With five Grammy award nominations and two crossover hits that have cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, Hunter Hayes, 23, is among country music’s most identifiable young newcomers. But with digital downloads in steady decline (down 10.5 percent year to date, nearly 50 million units behind the first five months of 2014) and streaming on an upswing, can the “I Want Crazy” singer-songwriter help usher in a much-needed digital era for country?
The May 21 debut of his latest single, “21,” which premiered on Spotify and 125 iHeartMedia radio stations, marks the beginning of country’s biggest digital experiment to date: Hayes plans to roll out an EP’s worth of singles primarily through streaming services (and eventually iTunes), eschewing physical retail partners altogether.
Hayes is the latest in a series of Warner Music Nashville artists — Jana Kramer, Michael Ray and Ashley Monroe among them — to test a digital campaign with services like Spotify before taking a single to the gatekeepers at country radio. “We’re starting to see an effective strategy in building a digital story first with 18- to 24-year-olds,” says Jeremy Holley, Warner Music Nashville senior vp consumer and interactive marketing, who allows that country radio is “still the No. 1 discovery format, but not the be-all, end-all.”