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We've heard it countless times before: "I'd like to thank the fans..."
In country music acceptance speeches, in fact, "the fans" are shouted out almost as much as "the Lord" (on second thought, make that any music award acceptance speech). And any star worth their weight in album and ticket sales knows that however sincere their faith, the fans are exactly where those numbers come from.
But for Hunter Hayes, one of the fastest-rising stars in country music, it's not the number of tickets sold but the number of face-to-face interactions that means so much more. Currently on the road opening for Lady Antebellum, Hayes spends the little free time he has nurturing a genuine relationship with his listeners.
"The relationship is that we see each other at multiple shows," Hayes recently told ETonline backstage at Acme Feed & Seed in downtown Nashville, just before hitting the stage for a pop-up performance for his loyal Hayniacs. "We've seen them at a lot of shows and we know each other. That's the thing, there's no thinking about it. You just go and you hang -- you hang with your friends because that's what it's about. That's why we make music. We make these connections, and I cherish those connections."
Few artists have harnessed the power of their fans quite like country-pop crossover Taylor Swift, who has built an empire while still taking the time to personally package and mail gifts to her most dedicated online followers.
When Swift pulled her entire catalogue of music from free online streaming services such as Spotify, she called on her Swifties to shell out their hard-earned dollars and support her latest album release. (In an enlightening Wall Street Journal op-ed, Swift had previously said, "It's my opinion that music should not be free.") It worked, to the tune of 1.287 million copies of 1989 sold in its first week on the market.
But Hayes has a different MO. Where new services like Jay Z's TIDAL aim to put digital control (and revenue) back in the hands of artists like Madonna, Jason Aldean, Beyonce, Kanye West and more, Hayes is putting his new digital-only release strategy in the hands of his fans — by planning to unveil a ton of never-before-heard tracks on Spotify.
"I write hundreds of songs for a record so much gets left behind, whereas maybe in this world with this new idea, this new thing, we don't have to leave stuff behind anymore," he told ET at the CMT Awards.
"It's really exciting as a creator to not only create, but also to be able to listen to the fans and specifically listen to when they want it, how often they want music, and all that stuff," he said.
But it’s also a huge risk — and that's not something country music in particular is known for.
"It's scary when something that big changes," Hayes confessed. "You have the one thing that is constant in our world as creators, [that] you're gonna put this on a record -- that disappears all of the sudden and you throw it out the window and you say, 'You know what? I don't know what it's gonna be, I want the fans to decide.'"
Hayes' most recently released songs, "21" and the Lady Antebellum-assisted "Where It All Begins," hit the web within just a few weeks of each other. And just last week, as "21" hit country radio nationwide, the track became the week’s No. 1 most-added song with 94 stations adding it to their rotations. Now, the 23-year-old is ready to start "a new tradition."
"Maybe every couple of weeks we'll start throwing out some new music and see what the fans want," he mused. (For starters, fans can expect at least one new offering every two weeks through the end of summer.)
One thing the Hayniacs do certainly want is to support their leader in his charitable endeavors. Last year's Road Race saw Hayes performing in 10 cities over the course of 24 hours, with each sold-out show benefiting Child Hunger Ends Here (a cause frequently championed by the star).
Hayes says the event is his favorite fan memory thus far, and that he remains humbled by his supporters.
"It just goes to show you how powerful they are," he said. "And how much they give -- 150 percent."