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The Curious Case of Kane Brown

Facebook/Kane Brown

If you haven’t heard of Kane Brown yet, you probably will soon. Whether it’s for the right reasons or not remains to be seen.

Here’s a quick primer: he says he’s like Chris Young on a Sam Hunt track, and Florida Georgia Line look forward to mentoring him on their upcoming tour together. That should tell you what you need to know about his sound, but if not, here’s his debut single, “Used To Love You Sober”:

 

Not the worst, but nothing revolutionary, by any means.

The melody is derivative of several recent hits and the lyrics are pretty silly. Lines like, “I had it all, but with you I had more,” don’t make sense. Lines like, “Out of nowhere out of the blue,” are repetitive. And the tag, “I used to love you sober,” doesn’t really pay off, because it implies he now just loves her drunk, though the rest of the song says the only time he doesn’t love her is *when* he’s drunk, which is why he’s drinking in the first place.

Curious.

Anyways, the point is — it’s nothing special, and certainly not the kind of song that should independently earn him the traction he has. And he has traction.

Things have happened quite quickly for Brown, who just a little over a year ago was crowdfunding an EP (on two separate crowd funding platforms, Kickstarter and GoFundMe). Now he’s the newest addition to Sony Music Nashville.

In 2013, Brown was a 19-year-old with a penchant for sleeveless shirts and reality singing shows. The Georgia native with a smooth baritone was rejected from American Idol (in his words he was told America didn’t need “another Scotty McCreery”) and was accepted by The X-Factor, but left after refusing to be put in a group of singers.

So, the story goes, he released some videos on YouTube and Facebook and amassed a following. Quickly. So quickly, in fact, that most people in Nashville assume some serious shenanigans took place. He raised more questions when he told Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, “A lot of people in Nashville think the numbers are fake, but they can’t prove it.”

“You can’t prove it” is not the best way to deflect attention about your questionable rise.

He then went on to compare himself to Justin Bieber (an unfair comparison in and of itself, because the Biebs actually spent quite a bit of time visiting radio stations with his manager before anybody really took him seriously).

Those big numbers Kane is talking about include millions of streams on Spotify and millions of followers on Facebook (but quite a few less “fans” on his fan page).

It turns out there is probably a pretty good reason for his unprecedented climb — a man named Jay Frank, who many in Nashville consider to be among the smartest industry folk in town.

Frank has pretty much devoted his career to studying and developing methods of achieving popularity outside of traditional tactics. He’s built companies around it and released books on it. He became Brown’s manager around the time he took over as Senior Vice President of Global Streaming Marketing at Universal Music Group.

Universal Music Group also has a stake in a company called Digster, which puts together playlists of artists. Well, UMG employees like Frank put together the lists, anyways. And when an artist like Kane Brown appears on one of those playlists, it works wonders for his exposure to new fans who just wanted to hear whatever may be on a playlist titled “Hot Country” or “Country Hits.”

In other words, Brown happens to have a very smart team around him. One which happens to know that playlist curation for streaming platforms is a very cheap, very effective way to land in peoples’ ears. Did Frank put Kane Brown’s song on a premier playlist with the likes of top country stars to build his fanbase?

Probably.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, either. And it works. Just look at Jordan Gray, an otherwise unknown artist whose song “Stay The Night” landed on some Spotify playlists and now has close to 4 million streams. His next closest song is shy of 30,000. In a world where the barriers to country radio are steep and incredibly expensive, arguably the next best thing is working your way onto a playlist with tons of followers.

But it certainly undercuts the narrative of a homegrown social media superstar that Brown has been pushing.

So what of the huge number of Facebook “followers” (1.7 million) versus the much smaller number of “fans” for his musician page (175,000)? The best guess is that Brown’s team has been promoting to get fans following his personal page rather than liking his fan page because the Facebook algorithms are more likely to show you content from people you follow than from their official pages (which usually have to pay Facebook money to get bigger reach).

Unusual, but then again, that’s right up Jay Frank’s alley.

Consider this: in the past month, the highest number of likes for a post on Brown’s personal page is 95,000, with the average falling around 45,000. That’s a peak number of 5.5% of his fans liking his post. For his musician fan page, the highest number of likes for a post was 4,200, with the average falling closer to 1,000. That’s a peak number of 2.4% of those users interacting with his content. He’s reaching more people without having to pay as much for it.

Smart. And probably one of the reasons he got inked to Sony Nashville a month ago.

Kane also probably got a deal because new Sony Nashville chief Randy Goodman has a penchant for shooting from the hip. He told Billboard that part of the reason he axed so many artists from the roster, like Sara Evans and Jerrod Niemann, was because his staff would look at their phones in meetings when talking about those artists.

He also said he dropped somebody from the roster because that artist’s manager was constantly pestering an assistant to find out why the label was being so unresponsive. Goodman took the phone and told the manager that the artist was dropped right then and there. He takes pride in swiping Maren Morris from underneath rival label Warner and signing new act LANco backstage at a label showcase to send a message to other labels. He wants to break an artist to prove the label’s worth.

Goodman also makes a good point about wanting each of his artists to have their own “lane” — noting that folks like Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Cam are all on the roster but aren’t likely to step on each others’ toes musically, because they occupy their own style and brand. It is curious, then, that Kane Brown ended up on the same label as Chris Young (who he compares himself to and sounds like) and Chase Rice (whose music and lyrical style his music emulates).

Facebook/KaneBrown
Facebook/KaneBrown

But to be completely fair, this story would probably sound a lot different if the artist in question didn’t seem destined for and revel in bro country. If Brown had said he wanted to be the next Dierks Bentley instead of the “next Luke Bryan” (and his music backed it up), he’d probably get the benefit of the doubt — even if he didn’t get his fans the good old fashioned way or prove his mettle in the songwriting world.

We — meaning artists, critics, journalists, songwriters — are all just getting tired of that bro-country narrative, with its relentless lyrical clichés, drum tracks, backward hats and predictability. But that doesn’t mean the fans predisposed to like Brown are tired of it. And there are plenty of those fans, and they go to Brown’s shows in droves.

Who cares how he got the fans, the thinking goes, he got them. While everyone else in town was raising an eyebrow at Brown, Sony took a gamble on his numbers and them translating to long-lasting fans.

Whether that happens probably relies on the ultimate future of bro country and may be a good litmus test for the ultimate longevity of the subgenre. If Brown takes off, people will forget about the skepticism in his numbers and applaud Goodman’s quick trigger finger. If he flops, it will just prove suspicions most people in Nashville already operate under, which is you have to prove yourself in town and among peers, not just on the Internet. It’s a curious case, indeed.

But hey, at least they got Maren either way.

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The Curious Case of Kane Brown