BEN SISARIO NY Times 04/06/14
NASHVILLE — On the radio, it has displaced Top 40 as America’s most popular musical format.
Its biggest star is Taylor Swift, a 24-year-old phenomenon who last year earned more from music than any other singer — nearly $40 million, according to Billboard magazine. And in June, Rolling Stone, the rock ’n’ roll bible, will introduce a website devoted to the genre.
Country has long been a mainstay of American music. But as the music industry continues to struggle financially and once-dominant types of music like hip-hop recede on the charts, country’s audience has grown stronger, wider and younger — a fact that has not escaped the notice of media companies that have invested heavily in the genre. On Sunday night, country’s increasingly mainstream appeal was on display during the Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS, which last year had 15.5 million viewers, its biggest audience in 15 years, according to Nielsen.
“Nashville has become a musical superpower,” said Scott Borchetta, chief executive of Big Machine Label Group, the record company behind Ms. Swift and other popular acts like the Band Perry and Florida Georgia Line.
Nashville, country music’s spiritual and commercial home, has in recent years acquired some glamour — and attracted tourism dollars — with help from “Nashville,” ABC’s prime-time soap opera about country divas. Much as “Dallas” did for that city in the 1980s, the show, filmed here and featuring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere, has given Nashville a sexier spot on America’s pop-cultural map.
That map has always included a country star or two, whether it was Garth Brooks and Shania Twain in the 1990s or Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton in earlier decades. But country’s latest wave, led by telegenic and web-savvy young stars like Ms. Swift, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, has been accompanied by changes in media consumption, as traditional album sales fall while streaming audio, social media and online video take hold among fans.
“Nashville has just embraced younger artists and let them pass through the gates quicker and with less resistance than in the past,” said Allen Shapiro, chief executive of Dick Clark Productions, which presented Sunday’s awards show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. A rival show, the Country Music Association Awards, is held each November.
One company looking to country as an avenue into a multiplatform future is Cumulus Media, a national chain of about 460 radio stations. Last year it introduced a country-themed brand, “Nash,” when it opened WNSH, or Nash FM, in New York, the city’s first country station in 17 years.
Cumulus wants Nash to encompass not only radio but also television, print and online media, and even licensed merchandise like kitchenware and cars. At the Nash headquarters in downtown Nashville, normally drab radio studios have been remade to look like warmly lit television production sets, with high-definition cameras capturing video in preparation for a time when the shows will also be transmitted in multiple formats online.
While country broadcasters typically give their stations names like “The Wolf” or “The Coyote,” suggesting rural stereotypes, Lew Dickey, chief executive of Cumulus, said his new brand captured a broader and more upwardly mobile audience for the genre.
“We wanted to eschew the conventional stereotypes in the format and go with something more aspirational,” Mr. Dickey said. “Nash is cool; Nash is fun; Nash is relevant.”
Country has been one of radio’s biggest success stories over the last decade. While the number of country stations has remained relatively stable over that time, at about 2,100, country’s share of the audience has been gradually increasing, with about a 15 percent share among people 12 and up, according to Nielsen. Broadcasters have been keen to capture that audience; last month, for example, Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio company, held its first iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin, Tex., with stars like Eric Church, Lady Antebellum and Hunter Hayes.
While country stations have traditionally focused on adult audiences, analysts attribute much of the recent growth of these stations to an increasing appeal to a younger audience, helped by a youthful tilt in the music. As a result, country now reigns as the most popular musical format on the radio.
“Five years ago, the key listener for country radio was a 40-year-old white woman from the suburbs,” said Brian O’Connell, the president of the country division of Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter. “We’re finding out that the audience was significantly younger than that.”
Country’s popularity on the radio is reflected on the road. Live Nation recently reported that audiences for its country concerts grew 50 percent last year to seven million, and the company said that it now views country as one of its two fastest-growing genres, along with electronic dance, the hot youth trend of the moment.
Ms. Swift’s tour last year, which was promoted by Live Nation’s rival, AEG Live, was the biggest in North America over all, with $113 million in ticket sales, according to Pollstar, an industry trade publication. (Her $40 million in earnings, as computed by Billboard, is for her music and touring only, and does not include lucrative endorsement deals with brands like Diet Coke and CoverGirl.)
Other forms of media have also taken notice. Rolling Stone recently opened an office on Music Row, a formerly residential strip in Nashville, and is preparing to introduce Rolling Stone Country, a new website. “I am convinced Rolling Stone will provide a lens into the genre that currently doesn’t exist,” said Gus Wenner, the director of RollingStone.com and a son of Jann Wenner, the magazine’s founder.
The Nashville gold rush has not worked out for everyone. Cable networks rushed out new reality shows looking to exploit the city’s new hip factor, but the track record of these shows may be an indication of a limited appetite among viewers. “Chasing Nashville,” a Lifetime series about young women aspiring to be stars in the country business, was canceled after four episodes; “Crazy Hearts: Nashville” on A&E was not renewed for a second season.
Yet on a recent Monday morning, the Nash studios were a hive of multimedia activity. In one studio, the morning radio crew spun pop-flavored country hits like Sara Evans’s “Slow Me Down” as producers monitored the show’s test feed for video. Next door, editors assembled Country Weekly magazine — soon to be re-branded as Nash, following a deal with Country Weekly’s publisher, American Media Inc. — while down the hall a crew from “Nashville” loaded equipment for a location shot.
Kix Brooks, who during the 1990s and early 2000s sold 27 million albums as part of the country duo Brooks & Dunn, and who now hosts two shows for Nash, sat in his man-cave corner studio, decorated with Frederic Remington statues, a fully stocked bar and a giant leather couch.
“I don’t think country music is hick music anymore,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s not hay bales and cornfields.”