This weekend, the Highway will offer another platform for singers in a time when the music industry has been temporarily crippled by the novel coronavirus pandemic: “Stagecouch Weekend,” in place of the annual Stagecoach festival in California. Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church and more will perform during the three-day event, which runs Friday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., on satellite radio and the SiriusXM app. Executives are confident that listeners will tune in to this Stagecoach alternative, particularly because of country music listeners’ bond with the channel.
“While we see high engagement across all our music channels, the Highway audience tends to be even more engaged than the audiences we have for many of our other contemporary channels,” said Steve Blatter, Sirius XM’s senior vice president of music programming. While some people are very much into the “nostalgic value” of channels that play older hits, he added, “others have an incredible appetite for new music.”
The Highway has doubled down on the idea that fans of country music, a genre fixated on the past and tradition, will also be intrigued by songs they’ve never heard. The strategy has worked: In the past decade, the channel has helped launch groundbreaking acts including Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini, Luke Combs and Maren Morris. Artists know that building a relationship with the SiriusXM office in Nashville is an important stop on their radio tours. While terrestrial stations determine what hits No. 1 on the radio airplay charts, sometimes, the journey starts — or gets a boost — from the Highway.
At a recent country radio conference, an executive mentioned that Old Dominion, the band with a string of hits, said they owe their careers to the Highway. When asked about this, lead vocalist Matthew Ramsey didn’t hesitate.
“That’s not an exaggeration by any means,” Ramsey said. “It’s maybe an understatement.”
In 2014, Old Dominion was an unsigned band touring in a van when they were named a “Highway Find,” a moniker bestowed on newcomers with promising music. The Highway started playing some of their early tracks, and soon the band noticed more people were singing along at their concerts. Then the Highway debuted a tune called “Break Up With Him”; it took off on terrestrial radio as well and was their first No. 1. In early 2015, Old Dominion landed a major-label deal with Sony Music Nashville.
“The radio game is so hard,” said Ramsey, whose band now has seven No. 1 hits. He noted how unusual it is for radio to play songs from a band without a record label. “We just had this groundswell with ‘Break Up With Him.’ It was amazing.”
Mainstream radio holds a tremendous amount of power in country music; artists spend months on radio tours at the start of their careers to meet staffers and play their music. But terrestrial stations have advertising breaks and playlists made up of a certain number of new songs they can play, which are almost always dictated by what the major labels designate as the artist’s single. It can take months for a song to make its way up the chart.
In that way, the Highway operates in its own ecosystem. Satellite radio has subscribers (about 35 million) so there are no commercials. Plus, SiriusXM’s strategy on all its contemporary channels has long been about music discovery and the ability to take chances on unsigned artists.
J.R. Schumann, the head of country music programming for SiriusXM, took over the Highway in 2016 from John Marks, who started there in 2010. When Schumann arrived, he said, the Highway philosophy meshed well with his own, developed from years working in terrestrial radio. The first time he heard Tyler Farr’s “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” in 2014, he abruptly told his DJ, “Whatever’s playing on the air, dump it and play that. This song is unbelievable.” (It wound up being Farr’s first No. 1.)
Still, Schumann said, the Highway doesn’t just play anything. “There’s a lot that goes into it,” he said, as he and the on-air personalities and staffers evaluate the lyrics and production, as well as the singer’s star potential. “The audience has developed this trust with us … there’s a level of expectation that they’re going to go on to become the next big thing. And we have a very solid batting average.”
Ashley McBryde, Ingrid Andress, RaeLynn and Gabby Barrett, who will all play at “Stagecouch” this weekend, are just some of the newer artists championed early by the Highway. While commercial country radio has seen backlash for its lack of airplay for women, the Highway is known for playing more female artists.
Musicologist and University of Ottawa professor Jada Watson found that 19.6 percent of songs played on the Highway in 2019 were by female artists, and if you include male/female duos, it goes up to 23.1 percent. “While this is certainly not parity in airplay, it is nearly double the national average for reporting stations in 2019,” Watson noted. (SiriusXM declined to provide the data, which it has historically never made public.)
“I believe they are making a true effort to have more female voices in the mix by playing bonus songs and album cuts that are not necessarily ‘singles,’ which is how many XM channels are programmed,” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy and co-founder of Change the Conversation, which advocates for equal airplay. “It’s exciting to not only hear more female voices on the Highway, but other songs that are not radio singles for variety.”
Several years ago, Carly Pearce had been trying to get a record deal when Schumann started playing “Every Little Thing,” a stripped-down ballad that people told her would never work on country radio.
“They put that song out one day as a ‘Highway Find,’ and it changed my life overnight,” Pearce said. “SiriusXM is a straight indicator of what fans actually love, and they react so quickly.” It shot up to the Top 10 on iTunes, consistently selling 6,000 copies a week. Shortly after, she was signed to Big Machine Label Group, and later, “Every Little Thing” went to the top of the charts.
SiriusXM can also play songs many times a day, and as a result, an artist’s debut single will peak so quickly that the Highway will move on to a second or third track — sometimes while the first one is still making its way up the charts on terrestrial radio. When this happens, the Highway becomes a testing ground for artists, and can lead to the release of a different song as a second single than originally planned. And as the radio game only becomes more competitive, singers and labels will take any advantage they can get.
“It’s not a matter of us sitting here and thinking that we pick songs better than anybody else,” Schumann said. “People consume more music today than they ever have — and it’s just a matter of trying to keep up with the audience and feeding the beast, and that desire for new music.”