The resounding streaming debut of Wallen’s “7 Summers” suggests an artist who can be “Garth Brooks in Target and Wal-Mart, and Drake on the streaming apps.”
If you checked the highest stretches of the Apple Music song charts on Friday, Aug. 14, you’d find something that you might never have seen there before: a country song.
“7 Summers,” the latest single from Tennessee singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen, had climbed its way into the chart’s top three, stuck behind just the new release from chart-conquering superstar Drake (the Lil Durk-assisted “Laugh Now Cry Later”), and the cultural phenomenon that is Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” Normally, the chart is dominated in its higher regions by such hip-hop releases, with other smash hits from the worlds of R&B, pop and dance occasionally peeking their heads in — but with country cameos coming very rarely.
“It became clear the song was on fire when it moved to the No. 3 position,” Jay Liepis, head of business partnerships at Apple Music Nashville, tells Billboard of the song’s rapid ascent up the streaming service’s charts. “I wasn’t surprised that Morgan had a song reacting on Apple Music because we had seen it before with [his other current hit] ‘More Than My Hometown.’ But to see ‘7 Summers’ chart as high as it did on the overall Apple Music Daily Top 100 Global Chart — where hip-hop and pop typically dominate — yes, I was surprised.”
It wasn’t an Apple Music streaming fluke, either, as the song debuted at No. 3 on Spotify’s U.S. daily chart for Aug. 14 with over two million total spins, and hung around the chart’s top 10 for the remainder of the week. It bows at No. 4 on Billboard‘s Streaming Songs chart this week, with 23.5 million total streams for the week, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data; it’s the biggest first-week number ever for a country song by a solo male artist with no accompanying acts. Combined with a No. 2 entrance on Billboard‘s Digital Song Sales listing and early radio interest (704,000 airplay impressions), the song also manages to land at No. 6 on this week’s all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, the highest debut for a song to hit Hot Country Songs by a solo male without any accompanying acts since Garth Brooks (as alter ego Chris Gaines) over 20 years ago.
How was Morgan Wallen — a country artist with just one album and a handful of singles to his credit, who’s probably not yet a household name outside of Nashville — able to put together such a major first week for his new song? Well, though his core fanbase is still mostly a country one, he’s managed to build it faster and stronger over the past few years than nearly any of his peers. He’s already racked up three Country Airplay No. 1 singles, in Florida Georgia Line collab “Up Down,” heartbreak lament “Whiskey Glasses” and dwelling flashback “Chasin’ You” — the latter two of which also reached the Hot 100’s top 20 — while 2018 debut album If I Knew Me recently completed a record climb to No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart.
“He’s still very, very new — especially to the general public, to civilians — but, I guarantee you, they know the lyrics to his songs,” Johnny Chiang, director of operations for Cox Media Group’s Houston radio stations, says of Wallen. “It’s him and Jon Pardi. Those two guys… they’re newbies, but geez Louise, man — if and when we ever get back to real touring again, they will be the next-to-last acts on stadium tours.”
Wallen’s success has also translated to streaming, with “7 Summers” marking his fourth entry on Billboard‘s Streaming Songs chart, including top 25 peaks for both “Whiskey Glasses” and his Diplo collaboration “Heartless.” “He certainly seems to be the new It Kid, speaking to that streaming, especially that country streaming generation, because he’s still pretty young himself,” says Seth England, CEO and co-founder of Wallen’s label and management home Big Loud, about the 27-year-old singer-songwriter. “It seems like the kids identify with him, and you pair that with his musical talent, and his natural ability to put it all together — I just think that’s what you get.”
It’s not shocking that “7 Summers” would be the song to connect with Wallen’s widest audience yet. Dreamy, melancholy and unabashedly wistful, the song marries a breezy, smooth production straight out of the early ’80s — not incidentally, the period of mainstream country’s greatest pop crossover — to the kind of nostalgic, lost-love lyrics (co-written with veteran Nashville gold-spinners Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally) about a warm-weather romance that nearly anyone can relate to on some level. That relatability is key to Wallen’s appeal, says Chiang: “The guys look at Morgan and say, ‘That’s me. He looks like me, he’s one of us.’ And the girls look like, ‘That’s my boyfriend!'”
England admits that the new plateau of success reached by “7 Summers” wasn’t due to savvy marketing or strategizing on Big Loud’s part, but rather to an organic excitement from Wallen’s fans after the artist teased a demo of the melancholy, nostalgic ballad back in April. “Morgan was responding, if I remember right, to a Jake Owen demo challenge,” England recalls. “When COVID started, it was kind of a weird time, and made it a little difficult to release music and keep our plans on target for the dates we’d set. So Morgan put a lot of demos out… certainly, ‘7 Summers’ moved over to TikTok and took on a life of its own.”
Indeed, it was on TikTok that the song really exploded, with videos featuring the first verse and chorus of the “7 Summers” snippet raking up millions of views. Though Wallen initially released the demo (in a since-deleted video) with the hesitant message, “I’m somewhat on the fence about putting this one on my next record. Y’all let me know what you think,” by the time the summer was in full blush, it was clear that fan demand for the song meant it had to see proper release. “Social media played a huge part in me releasing this song, especially this early,” he announced in a press release accompanying the new studio version of “7 Summers.”
“I think that’s how all strategies should be, you know — focused on what they’re sensing from the fans,” England says. “We’ve laughed a little bit lately in realizing how reactive those posts, and that insight into demos or songs he’s working on, can be. We realize what it could lead to. So now if we’re smart, we’ll huddle up and have more strategy around that.”
Wallen’s growing stardom and the unplanned virality of “7 Summers” aside, the other factor aiding the song’s first-week boom: country’s long-overdue catching up to the streaming age in general. Billboard noted record streaming weeks for the genre in April, as reported by Nielsen Music/MRC Data, and total audio on-demand U.S. country streams per year have risen from 34.5 billion at this point in 2019 to 42 billion so far in 2020, a gain of 22%.
“We’ve always known there is a streaming market for country, and that it would take a bit longer for the fans to adopt change in music consumption formats,” Liepis explains. “The same thing happened in the iTunes era, as soon as consumers across all genres learned how to download, the convenience of it all, and got comfortable with it, we became the No. 1 retailer for most records rather quickly. The same is happening now for streaming and the subscription model.”
England wonders if the level of success for “7 Summers” might point to even bigger things ahead for country’s impact. “It’s starting to feel like country music could be pop culture,” he says. “I don’t mean pop music — I just mean that it could be as big as pop culture, that we saw rap and hip-hop really break out four-to-five years ago… I think the song is supernatural, no doubt. But I think it’s also showing that country artists in this year, and certainly the coming years, might have a bit of a similar-sized audience to artists from other genres.” (The top tier of this week’s Hot 100 — where “7 Summers” is joined by Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” at No. 10, marking a rare occasion of two country hits sharing space in the Hot 100’s top 10 — provides solid support for this claim.)
For now, Wallen isn’t rushing to capitalize on the success of “7 Summers,” instead taking his time with producer Joey Moi to work on finishing his sophomore follow-up to If I Knew Me. For England and the rest of Wallen’s Big Loud team, the focus is now on making sure that whenever the album is completed, it gets the proper rollout befitting of an artist with such booming multi-platform appeal.
“For the consumption he’s doing, and incredible music he’s making, I certainly think this rollout needs to look like Garth Brooks in Target and Wal-Mart, and Drake on the streaming apps,” England says. “And it seems kinda funny to say that. But I think that country music has that unique ability to do both.”