How Amazon Music Is Making Country More Dynamic

Through artist discovery and original content, the streaming service is helping break new stars.

Written by Chris Parton
How Amazon Music Is Making Country More Dynamic
Kolby Cooper; Photo courtesy of BBR Music Group

October marks Country Music Month for Amazon Music, and as the streaming service celebrates all things country with brand-new songs, live-streaming events and more, it’s also showing how it intends to embrace the country-music future.

Already impacting the way country fans get their music, Amazon Music may also be one of the leading forces in helping diversify the format, as it drives fans to a whole new wave of artists and music they might enjoy – but weren’t exposed to before.

In short, they’re showing that on Amazon Music new stars are being formed all the time … and since it’s Amazon, they’ve got the data to back it up.

Announced at the start of Country Music Month, the DSP says their Country Heat brand (which includes its playlist, station and DJ-mode station) has now crossed 13 Billion plays since it was founded in 2016, and from 2017 to 2020, streams of the Country Heat station nearly quadrupled. But a tantalizing part of those figures is this: It’s not all big names driving the growth.

“When we released that 13 Billion number, it wasn’t just streams from superstar acts,” says Emily Cohen, Amazon Music’s Global Head of Country Music Programming, and Principle Country Music Curator. “It was also reflective of emerging artists.”

According to internal data, some of Amazon Music’s most-popular artists have actually been names that are either still considered “rising stars,” or are still largely under the radar. In fact, Gabby Barrett and Niko Moon have the top two most-streamed songs on the Amazon Music country chart in 2021, with “The Good Ones” and “Good Time” going toe-to-toe against superstars like Blake Shelton, Kane Brown and Luke Combs – and even eclipsing them.

It’s partially because of Amazon Music’s approach to playlist streaming, which in the long run, seems like it could be a great thing for fans. Not only does it inject more variety into the format’s upper echelons, but the fans themselves seem to like it just fine.

“My job is to say ‘How do we get our customers music we know they already have an appetite for, but also serve them artists that I feel like they will also really love – like Niko Moon or Gabby Barrett, or Kolby Cooper,” Cohen explains, speaking with Sounds Like Nashville just before a big Reba McEntire livestream. “I feel really lucky because all my co-workers and I, we really want songs to be hits … And I think developing artists is really important just in terms of championing great music. …

“All the work we’ve done with Niko Moon and Gabby Barrett, Kidd G, it’s all part of that,” she goes on. “And I think it’s incredibly important.”

Emily Cohen, Global Head of Country Music Programming – Amazon Music (Photo credit: Jason Myers)

Ever since started selling physical CDs, Cohen says, the company has had a unique connection with country. But now with Amazon Music Unlimited, that connection is stronger than ever. Country is one of the biggest streaming formats on Amazon Music overall, which is not the case for other DSPs. And although that may not be entirely surprising, given that Garth Brooks chose to make it the sole on-demand home for his studio albums back in 2016, it means country gets a bit of special attention.

In fact, Cohen has the enviable job of listening to new music and deciding if it’s something country fans would want to hear. She and her team program all of the country playlists and channels in the U.S. – which includes Country Heat, but also the rest of what they call a “ladder,” bringing new artists and songs into that top-streamed playlist.

For example, a track like Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” might start out on the Breakthrough Country playlist, then rise up to Fresh Country, and finally get the bump up to Country Heat. It’s Cohen’s job to make sure the playlists reflect where fans are at.

“I think it always starts with the music, but you do have to take the ego out of it,” she says of picking songs to highlight. “And then, if you see something consistently working, it’s interesting. I love Gabby Barrett, I think she’s amazingly talented and when ‘I Hope’ came out, I thought it was a fresh take on a breakup song. That started to chart on our service before she was even signed [to a record label], kind of coming off [American] Idol as an independent. To me that’s really interesting, it was like ‘Whoa, something is going on here – and bonus, I love it and want to champion it!’”

Barrett has gone on to become one of the fastest-rising stars of the last two years, so that early bet seems like a good one. But it’s not just picking winners (or the new 3D and Ultra HD audio) that sets Amazon Music apart. It’s also the way they focus on up-and-coming acts.

Amazon Music has dedicated developing-artist programs like “Breakthrough” and “Launchpad” that bring added support and visibility to fresh faces, helping give artists like Barrett and Moon an exposure boost. That exposure comes naturally to country’s established stars, but it can make a huge difference for newer ones – and it was especially important as COVID-19 kept them apart from fans.

“Over the past year-and-a-half, it’s been awesome to see us pivot, and see how we can still bring artists to their fans and our customers,” Cohen says.

They’ve done that with live streaming superstar events like the aforementioned concert and Q&A with Reba McEntire, but also for emerging stars like Ingrid Andress – who was the subject of a documentary about her first Grammy nomination – and importantly, with the Amazon Originals series.

The series is a presentation of exclusive songs fans won’t hear elsewhere, featuring the biggest stars and newer acts alike, and for Country Music Month, they’ve upped their game. With a weekly rollout of fresh content, recent releases include Walker Hayes and Carin Leon’s Spanish-language remix of “Fancy Like,” Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce’s acoustic rendition of “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” and an upcoming unheard track from Ryan Hurd.

But the latest installment is a perfect example of Amazon Music’s commitment to giving fans new things to love. Out today (October 15) is the previously unreleased “Storm’s Coming” from riser Kolby Cooper.

“It’s a really creative and collaborative endeavor,” Cohen says of the Amazon Originals series. “It’s like ‘What do you want to do? What don’t you get to do on your record that you want to do now? … With Kolby, that’s a completely original song, which is really exciting to have.”

Rolling in like a romantic thunderstorm, the track is all passion and pounding hearts from an artist already making waves in Texas, who may be on the verge of a larger breakout. Featuring a static-charged country sound and a vocal that cuts through the tension like a knife, it’s all about holding on for dear love as a fight rips across the plains of an otherwise solid relationship, and Cohen thinks it’s a hit.

“I love it. I’m so impressed by him, because he’s so young,” she says. “It’s an anthem, and for lack of a better term, very sexy. He’s very much a part of the Texas scene and has built a really rabid fanbase there, and we had sort of seen his name around for a while … a fantastic songwriter. It’s like ‘Ok, I think there’s something here. Let’s follow this path.’”

“This song is one I’ve been really excited about since we wrote it,” Cooper says. “It was one of those songs that came together fast. Then when we got in the studio, we decided to experiment with some different sounds like the dobro, and it came out exactly how I wanted. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it, and hope they love it as much as I do.”

Chris Graham, Principal Artist Relations Manager for Amazon Music, agrees.

“In working with artists on Amazon Original songs, we love to collaborate and find the perfect fit creatively, whether it’s a reimagined song in their catalog, a cover, or an entirely new track,” he says. “This new song from Kolby is incredible, his voice is on another level and we know his fans will love it.”

It’s just a small bit of evidence of how mainstream country is changing, becoming more accessible to more artists – and also how people like Cohen can have an impact on both individual careers and the format as a whole. But maybe more importantly, it shows that it was never just about celebrity for country fans. They’re in it for the songs.

“I think the main goal for Amazon Music is just to continue providing cutting-edge programming for our customers, and to try to champion newer artists, as well as established artists,” Cohen says. “I don’t want to take a foot off of the gas, I want to do more, and figure out ways to work with artists in meaningful ways – to bring them closer with their fans and our customers. For me that’s the most important thing.”