Margo Price has now officially pulled off the mother of all coup d’Ã©tats for an independent country artist. Announced on Thursday (3/31), she will be the featured musical guest on Saturday Night Live on April 9th. You can stack this on top of numerous other late night TV show appearances Margo has scored, as well as prominent placement in major outlets like NPR, top billing at SXSW a couple of weeks ago, and a publicity push that is now driven her past the unprecedented status. This is all for an artist who’s actually been writing and performing for quite a while, but still ranks very very low in the name recognition department when you venture out of her general sphere of influence in gentrifying East Nashville.
Margo Price playing SNL is not just a result of the incredible resources that have rallied behind her and her new album Midwest Farmers Daughter, it also speaks to some bigger trends in music at the moment.
Chris Stapleton is Opening Doors
We theorize all of the time about what it means when a good song, or a good album or artist catches fire. With the overwhelming success of Chris Stapleton, we’re now seeing the results. Booking agents for some of the biggest stages, including SNL (where Stapleton played earlier this year), are not dismissing country acts outright like they used to, they’re looking for that next cool, hip act that could catch fire like Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson have, and hope folks remember where they heard or saw them first once they get big.
This isn’t just about one or two artists. More traditional and independent country artists are getting opportunities like never before all across the entertainment landscape. If there’s any last holdout, it’s mainstream country radio. Everyone else has come on board.
Third Man Records’ Foray Into Country Is No Lark
They’re all in baby, and their pushing their chips on Margo Price’s number and not looking back. This isn’t just a side project to test the waters. They’re in it to win it. Whether we will see more country acts sign to the label, and get the same amount of oomph behind them as Margo is getting remains to be seen, but for the moment, the Nashville-based label is certainly worth watching as a potential force in country music in the future.
Shore Fire Media—the publicity company behind Margo Price—also deserves credit, if not the majority of the credit, for being able to sell Margo to these major entities as someone they need to give a chance.
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But I have to be honest with you ladies and gentlemen, and this is one of those situations where I have to play the mean, blowhard blogger than nobody likes, but says what many people are thinking: this all feels like too much, too soon for Margo Price. And that’s not just my opinion. That is the opinion of others. And I say this not as a criticism of Margo Price. What, is she supposed to turn this opportunity down? Of course not. I’m happy that Margo Price has been extended this chance to shine on a national stage, and independent traditional country along with it. This is a huge boon. I like Margo Price. But when the marketing for an artist precedes the music, especially for an independent artist, it can sometimes lead to resentment, suspicion, and not the commercial results some people think it will, or that justifies all of the hype.
Look at how all of these great music franchises that are now selling out theaters left and right like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, the The Avett Bros., Shakey Graves, and the Alabama Shakes got it done. It all happened for them organically, not by playing some big stage or a nationally-televised event or show. That national helped them along the way after they had already created a groundswell through word of mouth.
As I said in my review for Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, “Perhaps a little bit more was hoped for from this record, especially for the hype and promotion it has received ahead of time.” And that was before she’ll become one of the first ever independent artists to play Saturday Night Live. When hype is media driven, and not listener driven, and people are looking at charts and stats and asking “why Margo?”, it makes people worried they’re watching something that isn’t real.
Third Man Records and Shore Fire Media are attempting to manufacture the next Chris Stapleton. They think now’s the time, and they’re striking while the iron’s hot, calling in favors, exploiting cozy relationships with media members to go all out for Margo. But if it will actually work remains a very big question.
There’s a song on Margo’s new album called “This Town Gets Around” about the inherent unfairness of the country music business and Nashville. Margo and many others have been the victims of this system for many years, and don’t let anyone tell you Margo’s a “new” artist. As I said in my Midwest Farmer’s Daughter review:
This is not a debut. Though Margo may be new to the world outside of East Nashville, she moved to town from Illinois when she was 20, some dozen years ago. She played in the band Buffalo Clover who released their first album in 2010, and has boasted folks like Sturgill Simpson and “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan in her “Price Tags” backing band. She’s not wet behind the ears…
But this doesn’t mean that Margo Price deserves to cut in line. Now it feels like that same unfair system is attempting to gerrymander Margo into superstardom, and has done so by hopscotching dozens of other artists throughout music who are more worthy and have proven themselves much more than Margo Price. They needed to let this thing develop a little bit. The marketing has been ahead of Margo from the very beginning.
Simply put, the numbers for Margo Price are not developing. Multiple appearances on late night talk shows already, a massive media push, major exposure at SXSW, and right now her stats result in a whimper. Beyond East Nashville and a few NPR listeners, there’s just no organic groundswell behind Margo Price at the moment like we saw when Leon Bridges got his big opportunity on Saturday Night Live a while back. How many copies of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter have been sold? We don’t know yet exactly, but according to HITS Daily Double‘s building albums chart, Margo doesn’t even register in the Top 50 at the moment, and again, that is with an incredible, arguably unprecedented press push for an independent artist. Grimey’s in Nashville may have sold out of all of their copies, but 99.9% of Americans have no clue who Margo Price is.
Normally, I would never ever even bring up these kinds of subjects about an artist that seems very tiny in the industry at them moment. These types of big questions are the things you don’t want to lump on the shoulders of a smaller artist, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable doing this. But if you’re going to get such a hot spotlight shined onto you, if you’re going to get these type of huge opportunities over other artists who’ve proven themselves on big stages, and proven their music is resonant and defining of a time and place, then the scrutiny on your career is going to screw down tighter.
I want Margo Price to succeed. And come April 9th, I will be planted in front of my television screen with two pom pom’s in my hand cheering for Margo and independent traditional country music getting an opportunity in front of a big national audience. This is a huge moment for Margo, and I am super happy it is being bestowed to her. But I can’t help but see that this is yet another sign that the smarmy, unfair environment that pervades the mainstream music industry in Nashville is encroaching into the independent realm like never before. My only hope is that Margo’s career isn’t ultimately hindered by it. Frankly, I hope she benefits from it. Because she’s good enough to be heard by more people.
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