Milly Olykan, Country Music Association
Jeff Krones, CAA
Mandelyn Monchick, Red Light Management
Curt Motley, UTA
Tara Traub, Live Nation
Stacy Vee, Goldenvoice
While the panel is labeled a “genre spotlight,” this group on the final day of Pollstar Live! made it abundantly clear that “genre” no longer carries much meaning. But nomenclature aside, country music is indeed in the midst of a renaissance on record and on the road.
Led by Country Music Association’s Milly Olykan, the panel represented a broad slice of the country music ecosystem, with promoters like Goldenvoice’s Stacy Vee and Live Nation’s Tara Traub holding court alongside agents Jeff Krones of CAA and Curt Motley of UTA, and Mandelyn Monchick of Red Light Management, who steers the career of country’s arguably hottest newcomer, Lainey Wilson, fresh from a Grammy win for Best Country Album for Bell Bottom Country.
The business of country is booming, with some of the most successful touring artists on the road, turning streaming and airplay success into sold-out stadiums, sheds and arenas. Established stars like George Strait and Shania Twain occupied the upper echelons of Pollstar Boxoffice charts in 2023, but they shared those upper rungs with newcomers including Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan.
She ran through some impressive statistics to make her point: Country music streaming doubled its growth rate to 22% while the industry rate as a whole was at 15%. It’s among the top genres in on-demand streaming, running nearly even with Latin and Latin Country categories.
That growth not only dovetails with the Latin music explosion of the least few years, but country has gone global as well. Olykan alluded to the cross-genre explosion, as well. “We’re having a really amazing time, as [country] is known as a genre right now. So if you’re starting to work in country music, you’re coming in at the right time.”
“I mention that because we know how exciting that growth potential is, and we’re right there with it,” Olykan adds. “And in the U.S., 51% of adults listen to country music monthly or more in Canada. They had a 32% growth rate last year in Australia, the largest market for country music outside of North America. It’s a massive market for country music. What about the UK? They’re up 40% on the year before and Germany was up 30%. In both cases, they’re tripling the industry’s growth rate. Something is happening, y’all.”
But for all the highs, Olykan reminded the full house of the lows, too, including the passing of country music superstar Toby Keith – who was represented by Motley – who died Feb. 5 of stomach cancer.
“So if you have a red Solo cup this week, do give a toast to Toby Keith,” Olyan said, “His country music will always ride high while this low pulls on our heartstrings.”
Among the previous week’s highs, “On Sunday we saw Tracy Chapman performing her now twice global hit with Luke Combs, a special moment followed by Lainey Wilson picking up her Grammy for Best Country Album.”
Chapman’s performance with Combs of “Fast Car,” was not only a highlight of the Grammy broadcast, but an example of the smudging of lines between what’s traditionally been known as “country” music and other music forms.
Combs earned a nomination for Best Country Solo Performance for his crossover smash cover of Chapman’s song, originally released in 1988 and winner for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, as well as nominations in the all-inclusive Record and Song of the Year categories.
Krone pointed out that what all genres have in common is “great storytelling” and it’s how artists like Jelly Roll, Post Malone and others are finding success in the embrace of the country community.
Vee is largely behind the booking and genre cross-pollination of Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival, and has booked the likes of Diplo and Nelly on Indio, California, stages alongside Brooks & Dunn and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives.
She’s also known for her ear for new talent, which Taub acknowledged by saying, “In some ways, we’re rivals but I have to thank her for introducing me to many new artists,” including emerging artists who are less easy to categorize by genre.
“It works, because the fans aren’t just listening to one kind of music,” Vee said. “They listen to country music. They also listen to rap and hip-hop. And they all want to go to Stagecoach.”
Krone took the cue to point out to the audience that country music listeners have for too long been the subjected to unfair stereotypes. “They have educations, they have jobs, they have different interests. They don’t all live in rural areas.”
Motley chimed in, bringing a little heat to the proceedings. “Country music fans are not the [stereotype of] hillbillies out on the farm,” he said, his voice raising slightly. “They wear suits and ties, too,” underscoring the point that it’s a mistake to pigeonhole either country music or its fan base.
Monchick is able to point to her own client, Lainey Wilson, as an example of how to appeal to the broad swath of music fans to whom country music appeals.
Olyan introduced Monchick noting the singer’s meteoric rise in the last three years, and what she’s been able to leverage as a manager to help Wilson expedite growth within and beyond what some may think of as country’s “genre” limitations.
“There was sort of an evolution with Lainey during the pandemic, and with the rise of the show ‘Yellowstone’ and being able to be part of that show and especially integrate her music in it,” Monchick said. But when it comes to what best connected Wilson to new fans is her authenticity. Her songs, her storytelling certainly factor in but what they find is “just the whole Western country lifestyle became more popular than it had ever been, at least in our adulthood,” she said. “It’s the fashion. Itss the way of life. It’s that we can draw everything that Lainey has been a part of, back to who she is authentically, and it’s a lifestyle that people are really gravitating to, the feeling of being grounded and everything she does points to that. She’s been really good at threading the needle.
“But it’s all it all kind of ties back to the pillars that we have to define her with her. You know, we’ve got her fashion, we’ve got her faith and inspiration. We’ve got her Western lifestyle. And, she’s just been able to point back to her music with a lot of other endeavors, and that’s been really important for her as well.”