Cumulus & Big Machine Partner for “Classic” Nash Icons Venture

May 14, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Podcasting/Radio  //  28 Comments

nashAs Saving Country Music has been saying all year, mergers, acquisitions, and cross-platform partnerships are going to be the big story of 2014, and will reorganize and churn country music in a manner that the genre has never seen before in its entire history. At the forefront of this historic reorganization has been America’s two biggest radio station owners: Clear Channel & Cumulus, who are betting big on country to become America’s most dominant radio format. Right beside them making big moves is arguably the most powerful label in country music at the moment: Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records. The Big Machine Label Group has already reached landmark deals with Clear Channel for the use of its artists’ music on radio, and with other entities such as Dr. Luke. And now Big Machine has partnered with Cumulus on a venture that very well could end up creating an entirely new sub-genre or sub-format of country music.

Announced late Tuesday, NASH Icons, a takeoff on Cumulus’ already-established nationally-syndicated NASH brand, is a partnership with the Big Machine Label Group for the purpose of taking old and new music from artists “of the past 25 years” and giving its own place to live. Though no specific artists to be featured have been detailed yet, the idea seems to encompass music from performers like Big Machine’s Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, and many others artists like Garth Brooks and Randy Travis who’ve had big careers in the past 25 years and that have massive back catalogs of country music that have been virtually abandoned by mainstream radio and many major record labels.

Though detailed specifics of exactly what NASH Icons will look like once it rolls out have not been made available, the two companies are planning a NASH Icons record label that would distribute both old and new music from NASH Icons artists. NASH Icons will also host live events such as special media programming, and potentially tours and festivals, and have streaming and syndicated radio programs specifically catering to the NASH Icons 25-year brand.

Though the term “classic” has been thrown out there to describe the country music that will be featured with the new venture, it appears to be purposely focused on music from a 25-year window, meaning that anything before 1989—when artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Brooks & Dunn really started their rise—will likely not be included.

As consumer study group Edison Research has pointed out numerous times over the past few years, mainstream country radio has been ignoring its classic country fan base, and the result has been an acceleration of country radio’s loss of listeners that has already been occurring naturally because of the emergence of new media options for consumers like Pandora, Spotify, and satellite radio. This venture signals from both Cumulus and Big Machine that they recognize there is an untapped market for older country music that has been ignored in a growing manner by mainstream country radio focusing on youth and the here-and-now.

Study: Radio Consolidation Not Working

However the move could also accelerate this trend if anything seen as “classic” is moved to an entirely different format. If 25-year-old country music is completely segregated from mainstream country, it leaves mainstream country to become a true, current-only country equivalent of Top 40, where any music over a couple of years old will be entirely stricken from the format. In other words, older country could be banished to the old folks home, out of sight and out of mind from mainstream consumers. This trend could also spread to industry award shows and other cultural institutions of country music.

At the same time, it could also finally give aging country artists and fans a format, and somewhere to go when mainstream radio will no longer pay attention to them.

Big Machine and Cumulus would not be getting into this business if they didn’t feel there was money to be made. At the same time, the two companies may see this as a way to placate much of the current criticism being levied at the country oligarchy for abandoning its roots, and abandoning the artists and fans that made country into the commercially-successful format it is today.

What the true impact of NASH Icons will be is yet to be seen, or if Clear Channel, Cumulus’ main rival, will launch their own “classic” venture with another partner, as the two media giants saddled with billions in debt and looking toward country music as their way out  match each other tit for tat in the current country music media arms race. The billions of debt that Cumulus carries, along with their other plans for big-minded partnerships and licensing deals that include making NASH-branded food, clothing, furniture, and even paint cast the question of how the company plans to levy the capital to pay for this all, and if country is truly on such a meteoric rise that all the entities looking to capitalize off of it will end up cannibalizing each other as they all fight for the same slices of the pie, regardless of how much that pie is incrementally growing.

Either way, this partnership is not just fodder for Page 2 of radio trade publications. This could spark a significant moment in creating a new format for the country music that has been abandoned by the mainstream, or it could stimulate mainstream country abandoning its roots even further. Or both.

28 Comments to “Cumulus & Big Machine Partner for “Classic” Nash Icons Venture”

  • Can’t wait for that Taylor Swift ad for that NASH paint I’ve been not so patiently waiting for.


  • Why would they just focus on 1989 and later? I mean I know why, most consumers don’t know any country older than Garth Brooks, but I would think they could make money by name dropping Johnny Cash and George Jones.

    Hopefully this will evolve into 2 different country formats. Traditional country and hot country. Like alternative rock and active rock. It will only work though if the classic stations start playing new, traditional country.


    • I would guess because 1989 is the generally agreed upon line when the format threw out a huge number of acts like Milsap, Don Williams, Charley Pride and about a dozen others and went with the whole new generation of Garth, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, etc and since the fans of the latter are still young to be a demographic that might work they will try to attract them while the fans of the former group are not so desirable from their viewpoint.


      • Yes, my guess is it has a lot to do with demographics and sponsorships. If you start getting too far from 1989, you get into the whole “old farts and jackasses” train of thought with a lot of consumers. And though they’re extremely small and few and far between compared to mainstream radio, there are quite a few true classic country radio stations that steer clear of anything after 1989 unless it is something new and traditional, so my guess is this is what they see as the sweet spot of something mainstream is ignoring, but that still is an untapped market and has commercial viability.


        • Their reason?

          The biggest financial boom in country music occurred in the early 90s. Big Machine and Cumulus are dogs returning to their vomit.

          The joke’s on them though–those big money days ain’t coming back.


  • I just remain skeptical of how Cumulus is going to pay for all of this. They’re billions in debt with a portfolio full of depreciating assets, declining ratings, and an antiquated business model. Clear Channel is in the same boat, but they are ahead of Cumulus with their iHeartRadio app, which has been much more successful than Cumulus’s Rdio. At some point you just run out of money. Venture capitalists are not going to keep funding a debt unless there is sound evidence of a turnaround. Clear Channel actually rasied revenue last quater, but still lost money because the interest on their debt is so high. And so many media companies right now are staking their future on country, it’s inevitable some of them will lose that bet. I think Cumulus’ Lew Dickey is implementing a glorified ponzi scheme with all these side projects.


    • I say let ‘em spend. The more they spend, the quicker they’ll die and better off we’ll be.


    • Clear Channel’s debt now exceeds $20 billion and investors are turning away from them. A lot of people are getting frustrated with the way CEO Bob Pittman has been running the company. Music streaming isn’t a cash cow. Neither Spotify nor Pandora have proven profitable yet. Cumulus is facing many of the same problems Clear Channel is. It is completely possible that in the next 5 to 10 years both companies go under. I’m just scared they’ll be replaced with another radio oligopoly that is no better.


      • I really, really, hope that this is what it takes for these smaller labels / companies to start staking claims a little bit….hopefully the debt will be their downfall – and if / once this happens, THEN I foresee companies like this 30 Tigers one that I keep reading about starting to make inroads….

        Wishful thinking maybe, but who knows – a SCM artist being on any sort of Itunes list is HUGE, and shows that there must be some kind of demand for this…if any of these labels / companies had half a fucking brain amongst them, then they would be at least trying to figure our how to diversify –

        What if their mega-pop shit-hole stations had a one hour (or even 30 minute) radio show that played some of ‘our’ country music (Sturgill Etc)?? I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that very few people search out music as we do, but if it were put in front of them (like the pop/bro garbage is), then I honestly think it would resonate with a lot more listeners than they anticipate…if not they’ll continue to bleed money until there’s no more left to bleed, which is when it JUST MIGHT open up the door to local radio ownership…

        I will gladly volunteer my services to help with this!!


  • A country station that played music from 1989 to today would be a HUGE improvement over the two Top 40 country stations that are available to me now and I wouldn’t definitely tune in.


    • Heck, a country station playing music from 2010 would be a significant improvement over today.


  • Bah.

    Even if some moderate good comes out of this, I am disgusted that the fate of country music is in the hands of these jokers in the first place.


    • If a new commercial radio format came along that would play artists like Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, or Kellie Pickler, I would call it progress. (I realize I named all female artists, so maybe throw in Easton Corbin or whatever. Bur we all know women are leading the way in the mainstream.)

      I could see all of those artists appealing to demographics that are disenfranchised by the “bro” stuff, including women, classic country fans, and people over 25, or whatever narrow group is currently being targeted.

      Seems like Cumulus could actually make money by investing in such artists, but Cumulus & Clear Chanel have decided that being ultra-conservative is the way to save their behinds, which means more repetition and less diversity, always. Why invest in promising, substantive new artists when you can just create a new station that will regurgitate twenty year old Tim McGraw songs?


  • If this platform is carried out, it is difficult for a person (or a group of people) to decide whether or not to back this project. I enjoy this music; I prefer this music over newer mainstream country. Do I cast my vote to America and other institutions indicating that I prefer this style of music over the mainstream? Or do I boycott the machine who is using me to make money? Tough decisions arise when people start taking notice of your outcries.


  • sounds like the dinosaur rock format of the mid 80s which was ok if you didn’t mind having to listen to Layla & stairway to heaven twelve times a day


  • How will they pay for it? They’ll pay for it by partnering with a label who is going to pursue the artists we love who have no label homes and then offering them 360 degree deals where the they generate tons of revenue by literally owning those artists and a portion of every penny they earn from music to merch. There are artists who have no better options so they’ll sign, but they will sign their lives away. Trust me you want to vomit. As for not including the classics from further back, too much of that would mean contract negotiations with those who inherited legal rights to thoee catalogs and recordings.
    You think the Jones family wants or needs Borschetta? Pssh.


  • Here in the Great White North, the local “Country” station is losing listeners faster than I am hair . Recently a DJ prefaced a song intro by saying” PLEASE…PLEASE don’t call in saying THAT AIN’T COUNTRY !! I only work here” . We thought that summed things up pretty accurately .
    As I understand it , advertising dollars, based on the demographic being marketed to, dictates what gets played .No different than network TV…right ? If its a younger demographic whose first introduction to ” country music” is Florida Georgia or Luke Bryan or Taylor Swift and aren’t familiar with the genre beyond these pop-oriented acts BUT buy the products advertised on these stations by sponsors , isn’t that the game in a nutshell ?
    An older demographic , unfortunately , is not a music-buying /downloading/sharing demographic and more and more is not buying goods at all .They have everything they need in a household including 25-30-50 years of music in vinyl , tape and CD collections as well as access to FREE music from You Tube , streaming radio and God knows where else in these times. They turned off’ Country Radio’ a long time ago . A station catering to this demographic and “25 years of classic country music ” may indeed be welcomed . But someone has to pay for it and , again , that would be sponsors trying to sell something to folks who don’t need any more ‘stuff ‘.

    Someone please show me the error in my understanding of the market . ..thanks


    • Trigger–I think it would be helpful to show how the money flows. Show it from a label’s perspective, from a publisher’s perspective, songwriter, artist, radio station, etc.

      From a radio perspective, it is not clear to me what drives a station to play this homogenized play list that is the same as the one on the station in the next town over. I think we would see more diversity if it was a case of advertising sponsors only.

      But I don’t know–hence the request.


      • That’s a good idea. Beyond money flow, the other thing that’s driving it is consolidation. Right now in this country, it’s like there’s only two real radio stations: Clear Channel; & Cumulus, and so many of the decisions are made from on high and trickle down, with little or no input to the individual stations. So now labels only have to lobby one big entity, instead of a bunch of radio stations.


      • A couple of things. The first is simple. Some of the largest ad buys, placed on a national basis, are from labels themselves. They buy ad space across the country (on chart reporting stations) to promote the purchase of a single and/or album. In turn, that song is played. Easy enough. In order to be a part of those buys, a station must maintain its status as a reporter. In order to maintain its status as a reporter, the station must play a certain percentage of “currents”.

        The second is more complicated and relates to non label ad buys. Stations, in order to maintain their value to advertisers, are concerned with keeping their listeners (keeping them from turning the dial). There are a ton of statistics, including average drive time, that determine at what frequency a chart topping song should replayed, how often advertising should be played, and how often station IDs take place. In a market with a short drive time, you will hear the same song more frequently on any given stations. In a market where people are commuting an average of an hour or more in peak traffic in the morning, there will a longer period between replays. Nashville does not have long drive times, so if you listen all day you will hear the same songs A LOT.

        Those are only two factors in a complicated equation, but maybe it’s a start in the understanding of the money flow. As for the money flow with regards to publishers, writers, etc, it’s irrelevant in this conversation for the most part. It has no impact on radio airplay. It’s just about chart positions which drive artist and tour sponsorships and appearance fees and other things where labels make money off artists more than from album or song sales.


        • Sounds a lot like a 2014 version the the payola scandals of the 50’s .


          • Pretty much. “Legano. No legano. Is gray area”. It’s easy to hate on labels, but you gotta understand that they can’t make money on album sales anymore, so 360 deals and playing a game they didn’t create is all they’ve got. None of it would be possible without the great Telecommunications Act of 1996. Thanks Mr. Clinton.


          • Yes, the Telecom. Act of 1996 is what started all of this crap.


  • Ok Here’s my two cents…. There are some amazing artists such as Reba, Ronnie Dunn, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd, etc etc who put out new music that is excellent but unplayed by radio. This doesn’t simply seem like regurgitating their old (and still enjoyable) music, but a format to hear their new stuff as well and I’m all for it. I am pretty sick of hearing about Dixie cups myself and everything is so similar, I just cant listen. If there was a station for the new music of artists I love, I would listen all the time. Now someone mentioned how this would impact awards show, I don’t know that it would hurt these artists, they are largely ignored there too (except Strait). I would love to see these classic artists getting nominated again, and performing, maybe I could start tuning in again.


  • The whole modern country radio dilemma shouldn’t be an issue for any one with a smartphone nowadays. WSM 650 AM -The Air Castle of the South, Home of the Grand Ol’ Opry- has been doing right all along with their playlists and has an app so you can listen to it from anywhere. I live in Switzerland and get to wake up to Eddie Stubbs every morning for my drive to work. Download the app and never mess with your radio ever again. The best of the classics and the new people we actually want to hear (on their website, check out their Station Inn Session with Sturgill Simpson, archived in the Shows section if you haven’t already).


  • Even though its gone now, KWKH here in Shreveport was great at broadcasting a classic country format. Plenty of Johnny, George, and Merle, along with Brooks & Dunn, George Strait, etc. Unfortunately that station won’t be coming back anytime soon. I would almost bet that this will start out as “classic” country, with big corporations involved, it will eventually morph into something else. Remember how MTV2 was supposed to only show music videos when the original MTV strayed from its original format? That’s my guess anyways


  • Even though its gone now, KWKH here in Shreveport was great at broadcasting a classic country format.

    I don’t even know how I missed this comment…

    LOVED me some KWKH back in the day. I listened to it in Texarkana, Texas, back in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s. I wept BITTER tears when the FM side switched formats, and I only recently heard that the AM is now a sports-talk station. Because that’s just what we need, amirite?


  • […] a pop duo and move on. Your fans can rest easy, and country music purists can rest easy. If this NASH Icons project takes flight and finds a national audience for artists who wish to play the traditional […]


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