Spotify Gives Left-of-Center Country Artists a Home With New 'Indigo' Playlist

“There’s alternative, Triple-A and pop. So why can’t there be pop-country and country-country?” Nikki Lane once wondered to Rolling Stone Country. “We just need two genres.”

With a new playlist, Spotify is hoping to answer that call. Indigo, launching Tuesday, will be the streaming giant’s conduit for “country-country” — where artists like Tyler Childers, Margo Price, John Moreland, and Lane, who rarely see the light of day on terrestrial country radio (or on Spotify’s flagship Hot Country playlist), will find a home. Indigo will also boast classics like Waylon Jennings and album cuts from major label stars that are more twang than snap track, with hopes that it will help bridge the gap for country fans from mainstream to indie and provide a lane to more broad exposure across the platform and beyond. And, maybe, that the “Indigo” name itself will stick (like “bro-country,” minus the negative connotations and with better tattoos).

“The through-line is highlighting contemporary country music, and carrying on the traditions and cultural influence of the genre,” says Laura Ohls, Senior Editor at Spotify. “Detailed storytelling, unique instrumentation, and time-honored production stylings,” she says, are all criteria for inclusion.

In addition to Childers, Price, and Moreland, the playlist will also launch with songs from Kacey Musgraves, the Highwomen, Yola, Ashley McBryde, Jason Isbell, Brent Cobb, Tanya Tucker, Miranda Lambert, Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton, Paul Cauthen, and Hailey Whitters.

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An important distinction for Indigo is that the bulk of the featured artists, Ohls says, “self-identify as country artists.” In other words, not exclusively Americana but “Indigo,” as Spotify hopes they’ll become known.

Country music, in general, has been slower to embrace streaming as both a metric and roadmap for success than the rest of the industry, but that is changing rapidly – and Spotify has made sizable investments in Nashville and Music Row. Still, while pop and hip-hop artists often use Spotify or other online platforms to build careers in the mainstream, success there isn’t always enough to propel artists like Childers, who is Indigo’s first cover star and brings in massive streaming numbers, into the myopic world of country radio. To land there via a route that uses streaming or YouTube to subvert the traditional path of honky-tonks and Music Row machinery, as Kane Brown did, one still must fall in line sonically with the general direction of the genre.

“Spotify is one of the major ways in which people are discovering and consuming music nowadays,” Childers says. “Mostly because they are discovering, more often than not, that there’s nothing consumable on mainstream radio nowadays. Playlists like this are replacing the hourly radio shows, by showcasing new music by artists who may be getting overlooked.”

Though Indigo isn’t a “flagship” playlist like Hot Country, Spotify does plan on putting considerable visibility and marketing muscle behind the brand, hoping to signal to terrestrial radio to broaden its scope and also continue to offer paths of visibility outside of that framework. And those avenues for success are widening: Sirius XM (in particular, the Highway channel) has helped boost artists like Ashley McBryde and Gabby Barrett, the latter of whom went from a “Highway Find” with her song “I Hope” to signing with Warner Music Nashville in just four months.

There is data to demonstrate that country radio itself is listening to who finds success on streaming platforms. At last year’s Metrics That Matter session at Country Radio Seminar, streams, Shazams, and Pandora “thumbs ups” were all prominently factored into how programmers formatted their playlists. When streams mirror radio — as Hot Country tends to — it can keep everything stuck in a snake-eating-its-tail loop of similarity. Should Indigo catch on to the degree that Spotify is hoping, there is potential to nudge terrestrial gatekeepers, or at least try to render them slightly less relevant in terms of making or breaking an artist’s career.

Spotify isn’t the only one trying to push Lane’s idea of shaping country radio into something more inclusive and imaginative. Producer Polow da Don launched WYCZ with a similar goal in mind, though his vision is more focused on blending indie and traditional country with the Lil Nas X’s of the world.

While Spotify is “still exploring ways to bring the brand to life,” Ohls says, they are discussing how to integrate Indigo at events like CMA Fest (should it happen this year). The playlist was originally timed to launch around SXSW before it was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns.

“We know our audiences are looking for a diversified offering,” says Ohls, “and that not only one type of country should be served to our consumers.”

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