Destiny Or Disruption? A New Generation Of Country Stars Crashes The Rodeo

Zach Bryan
DARK HORSE: Zach Bryan, performing at Railbird Music Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, June 3, is country music’s latest — but not the only — touring phenom to break out in a big way in 2023. (Photo by AP Photo / Amy Harris / Invision)

Nashville used to be called a “10-year town,” in that it could take a decade to develop an artist to the point of otherwise being considered an overnight sensation, seeming to come out of nowhere with a string of hits and selling massive numbers of concert tickets.

Those days could be numbered, as acts like cover artist Jelly Roll (see cover story), Zach Bryan, Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs and more share the top of Pollstar Boxoffice charts with the likes of country veterans such as George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and Reba McEntire.

There’s a disruption happening to the tried and true, traditional methods of artist development.

It doesn’t mean artists are necessarily skipping steps, but the proliferation of social media and streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify and TikTok means it’s taking far less time for an artist to grow a fanbase, market themselves and gather tons of data for teams to accurately determine when, where and what those steps will be. Artist development is still a carefully strategized, deliberate process – it’s just accelerated.

For instance, agent Hunter Williams of CAA points out that as recently as 2021, Jelly Roll was averaging sales of around 2,500 tickets per show. In less than two years, his box office average is approaching 15,000 per show on his “Backroad Baptism” tour.

“There’s a perfect storm that’s happened in the last few years,” Williams says. “With social media, you have the ability for artists to reach larger demographics, get more exposure in a much quicker fashion. Add in new, fresh artists and new energy into the whole ecosystem and you have a recipe for super-fast growth in general. That’s what I believe is going on. And it’s a good thing for country.”

Jelly Roll “didn’t just blow up overnight,” Williams says. “He was playing clubs for years before things really started taking off. It’s kind of a microcosm of country music in general, and how these artists like Zach Bryan and Morgan Wallen and others blew up so quickly. Jelly’s got a community out there. It feels like people want him to win and all this adds up to selling tickets.”

And these platforms provide data. Lots of it. Data that can be used to develop careers, pinpoint where the most engaged fans are, and find those pockets of fans that live in regions your next tour routing should visit.

“We use the data even more so at a better and a more developmental level,” Williams says. “When you’re going from, say, 1,000-cap paths to 3,000 or 4,000 and making the next jump, we actually used that data and really dove into it. We’re always looking at the data analytics. It’s very telling where your larger markets are.

“One thing we’ve realized is that we’re seeing a lot of fans traveling this year. Analytics helps you understand where these fans are traveling from. We know where they are and, in the next play, make sure we’re not crossing those paths too much. And it comes down to ticket data analytics as well. We’re always trying to use as much information as we can.”
Wallen, who was playing mainly clubs and theaters until 2022, is now selling out stadiums. Bailey Zimmerman is getting an up-close look as Wallen’s opener, and could be poised to launch his own career juggernaut from there.

Zimmerman’s agent, Adi Sharma of The Neal Agency, is acutely aware of the power of social media to affect careers as it did Wallen’s.

“There is an audience out there that wants to hear what he says,” Sharma says. “He’s giving voice to people.”

But social media and streaming platforms do more than give fans a voice. “It is disruption!” he says. “You’re seeing the power of every social media platform, whether it be TikTok, Instagram or Spotify, and fans dictate what they want to hear. Because of that, you’re seeing these artists that can kind of just come out of left field and break big.”

Zach Bryan is a prime example of the new generation of emerging artists who appeared to suddenly jump from small-town music halls to at least a brief run of NFL stadiums on his 2024 itinerary. A U.S. Navy veteran, he was still in the service when he started playing and uploading his music to YouTube in 2017.

His first appearance in Pollstar’s Boxoffice is a livestreamed Circle TV/Opry Live show in April, 2021, followed by festival plays at Railbird in Lexington, Kentucky, and Basilica Block Party in Minneapolis. Over the next two years, Bryan parlayed festival plays, opening slots with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Willie Nelson and Luke Combs and select one-offs into bigger rooms. His first full arena headlining tour, “Burn, Burn, Burn,” launched at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia, in May. In June, he returned to Railbird as a headliner.

Since then, he’s sold out two nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, shows at the 20,000-cap T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and Arena in Los Angeles and announced “The Quittin Time Tour” of major market arenas – including several multiple nights – and seven NFL stadiums.

‘Zach’s able to resonate uniquely with an audience, says agent Seth Seigle of WME. “And I think the people around Zach were quick to see that and to employ a strategy to try to connect with those fans quickly and with authenticity. I don’t believe Zach has a traditional radio campaign. I don’t believe Zach has traditional publicity campaigns. I think Zach and his management team have been really smart about how to remain authentic, and that has just struck a chord with a great deal of people. We watch the data and listen to the data … and the ticket sales have been staggering.”

Seigle says Bryan and his team haven’t skipped any steps getting to the stadium level. But more and better data pointing the team to where the fans are has accelerated that trajectory.

“As we look to play bigger rooms, we’re looking at where the consumption is, and we’re looking at historical references,” Seigle says.

“Zach’s played successfully in a lot of big festivals as a headliner, sold out situations, and the sales patterns were such that we believed [stadium plays were possible]. We played to 30,000 or 40,000 in Lexington, Kentucky, and there wasn’t another ticket to sell. There was a festival event in San Diego on Dec. 30 at Petco Park that sold 40,000 tickets months in advance. That was very telling.

“We’re being very judicious because it’s not just stadiums,” Seigle adds. “We don’t want to lose the intimacy. We’re doing our best to be available. But when your last measure was 21 or 22 million monthlies on Spotify, and we believe the data in front of us is valid, that’s only further confirmed by the ticket sales.” s