If you’ve seen a few more cowboy hats around the UK this week, you’re not imagining things. This weekend marks the return of Country 2 Country Festival, with a veritable Nashville invasion taking place across three nights each at London’s The O2, Dublin 3 Arena and Glasgow OVO Hydro.
Of course, someone who has been at the very heart of the growth of the genre in the UK is Milly Olykan. Once the co-booker of C2C, in 2018 she crossed the Atlantic to become the international chief at the CMA. Here, she takes us inside recent developments in the genre, from the live sector to TikTok and beyond…
In the past you’ve spoken about how C2C is hugely important on both sides of the Atlantic, especially with regard to driving streaming consumption. How did you see that consumption grow after 2022’s event, and can you give us any insight into how country is performing streaming-wise?
“The 2022 streams outpaced 2021 – we’re still tracking a very positive growth trajectory of country music in the UK. The closing months of 2022 were especially strong for the genre with September – December each experiencing double-digit growth rates from previous year consumption in those months. Indeed, 2022’s Q4 was a 12% year-to-year increase from 2021’s Q4 showing great traction for the year ahead. I’m very optimistic about the year ahead and I expect the volume of activity that’s planned this year impacts positively on streaming. The UK’s consumption of country is important to us as it helps set up more opportunities in Europe. The pandemic has interrupted country touring and momentum in the EU so having such a strong year ahead in the UK will help us expand into Europe once more.”
Our vision is that country music can be as present as rock and pop is internationally
Milly Olykan, CMA
How has the genre grown in the UK, specifically in the 2020s?
“I think 2023 is looking to be country music’s biggest year to date in the UK. Luke Combs selling out five UK arenas in minutes, including The O2 twice in London, definitely speaks to the genre going beyond the country fan base there. This year Live Nation also launched their own country/Americana festival at The Royal Albert Hall and both Live Nation and AEG have promoters focused on country touring. Established acts like The Chicks and Shania Twain are doing arena tours while country festivals like C2C, which is now in its 10th year, and The Long Road, are thriving. And there are a lot of tours still being planned. That volume of tickets reflects the year-over-year growth in streaming we’re seeing, as well as the support from Radio 2, who playlist country artists. Bob Harris’ show grew by 20% in the last year and Bauer’s Absolute Country Radio is increasing in audience according to the last Rajar report. So we’re no longer looking at Country 2 Country being the one country moment in a calendar year. There is now touring or a festival in every quarter and tickets are moving. Luke Combs currently has two songs in the UK singles chart – he’s crossing over – his audience is firmly under 35 and his success is exciting. He can’t be interpreted as anything other than a country artist, and he’s on the trajectory that will see him play stadiums in the UK.”
How has the genre embraced TikTok so far do you think? Are new country acts breaking and getting signed from it?
“Yes definitely – it’s leading to signings, and chart success for artists. One of the biggest new artists right now, Bailey Zimmerman, was signed by Warner after a number of his TikTok songs went viral in 2021. Megan Moroney, Priscilla Block and Lily Rose are other examples of current discoveries through TikTok. Walker Hayes’ song Fancy Like achieved success on a number of charts globally, directly from TikTok, while he was already signed. The success of this song was a great example of how that platform can help country find a global audience when the label is ready to respond.”
There was also the CMA songwriter series happening ahead of C2C – how has that franchise grown in recent years?
“Songwriting in country music is what sets this genre apart – it’s clever and emotive storytelling. [This year] we brought with us perhaps the biggest country hit songwriter in Ashley Gorley. He’s had over 60 No.1s in the US, and over 400 songs recorded. He is the hit songwriter everyone wants to write with in Nashville. I’ve been wanting to have him on this line up for years! Our songwriters show is now a staple sell-out every year the night before C2C, and this year we also had CMA Female Vocalist Of The Year and CMA New Artist Of The Year Lainey Wilson, and she’s also on the TV show Yellowstone! It was special for the audience to see her up close like that. She’s a fast-rising star in our genre. She was joined by two artists doing their first ever performance in the UK: Nate Smith and Dalton Dover. I love bringing people to this show. It’s magical, and I’ve seen it convert people to country music, so we use this event very much to engage with the likes of festival programmers and media who we want to embrace country. C2C is also an opportunity for CMA to meet with the many industry relationships we have in the UK and EU and to utilise its platform to introduce new artists. Our Introducing Nashville line-up of artists is featured on the mainstage once again. This year we’re introducing Caylee Hammack, Tyler Braden and Alana Springsteen. Our partnership with C2C is fantastic to use as a showcase – last year two of the artists we presented, Priscilla Block and Morgan Wade, went on to do their own headline tours of the UK so that is our hope for these artists also.”
What are the obstacles to the genre getting even bigger in the UK? Is there a sense that the press, radio, TV shows and more still need to catch up with the demand?
“The challenge for any distinct genre is the misconceptions about it. I would guess that Latin, hip-hop and grime deal with this too – that there is an idea from the industry or media about who the fanbase is. That’s why it’s so important for us to get agents, festival programmers to the likes of C2C or a large-scale show like the Luke Combs shows later this year. The diversity and demographic of the audience is usually what surprises people, and also what a good time it is. I have my eyes firmly set on the UK festival market because UK music fans are also country fans – we can see that by the volume of tickets country shows are selling. However, UK festivals aren’t including country programming. I recognise for festivals to book country artists or to strategically include some country programming they need to have a level of knowledge and confidence that it will be successful. Like all genres, country represents a spectrum of sub-genres so I want to help UK festivals get knowledgeable of the artists that could work for their line-ups. I encourage anyone serious about working in country to come to Nashville because the country music industry works like a community and if you want to participate in it you need to build relationships here – it makes a big difference. CMA Fest in June is an ideal opportunity because it’s like a giant showcase of the whole spectrum of Country artists and industry all in attendance.”
Which new country acts should the UK industry be paying close attention to at C2C this year?
“[The aforementioned] Bailey and Megan – C2C is such a great showcase for emerging artists and I’m excited to see they have Madeline Edwards on the Spotlight Stage, too. I think that will be special. All of those spotlight artists including MacKenzie Porter and Corey Kent are ones to watch. Caylee Hammack and Nate Smith, who we are bringing over, I can see them both connecting very well with UK audiences, and I hope they will return here again this year. That is one of our challenges as a genre, to keep building the international market while building the US. That gets hard when artists start to make money in the US but aren’t quite breaking even with international touring.There are so many fairs and festivals in the US that can make good offers so it’s hard to give that time and income up and go abroad. However, there are solid examples now of artists who have made that investment including Luke Combs, Kip Moore and Ashley McBryde who can show how building an international audience can be done very successfully.”
UK music fans are also country fans, but UK festivals aren’t including country programming
Milly Olykan, CMA
Last year you spoke of how the genre is diversifying, saying: “Seeing the diversity represented on C2C is indicative of how fans and industry alike are seeking out more diverse voices." How much progress has been made in your opinion?
“In the US, CMA has done various studies of the consumer and we know the fan base is diverse in every way. We have shared that knowledge with the industry here. I know from data I’ve seen from various labels, that the UK fan base is also very diverse. There is a lot of intention to be more accessible as a genre to a diverse range of artists, and there is progress. It’s slow, but it’s happening. For me that’s where international is a big opportunity for our genre. Not only are we reaching more diverse fans as we export the music, but we’re also opening up more opportunities for more artists to find their audiences.”
A huge part of your mission at CMA is to take country music around the world. We know the UK has its own budding country stars, but is it the biggest market for the genre outside of the US or are other countries bigger?
“It’s 100% of our mission. Our vision is that country music can be as present as rock and pop is internationally. Our focus in the UK specifically is how we can have country music present in mainstream environments. I believe the ticket sales of country artists in the UK in 2023 supports that. While both the UK and Australia are the biggest markets for country outside of North America, the big difference on the ground in each of these markets is that Australia has had for many years a thriving local country scene and here in the UK, we’re still building that with local artists. In the UK our country industry is supporting the UK talent who are building hard tickets. It’s an important part of the ecosystem to have UK artists also thriving in country music. It’s also important to have more people who are knowledgeable about country music in the business in the UK, which is where being a member of CMA can help, as far as having access to information and making connections.”
Finally, what other activity can we expect from the CMA this year?
“This year CMA celebrates its 50th anniversary of CMA Fest in June – it’s the longest-running country music festival in the world and it takes over downtown Nashville for four days. It’s very unique as all of the artists play for free to raise money for the CMA Foundation which supports music education. There are a variety of free stages, and four big stadium shows in the evening. We will once again be hosting the international industry at that event and we are seeing more international media, talent buyers and agents starting to come in for that event. CMA will also be launching a new CMA Membership structure this year to better serve every single person in the business, whether you’re a student, just entering the industry, or you’ve been in the industry for years. CMA’s goal as a trade association is to be a resource of support and information for those in our industry, so we’re especially excited to see these changes roll out in March. In November, we host the CMA Awards once more – both the CMA Awards and CMA Fest are broadcast on BBC.”