From Nashville To Niche To Sold-Out Nights: The Rise Of Americana In The UK

Jason Isbell
Owen Sweeney
– Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell & The 400 makes a stop at Modell Performing Arts Center At The Lyric in Baltimore Feb. 6.

Jason Isbell just won his third and fourth Grammy for The Nashville Sound (Best Americana Album) and “If We Were Vampires” (Best Americana Roots Song). Isbell played one of his first U.K. shows in Brighton, England, in 2013. His promoter at the time was James Walker, founder of Brighthelmstone Promotions, who remembers that the gig had to be upgraded from the 140 capacity pub Hope & Ruin to the 400 capacity Komedia, one of the coastal town’s many iconic venues. Isbell’s latest visits to the U.K. took him to the 1,700 capacity Roundhouse, and the 2,000 cap Shepherds Bush Empire, both in London.
Walker was also the promoter for another one of Americana’s poster boys, Sturgill Simpson, who won a Grammy for his 2016 Americana album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, and he remembers promoting Simpson at The Palmeira, a pub in Hove, England, four years ago on Valentines Day. When Simpson last came to the U.K. in 2017, he, too, sold out Shepherds Bush Empire.
It’s still small audiences compared to what Simpson attracts in the States, where he opened for Guns N’ Roses on three performances during their 2017 U.S. arena tour: at Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO, Aug. 2, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, AR, Aug. 5, and at Marlins Park in Miami, FL, Aug. 8. The three shows generated just under $9,354,811 million in box office revenues, according to Pollstar’s box office reports.
Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro
– Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro
On stage at London’s Union Chapel

Compared to those figures, the number of people showing up to Americana gigs in the U.K. may seem low, however, it’s the percentage growth that demonstrates the genres popularity. Matt Bartlett of U.K. Americana agency Midnight Mango toured Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro this year, which culminated at the iconic Union Chapel in London, selling 720 tickets. “Considering that the previous year he did 140 – he is seven albums in and not a young man – it’s been game changing for him,” Bartlett said.
Ethan Proctor and Matthew Bartlett
– Ethan Proctor and Matthew Bartlett
Agents at Midnight Mango

His colleague Ethan Proctor shared the most iconic story from his roster, too: “The Dead South just finished their 14 dates in the U.K. that were all sold out months in advance. In comparison, on their first visit to the U.K. a number of years ago with a previous agent, the numbers were substantially lower. On this tour we started in 200 cap spaces across the U.K., and ended up upgrading to up to 1,000 caps in places due to outstanding demand – Anson Rooms, Bristol (1144 cap), Wylam Brewery, Newcastle (800 cap), Garage, London (650 cap), Norwich Open (650 cap), Academy 3, Manchester (600 cap).

“What is most interesting is that we could have gone higher if the avails had be there, leading to a very promising larger return in Feb. 2019. The first date of this goes on sale this Friday, O2 Forum Kentish Town, London (2300 cap), with the tour spreading across major cities across U.K. and Ireland,” Proctor said.
Americana is on the rise in the U.K. The annual Country 2 Country festival (C2C), which offers various stages for Americana artists, has established itself in London’s O2, Glasgow’s SSE Hydro, and Dublin’s 3Arena, selling some 75,000 combined tickets over one weekend.
Milly Olykan
– Milly Olykan
VP of international relations and development for the Country Music Association in Nashville

Milly Olykan launched C2C in London as VP of Live Music & Major Arena Events for AEG Presents in 2013. She recently started her role as VP of International Relations and Development for the Country Music Association in Nashville. Olykan remembers that, back in 2013, there wasn’t any indication of a U.K. market for Americana or Country. “We knew there were artists in the U.S. doing huge live business, and being able to offer The O2 as a venue was a selling point, but we didn’t have clear sense that contemporary Country would translate in the U.K., it was a great example of being a promoter and taking a risk,” she recalled.

“Back then there was no infrastructure – no media, no interest from mainstream media, fewer labels engaged, so no routes to market country music etc. BBC Radio 2 had a weekly one hour country radio show – they were the only company that had been consistently keeping up with country activity in the U.S. – outside of that there really wasn’t any mainstream media.”
A lot has changed since then. Artists like Mumford & Sons helped open up a huge audience to the genre – and rootsy, earthy music in general. Since 2011, the U.K. has a dedicated American Music Association (AMA U.K.) championing the genre.
One of the things AMA U.K. CEO Stevie Freeman feels particularly accomplished about, is the formation a dedicated U.K. Americana Chart, which launched in 2016. Coming from a retail background, she could see how charts helped audiences to understand a genre. “And it helps artists to be able to say ‘I’m number one on the charts’, or ‘I’m in the top 10’,” she explained.
According to the U.K.’s Official Charts Company, combined Americana album sales in the UK in 2017 were up 37 percent year-on-year (1.2 million albums in 2017 versus 876,000 in 2016). The growth came from both physical sales and album streams. The retail value of Americana albums in the U.K. rose 45 percent to £10.4 million ($13.9 million) in 2017. 
The best-selling Americana album in the U.K. in 2017 was Glen Campbell’s Adios, which sold 116,000 copies in 2017, while Robert Plant’s Carry Fire was the best-selling British Americana release, with sales to date of 57,000. Other U.K./Irish Americana releases that performed well in the U.K. last year included Imelda May, Laura Marling, Van Morrison.
Courtney Marie Andrews
Loose Music
– Courtney Marie Andrews
One of the genre’s rising stars

Another artists from the U.S., who has performed well on the charts is Courtney Marie Andrews, who debuted on peak position with her last two albums, Honest Life (2016) and May Your Kindness Remain (2018). Both came out on Loose Records in U.K., one of Europe’s premier record labels for Americana and alt-country. The label’s founder Tom Bridgewater remembers Andrews “playing to 100 people at The Social in central London last year. She got a slot on Later with Jools Holland and played to a sold out [800 capacity] Islington Assembly Hall [in April 2018].”

Bridgewater can feel the Americana craze on the recorded side of things. “We tend to release around 10 albums a year whereas five years ago, it was more likely to be around six per year. But we are a small company and we need to give all our artists a chance to succeed so even 10 albums a year is a lot for us. Just under half of our sales are CDs with vinyl and digital sharing the remaining sales fairly evenly. This is doubtless a reflection of the age and demographic of our core audience,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Americana artists don’t have an online audience as well. “The Handsome Family were the first band that Loose signed 20 years ago and they’ve been with us ever since. A few years back their song ‘Far From Any Road’ became the theme tune to HBO’s ‘True Detective.’ The song has now had 24.5 million views on YouTube, and the band play sold out shows all over Europe, so its incredibly gratifying what the band have achieved through talent, hard work and sheer determination.” 
Probably the biggest indicator of the genre’s popularity is the launch of two new Americana Festivals in 2018: Black Deer Festival, and The Long Road.
The former takes place in Eridge Park, Kent, June 22-24. Iron & Wine, Passenger, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, and Ward Thomas lead the lineup. The site has a capacity for 30,000 people, but promoters Deborah Shilling and Gill Tee set their sight at a maximum of 10,000 in the first year. “We are pushing hard at the moment and if we reach 10k we’d be delighted, but this is our first year and we are realistic,” Tee told Pollstar.
“Both Debs and I have been in this business a long time and know most of all how important it is to grow organically, to gather support, momentum and be attentive to learnings in order to nurture what we have,” she said, adding that “ticket sales are doing well, and we would like to think that by the time the festival opens its doors, we would have achieved our goals.”
Eridge Park in Kent, England
– Eridge Park in Kent, England
The site of Black Deer Festival, June 22-24

The Long Road, which takes place in Leicestershire, England, Sept. 7-9, is promoted by Baylen Leonard and U-Live, Universal Music’s live music arm. Leonard was born in Bristol, Tennessee, and “grew up with Country, Americana, and Roots music in my blood.” He was one of the few people to give Americana a platform on radio in the U.K. The Long Road is the first Country, Americana, and Roots festival by U-Live, and “to have that commitment from them is a real marker of the faith they have in those genres,” according to Leonard.
“When I first started my radio shows concentrating on this music in the U.K. it felt like a niche audience, a very dedicated and informed audience, but still niche, and that just isn’t the case anymore; Americana and Country are true buzz words and they are both so broad and varied, people are figuring out there’s something for everyone. The growth of the annual AMA U.K. Awards and The AmericanaFest U.K. proves the point,” said Leonard, referring to the AMA’s U.K. Americana Awards, which debuted in 2016, welcoming 250 people. In 2018, the event took place in the sold-out 1,800 capacity Hackney Empire, including live performances by Robert Plant and Mumford & Sons.
Stanford Hall in Leicestershire, England
– Stanford Hall in Leicestershire, England
This is where The Long Road Festival will debut, Sept. 7-9.

Leonard reckons it took a while for the U.K. to get it: “Just because it has the word America in the genre, it doesn’t have to be done by Americans. Americana is a genre that belongs to all, and no matter where you are from, you can make, like, and embrace Americana music,” he said.
For Tee, the rise of Americana cannot be viewed as an isolated case, but rather as part of “an all-encompassing experience of rich cultures that adapt to modern customs. From the increased interest in the BBQ scene using authentic smokehouse practices, to the rise in the custom motorcycle culture, artisan skills to craft produce; the story of Americana cannot be told without referencing these counter cultures along the way.“