There are only a handful of truly powerful positions in country music where one individual can make or break a career, or influence the direction of the genre at large. There are the heads of the respective major label groups in Nashville. There are the top programmers at radio corporations iHeartRadio and Cumulus Media. There’s the CEO of the CMA, and the General Manager of the Grand Ole Opry. There’s the editor-at-large at Saving Country Music (okay, not really). And there is the Global Director of Country Music at Spotify—the leader in the streaming media and playlist space.
It’s not just the subscription base Spotify boasts, but their powerful playlists that can put an artist or song in front of thousands, sometimes millions of people with a simple selection. As corporate country radio continues to become more niche and country listeners adopt streaming en masse, it’s made Country Music Global Director John Marks at Spotify a significant power player in the genre.
But now he’s leaving the position. Announced earlier this week, Thursday (3-31) was the last day for John Marks. Previously the goatee’d one was the Head of Country Music Programming at SiriusXM starting in 2010, and was instrumental in turning their channel The Highway into a country music juggernaut, and helping to launch the careers of numerous Bro-Country acts such as Florida Georgia Line and Chase Rice. The channel is also given credit for helping to foster the Bro-Country movement at large.
Moving to Spotify in 2015, John Marks made his mark by launching the streaming giant’s massive country playlists, including Hot Country which now boasts over 6 million followers. But similar to mainstream country radio and SiriusXM’s The Highway, many of Spotify’s major country playlists present a mainstream-centric perspective on the music, even as independent artists continue to increase their market share and influence.
Consider him “mainstream” John Marks. A generally well-liked and well thought-of guy throughout Nashville, it just sometimes felt like he failed to see the bigger picture. Even many of the undiscovered names that would end up on the biggest playlists had a mainstream vibe to them, while even the top independent artists like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson were relegated to other playlists, like Spotify’s poorly-named “Indigo” playlist. Spotify’s major country playlists also exhibited the same lack of representation for women we’ve seen from mainstream country radio.
Over time, Spotify’s playlists and recommendations in country have gotten slightly better, even though representing the wider panorama of country music has often been been done through launching new playlists as opposed to giving more, and better representation to independent artists on the top ones.
Rachel Whitney, who joined the Spotify team in Nashville in February 2020 as the “Head of Editorial Nashville” will remain at the company, and is now the primary Spotify employee in Nashville who will handle all country, Christian, gospel, folk, Americana and roots music. Previously working for Pandora and then YouTube, Whitney’s reputation is a bit more centered around looking beyond mainstream blueprint, while not ignoring the big names either.
While Rachel Whitney was at Pandora, Cody Jinks and other independent artists with swelling fan bases got their opportunities to be heard. If you showed promise and resonance with listeners, you were given a greater chance. The listeners had a large sway in what was put front and center, not just major label reps.
Perhaps we’ll see a slight, or even a seismic shift in the way Spotify handles its curation moving forward after the departure of John Marks. Perhaps we won’t. But it’s most certainly a development worth noting. Because as streaming continues to become the most dominant influence in all of music, Spotify will have a major impact on what direction country music heads.