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Country Music Knows What You Did This Summer: Streamed the Hell Out of Its Artists

Country music is this summer’s streaming powerhouse. That fact was all but cemented on Monday when “I Remember Everything,” Zach Bryan’s duet with Kacey Musgraves, became the fourth consecutive country song over the course of six weeks to hold the Number One slot on Billboard’s Hot 100.

With more than 32 million streams, the most of any song on the charts this week, “I Remember Everything” is the latest success story in country’s digital revolution, an undeniable trend that has sent songs to the top of the chart and reshaped the look of the genre along the way.

But Bryan, whose self-titled new album also debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 albums chart, is just one example of streaming’s impact on country music. A third of the 15 most streamed albums this year are country albums. Led by a handful of younger breakthrough stars like Hardy, Bailey Zimmerman, and, most notably, Morgan Wallen — as well as established superstars like Luke Combs, whose career ignited digital-first six years ago — the genre has grown 22 percent in consumption over the first eight months of 2023, according to Luminate, making it the second-fastest-growing core genre behind only World Music.

Fueled most directly by streaming, Wallen has become one of music’s marquee superstars with the biggest album and one of the biggest singles of the year in One Thing at a Time and “Last Night.” Along with being the best-selling record overall at more than 4 million album equivalents, One Thing at a Time is also by far the most streamed album in the country with over 4.8 billion streams — about 2 billion more than second place SZA’s SOS.

With about 274,000 units sold, Wallen’s album doesn’t even land in the Top Five for traditional sales this year. Instead, he is the poster child for streaming in country, paving the way for other country artists to find a whole new audience outside of traditional radio. Combs’ version of “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman’s 1988 folk-rock ballad, is also bringing new fans to streaming. To date, the song has 375 million streams according to Luminate, and has spent much of the summer floating in the Top Three on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart. 

While Wallen and Combs have also been championed by country radio, Bryan has completely skirted that system, making his massive success all the more startling (his new album also debuted at Number One on the country albums chart). At about one million album-equivalent units in 2023, his double album American Heartbreak is the 10th best-performing record across all genres this year, with Wallen’s One Thing at a Time and Dangerous: The Double Album, and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) as the only country albums that have done better. Signed to L.A.-based Warner Records, he’s proven he doesn’t need radio support — according to Luminate, last week, Bryan only had just over 1,300 radio spins. 

It’s a trajectory that Jon Loba, president of Broken Bow Records Music Group and BMG Nashville, says likely wouldn’t have worked a decade ago, when radio was still country’s kingmaker.

“I think certainly the path that Zach has taken, with the success he’s had, that probably wouldn’t have been possible,” Loba tells Rolling Stone. “Everything would have been pushed to Nashville. There would have had to be a decision by executives in Nashville: Do we feel like this makes sense or not? To an extent, there was a certain process you went through with respect to country gatekeepers, and streaming allowed Zach to build completely around that.”

The face of country music’s streaming uptick doesn’t belong solely to Bryan and Wallen though. It’s also covered in tattoos, has a background in rap and rock, and a name more evocative of candy than cowboys. Jelly Roll, a Nashville area native born Jason DeFord, is an artist whose unconventional-for-country appeal likely wouldn’t have succeeded either if left solely to the old gatekeepers. Like Bryan, his audience was formed online and has since crossed over to rock and country radio listeners.

“Streaming and socials made radio more comfortable with giving him a shot because they could see the connection with his audience already,” says Loba, whose label group oversees Stoney Creek Records, Jelly Roll’s label home. “Jelly Roll spent a decade building an audience through socials and streaming, but when he decided he was ready to move to wider genres and we made that ask at radio, it happened quickly. A decade ago, if we would’ve tried this, we would’ve had a tougher battle getting him radio exposure.” 

But streaming alone isn’t the whole story of country’s hot summer. Oliver Anthony topped the charts for two weeks with his surprise viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond,” and Jason Aldean took Number One in July with his controversial “Try That in a Small Town.” In both of those cases, support from conservative influencers and unusually high digital song sales were the main factors pushing those songs to Number One.

“Rich Men” and “Small Town,” however, are more anomalies than standard-bearers for what’s happening in the genre. Aldean’s song shot to Number One, only to fall about 20 places a week later when sales dried up, while “Rich Men,” which is at Number Six this week, has kept competitive because of consistent streaming numbers after traditional sales fell. 

So why is country taking off now? The most likely scenario would suggest that country’s main demographic — older and still major consumers of radio and digital downloads — is finally catching up to streaming.

“It’s inevitable,” says Mandelyn Monchick, who manages country music’s latest rising superstar Lainey Wilson. “It’s about accessibility, and streaming is most accessible. Country is cooler than it’s ever been and more people depend on streaming platforms, but people’s tastes are changing and broadening.”

With country finding its footing in streaming after a slow start by its fans to embrace the technology, the overall genre is now reaping some of the audience cultivated by Wallen, Bryan, and Jelly Roll. Jaime Marconette, Luminate’s senior director of music insights and industry relations, attributes country’s streaming boom to new Gen Z and Millennial country listeners. 

“What we’ve really started to see this year is a new, younger Gen Z country fan that is extremely streaming focused,” Marconette says. “And they’ve been more tuned in to discovering music than even other Gen Z listeners. This is a new consumer that we’ve started to see, and we’re also now starting to see the effects of their streaming power.”

Still, Marconette says older fans warming to streaming is moving the needle too, particularly as the pandemic kept the world stuck at home and forced more listeners to experiment with Spotify, AppleMusic, and other streaming services. Loba, meanwhile, says the older country audience is catching on to streaming partly out of necessity. Walmart, BBR Music Group’s largest retailer, is scaling back on selling physical CDs as the medium continues to fall. 

There is one unfortunate constant so far in country’s new streaming stars, however: Save for a few female exceptions like Wilson and “Tennessee Orange” singer Megan Moroney, they’re almost exclusively white male artists. With country’s streaming era still in its infancy, it’s easy to wonder if the genre will repeat its same mistakes with terrestrial radio and limit the diversity of artists who can break through. 

Loba and Monchick don’t think that will happen. They cite streaming artists’ already proven ability to find audiences outside of country’s traditional, and myopic, means. 

“I think it provides a fantastic opportunity for diversification of the genre,” Loba says. “I am certainly hopeful on the label side. It definitely gives us even more confidence to sign more diverse acts, because we feel like there is that opportunity to directly connect with that consumer and not rely solely on gatekeepers.”


Monchick says it all comes down to the music and whose ear it catches. She is optimistic about Meg McRee, another young female singer she manages, who, like Wilson and Bryan, is hard to define as just country but whose sound appeals to country fans.  

“The community that embraces you is what can drive the affiliation with genre. Even if your music is more rock-leaning, but you’re in Nashville and your connections are with the country playlisters, you’re probably going to end up on country playlists,” Monchick says. “There’s a new wave brewing.”

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