In the latest issue of Music Week, we take an in-depth look at the world of country music as C2C Festival returns to our shores. Inside we speak to Ashley McBryde, crunch the numbers behind the surge in country streaming, and find out some songwriting secrets from legendary hitmaker Liz Rose.
But leading our coverage this year is Luke Combs. Three years ago he opened Country To Country Festival, this year he is not only headlining it, he’s also one of the biggest country artists in the world.
His first two albums for Columbia – 2016 debut This One’s For You and 2019’s What You See Is What You Get – have transformed him into a country phenomenon. Not only did his debut go triple platinum and become the most streamed country album of 2019, it also tied Shania Twain’s downright imperial record for the longest reign at No.1 on the Country Albums Chart, spending 50 weeks on top. While What You See Is What You Get is only a few months old by comparison, since its November release it has already hit No.1 on the all-genre US chart and enjoyed the largest streaming week for a country album ever. Among other honours, Combs now has three CMA Awards, two Grammy nominations, and over five billion streams to his name.
“When I moved to town, I’d already been playing for two or three years,” Luke Combs told Music Week about his first experiences in Nashville. “I wrote for seven or eight months and I didn’t have a publishing deal so nobody was telling me what to do, what to write or how to write it. There was nobody giving me any direction at all, and so by the time that I finally ended up here, I was already selling a thousand tickets a night in some places. Nobody had any weight to pull against me. People were already coming to the shows and streaming the music. I was at a place where I didn’t have to relinquish creative control to get a record deal.”
In the feature we also speak to River House Artists’ Lynn Oliver-Cline who, alongside Chris Kappy, co-manages Combs, plus Randy Goodman, chairman & CEO at Sony Music Nashville.
Here, in an unread extract from our interview, Randy Goodman gives us his take on how Luke Combs went from being an independent artist in 2015 to breaking records …
What makes Luke stand out in country music right now?
“His voice and his presence. At first you're looking and you go, ‘Well, that's not the typical looking kind of guy for country music.’ But he has incredible songs, and a unique and compelling voice. What we began to realise was that he, as a person, as a character, is unique and compelling. He was like nobody else out there. It was obvious that people were drawn to him because he was a lot like the people that were in the audience watching. That’s one of the things that really set him apart: he’s an everyman.”
So what do you chalk his extraordinary, record-breaking streaming numbers down to?
“He started from the ground up, he laid an incredible base. It’s one of those classic DIY stories where he said, ‘I’m going to go out and see if people are drawn to what I do’. He was obviously writing in a vacuum, it’s not like he was here in Nashville with the top songwriters who were helping him move along. He has a spectacular voice – you don't expect to hear that voice come out – and then, when you see him live, he’s so engaging, disarming, humble and thankful. But I think from the streaming perspective, there's no doubt he strikes a young demographic. And we're very fortunate because we've got Luke, we've got Kane Brown, and Maren Morris – three in particular on our roster that, over the last several years, are all doing that. With his debut album he tied Shania Twain’s record of 50 weeks at No.1, and I think that was for her third album. Typically people that do it at that level, they have to have some sort of crossover, and his music has remained purely country, purely Luke.”
So is the mainstream crossing over to him? Are some people listening to country without actually realising it?
“I think you’re exactly right. Again, it goes back to those songs, what he writes about, and what he says. People are finding him and coming to him. I do think a lot of it is the democratisation, if you will, that the DSPs have created in terms of listening, hearing new things and your ability to find different playlists – I think people are finding him that way.”
Luke was like nobody else out there
Randy Goodman, Sony Music Nashville
Aside from Sony Music Nashville’s real emphasis on streaming, what else do you chalk that success down to?
“We have to have this attitude of constantly being a learning organisation, the beauty of someone like Luke is we get to have these dialogues. He comes into the office and we talk together about how to market and promote. That’s so powerful to have the artist themselves sitting with the team and having the dialogue back and forth about what feels right for the artist, because at the end of the day, our job is to really articulate their vision to the marketplace. The more we understand the artist, and the more the artist is leaned into that, I think the stronger we are. That’s something Luke has done a great, great job of.”
You’ve stated that your plan is to turn Luke into a global country superstar "the likes of the which the world has never seen". What is the key to cracking other countries and continents in the same way you have the US?
“I think it’s down to his willingness to be present. That’s the thing that I've learned over so many years. If you don't go over early in your career, it's harder. I remember working with different acts in my career where they might have played Madison Square Garden one night and then they’re on a plane going to London and there’s 200 people there. That’s not a very incentivising thing. A lot of artists went, didn’t like what they saw or they felt they were beyond it. I think of somebody else on our roster, Brad Paisley, who since day one did that and he’s built an incredible fanbase over there. Maren Morris is the same. You’ve got to be present to win."
* To read the full Luke Combs interview, see the current print edition of Music Week, available now, or click here. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.