Lately I have been thinking about what is going on in country music over the last year or so. How much the mainstream and independent realms have evolved following the crash of the bro country era. I have also been thinking about how artists like Chris Stapleton, Cody Jinks and Sturgill Simpson are changing the game and proving that success can be had with or without the aid of country radio. Finally, I have been thinking about who is to blame for not only the bad music that is on the radio but the good stuff as well.
First I want to talk about the state of the mainstream at this moment. If you have been following the charts and country music news over the last couple of years you will see that the substance is greater than it was in the previous few years and more women are finding success on the charts. Of course, the quality of the music is still significantly off what it was even ten years ago but progress takes time. In regards to women, we currently have five that are in the top 30 of the Mediabase Chart something that should be seen as a small victory after the tomatogate fiasco. With all of this being said though, there are still far too many artists being pushed to radio that either have no talent or are not remotely country.
I have seen far too many artists gerrymandered to the top of the country charts just because they become an IHeart Radio On The Verge pick. What On The Verge does (for people that aren’t familiar with it) is that they basically guarantee that a song will get to top 30 at radio and usually even higher. The IHeart Radio stations give the song that is chosen tons of airplay and artificially create hits. Some of the artists to benefit from On The Verge include Sam Hunt, Tucker Beathard, Maren Morris and Lauren Alaina. In the case of Sam Hunt and Maren Morris, being chosen for this literally propelled them to super stardom despite not being country. In the case of Lauren Alaina being chosen meant that she was all of a sudden relevant on country radio after basically disappearing for years.
Next, I want to get to something that has been on my mind for a couple of weeks. One of my favorite things about having a blog now is not only the comment section in my own blog but the comment sections of other blogs. Oftentimes, interesting conversations emerge as a result of comments made. Well a couple weeks ago I was talking to my friend Leon over at Country Music Minds in his comment section as I often do. We got to the idea about the question of why labels invest the time and resources into launching these pop singers to radio when artists without airplay, whose music is of quality are performing much better.
Artists like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Cody Jinks are all proving that they do not need radio to play their music. Chris Stapleton is arguably the biggest star in country music despite not getting massive airplay. I know I have talked about this before but this shows just how backwards and behind country radio is in regards to the music that it plays. Perhaps that would explain why Cumulus and IHeart Media are both in danger of going under with massive debt and stock prices hovering around one dollar. In Sturgill Simpson’s case he has had a number one selling album and is nominated for a Grammy even though he has gotten zero radio play. How embarrassing will it be for country radio if Sturgill shocks everyone and wins a Grammy defeating Adele when they refuse to even play him on the radio? One of my favorite album stories of the year was Cody Jinks’ album I’m Not The Devil. Not only was it a great album that got critical praise but it also outsold Chris Lanes debut Girl Problems by roughly DOUBLE. That’s right, someone with no airplay sold double the albums that Chris Lane did despite having a number one song.
So with all of this success being had without radio and lack of success with radio why are labels still so focused on radio play? It is so incredibly competitive, time consuming and expensive to launch a new artist on the radio so why don’t these labels just launch sustainable country artists and if radio won’t play them tell them to screw off. I am not an industry insider so unfortunately I don’t have the answer however, I think it is abundantly clear that this business model is hurting practically everyone involved.
The last thing that I wanted to get to is who should we be blaming for the state of country music both mainstream and independent, both good and bad? It is very easy to simply blame an artist for releasing a bad song or bad album although it’s not entirely fair. The way that I see it there are three major parties in the mainstream that we should consider when assigning blame and that is the label, the artist and country radio. In regards to independent artists I would take away the label and radio parts and add album sales. So with this in mind it has to be understood that labels ultimately have control over the music that the artist puts out. Sure no one is holding a gun to the artists head but you have to understand the predicament that these artists are in. For many of them they have tried for years to get a record deal, have families or have had record deals but failed to have success with the music that they want to make.
When we assign blame for the music being played on the radio specifically I would blame the labels, the radio and the artists in that order. The label is deciding what artists to sign and what music will be released so ultimately the most blame should be put on them for the good and for the bad. The radio however is not forced to play anything. There is plenty of great music out there that they can play from real country artists but instead they chose to play Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Kelsea Ballerini.
My blame for the independent realm and the artists that aren’t played on radio is mostly on the positive side. We should blame Sturgill Simpson for the resurgence of music with substance, traditional country music and the surge in independent artist popularity. If I am being honest Sturgill is not one of my favorite artists but I recognize the impact he has had on country music and respect his music. He also inspired Chris Stapleton’s debut album Traveler which went on to launch a country music superstar. In a previous post I talked about how independent artists and artists who have record deals but don’t get radio play, continue to see massive success with album sales. You can blame them for putting out great work and you can also blame the state of country music over the last decade or so. If the music in the mainstream was better perhaps country fans would not search outside the radio for new music.
To sum up, I think it’s fair to say that country music has come a long way in the last year or so. We may never be able to get rid of all the bro’s and pop music but progress takes time. Independent artists will always be out there for making great music despite what is going on on the radio. Fans and artists no longer require that platform to get the great music out there. I think the industry as a whole needs to reevaluate their business model and start focusing on more sustainable growth of the genre. In the case of IHeart Media and Cumulus the clock is ticking.