Country musician Brad Paisley’s first tour of the United Kingdom in 2000 didn’t leave him much to write home to West Virginia about.
Paisley and the other acts on the tour flew commercial airlines and saw their precious band gear stashed into the jet’s regular luggage holds. The hotels were spartan, the venues were small and they were lucky if the promoters would give them a soundcheck before taking the stage.
“I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Paisley said. “Knowing who I am in America, what am I doing here?”
These days, Paisley is finding a warmer reception overseas. He first noticed the thaw in 2010 when he booked a show in London.
“I was told, ‘You’ll be playing a small venue and it probably won’t sell out,’ ” Paisley said.
But tickets went so fast a second show was added and sold out. When Paisley returned to London in 2011, he was booked at the O2 arena. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They sold 10,000 tickets. That’s a good night in America. It feels like the tip of the iceberg.”
For decades country acts rarely toured abroad, with exceptions for superstars such as Johnny Cash. But it’s now one of America’s hottest musical exports.
Love of family and country – core American values – are part of the appeal for a growing number of global fans. No other form of pop music more consistently expresses the virtues of hard work, self-reliance, honesty, equality and, often, a maverick attitude toward the status quo.
One measure of the shift: of the 100 highest grossing concert tours of 2011 worldwide, according to the concert-tracking service Pollstar, 11 were country acts. Two years later, 15 broke that threshold, selling more than 300,000 concert tickets outside the U.S. last year.
Some of the credit goes to bands working harder to build audiences through fan sites on social media, and the ability to reach their audience directly through YouTube and similar services.
Another factor: Country music these days is a little less country, and a little more pop. Crossover superstars such as Taylor Swift helped make traditional country instruments such as steel guitars and banjos more accessible to foreign audiences.
“It’s a phenomenon that probably started half a dozen years ago when Taylor Swift emerged as a major international artist,” said Bob Shennan, director of music for three BBC Radio stations. “She came to the U.K. being very much a country artist, then came back and came back and grew a real fan base and now has morphed into the biggest pop act on the planet at the moment.”
Younger country acts with a knack for marketing themselves on social media are among the most active, and most successful, in reaching out to world audiences. Swift mastered that skill early on and her template is being emulated and expanded on by a growing number of her young peers, including Kacey Musgraves, the Band Perry, Chris Young and Brantley Gilbert.
“The Internet has been a huge help,” said Scott Borchetta, head of Swift’s label, Big Machine Records. “Whether it was the first time we took the Band Perry over or the first time we took Taylor, there was already an awareness by a small group of super fans. That never would have happened pre-Internet.”
Then there are high-profile country music events such as the new Country To Country (C2C) Festivals that promoter AEG staged with the Nashville-based Country Music Association for the past two years in London, adding Dublin to the mix this year. Over two days in March, the 2014 C2C London shows drew nearly 30,000 fans.
When Garth Brooks announced plans to resume touring after a 13-year hiatus, he could have chosen any city in America to make his splashy re-entry into the music business.
He chose Dublin, Ireland, and promptly sold 400,000 tickets for five concerts – in a nation with a total population of just over 4 million. When Dublin city officials limited him to three nighttime shows, he canceled all of the shows and left politicians accusing each other of denying Irish fans the chance to see the singer that one Belfast newspaper compared to Elvis Presley.