Why the Country Radio Format Split Should Be the Focus of CRS

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Oh country radio, what are we going to do with you?

This week is the annual CRS, or Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, TN—a annual exercise where some of your favorite country music artists and media types throw out proprietary jargon like “CRS” and expect you to know what it means and why it’s so important, when in reality you just want your nose pointed to the best music and don’t really care how it happens. Some music listeners choose to nerd out a little deeper on issues and that’s cool too, but events like CRS aren’t meant for the flotsam and jetsam of the country music listening public, and that’s probably a good thing, because beyond the wine and dining parties, the showcases of new artists, and the overall readjusting of the noose the industry has around country radio’s neck (and vice versa), the intellectual exercises the event stimulates each year can turn quite convoluted beyond the corporate catering and pedantry.

For the last two years CRS week has started off by some big personality stirring the pot with an outlandish and/or unprovoked proclamation. In 2014, it was Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta taking his turn by saying something so ridiculous, Saving Country Music titled its CRS preview, “Scott Borchetta Said WHAT? (2014 Country Radio Seminar Primer).”

What Scott Borchetta said was,

“I’m not McDonald’s. I’m not 1 billion served. I’m much more in favor of building a Harley-Davidson or a Ferrari and take that 1 or 2 percent of the population who love what we do and super-serve them.”

Don’t worry, it’s not just you. Scott Borchetta’s statement really doesn’t make a lick of sense, and it’s not just because you don’t know the in’s and out’s of the country radio business. Then again if you don’t know much about the country radio business. Yet here I am typing away, because above all, CRS has built itself into being perceived as something really really big and important in country music, whether it truly is or not.

Gary Overton

Gary Overton

This year the balderdash that started off CRS and has many bent out of shape and/or scratching their heads came care of Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton who said, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”

Ooh! Ahh! People up in arms! How could he say that!? Hasn’t he ever heard of Sturgill Simpson!? How dare he marginalize such a wide swath of the music community with such a callous assessment!

The simple fact is what Gary Overton said is completely and jarringly true, and patently and insultingly false all at the same time. From Mr. Overton’s perch as a the CEO of a massive Nashville record label, of course he has no clue of the doings and successes of independent artists who’ve never sniffed mainstream radio, just like many independent fans and artists do their level best to not pay attention to what the mainstream is doing.

Journalist Adam Gold writing for Rolling Stone did a well-researched deep dive into the dilemma’s facing country radio this week called “Why Country Radio Still Matters.” Where Gary Overton’s comments were widely ridiculed, Adam Gold’s assessment of the importance of radio was lauded…even though they both basically said the same thing, that radio, no matter what anyone wants to think, is still vitally important to the country music landscape, and without its support, it’s an uphill battle for any artist to succeed. Adam actually articulated why this is the case, and why the challenges and issues are important even to the average listener instead of just impugning anyone below the radio play level like Overton did.

READ:My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the #1 record. I do exist.”

edison-researchBut there’s nothing new about the assessment that radio is important in country music, and remains important despite the new music portals that have emerged in the digital age. In April of 2014, Saving Country Music posted its own assessment called “New Study Proves Why Radio Still Matters,” written around the statistics of media company Edison Research. The company found that the majority of listeners still turn to radio to keep up-to-date with music, and by a wide margin. What’s funny about the whole country radio discussion is that while mainstream vs. independent and contemporary vs. classic debates rage on, Edison Research has been releasing studies for years now that explain irrefutably and in great detail why country radio should be more local and more diverse, especially when it comes to older artists. Yet the industry continues its headlong in their charge to consolidate, syndicate, narrow playlists, and focus more on youth.

But then all of a sudden here was the second largest radio station owner in the country in Cumulus Media launching an idea that they hoped would split the country music radio format in two. It seemed so genius, and even before Cumulus could start launching prototype stations for their NASH Icon network, independent and regionally-owned stations across the country began to adopt a format that played more classic country music from around a 25-year window.

nash-iconBut it was hard to tell if the Dickey Brothers at the controls of Cumulus were serious about all this NASH stuff, or if it was just noise. Bringing Scott Borchetta and the Big Machine Label Group on board at the launching of NASH Icon, and then signing Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, and Ronnie Dunn to the record label showed just how serious they were. And lo and behold, the NASH Icon flagship station in Nashville was even beating its competition in the ratings, including major local competitor Bobby Bones. The research from Edison Research was proving itself correct in the most important market in country music. Though an assessment by Saving Country Music about the health of NASH Icon affiliates beyond the Nashville market was somewhat bleak, the idea, and the more general split of the country radio format seemed like the wave of the future.

But where is talk of the format split on the agenda at CRS? You would think it would be dominating the proceedings. I mean, we’re talking about what would be the largest overhaul of country radio in its existence. But is it even being discussed, or are people more focused on the big Garth Brooks party as he tries to retool after his retirement and make up for now two failed radio singles, or is the focus on the label showcases where they parade out their new stars and try to endear them to radio personalities instead of the esoteric discussions happening during the day? Unfortunately Saving Country Music isn’t cool enough to be invited to CRS, but from the outside looking in, and searching diligently, if the format split discussion is happening, it’s not bubbling to the top of the priority list.

There are major issues facing country radio, and the solutions have never seemed more obvious or out there to grasp and realize. Yet there seems to be such a lackadaisical effort to implement them. And it’s not just at CRS. We’re not seeing mention of the country music format split really anywhere compared to last summer when it was top-of-mind.

crs1It’s just this simple: Country radio needs to split, and it would be the best thing for all parties. You could have one format that caters to the here and now Top 40 mainstream country with narrow playlists for younger listeners, and a second more classic and diverse format where you could include some of the new stuff, some of the old stuff going back to the early 80’s, and new stuff from older artists, and new stuff from newer artists like Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson that don’t fit on the mainstream format but have proven commercial appeal.

Now I’m sorry, but your favorite little independent country band that you follow on Facebook is not going to find their way onto country radio even if a format split occurs. This isn’t like YMCA soccer where you don’t count points and everyone receives a trophy. Getting on country radio will still be difficult, but it won’t be impossible for everyone but the top tier of mainstream artists like it is now, evidenced by Gary Overton’s myopic perspective.

That’s the problem with mainstream country music at the moment—it’s incredibly top heavy, and is getting increasingly top heavy as time goes on. As for the female problem for radio everyone loves to gripe about? Split the format in two and that gives women artists a second avenue to get heard. Meanwhile the Top 40 side can do their ever-loving worst and play Sam Hunt triple shots and Florida Georgia Line’s latest single four times in a row without having to listen to the wining of traditional fans and folks that want more women and more variety on their radio. It’s a win win.

Yet what has happened with this format split idea? Where is the zeal and initiative? Where the impending format split was one of the biggest stories of 2014, now the idea feels almost dead on arrival, or holding on by a thread. And it’s not like the plan is radical, or even all that new. Again Edison Research was way ahead of the game. In November of 2008, the company’s Sean Ross wrote,

So why not just write off those older listeners and move on? Because the older audience is not gone. They’re less satisfied. They’re willing to head off to Oldies or Classic Rock if they hear too much music they can’t relate to. But the available 45-to-54 audience is still larger than the 25-to-34 audience that will consider listening to Country in most places. It would undoubtedly be fine with many on the label side if Country focused exclusively on the audience they perceive as buying music. But walking away from a third of the target often the largest target isn’t a realistic proposition, particularly in markets where there is only one Country station…

…Forcing existing Country stations to become more current might be more satisfying for the music industry; building two strong formats would be the greater achievement.

This was in 2008 people. And here we are seven years later, and it feels like the debate on splitting the country format is lost in the shuffle.

Meanwhile the issues plaguing country radio have never been greater. Initiatives to solve the female problem like SiriusXM’s “Fresh Female Voices” resulted in listeners either having “no opinion” or they “didn’t like it,” and though artists like Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson are signing to major labels, they’re doing so to subsidiaries located in LA, not in Nashville, so it still remains questionable if their labels will even attempt to court country radio.

Where is the leadership on this issue? Though the Dickey Brothers of Cumulus have done a tremendous amount, there seems to be some tension between them and the rest of the industry as if they’re going out-of-bounds, while others don’t trust the solvency of their ambitious “NASH” ideas that go as far as making NASH-branded paint, food, and furniture. Meanwhile Scott Borchetta seems fond of the idea, but he’s off being a mentor for American Idol, and signing to CCA on his continued march to becoming an American music cult of personality.

The country radio format split should have been the all-consuming issue of the 2015 CRS to the point where people were tired of hearing about it. A format split would not be a magic wand wave that would solve all of mainstream country music’s ills, and of course like with all initiatives there’s pitfalls both anticipated and that will go unforeseen. But country radio sits perched at the brink of a unique opportunity to open country radio up to a brighter future, to extend the careers of mature artists who still have tremendous marketable potential, and open up avenues to newer stars and female stars who are locked out of the current format. It behooves major labels to open up more avenues for their newer artists. It behooves radio to appeal to more listeners. So it’s time for CRS, country radio, Music Row, and major labels to step up.

To a degree, it’s understandable why the industry might be wary of change since they’ve done such a good job keeping country radio so insular and under their control for many years. But the market is shifting and new avenues are encroaching on radio’s market share in an increasing degree each year, even if radio remains the big dog for now. It would be better for country radio to split on its own terms instead of being dictated by market forces that necessitate a split for the format’s survival in the future.

So let’s get back at this. Let’s continue to discuss the ideas. Let’s push program directors and label executives to start thinking how this could all take shape for the betterment of the country music mainstream format.