Country Music Association leaders Sarah Trahern and Milly Olykan on the genre's rapid rise in the UK

Country Music Association leaders Sarah Trahern and Milly Olykan on the genre's rapid rise in the UK

The C2C Festival returns this weekend with headliners Old Dominion, Kane Brown and Brad Paisley playing The O2 in London, Glasgow OVO Hydro and Belfast SSE Arena. 

The festival line-up also includes Carly Pearce, Jake Owen, Priscilla Block, Brothers Osborne, Chapel Hart, Colbie Caillat and Elle King.

The annual Country To Country celebration underlines the continuing rise of the genre in the UK, as well as at home. In the US, Country’s on-demand video and audio streams grew by 21.9% from 2022 to 2023 (Luminate). 

Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern and VP of international relations and development Milly Olykan are interviewed in the latest edition of Music Week. The organisation partners with AEG Europe and SJM on the C2C Festival.

According to the Country Music Association, the tracking of total audio and video streams for country music in the UK compared to the overall industry increased by 40.7% in 2023 compared to 2022. The growth rate increased by five percentage points from the end of Q3, led by country stars Zach Bryan, Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs.

Strong growth has also been reported in Australia, Germany and Canada, thanks in part to Olykan’s contribution in expanding the genre’s reach outside its traditional homeland. 

“While we can’t take credit for the work that artists do – and they’ve been amazing at investing in international in the last year or two – those relationships that Milly fostered have been key to laying the groundwork for this successful era we’re in,” said CEO Sarah Trahern.

Here, Sarah Trahern and Milly Olykan talk about the genre’s rapid global growth and the challenges they have had to overcome…

Where would country music be without the CMA to advocate on its behalf? 

Sarah Trahern: “On our wall, we have a long CMA mission statement about honouring excellence in the genre. But the elevator pitch I’ve used since day one is that our mission is to grow country music around the world. That means here, that means there, that means everywhere. For a long time we’ve had to overcome stereotypes in country around the world because we are a uniquely American art form, but we don’t see borders. Country is about love and heartache, and relationships and family, and those are topics that are universal.”

Milly Olykan: “It’s unique that a genre has a trade association. I’ve tagged along on Luke Combs’ tour to New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany, etc, and being charged with pulling an industry community together in every country sets the genre up so well. Where would it be without the CMA? I feel like it wouldn’t be growing at the rate that it is. People come to country music with stereotypes about it and I think we get to jump over that by building the industry around it in each country. So I think we help it grow faster and we also help people get connected a lot more quickly.”

What separates the country stars of 2024 from the way they operated in, say, 2010? 

MO: “Streaming. There are so many more people streaming. Country is the fastest growing genre in the UK over the last five years. It’s a snowballing situation; we always take a dip in the third quarter, but we didn’t last year – it just kept going. In fact, we had our best streaming numbers ever. The UK didn’t have a country music scene, and then C2C happened, the BBC supported it and publicists who love country music came out of the woodwork. And the labels were like, ‘We can actually start working our artists now! We never used to bother because they never came over.’ And then a country radio station launched as recently as 2019. Suddenly you’ve got main media entities like Bauer Media and Global investing in radio stations and it just feeds this machine. All of those things combined created a supporting infrastructure.”

Our mission is to grow country music around the world

Sarah Trahern

What role has Luke Combs’ enormous success played in that growth as a whole? 

MO: “Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan have all had international, all-genre chart success around the world this year. What’s unique about Luke is he started going [abroad] years ago and built something, and he’s now done a very big world tour. Ordinarily, you’d see the older artists in UK streams, but now you’re seeing Luke getting so many songs in the Top 200 and half of Luke’s audience is under 35, so it’s opening it up to a much broader audience. Sometimes we have acts where people say, ‘But they’re pop’, but you can’t interpret Luke any other way than as a country act. It’s been a huge door-opening opportunity for our genre internationally.”

What is your next major target at the CMA? 

MO: “The UK has three very successful festivals, it’s got a lot of touring business, it’s got an engaged industry, it’s got specialist country radio, and it’s got support from the BBC. What does it need? It needs the Glastonbury looks. Not just a headliner, but to also think about the story of country music in its line-up. And we need that for all the Live Nation and Hyde Park festivals, too. So, what’s been interesting for me is to look at different territories and identify where we need to focus. The last 10 years have been amazing for the UK and Australia, so now I can focus on the Nordics and Germany.”

Why have festival promoters been reluctant to book country acts? 

MO: “They’re probably not realising it’s gone quite mainstream. For a long time country music didn’t export, but a lot’s happened in the last 10 years. There is also a challenge on our end about artist availability, because the summer is a prime time for artists to be [in the US]. Festivals have tried to book big artists and haven’t got them because of the availability.”

For all the positives, it’s been a while since the UK broke some domestic country stars like Ward Thomas and The Shires…

MO: “Kezia Gill has a great reputation, and there is a new all-female act, Remember Monday, but we want to see more follow the examples of Ward Thomas and The Shires, and I think there is a real opportunity considering there are so many fans of the genre. Our community needs support from all of the radio stations. Baylen Leonard at Absolute is a real supporter of new and local artists, and there is opportunity to build a base in the UK first and leverage the opportunities of Nashville.”

ST: “We’ve had The Shires here playing our festival. They won our CMA International Artist award a few years ago and a number of UK business people have won awards.”

MO: “Last year the live award went to an agent, [London-based CAA Country initiative leader] Nigel Hassler. Baylen’s received the broadcaster award before, [Absolute Radio Country’s] Ricky Marshall’s received the Wesley Rose International Media Achievement Award and obviously Bob Harris is the biggest champion. There is a great infrastructure to build careers in the UK for country artists, it’s just coming out with those songs and getting that sound right.”

Country is the fastest growing genre in the UK over the last five years

Milly Olykan

Milly, last year you said: “Our vision is for country music to be as present as rock and pop internationally.” How close are you to that? 

MO: “That is absolutely my vision and we’re making great strides. I’ve been speaking a lot about the UK, and there is so much country touring already booked this year. I want the industry [in Nashville] to think about that global audience from the get-go.” 

Finally, what is one lesson the music industry should take from the Nashville way of doing things?

ST: “Relationships matter, and the strength of Nashville – the power base of our business community – has been that people are able to check their agendas at the door. When you join the CMA board, you’re here to serve the best interests of the community, not just your own. That sense of dialogue and partnership is really important. It’s the secret sauce of Nashville.”

Subscribers can read the full interview here, including further discussion of rising stars, overcoming the genre’s naysayers in the UK and questions about racism and creating diversity within country music in the US.

PHOTO: John Russell, Country Music Association, Inc.


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