Sunday, February 7, 2010

It's Different This Time...

There’s no question that Country Radio has a vested interest in the health of the Country Music Industry. When that industry is healthy and creating, producing and marketing exceptional music, Country Radio wins, too.

Lately however, the health of the Country Music Industry has come into question. The transition from albums to digital downloads of singles is creating cutbacks in staff and artist rosters leading many to wonder just how healthy our partners are.

Add to that the financial predicament of most Country Radio Stations, who have cut-back staff, personalities and almost all music and perceptual research, and one would be led to believe there's a storm brewing.

Looking at the Nielsen Soundscan Country Top 75 this past week is particularly revealing. Those Country projects that are getting Pop airplay are obviously out-selling everything else. Taylor Swift’s Fearless, Carrie Underwood’s Play On, Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now and Lady A’s debut album accounted for close to 90% of the total Top 10 Country album sales last week.

We’ve seen the lifespan of these albums extended dramatically, too. With nearly 200-weeks in release, Taylor Swift’s debut album is still moving over 20,000 units per week. Lady A’s debut album took a sharp upturn in sales as their single, Need You Now moved into prime rotations at pop radio.

We’re told this is a “fairly normal” occurrence in Country music. We’ve had pop crossover projects for half-a-century now. They point to Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Anne Murray, Ronnie Milsap, Glenn Campbell, Kenny Rogers and even Johnny Cash as prime examples. Some of their songs—certainly not all of them, moved to the larger mass-appeal audiences and made Music Row a pile of money.

So what’s different this time? Several things.
  1. The music has been modified for other radio formats. This is something that would have been considered artistically dishonest just a decade ago. Today, it’s simply the way to get into the mainstream.
  2. Labels are actively pursuing younger artists who create more music that can reach out beyond the confines of “Country”.
  3. Country Radio now actively seeks out a demographic that is not historically prone to even liking Country Music.
Ray Price has always been a country artist. But when Bill Drake began playing For the Good Times on KHJ/Los Angeles, not one note was changed. That larger pop audience embraced the music for what it was exactly as it was. What’s equally interesting is that Ray Price never attempted to create pop record and never had another one.

Even the young country artists of the past didn’t aim to reach other girls their age. Tanya Tucker’s music was embraced by adults because it was great country music—not because she was a teenager. Same for Brenda Lee and, in more recent times, LeAnn Rimes. To my knowledge, none of these teenaged artists music was ever created for teenagers.

And Country Radio’s Programmers, under intense pressure to reach the younger demographics the major advertisers want, welcomes music that’s intended to reach beyond the core country audience. Country Radio’s CHR-type presentation, with younger, CHR-experienced jocks and CHR-type imaging is setting the stage of a virtual take-over of youth-oriented artists and music.
There are those who say that Country Radio must “change with the times” or the older audience will die out and there’ll be no more country music. It could also be pointed out that this warning has been around since the 1950’s when artists like Elvis were invited to play the Grand Ole Opry. But Country Music and Country Radio survived and prospered anyway.

Most parents of teenaged girls say that their kids don’t listen to or seek out a Country Radio Station in order to hear their favorite Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Hannah Montana songs. So, if Country Radio is expecting these youth-driven artists’ music to drive the younger demos to them, their efforts may well be in vain.

No matter how you slice it, teenaged girls are buying records from artists whose Label homes are on Music Row in Nashville. But is this music bringing youth to Country Radio? Perhaps we should find out…and soon!

Garth Brooks will proudly tell you that his music was never actively promoted to non-Country Radio. His position is that "we created so much noise and excitement, they HAD to come to us. We didn't have to go to them."

See? It is different this time.