Charles Darwin once said that it’s not the smartest or the strongest of a species that survive, but those most willing to adapt to change. Country music has relied on country radio since the genre’s very inception. Country music is country radio. Radio programs like The Grand Ole Opry, The Louisiana Hayride, and the Ozark Jubilee are what made country music a viable American enterprise, and there’s a reason there’s a radio antennae sticking out of the rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But times have changed. On Monday (2-1), The Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, unveiled new rules of how gold and platinum records would be rewarded moving forward. For the first time, streaming data will be considered in the calculations. 1,500 on-demand audio and/or video song streams will equal 10 track sales and 1 album sale, and the RIAA’s Digital Single Award ratio will be updated from 100 on-demand streams equaling 1 download, to 150 on-demand streams equaling 1 download. These changes are being made to reflect streaming music’s enormous growth since the measurements were last tweaked two years ago. “We know that music listening for both for albums and songs is skyrocketing,” says Cary Sherman, the CEO of the RIAA. But that listening isn’t happening on the radio.
How people listen to music is clearly changing, but much of the country music industry isn’t following suit. In a town that employs scores of people just to push songs to radio, Nashville doesn’t know how to behave any differently than they did 60 years ago. Entire companies are based around trying to sell songs to country radio. Wings of labels big and small are devoted to trying to find the magical formula at any given time of how to push a song to #1. It’s a force of habit. And anyone who tells you radio doesn’t matter isn’t paying proper attention either, because even in the midst of the overwhelming changes resulting from the new streaming paradigm, radio still has incredible strength and value in certain segments of consumers.
The difference now is radio is no longer the only game in town, or the only way for an artist to succeed.
Chris Stapleton changed all of that in country. Stapleton is on pace to have one of the best-selling albums in country music in years, yet radio still can’t catch up to November of 2015 when the rest of the world witnessed Stapleton at the CMA Awards, and liked what they saw. Part of that is not Stapleton’s fault. As America was rushing to download Stapleton’s take on “Tennessee Whiskey” in such numbers that the song shot straight to #1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, Stapleton’s label was trying to push “Nobody to Blame” to radio. Rushing “Tennessee Whiskey” to radio may have resulted in a sure fire #1 radio hit for Stapelton, but getting the labels on Music Row to be swift and take advantage of trends is like trying to turn a battleship on a dime. They’re just not equipped.
In an article posted in the most recent issue of Billboard Country Update touting the importance of Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart that takes into consideration consumer demand beyond radio, former iHeartMedia executive Clay Hunnicutt said, “Certainly a lot of careers have been built around [airplay] No. 1s. But we’ve seen a lot of No.1s that haven’t really sold anything, that haven’t really created a lot of passion in the end. What we want—what we all want—is passion and action by the listeners.”
Program Director Tim Roberts of WYCD says, “The younger generation uses media differently. THere’s more avenues to discovering music, although radio’s still the No. 1 discovery [source]—95 percent of people listen to regular old terrestrial every day. But you can never have too many tools, and if you’re not looking at all the tools, it’s a mistake.”
Having a #1 hit on country radio isn’t a proper register of public sentiment, it’s just a barometer on the popularity of an artist among radio professionals, and how well the label has marketed a song to them. Artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are proving you don’t need radio to be successful in country. Even some major label artists like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe are doing just fine without charting singles. Garth Brooks was the highest-grossing touring artist in all of country music last year, and he did it without the support of even one significant radio single. But try telling that to some in the country industry, and the lessons of Stapleton, Sturgill, Garth and others seem to not be registering.
Up and down Music Row, albums are in limbo, and artists’ careers are on hold because lead singles failed to chart on radio successfully. Nowhere is this more evident than in the roster of MCA Nashville. Gary Allan, Josh Turner, and David Nail are all in country music purgatory as MCA Nashville sits paralyzed after lead singles failed to show significant radio success. Meanwhile their fans get restless waiting for new music. But MCA Nashville isn’t the only one. Major country music franchises like The Band Perry, and up-and-coming stars like Mo Pitney are the victims of a system where if your lead single doesn’t chart well, nothing else will move forward.
But artists like Gary Allan and Josh Turner have strong grassroots followings, and they will sell albums without the support of radio if just given a chance and handled the proper way. Mo Pitney would be perfect for trying to follow the same flight path of someone like Sturgill Simpson, but instead his label Curb Records continues to try and push traditional country singles in country radio’s insular environment where they will never succeed. It’s a force of habit that won’t allow country music major labels to operate any other way, while the ability for new artists to reach radio has never been more difficult. Left and right on Music Row, independently-owned radio promotions companies are shuttering, and smaller labels who hope to have a chance on radio seem stuck in a reality that is many years outmoded.
And amid all of the challenges for facing artists, radio itself appears to be on the precipice of collapsing. America’s two largest radio firms—Cumulus and iHeartMedia—are both leveraged to the hilt with debt, while trying to make an unsustainable business model work in a changing environment.
“Our thesis since late 2014 has been that there was about $1 billion of [Cumulus] equity value that would disappear over time as investors come to recognize that an antiquated business with an unsustainable debt load from an ill-fated acquisition spree would ultimately destroy all equity value,” says Seeing Alpha about the prospects of Cumulus Media moving forward.
The prognosis for iHeartMedia is not much better. According to reports, the company is expected to lose $50 million in 2015, $80 million in 2016 and $120 million in 2017, and currently is holding $21 billion in debt. Relying on radio in the long-term just doesn’t make smart business sense.
For some artists, radio is still very much a viable way to get music to the masses. But it is no longer the only way. It can still be the best outlet for some, but for others, it can’t even be considered an option. With the success of so many artists without the benefit of radio, artists and albums being held hostage up and down Music Row should be part of a new movement to retool the industry to take into consideration the current realities of how consumers listen to music.