Apple Music is establishing a beachhead in Nashville. The company announced Monday morning that 13-year Apple veteran Jay Liepis has relocated to Music City to head up a team there that will be “dedicated to being more involved with artists, managers, songwriters and the label community at large.”
That’s welcome news to Nashville’s label chiefs, who over the years have made clear their displeasure that the major music streaming services have been behind in courting country fans as aggressively as they do other listeners. “Thanks be to God!” said Randy Goodman, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Nashville, who believes that Liepis’ move to town will be “game changing.”
“Jay is one of the brightest minds of our — well, his — generation,” said Mike Dungan, Universal Music Nashville’s chairman/CEO, adding that he “can’t wait to take him to Arnold’s [the city’s fabled meet-and-three diner] for beef tips and fried okra.”
Liepis has served as head of U.S. and artist relations at iTunes. The exec was described by the company as “playing an integral role in managing those relationships throughout the launch and growth of Apple Music,” the subscription service that was launched in 2015 to take on rivals like Spotify after it became clear that the future of the business did not lie in downloads.
Apple will open an office in Nashville later in 2018, with an eye on closer relations not just with the country music industry but other genres that are increasingly finding a foothold in the city, including rock, pop and hip-hop, as well as mainstays like the Christian/gospel and Americana communities.
“Jay’s move to Nashville is a reflection of Apple Music’s ongoing investment to our ever-growing and increasingly diverse music community,” said Jason Owen, president/CEO of Sandbox Entertainment, which represents Little Big Town and, as of last week, Kelsea Ballerini. “It excites me to know that Nashville is a top priority. The expertise that Jay brings from his tenure paired with his long-term relationships with our city makes this move ideal on every level. Plus, he’s an awesome hang.”
Comments like these reflect just how thirsty country’s movers and shakers are for closer and more creative relations with the major streaming services. Country continues to enjoy its status as the top music radio format in the nation, yet fans have been historically slow adopters of new media. In 2017’s year-end Buzz Angle Music report, country accounted for only 6 percent of on-demand streams, versus 22 percent for hip-hop and 19.3 percent for rock, genres that don’t enjoy nearly the same radio dominance.
Spotify already maintains an office in Nashville, as does Amazon Music. In December, Spotify held a two-day open house in Nashville to improve ties with the community. These moves haven’t always had immediate results in increasing country’s streaming presence. On the current Spotify U.S. top 50, there are no country artists represented, apart from two collaborations with pop acts (Florida Georgia Line with Bebe Rexha and Maren Morris’ single with Zed). Country remains better represented on sales charts. As of Sunday night, on iTunes’ singles download chart, with the two collaborative songs included, country artists claimed 13 of the top 50 spots.
Apple doesn’t publish a streaming chart to go along with its sales chart, but the recent stats the company touts suggest fans of the genre are finding their way to paid subscriptions after all. According to Apple, country grew 66 percent at their streaming service last year. The Pure Country radio channel is now Apple’s second most popular, with a 35 percent year-over-year increase. Apple boasts of a 151 percent YOY gain for their A-List Country playlist, now ranked third at the service.
Liepis has already been involved in individual country campaigns prior to the announcement of his move. The current album sales chart-topper and the ACMs’ Entertainer of the Year, Jason Aldean, recently released an exclusive live track to Apple and sat for an interview with Beats “The work he’s done most recently for [freshman artist] Ashley McBryde is just the tip of the iceberg,” said John Esposito, chairman/CEO of Warner Nashville, McBryde’s label home, adding that he “can’t wait to see what else we accomplish together.”