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Can There Be a Global Country Music Star Who Isn’t Taylor Swift? Thomas Rhett Has Ideas …

Variety logo Variety 5/18/2017 Jem Aswad
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Thomas Rhett has a global vision, one that would make him almost unique in country music.

The rising singer-songwriter, who’s had a string of No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country charts, will make his fourth trip to the United Kingdom in the past 18 months in November, where he’ll play to approximately 10,000 fans, including an expected sellout crowd in London. While those numbers dwarf what he can draw in the states, the U.K. trip is a first step in an ambitious plan to grow an international audience that will support a true world tour, something almost unheard of for contemporary country music stars not named Taylor Swift.

“I would love to go play shows in Australia. I would love to hit more countries in Europe;it would be fun to play Dubai,” Rhett said in a video prepared for Tuesday’s “Country Music’s Gone Global” panel at the Music Biz 2017 conference in Nashville. “It sounds really unfeasible right now because nobody’s really ever done it, but [pop artists] were saying that too before they started playing in these markets. When people in the pop industry do a world tour, they’re playing in Tokyo and London and Australia. I think it would be really cool to go do a legitimate world tour someday.”

While Western pop music appeals to a worldwide audience, modern country has yet to completely make the jump across the oceans to Europe and Asia. But artists like Rhett — young, with a pop-leaning sound that appeals across genres — are starting to put in the work to build a similar world circuit.

In addition to his seven No. 1 country singles, Rhett, 27, picked up Male Vocalist of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April — an award usually reserved for much older artists who’ve built in huge followings — and is making his first forays into arena-sized audiences on the road in the U.S. this year. But he’s already looking beyond domestic borders.

“This is where T.R. did it right,” said Akiko Rogers, Rhett’s agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. “I think it’s a great case study that anyone who wants to book the international market in Europe should look at.”

The first step for any country musician with international intentions is to decide if it’s worth it. With the exception of Canada and Australia — and to an extent the U.K. — it’s largely untilled ground. Rhett, for instance, can play to 10,000 fans in a night in the U.S., a figure it will take him five shows to reach in November when he returns to the U.K. That means it will cost money to spend time overseas, and it takes a long view to see the benefit.

“That directive has to come from the artist,” said Virginia Davis, Rhett’s manager and the founder and managing partner at G Major Entertainment. “I think the desire to create an international career really has to come from the artist. I feel like his music could certainly reach a larger audience.”

Rhett agreed and saw the vision immediately, he said in the video. “A lot of people get scared because it’s not the most cost-efficient thing in the world. Going to Australia or the U.K. is expensive, and when people don’t really know who you are and you’re not really playing in big enough venues to offset your costs, it really is an investment in your career. We knew we wanted to invest in the U.K. a couple of years ago, so every time we go it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The end goal is to sell out arenas and be able to tour over there like [I] do in America.”

Following Davis’ belief that artists should start building in a presence overseas early in their careers, Rhett appeared at the March 2016 Country 2 Country festival at the O2 in London, the CMA’s annual festival that serves as a primer in the genre for fans in Europe. He then returned just two months later for a promotional tour. He played four cities last November, and will return this November to dovetail with the release of his third album.

And he’s not the only young artist seeing interest grow overseas. Anna-Sophie Mertens, a promoter with Live Nation UK, says the new pop sound of county has been appealing to fans and she’s seen many newer artists trying similar landing strategies: Maren Morris, Brett Eldredge, Cadillac Three and Brothers Osborne, among others. They’re hitting the U.K. as interest seems to be spiking in the wake of acts like Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum and Kacey Musgraves. Rogers said her company booked four artists to play 24 shows in the UK in 2011. In 2016, the numbers spiked to 35 artists and 227 shows last year.

“People are certainly paying a lot more attention to it,” Mertens said. “We’ve all been talking about things that have changed [the perception of country music]. ‘Nashville,’ the TV show, played a big part. I think it just gave people a glimpse at the songwriting and the artistry and everything that happens in Nashville. It certainly opened up the eyes of people who may have thought they don’t like country music, but you still need to get the angle right.”

All the success in the UK has started a positive feedback loop, panelists agreed, with the idea that you can have success overseas gaining critical mass.

“You can see the growth,” Rogers said. “Once I send a tour over, I’ll start getting calls from their buddies and other artists two or three weeks later saying, ‘Hey, I want to do the same thing.’”

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