Monday, April 04, 2016

What Now, Country Radio?

Category:  Opinion

Back in February 2015 Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton told the Tennessean, ahead of a convention for country radio programmers, consultants, and executives, "If you're not on country radio, you don't exist."  The comments caused a tremendous backlash from acts who are not on country radio (e.g., Charlie Robison, Aaron Watson [who, ironically, had the #1 single the week this happened, despite not getting airplay!]).  A month later, Overton was out of a job (technically "stepping down" after "mutual agreement" with Sony officials) -- not so much because of what he said as the fact that he let a closely-guarded industry secret (that being commercial mainstream music [not just country music] is tightly controlled and manipulated to the point where the songs are successful and what songs are not are pre-determined) out.  (I encourage you to read the Saving Country Music blog about this fiasco.  It's worth your time, and you'll get a good laugh out of it.)

In the succeeding 14 months Overton's comments took a serious beating in the world of reality.  Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scored a #1 album with Django and Jimmie, despite no airplay.  Don Henley's Cass County went to #1 despite no airplay.  Joey + Rory's Hymns That We Love went to #1 despite no airplay.  And, two weeks ago, nearly 84-year-old Loretta Lynn's Full Circle debuted on the album chart at #4...again, despite no airplay.

The biggest monkey wrench in this notion that "no country radio = no success" is named Chris Stapleton.  At the Ain't Country Music Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards last night (4/3) Stapleton swept the categories he was nominated in, the second time he's done that in country music awards in the past five months (he also was three-for-three in the CMAs in November).  In addition to that, he won two Grammys in February, including "Best Country Album" for Traveller.  

And he did it all WITHOUT RADIO.  

He can't be played on country radio.  While he's not exactly traditional country, he's certainly more country (and less "sex on the tool box at the tailgate party" bro-country) than anything that's come along in recent years.  You can't play Buck Owens after Led Zeppelin then tell people they're the same genre.  (He also doesn't fit the "hunk" stereotype, and, at nearly 38 [his birthday is next week], he's "too old" for the "young and good-looking" mentality they've been hyping for over two decades.)

Stapleton is now the hottest property in country music.  That's leaving country radio programmers in a bind.  They can't play something they didn't pick to click, or something that's closer to George Strait than Dire Straits, because it's going to stick out, and people are going to start asking questions ("what kind of music is that?  That's not 'country music' you've been spoon feeding us for the last 25 years!").  Yet, he's so successful that they have to play him.

What now, country radio programmers?  Do you finally listen to Dale Watson's plea from 20 years ago ("Mr. DJ, would you please play a real country song?"), or do you keep hyping the Sam Hunt and hope nobody will notice that you're ignoring Stapleton?  Or, do you just continue to ignore your two-year downward trend in ratings while Stapleton's album goes platinum (remember that the past two years have given us one platinum album per year -- both by pop women [Taylor Swift and Adele]) and people discover him and others (such as another success-without-radio story, Kacey Musgraves) without your help?

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