Music

Now That Country Has Gone Digital, So Has the Corner Office at Some Nashville Labels

When Annie Ortmeier was appointed co-president at Triple Tigers in September, one of the programs she undertook was retooling Scotty McCreery’s online presence.

One person, rather than an independent firm, was devoted to the singer’s social media, and in the first six months, his email list doubled in size alongside growth in his streaming and his online followers. When McCreery received the trophy for CMT digital-first performance prior to the CMT Music Awards on April 7, it marked his first win at that ceremony in 12 years, and Ortmeier took it as a sign that their revised marketing efforts are working.

“We made voting a part of our social media strategies since the nominations came out,” she says. “I can’t help but think that had a lot to do with him winning that award.”

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Ortmeier and Warner Music Nashville co-president/co-chair Ben Kline are the first two country label heads whose paths to leadership included working full time in digital marketing. Ortmeier’s journey started in 2004 at CMT.com, where she ventured into ecommerce for CMT, VH1, VH1 Classic and Comedy Central. She segued into digital marketing for Universal Music Group Nashville.

Kline started more traditionally in the 1990s with the pop divisions of PolyGram and Island before joining UMGN in 1997, staying in Nashville for a dozen years. By the end of that run, new media had become part of his job title. He left to work for three years at InGrooves, a company focused strictly on distributing and marketing music online. It was a key piece of his development as a 21st-century music executive prior to his 2014 return to Nashville with WMN.

“Every decision we made [at InGrooves] was viewed through the digital lens, and we were raising money and going through a couple rounds of funding, and the conversations all were digital: ‘What’s the future? What’s next? What are the growth patterns?’” he recalls. “It was a digital-driven business, and you had to understand the ins and outs of how to speak to consumers and speak to partners in that space.”

Both Kline and Ortmeier first devoted their efforts to digital music and promotion full time in an era when CDs and airplay were still the primary vehicles for the country genre. Their early commitment to then-new platforms uniquely positioned them to take label reins once the industry’s drivers flipped.

“I was working in streaming when it was 15% of the business,” Ortmeier recalls of her earlier UMGN work. In more recent years, “it was 85% of the business. So it completely inverted.”

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Label leadership has changed dramatically in Nashville. In the earliest years of the business, record company heads — including Chet Atkins at RCA, Owen Bradley at Decca and Ken Nelson at Capitol — tended to be producers. It made sense; labels earned their money by selling singles and albums that were exposed through radio, and producers generally had a handle on the sounds that worked on-air. But as the industry increasingly relied on the sales of more expensive albums, record companies more frequently gave the top position to promotion and marketing execs, including Joe Galante at RCA, Bruce Hinton at MCA and Rick Blackburn at CBS.

Now that artists and labels reach listeners through virtual platforms, the industry’s central companies are turning to people who were on the front lines as those new avenues emerged, providing more data than was ever available before. Understanding that information is key to every modern marketing plan. But knowing when to apply humanity to the numbers is just as important.

“Data can make smart people look dumb or make dumb decisions,” Kline reasons. “Analytics and data help inform, but it can’t be how your decisions are all based. Gut and instinct and knowledge and past experience — they all have to play a role.”

One of the key lessons of past experience, however, is that the past may not be much of a predictor for how to reach fans in the future. Taylor Swift famously built some of her earliest fan base on Myspace, which is now a quaint relic with outdated accounts. Luke Combs came to prominence by introducing his music on Vine, which was shut down in 2017.

“Whatever is working today, enjoy it today, because it may not work tomorrow with the digital world,” Kline says.

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That same digital environment has radically changed the way that labels and artists find one another. In another era, artists’ consumer marketing started primarily after they signed a recording deal and started releasing music. Now the artist already has a fan base before labels will even consider a signing, and the act is usually savvier about how to interact with that audience. Thus, meetings with an artist in 2024 are different than they would have been in, say, 1994.

“They’re creating fans, they’re talking to them, they’re sharing music, they’re getting their music heard,” says Kline. “Think about the stories that artists bring by the time they go sign deals versus what it was 30 years ago. I mean, it’s unbelievable, so the conversation has to change.”

Similarly, that overall country audience is different. Streaming platforms make more artists and more genres available, so even core country listeners are likely to ingest a wider range of music. Similarly, the genre is accessible to a much larger slice of the population. Thus, the current Beyoncè moment is possible, in part, because of streaming. Cowboy Carter is connecting because she was able to harness her established audience in addition to appealing directly to country fans. Had she attempted to cross over in ’94, her primary options of exposure would have been late-night TV appearances, prominent in-store placement and whatever radio play she could muster. PDs who were protective of country’s identity would have felt reluctant to give a playlist slot to a pop singer who was likely to stick around for only one album.

“It does open up a consumer who never thought they were a country fan, much like Garth Brooks did 30-plus years ago,” Ortmeier suggests. 

The shift to digital marketing and distribution in country directly aided the rise of Kline and Ortmeier to label leadership. Streaming is here to stay, so it’s a good bet that these two execs are setting what could be a long-term precedent.

“I do think,” predicts Ortmeier, “that there will be others behind us.”

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