Brooks announced he would be stepping into the digital era in his own way.

“We’ve never allowed our stuff to go digital. When you do it right, you can all succeed,” he said at a press conference. “We do digital the best we only know how. Digital will be handled at garthbrooks.com it will be the only place you can get Garth Brooks’ music.”

He still won’t make his music available for purchase on iTunes or Amazon, nor will it be streamable on services like Spotify or Rdio (although fans on Pandora can, in theory, run into him there from time to time). His official music videos are also not available to stream on Vevo or YouTube (his latest press conference was conducted via Vimeo).  In this regard, he’s held out longer than notorious classic rock hold-outs Led Zeppelin and the Beatles.

Brooks’ reluctancy to go digital all these years comes from his desire to not sell tracks individually, which was the same disagreement the Beatles had with iTunes. That Brooks’ music won’t be available there indicates that even on his website you will likely have to buy his full albums to get “Friends In Low Places.”

Garth_Brooks

Garth Brooks arrives for a reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington on December 8, 2013. (Saul Leob/Getty Images)

Taking a page from Radiohead’s book, his new-found digital sales presence will launch this year with his new album, his first since 2001. The album is expected in-stores and on Garth Brooks’ website for a Black Friday release in November. Fans won’t be able to set their own price, but Brooks promises it will be a “stupid” low one. Brooks’ strategy puts his own packaging desires ahead of the market’s demand and if his fanbase thinks the same way that he does, he could be right on target.

The timing is marred a bit by the news in 2013  digital sales have been down from the previous year while music streams (including data from AOL, Cricket, Medianet, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, YouTube/Vevo and Zune) were up 32%. Digital track sales were down 8.4% but still in the billions. Digital album sales for the year didn’t even meet Brooks’ own lifetime total, with only 117.6 million sold in 2013.

Whether he’s gotten the strategy right or is fighting a war against consumer preferences, on thing is clear: Brooks has gotten the message that it is mandatory to be in the digital game. But where is the country music fan in the digital marketplace?

From apps to on-demand video to festivals, as country music has upped its public profile over the last few years to be more inclusive, the reputation of its fan base as luddites has gone out the window. Nielsen reports that country is radio’s highest ranked format, which it has been for the past eight years, but now it’s the highest ranked for Millennials (digital natives aged 18-34) and for Gen X (aged 35-49). It is second only to news/talk for Boomers. Nielson’s year-end survey for 2013 also reveals that 48% of people still consider the radio their top music discovery source. The younger, more tech-savvy end of the country demo are hearing new music on the radio and then turning to digital tools to find more about the artists.

That’s what CMT is offering with their artists app. The video network launched a second app, in addition to their primary channel app.

“We’ve always seen, on CMT.com and across our digital platforms, a real interest from the country audience around their favorite artists,” said Jason Hill, Vice President of Operations & Strategy for CMT.com. “As we’ve seen more people moving to mobile devices and wanting content on the go, it made a lot of sense for us to build out a stand alone app.”

Hill says CMT is in step with the trend in the rest of the internet, with high desktop traffic during working hours and a jump to mobile consumption of content at lunchtime and in the evening. Pew Internet report that 90% of American adults have a smart phone, 2/3 of those people use their phone to go online and 1/3 of them say their phone is their primary means of connecting to the Internet. Those numbers are up significantly from a 2000 report when only 53% of American adults had a cell phone of any sort.

The red carpet of the 2014 CMT Awards, in slow motion.

“When people aren’t watching TV, they’re using the mobile device for everything else,” Hill says. In addition to live-streaming the awards show through CMT’s app, they generated 40 million Twitter impressions and 66 trending topics across Facebook and Twitter with this year’s CMT Awards.

The Grand Ole Opry are not resting on their digital laurels either. They launched their app in support of their show back in 2010 and they take a very different approach to it than CMT: their focus and most popular piece of content is the live stream of original Opry programming.

Laura Pearse, the Digital Development & Analytics Manager for the Opry, says that they’ve noticed a significant uptick in app downloads and interactions since the spring of 2013. And, surprisingly, people are very willing to tune in to appointment listening.

“People will wake up at 2:30 a.m. in their time zone to listen to a show from Nashville, TN,” Pearse said. “They’ll stop what they’re doing at 8:30 at night in New York and listen to it. Because of the app and the history of the Opry, it really is an international community of fans.”

This flies in the face of the thinking of what an app should do, which is generally offer content 24/7, be it interactive or passive. But the mix of the Opry’s historic cache and a push from artists appearing there, who direct their fans to tune in, has created a space where their content is in-demand enough to support an old-fashioned model wrapped in a shiny new tech package.

There’s a certain clever meshing of old and new that country music consumers seem to enjoy. A lifestyle mash-up of a similar sort can be found at country music festivals. Seen by the industry as a rising revenue source, with raised press profiles, bigger and better bookings and ultimately a metamorphosis into destination festivals for Stagecoach, Country Fest and Country Thunder. They’ve become must-have add-ons for country music award show weekends and each festival has its own app. But the country crowd does a few things differently than an EDM, pop or rock festival might. Namely, Executive Producer of Country Thunder Troy Vollhoffer tells us, staying family friendly.

This is what’s expected by country fans but also has something to do with the location of most country music festivals: a small town in the middle of America. And those rural locations lend themselves to another important aspect that is a distinctly embedded part of country music festivals: camping.

A tale of two campsites at Country Thunder.

“It’s a camping culture. We have 6,000 campsites and they go extremely quick…I believe that’s part of the allure. Living it, breathing it and enjoying it.” Vollhoffer said. While Country Thunder offers parking and consideration for day visitors who might stay in a nearby hotel, the full experience is expected, by festival goers, to include camping — be it RV, tent or nothing at all between you and the clear night sky.

Another huge driver to get fans across the country to a festival like Country Thunder, which is taking place July 24-27 in  Twin Lakes, WI, are the bookings. Over those four days, fans will have the chance to see current superstars Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, ’90s classic country artists Joe Diffie and Mark Chesnutt, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and rising country stars the Eli Young Band and Brantly Gilbert — just to scratch the surface.

“I’ve seen that [country] is a lot more youth-driven…[and] the artists now have their own celebrity,” Vollhoffer said. “They weren’t monster celebrities before, more celebrities in their own format. It’s change a lot in that respect, now you’re dealing with global celebrities. The game has upped its ante.”

The expectation at country music festivals is to see the big and the small and AT&T Uverse have created a way for country music fans to tap into the big and small artists they enjoy from their couches. The cable company realized, based on on-demand views of country music videos combined with their stronghold in prime country music markets, there was an under-served market for original country content. If devoted fans aren’t on their phones or at the campsite, they’re looking for country music at home.

Launched a little over a year ago, Country Deep has focused on emerging artists in the country world and created series featuring Jana Kramer and David Nail. Their cameras follow the artists on tour, capturing live performances, interviews and intimate moments from the road. The filming runs across cities where AT&T wants to “activate” — industry speak for get new customers.

“We started putting up music videos to build the library,” Tom Sauer, Vice President of Video Development at AT&T U-verse, said. “We noticed there was a missing marketing opportunity as a whole, in the industry, for rising stars. We zoned in on that and discovered we have the ability to change the way country music is marketed by giving labels a new outlet to promote their artists.”

Jana Kramer’s Love to Love series for AT&T Uverse’s Country Deep. 

“What we found through the viewership on the app is that fans are very interested in the lifestyle component,” Sauer said. “…even with these emerging artists the fan base is really passionate and just embraces them.”

Or, as Taylor Swift said of her fans in her Wall Street Journal op-ed about the future of music, “I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie.”


Taylor Swift takes a selfie with celebrity chef Ina Garten, better known as the Barefoot Contessa.

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