Music

Luke Combs’ Sold-Out Global Tour Provides CMA With Vital Data as Country’s Popularity Soars Around the World

This year, country music’s popularity has not only surged in the United States, but globally as well. 

No one knows that better than Luke Combs. As part of his WME-booked 44-show 2023 tour, the superstar played in 16 countries, one of the most expansive outings ever by a country artist. In addition to sold-out stadium dates in the U.S., Combs spent August through October playing 23 sold-out shows — primarily in arenas — in New Zealand, Australia and in 12 European countries.

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Combs’ efforts have earned him the Country Music Association’s 2023 international artist achievement award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by a U.S.-based artist who has demonstrated significant growth and development outside of the U.S., and has helped promote the country music industry. 

The CMA took advantage of Combs’ tour to find out more about country music’s international fans and to help spread the word of the genre’s popularity abroad by embedding Milly Olykan, CMA’s vp of international relations and development on several tour dates. 

Unlike pop and rock artists, country artists haven’t toured internationally as often, but with streaming dominating discovery, borders have come down, making it easier for international audiences to learn about country artists. 

Combs’ ticket sales were propelled by soaring streaming numbers for country acts like him, Morgan Wallen and Lainey Wilson internationally. On-demand audio and video streams for country music are up 24% in the U.S. through the third quarter of 2023 over the same time frame last year, according to data provided to the CMA by Luminate, and other territories are seeing even bigger growth. The U.K. experienced 34.7% growth in country music streaming over the same time, with September breaking the record for most country streams in a month at 213 million. Germany saw 33% growth and Canada 32% growth. 

Combs’ audience has been growing steadily internationally. The two-time CMA entertainer of the year has accumulated more than 5 billion streams outside of the U.S. over the last six years, according to his label, Sony Music Nashville. In addition to expected strong markets such as Canada and Australia, Combs has seen tremendous growth in other territories, including year-over-year streaming increases of 128% in Ireland and 166% in the Netherlands and 130% in Sweden, partially boosted by the success of his international hit cover of  Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” 

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Combs’ manager, Make Wake’s Chris Kappy, studied the analytics, but he also was aware of the international demand for Combs based on anecdotal evidence, including emails from Combs’ passionate base, social media and fans who were traveling from overseas to U.S. dates. “When I’m seeing ‘Luke, come to Sweden,’ ‘Come to New Zealand,’ and you look at the analytics and see that Sydney has more people in it that want [to see] Luke than markets where we’re doing double stadiums, I was like, ‘We’ve got to pay attention to this,’” he says.

Kappy positioned the international tour to Combs as a mission much bigger than just expanding his own audience. 

“I sat him down and said, ‘Look, man, this is an investment in your career, this is an investment in country music, this is an investment in taking the genre to the next level,’” Kappy says. “’You’re not going to make as much money as you do in [the United States], but you’re going to put the entire genre on your back, and you’re going to take it to the people and you’re going to show promoters, DSPs, record labels, publishers [and] venue buyers that country music is not only alive and well, but as strong or stronger than any other format that can tour over there.’ And he did it.”

Though he says he didn’t feel like an ambassador for country music, “I knew that’s what we were trying to do,” Combs says. “That was the ultimate goal. I’m going to give the credit to Kappy for that. That was his vision from day one. He was adamant that this was bigger than United States and Canada. No [country act] has ever been fully in. But you not only get to grow the genre, you get to extend the lifetime of your career.”

Combs first toured internationally in 2018, starting in clubs. Though he had been to many cities on the 2023 international leg before, there were certain territories, such as three dates in Scandinavia, where he had “never set foot in and he sold out arenas in all three,” Kappy says. 

Tickets went on sale in August 2022 and in many markets, smaller venues were upgraded to arenas when it was clear the demand was there. In a few markets, like Paris, where Combs played the 950-seat La Cigale, or in Brussels at the 740-seat Ancienne Belgique, restrictions on moving shows kept him from being able to relocate despite the potential to sell more tickets.

Combs says playing a handful of smaller venues provided some adjustments for him and for his crew now that he’s a stadium act. “It was a huge challenge to my team to adapt to that size venue,” after playing stadiums and arenas. “We’re lugging 45 guys into a venue that has dressing rooms for 10.” Ultimately, though, he says the Paris show provided some of the best memories of the tour. “We started by playing the bar scene and didn’t realize how much we miss doing that,” he says. “It was cool to get to do that again.” 

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Kappy says the outside-U.S. dates broke even, and next time Combs tours internationally, he will likely be in stadiums. “We could have already done stadiums in Australia, but we couldn’t get them because the Women’s World Cup was at the same time,” Kappy says.

For the CMA’s Olykan, Combs’ tour was the perfect outing to join. 

“I knew I had to leverage Luke Combs’ shows because he’s been building an international audience,” Olykan says. “He was the only one doing a world tour like this and had already done some international touring, so he was the poster child for me to attach myself to.” 

Olykan’s purpose was two-pronged: to educate the international market on country music and, upon her return, to educate the U.S. country industry on her findings on potential global markets. 

Coordinating with the local Sony office in different territories, Olykan held CMA-funded receptions in eight markets, including Auckland, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg and London. The guest list included local promoters and media, as well as festival, label, streaming and radio executives. “I just knew if I could get those people to the show and around country music in the market, I knew they would [discover] it’s a young audience,” she says. “I was trying to have a converting moment for the industry in the local markets. We’ve engaged an industry around there [who] can lean in now when they hear about country music because they know the potential.”

From her time with Combs, Olykan especially sees growth potential in the Nordic countries. “If artists continue to go to the Nordics, they’re going to build good arena business there and eventually there will be a country music festival that will be a tentpole kind of moment for them,” she says. Based on her findings, the Nordics could leapfrog Germany as the next big country market, joining already established markets like the U.K. and Australia.

In additional to the cocktail parties, the CMA conducted surveys with Combs’ audiences. Though that information is still being tabulated, among the questions asked were how attendees discovered Combs, their listening habits in terms of radio and streaming and their ages. “That data will inform us and we’ll use it to talk to the industry here,” Olykan says, adding that the information will be shared with CMA’s members.

The activities expand on connections the CMA already has established based on existing task forces Olykan set up in the U.K., Canada, the Nordics, Australia and Germany. She meets with the task forces, which include industry executives, every two months.

The CMA also aligns with the Country 2 Country festival (C2C), which takes place every March in London, Glasgow, Belfast, Rotterdam and Berlin. CMA programs the opening slot on the shows with a lineup of new country artists. Based on Olykan’s research, this year, in addition to providing talent for C2C, the CMA will bring a number of developing artists for shows in Stockholm and Oslo. 

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