Does Opening Major Headlining Tours Actually Work To Grow Your Audience?

Kenny Chesney country music
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Over the summer, Kenny Chesney made a stop in my city as part of his Here and Now summer tour.

Chesney was joined that night by three openers: Dan + Shay, Old Dominion, and Carly Pearce. Given the large slate of performers, the show began early with Carly Pearce performing a short set starting at 5 PM before the stage was conceded to Old Dominion only 45 minutes later.

Beyond just having a short set, the stadium was less than a quarter full when she took the stage and of those that had arrived that early, many were not paying close attention to her performance. While this is the norm for many artists opening live shows for others, I was surprised Pearce was still in this role at this stage of her career.

As the reigning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and ACM Female Artist of the Year, she was not an unknown newcomer to the genre. Her latest album 29: Written in Stone was one of the most critically acclaimed projects in recent years and her catalog was plenty deep enough to handle a set twice the length she played. That night I wondered if being the first of three openers for Chesney, as big of a superstar as he is, was worth it for Pearce.

While there are countless reasons to open for bigger artists including money, experience playing to larger crowds and the ability to learn from highly successful artists, the main benefit to openers is exposing their music to new audiences in hopes of growing their own fan base.

So, I set out to measure if Pearce grew hers throughout the duration of the Here and Now Tour, and how that compared to other artists consistently opening on country tours throughout 2022.

To do this, I focused on the best available measure of fan base size: Spotify monthly listeners. This metric measures the number of unique individuals who listened to at least one of that artist’s songs in the last 28 days.

The following chart illustrates the trend in Spotify monthly listeners for each opener on Chesney’s tour from the first date of the tour to the last. Each line’s thickness adjusts over time based on the percentage change in monthly listeners.

There is an additional vertical dotted line to indicate a new song was released by Old Dominion on that day.

Notice that even though Pearce, Old Dominion, and Dan + Shay have a large variance in overall monthly listeners, all three of their lines remained relatively flat (and therefore did not change size). At the end of the tour, their monthly listeners changed by 6.4%, 14.0% and -1.7% respectively.

There was some variance throughout the summer and at one point Pearce’s monthly listeners had increased by over 13%, but she ended the tour with less than 6.5% growth equating to 225,000 more listeners. For only four months, adding almost a quarter of a million monthly listeners on Spotify is nothing to scoff at.

However, this pales in comparison to the growth other country artists experienced on major tours this year.

To contextualize these numbers, I pulled data from five other major tours in 2022 with consistent openers headlined by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Morgan Wallen, Thomas Rhett, and Zach Bryan.

The following visual plots the percentage change in Spotify monthly listeners for all openers on these tours over their duration, aligned by start of the tour (hover over any line for additional detail). By definition, each artist starts at 0% growth on day one of their tour, but over time these performers displayed wildly different growth patterns.

Carly Pearce is the yellow line and clearly she did not grow her listeners nearly as much as the likes of Conner Smith, Charles Wesley Godwin, or Larry Fleet. Her end of tour growth was actually only better than four of the ten other artists. However, it is important to note there are many factors that influence monthly listeners and the change in this metric.

To begin with, Pearce began as a more established artist than many of the top growth performers, as indicated by her higher number of Spotify monthly listeners. Therefore, 1% growth requires an increase of far more listeners for her than up-and-coming artists such as Conner Smith or Larry Fleet.

Additionally, Spotify monthly listeners is heavily influenced by playlist reach and placement, specifically by features on editorial playlists with huge followings. These playlists generally favor newer music, so timing of releases is crucial context when looking at this metric. In fact, releases and their subsequent playlist placement have a direct impact on monthly listeners.

New Music is the Fastest Method to Grow Monthly Listeners

Thomas Rhett’s Bring the Bar to You Tour which featured Conner Smith and Parker McCollum as openers is a great example of this impact.

The following chart once again displays the change in Spotify monthly listeners for the tour openers, along with their music release dates.

Clearly, these artists’ growth profiles were significantly different than what the Chesney openers experienced this summer. Specifically, Conner Smith had a lifechanging summer and went from having 1 million to 2.6 million monthly listeners in only four months (an increase of over 140%).

This is insane growth over such a short period of time, some of which can be attributed to touring with Thomas Rhett, but the majority is a result of his three releases throughout the tour.

The first release was “Summer On Your Lips” which strategically dropped on the very first day of the tour and proved to be very effective. His listeners started growing from day one with continued momentum throughout the tour bolstered by additional releases.

Similarly, Parker McCollum ended the tour with over 28% growth, elevating his monthly listeners by over 800,000 to reach almost 3.75 million overall. This growth was fundamentally fueled by his release of “Handle On You” around mid-way through the summer.

Many other artists experienced a similar pattern of growth upon releasing new music, which can be seen by viewing different artists using the “Select Tour” dropdown at the top of the visual below.

The most extreme example of this is Charles Wesley Godwin, who was featured on a Zach Bryan song while opening for his tour.

While this growth did eventually level off, Godwin saw his listeners more than double in the 28 days immediately after the release. With that release and tour schedule, he essentially strapped himself to the rocket ship that is Zach Bryan and immediately reached new heights.

This was only possible because of their musical similarities.

Musical Styles Matter for Matching Headliners with Openers

If you look closely at Parker McCollum’s data throughout the tour, you will notice that prior to releasing “Handle On You” he had actually lost listeners. In fact, he was down 3% the day of the release and had peaked at only a 2.6% increase a few weeks prior.

This indicates that his growth was much more attributable to the release of new music than it was warming up Thomas Rhett’s crowd. In fact, it’s entirely possible that had he not released that single, he might have gone the entire tour with a negative change in monthly listeners.

I believe this is a result of McCollum’s musical style being dramatically different than Thomas Rhett. Generally, the vast majority of ticket buyers are paying to see the headliner, with the openers serving as a bonus.

Rhett’s catalog is full of pop-country ballads focused on love and family, while Parker plays a set full of neotraditional, Texas country songs about heartbreak and relationships gone terribly wrong. These styles and lyrical themes could not possibly be more different.

There are surely fans out there that enjoy both, but the average Thomas Rhett fan is not nearly as likely to connect with McCollum’s music as they are with others, Conner Smith being a prime example. Smith’s musical tendencies are very similar to those of his labelmate Rhett and therefore they have fan demographics with much more overlap.

This overlap fueled Smith’s huge growth as fans came to see Thomas Rhett and were introduced to Conner Smith, two artists that could easily cut the same song if given the opportunity. This juxtaposition between Smith and McCollum reinforces the reality that openers are going to convert new fans at a much higher rate if their musical style matches the headliner’s style.

Rhett’s tour is not the only example. Gabby Barrett opened on Jason Aldean’s ‘Rock N’ Roll Cowboy’ tour for three months and ended up seeing an 8% decrease in Spotify monthly listeners.

While she did not release any music during this time, this metric certainly does not indicate a ton of Aldean fans started listening to her music after hearing her opening set. Once again, this is not entirely surprising given they cater to very different audiences.

On the complete opposite end of this spectrum is Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous Tour which featured HARDY and Larry Fleet throughout most of its very lengthy schedule. All three of these artists employ similar lyrical themes within their music and HARDY is Wallen’s most frequent songwriter throughout his discography.

Furthermore, all three are signed with Big Loud Record and as a result have their music produced by Joey Moi. This undeniably creates resemblance amongst their music and overlap between their fan bases.

As expected, HARDY and Larry Fleet saw tremendous growth in monthly listeners throughout the tour.

Yes, HARDY’s growth was augmented by his three releases throughout the summer, but Larry Fleet did not release a single new song. His 76% monthly listener growth is the perfect example of an artist who earned new fans by connecting with them when given the opportunity in front of an audience already likely to enjoy his music.

This is something other artists should learn from.

Final Thoughts

There are many people and organizations within the country music ecosystem, including myself, that are advocating for the much-needed restoration of balance among genders in the industry. To achieve this, one of the most commonly cited tactics is providing more opening and support slots for women in order to grow their audiences.

While I am still a large proponent of this idea the data shows it must be a well thought out opportunity that puts the performer in a position to succeed. No matter how strong of a performance Gabby Barrett put on opening for Jason Aldean, she likely never had the chance to create meaningful growth for her career given the audience she played to each night.

The same could be said for Carly Pearce on Kenny Chesney’s tour, despite their musical styles being a slightly better match. She was never going to be able to win over huge amounts of new fans with a set under 45 minutes and 4 hours before the headliner came on when most people aren’t even in the stadium yet.

The final thing to consider is quality of audience. Is the casual country music fan who only listens to mainstream country radio going to be as receptive to discovering new artists as someone who seeks out independent artists? Probably not. One could make the assumption that not only is Charles Wesley Godwin phenomenal, but Zach’s audience is hungry to discover new country music (the kind you don’t heard on the radio).

So, while I would not completely disagree with the decision to accept these opening slots, there is always an associated opportunity cost that needs to be considered.

They were both at a point in their careers where they could have headlined their own tours, albeit in smaller venues, which would have provided the opportunity to play longer sets.

Or, they could have waited to better align themselves with a headliner who makes similar music. Either option would have likely grown their fanbases more effectively. This of course not only applies to the women of country, but all artists looking to make it to the next level.

Ultimately, artists experiencing plateauing careers need to evaluate not only what they’ve done, but also what he/she didn’t do.

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A beer bottle on a dock