In Spotify’s Wokest Country Music Playlist

Many are quick to denounce country music. Open a dating app and it is not abnormal to see “all but country” listed under “Music preferences”. “Country music is good,” writes a 24-year-old Brooklyn barista under the prompt, “List an unpopular opinion! ”

Yet despite their apparent unpopularity among millennials, they are the main driver of the growth of country music – a 2019 Country Music Association report noted that this demographic represents 57% of the genre’s audience. And country music is no longer just the musical medium of the brothers who drive on the country roads. Country and rap have converged since Bubba Sparxxx and Bone Thugs n ‘Harmony; country and pop have coexisted for years in the majors of Nashville. And the recent Spotify playlist Indigo highlights the ubiquitous stylistic connections between country, indie and Americana, attracting listeners who may not identify as country fans, but appreciate songs that tell compelling stories.

The name of the playlist comes from the indigo pigment used to dye denim clothes. Denim is often worn by Americana musicians, but the playlist makers wanted the track to mean more than that. Increasingly, Spotify is avoiding using genre categories in playlist names and instead choosing a term that describes “vibe.” Other examples are the soul playlist Butter, Where Pollen, which, according to Complex, revolves around the “shared lifestyle and cultural trends” of an audience.

While playlists like Pollen engage listeners who subscribe to a particular lifestyle – namely festival-goers who see Beach House and Brent Faiyaz back-to-back – Indigo is governed by a set of stylistic elements, as opposed to a shared lifestyle. According to playlist creator Laura Ohls, she sought out detailed storytelling, acoustic instruments, and high-quality songwriting while choosing songs.

During the curation process, Ohls often wonders if there is a brand of listeners who are not served by Spotify’s playlist. Is there an industry trend that cannot be explained using certain gender categories? Can she make connections between songs that transcend the terms we usually use to talk about them? Can these connections lead audiences to music they might not have considered before?

The numbers suggest this could be the case. At the end of August, the Indigo playlist had 229,000 subscribers. But as awareness grew through a month-long marketing campaign, the playlist saw a 31% increase in subscribers.

This visibility is particularly important for artists who face declining concert revenues during the pandemic. Indigo features artists across a range of relative popularities – from big names like Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris to Daniel Donato and Jonathan Terrell. Terrell, an Austin-based singer-songwriter, had to put a busy touring schedule on hold this year. But after using Spotify’s song submission tool, and being placed on the Indigo playlist, he noticed a slight increase in merchandise sales. Terrell addresses his goods by hand and no longer recognizes the names of the buyers.

Discovery can’t fully make up for lost concert revenue, but increased fan engagement reminds artists why they continue to make music, even in times of crisis. “It’s so gratifying to see these talented artists being loved on the international stage by lists like Indigo,” said Terrell. “We’ve all been working, writing and touring for a long time and this projector is pretty special to share with them. It’s our introduction to the rest of the world and I’m very proud of them for writing songs worthy enough to represent us all.

And playlists like Indigo not only help audiences discover new music, but artists also discover their peers. Hailey Whitters, a country singer-songwriter who wrote songs for Alan Jackson and open for Maren Morris, was surprised to see her music placed on Indigo. Immediately she noticed an increase in feeds, but eventually Indigo became the playlist she returned to for inspiration, the tunes she mixes up while driving or cleaning the house. Whitters are discovering new sounds to draw on, just as millennials can discover a new affinity for country music, nestled among sounds they are not shy to admit they enjoy.