‘Tis The Season: Analyzing The Cyclical Nature Of Country Music

Chris Stapleton Kenny Chesney country music
Chris Stapleton

It’s no secret that country music is often associated with summer and warm weather. Themes of sunshine, tan-lines and time spent outdoors pervade the genre (for better or for worse).

Some artists such as Kenny Chesney have made entire careers with a heavy focus on beach themed music, and fans clearly gravitate toward it. However, this can have its disadvantages as in a lot of regions, the weather does not stay warm enough to frequent the beach year-round.

Does this mean that there are less people listening to country music, and specifically Kenny Chesney, when the weather turns?

The best way to measure this using publicly available data is through evaluating changes in monthly listeners on Spotify over time. Spotify monthly listeners is the count of unique users who play at least one song by an artist over the last 28 days.

This statistic does not reflect how often a user listens to the artist, as someone who listens to 500 tracks by the artist in the last 28 days counts the same as someone who listens to just one song by that artist.

However, it does a great job of broadly measuring an artist’s reach and the relative size of their fanbase.

The following chart shows changes in this number for Kenny Chesney since the end of March 2018.

Looking at the figure there are several peaks and valleys, and upon further investigation they follow a very consistent pattern – highs in the summer with lows in the winter.

His monthly listeners peaked in August of 2018 / 2019 and July for 2020 / 2021; while the low points were in February of each year. It’s not a coincidence these are both turning points in seasons for much of the continental United States where most of his listeners live.

Therefore, this chart indicates a clear correlation between general weather patterns and Chesney’s number of listeners. However, as mentioned, Chesney’s catalog contains a higher percentage of sun-filled, summertime songs than the average artist.

So, the next question becomes, does the same cyclical pattern in listeners occur across the entire genre?

Country Music as a Whole

The chart above shows the change in the sum of monthly Spotify listeners for the top fifty mainstream country artists over the last two plus years (September 2019 – November 2021).

These rankings were based on overall popularity using statistics, not my personal opinion. Using these artists and their total listenership as a proxy for the genre overall, it is apparent the pattern of cyclical interest exists throughout.

The red and green reference lines designate February 1 and July 11 of each year, which have proven to be pivotal dates for change in listener patterns. Almost on cue, the total number of listeners peaks the week after the Fourth of July, with that number falling until February when the number begins climbing again.

This makes sense as weather is generally warmest in the summer and the Fourth of July is often associated with country music. Additionally, there are smaller peaks and times of increasing listeners leading up to Christmas that then steeply falls off with the new year, consistent with the large amount of Christmas music country artists release.

Another way to look at this data is by stacking the number based on the ranking of each artist, grouped by tiers for 1-10, 11-20, etc.

This provides insight into how artists of relative popularity are proportionally affected by the seasonal listening numbers.

Artists 1-10, which include Luke Combs, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan make up ~28 – 32% of the sum of top fifty listeners at any time. On July 11, 2020 they combined for ~99 million monthly listeners, which then dropped to ~89 million on February 1, 2021 – a decrease of ~10%.

Artists 41-50, which include Gabby Barrett, Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore account for ~9 – 12% of this total at any given time and saw a 13.5% drop in combined listeners over the same period (~40 million to ~34.5 million).

So, while the difference in listeners may be smaller for the lower tiered artists, the percentage change is actually greater, indicating they are more affected by seasonality.

Once again, this inherently makes sense as the more popular artists are likely to have stronger fan bases that are less likely to be influenced by what’s going on outside their windows.

In the following two charts, you can look at the numbers for individual artists (select one from the drop down at the top) and which artists saw the biggest drop off in listeners from July 2020 to February 2021.

Keep in mind that release schedules may impact these numbers for individual artists as most artists see a spike in listeners after dropping new music.

Looking at individual artists provides interesting insight into their fanbases and the stage of their career.

Gabby Barrett is very much in the growth phase of her career and saw an increase in listeners of almost 25% over that span. On the contrary, Walker Hayes saw his monthly listeners drop to nearly half as many in February as he had in July, which is by far the largest change in either direction for these fifty artists.

How Does This Compare to Pop Music?

With a proven hypothesis of seasonal listening quantities within country music, I then turned to popular music to see if similar patterns exist.

By taking the top fifty most popular acts across all genres (which included zero overlap with the top fifty country artists), I put together the same charts showing changes in Spotify monthly listeners.

Taking one look at these graphs make it abundantly obvious that the pop genre does not experience the same seasonal listening tendencies.

In fact, the combined number of listeners for these artists almost exclusively increased over this period. The only exception and period of sustained drop in listeners began during March 2020 when the pandemic really began to take shape around the world.

The fact that pop music saw a decline in listeners while country saw an increase during this time is an observation worth investigating, but one that should be explored at a different time.

While the nature of pop music is naturally more susceptible to virality and explosive artist growth (see Olivia Rodrigo’s chart), it’s still striking that these artists combine for growth in listeners week after week and month after month.

In fact, if you look at the individual charts for the top fifty pop artists (which you can see on the next visualization), very few have periods of sustained loss of listeners, much less a consistent trend of changes based on time of the year.

These charts are a stark difference between those of their country counterparts and speaks to the difference in scale that still exists between the genres – regardless of how many crossover hits country artists send to Top 40 radio.

What Does This Mean for Country Music?

These numbers may not surprise hardcore country music fans with friends who are more casual fans of the genre.

Realistically, less people want to hear Zac Brown and Old Dominion singing about their boats or Luke Bryan and Kenny Chesney singing about the beach when it’s thirty degrees in the dead of winter where they live.

Some may look to music that reminds them of summer or warmer weather and actually listen to country music more, but for the average person that is not the case. This cyclical fandom is not new, nor is it going away anytime soon so its effects are very important to understand.

One example of considering seasonality is with the scheduled release of new projects. For some artists, especially those with heavy summer themed music, they may wait to drop new music until the spring or summer when interest and the number of listeners is high.

Others, potentially newer artists hoping to avoid getting lost in a heavy release window, may choose to release music during down times throughout the winter months.

While there are a huge number of factors weighed for an album’s release date, Morgan Wallen’s sophomore album Dangerous: The Double Album is the perfect example of an off-peak release as it debuted on January 8, 2021.

It goes without saying there were other factors that impacted its reception and sales, but the album is one of the biggest of the year across all genres and in a position to set many end of year records – partially aided by the timing of its release.

As can be seen by filtering the chart above for his numbers, Wallen not surprisingly saw a huge increase in monthly listeners upon release at a time when most other artists saw that figure declining.

The other aspect of the industry that is heavily influenced by these listening cycles is touring. Since the onset of streaming, this is the most important source of revenue for most artists and especially critical after being off the road for the majority of the last 20 months.

Labels and promotional agencies meticulously plan tours for their artists many months, if not a year in advance. Therefore, tickets often go on sale for these shows well ahead of the actual concert date with sales trickling in over time.

Based on the numbers of listeners and overall interest in the genre, it would not be surprising to see tickets go on sale in June for a concert scheduled for February of the following year. Tickets may sell well initially with steady numbers throughout the summer, but then see a steep decline as the season turns to fall and eventually winter – consistent with the observed drop in listeners.

If not enough tickets were purchased in the initial months when interest was high, the venue and artist may face the need to reduce ticket prices, change venues or even be forced to cancel the show entirely. None of which are favorable for the venue or artists’ bottom line.

This is a difficult reality for promoters and artist teams to face but will likely be heightened in the coming weeks, with the heavy resumption of touring, more and more shows are being booked. While there was plenty of pent-up demand for live music throughout 2020 and early 2021, that has been met with a borderline overwhelming supply as the calendar for live music becomes more and more saturated.

There has already been a reckoning that some artists have been forced to face with low ticket sales and attendance throughout the fall. As the year comes to a close and the seasonal onslaught of country listeners continues for a few more months, do not be surprising if ticket sales continue to dry up.

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