23 Mar 2019

Country music: 'It’s not just dudes in beards and hats'

From RNZ Music, 2:30 pm on 23 March 2019

Kiwi expat and music industry professional Milly Olykan says country music is a "broad church," with mainstream pop, outlaw and down-home banjo-on-the-porch country all having a home in the genre.

Milly Olykan

Milly Olykan Photo: © The O2

“It’s really a broad genre... It’s American influenced grass-roots music.”

Olykan works for the Country Music Association (CMA), a trade organisation based in Nashville, Tennessee.

The CMA was formed by record labels and music publishers in the 1950s to stave off the threat of Rock and Roll. It now works to promote the country music genre throughout America and the world

Olykan’s role as the Association's VP of International Relations and Development, is to foster country music outside of its home in the USA. But with such a big market established in the US, why does it need to expand internationally?

“There are country music fans all over the world. Those fans, bless them, have not been served very well by the artists…Country artists have not been touring outside of America for a long time because they were making a lot of money in America.

"And before the internet and streaming their albums weren't necessarily released internationally, because there was no point if the artist never came over.”

With the launch of the C2C: Country 2 Country festival in London in 2013 (which Olykan ran) the CMA saw an opportunity to spread the "gospel" of country music in Europe.

Working with local promoters in each country, C2C now has festivals in Dublin, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin and most recently Australia.

“It’s shifting perceptions in the media and even in the music industry that country music is not necessarily banjos – it could actually be a fairly pop aesthetic. It’s not just dudes in beards and hats; it’s young women who are writing really great and interesting songs.”

Women in the country music industry have long been discriminated against in terms of airplay and exposure. In 2015 a radio consultant advised programmers to use female acts sparingly, comparing them to tomatoes among the male lettuce in the country music salad.

In 2017, female artists made up just 10 percent of the music played on country music radio. Yet, artists such as Kacey Musgraves, who just won the best album award at the Grammys, and Brandi Carlile who took out three other categories at the same awards, are some of the more popular in terms of crossover success.

Olykan posits the theory that perhaps the lack of support for female artists from country radio is causing them to think outside the tight constraints of what radio stations will play.

“There are a lot of great female artists and I also feel like they are some of the more interesting voices. Because they struggle to get played on the radio so they’re not actually writing for radio. So they’re actually writing really interesting songs.

READ: Six local country-ish music releases to warm your ears

“There’s a bunch of people in the industry that are working very hard on this situation. It’s a challenge that we’ve got in a music business that’s got a top-heavy male leadership. And it’s across the music business.”

Olykan is based in Nashville, but as part of her job, she spends a lot of time scoping out the country music scenes around the world. She cites Tami Neilson and Kaylee Bell as New Zealand artists that have made an impression on her, as well as Marlon Williams.

“He’s someone that’s probably considered Americana, but I really like him.”

Nashville is the centre of the global country music industry and simply living in the city can be a big boost to any budding artist’s career.

But Olykan is somewhat skeptical about international artists' possibility for success in Nashville .

“Nashville doesn’t really promote artists of other nationalities that aren't based here. There have been some very successful artists in the UK that have gone to number one in the UK regular charts but they can't really get arrested here.

"That time will come, but it’s not right now.”

Olykan and the CMA have facilitated a visit by American and Canadian country artists Devin Dawson, Brandy Clark and Lindsay Ell on Tuesday, 26 March. The trio play Auckland's Tuning Fork and Olykan says it'll be a great example of what Nashville songwriters can do.

“You’re gonna cry and you’re gonna laugh and you’re gonna be moved. Even if you’ve never heard of them. Because that’s what happens when you watch a Nashville writers' round.

"You’re gonna be converted. It’s one of the best evenings you can have in country music whether you’re having it at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville or at the Tuning Fork in Auckland.”

Country music: More to explore from RNZ
  • Rosanne Cash - She Remembers Everything
  • Reb Fountain: more hopeful now
  • I am a satellite: the orbit of Keith Urban
  • Kiwi Country
  • Country music history: Cocaine & Rhinestones
  • Country music feature: Ashley Tipping
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