CMA international chief Milly Olykan on the rise of country music in the UK

CMA international chief Milly Olykan on the rise of country music in the UK

Country music is having a streaming moment.

Following the exclusive Music Week report in the latest issue on the genre’s huge growth on DSPs in the UK, now Apple Music has launched a dedicated country music station featuring shows from The Shires, Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood and Ty Bentli.

The CMA has identified key country playlists for the UK market including Spotify’s A Perfect Day and Very Nearly Nashville, Apple Music’s Today’s Country and Amazon Music’s Country Heat.

The genre has also seen strong broadcast support from BBC Radio 2, Smooth Country, Chris Country and Country Hits Radio.

Milly Olykan, VP of international relations and development at the Country Music Association in Nashville, has been leading the organisation’s UK Task Force with key figures across the British music industry.

Here, Olykan opens up about why the UK is so important for Nashville…

Country is over-indexing on streaming growth in UK - what do you put that down to?

“It’s exciting for us to see more UK music lovers turning to country music or discovering it in this period. While streaming services have dedicated country playlists, I anticipate fans are discovering artists in mood playlists to start with, or on the radio. Radio 2 has playlisted more country artists than ever before. And for those that want to go deeper into country as a genre, there is Bob Harris’ country show on Radio 2 and a number of DAB country stations, all serving the listener base. Country Hits, Chris Country and Downtown Radio have programmes that introduce fans to new music and Smooth Country focuses on the famous or classic songs on rotation.”

How has the live shutdown affected country music’s UK growth, with the loss of events such as Country To Country?

C2C has become such a key moment for the whole industry on both sides of the Atlantic. so it was a blow to every person that touches that event. The timing couldn’t have been worse for all concerned. Before Covid, touring was in a very strong place and the upside of that is that there has been enough momentum for country artists to remain focused on the UK as a viable market. I anticipate we’ll see more innovation on the promo side of things, but country artists are very comfortable performing on a Zoom call to a wall of faces on laptops. They thrive in that environment, their personalities and musicianship shine through.”

The power of Radio 2 playlisting and support gives country artists exposure amongst artists of all genres

Milly Olykan

How has streaming taken to country music as a genre - are DSPs now driving growth for those artists?

With the growth we’re seeing in the UK with streaming this year, we can expect the DSPs will continue to seize the opportunity by seeding out more country songs to playlists outside of the genre. A typical new fan will discover an artist or song first. They aren’t thinking or looking for the genre and wouldn’t necessarily call themselves a country fan, so they are not going to be hunting out the country playlists. 

“What’s helped the artists, radio and the DSPs to reach beyond a core country fan base has been the collaborations we’ve seen—Dan + Shay with Justin Beiber, Maren Morris with Zedd, and others—have helped bring an audience over to these country artists. The consumers are a younger audience than perhaps they are perceived to be, in the UK the biggest growth we see are in millennials, and it’s pretty much 50/50 male/female.”

How important is the UK to the country music scene, in terms of consumption and domestic talent? 

“Hugely important. Outside of North America, the UK is a priority market. It’s telling that Nashville artists now, especially the new crop of artists that have come up in the last five or so years, want international expansion as part of their strategy. That hasn’t always been the case in prior years. Now, artists want to put the time in for promo and to take advice, be flexible, listen and trust their industry partners in the UK, where there is real experience in breaking, developing and growing a fan base for a country artist.

“When it comes to UK talent, with country artists and the genre becoming more popular in the UK, it’s opening doors for UK artists. While it’s still a long road, there are so many industry connections between the UK and Nashville that will be advantageous to a UK artist. Labels like BMG, who have signed The Shires and Twinnie, have shown real commitment to developing local country artists.” 

How is radio helping drive country listening in the UK - are stations helping to break artists?

“The power of Radio 2 playlisting and support gives country artists exposure amongst artists of all genres, and that’s the perfect way to reach a new audience. BBC Radio 2 has long supported country and have come to Nashville twice a year for decades, producing shows around the CMA Awards and CMA Fest. The DAB stations are doing a terrific job of introducing country fans to new artists. UK fans have a huge appetite for discovering and consuming country artists and those stations are providing them access to that.”

How can you grow country further in the UK, what kind of support would you like to see?

“This is such an important question, one we are particularly wanting to address at this time. CMA has a UK Task Force made up of industry leaders in the UK and we are focused on addressing this right now. We’d like to see more ‘mainstream’ moments for country artists, be those via streaming playlists, further mainstream radio adoption, inclusion in all genre livestream events and TV entertainment.

“In addition, it would be helpful to see more playlists being developed by the DSPs that are programmed out of the UK, which could give editorial support to the genre. The current consumers of contemporary country artists are music fans who listen to an array of genres through different mediums. We want to reach more of them. I’d love to see collaborations with UK artists of any genre. We are very open to ideas! We have an incredible talent pool of artists who are incredibly serious about building a UK market.”

To read the full report on country music and streaming, subscribers can click here.

* To make sure you can access Music Week wherever you are, subscribe to our digital issue by clicking here.

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