Photo via Air Works
Spinal Tap, eat your heart out.
On Eric Church’s current arena tour, there’s been a special guest making a surprise appearance at each show—a giant multi-story inflatable devil that blows up and towers over the crowd with shimmering eyes and skin on fire. It is conjured during the rendition of Eric Church’s song “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Prince of Darkness)” off his recent album The Outsiders.
Nicknamed Lou C. Fer, the big blowup Satan was designed by a company called Air Works based in Amsterdam who specializes in “inflatables that don’t look like inflatables” and prefer you call their creations “air sculptures.” “LED lights make his burning eyes glow, and UV paint effects give him a fiery feel,” says the company about the particular air sculpture making an appearance on the Eric Church tour, but some are calling the air sculpture inappropriate for a country show, unethical as a symbol of Satan, while some feel it’s just downright tacky.
When Eric Church’s tour made a stop Saturday night (12-13) at Birmingham, Alabama’s BJCC Arena, one concert goer was not impressed by El Diablo making an appearance. “From one of the biggest music lovers: Eric Church, you have some great songs and I have been around since your ‘Workplay’ days, however your concert in Bham tonight was disheartening,” said Allyson Protho. “A ginormous Satan…. No thank you…Children were at that concert… That should be enough said right there.”
The Alabama resident echoes the concerns others have voiced about the appearance of Lou C. Fer over a string of recent concerts based on religious concerns, and about an artist who’s name dropped Jesus numerous times in his songs, including the hit “Like Jesus Does.” But others have a problem seeing a big Satan prop that smacks of the heavy metal world make an appearance at what is supposed to be a country music show.
Underscoring this point, an early 90′s episode of The Simpsons guest starring the fake metal band Spinal Tap featured the band worshiping a big inflatable Satan doll hovering over the stage. The scene was meant to illustrate how out-of-touch the band was by launching the menacing inflatable. Church’s deloyment of a massive Satan sculpture could also be compared to the now notorious moment Garth Brooks put on a harness and flew around Texas Stadium like Peter Pan. Though such theatrics might be welcomed in the rock world, they’ve been thought for decades as crossing a line in country, and even many of today’s country music mega concerts stop short of featuring such histrionics.
In fairness to Eric Church and Lou C. Fer, the devil in this instance isn’t being worshiped, he’s being offered up as a symbolic representation. Though hard to see in many of the pictures of the inflatable from concerts, the picture of the balloon outside in the daylight from Air Works clearly shows it’s wearing a “Nashville” belt buckle made of an upside down pentagram, symbolizing the greed and malfeasance of the country music business and Music Row. So unlike Spinal Tap, Eric Church isn’t attempting to prove how cool he is by allying himself with the Prince of Darkness, but putting himself in opposition to the evil country music scoundrels. This truth may not stave of a child’s nightmares who might attend one of these concerts and see the massive sculpture, but it definitely is a difference in representation.
However as has been pointed out about Eric Church before, it’s ironic that a man that works completely within the Music Row system, is signed to a major label, regularly performers and is honored at major country music award shows, has made millions of dollars within the mainstream system, and once called Taylor Swift a “dear friend” and collaborated with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan recently, would attempt to pass himself off as an “Outsider,” or as the antithesis of the evilness of Nashville. One could make the case that Eric Church maintaining this stance is even more of a devilish maneuver than most of Music Row’s activities, and is simply an element of marketing. Other Nashville residents also may quarrel that the evils of mainstream country don’t blanket the entire city, and Eric Church’s should be more selective with his symbolism.
Most Eric Church fans in attendance seem to be impressed when the inflatable sculpture makes its appearance. After all, since they paid to get in, they’re more likely to sympathize with Church’s perspective on things. But just like Garth’s flight over Texas stadium, or Taylor Swift’s first CMA for Entertainer of the Year, or the time Ludacris rapped with Jason Aldean at the CMT Awards, Eric Chruch’s devil may symbolize not just Nashville’s evils, but yet another watershed move towards the erosion of what makes country music different from other genres.
Or maybe Eric Church is just carrying on the tradition of The Louvin Brothers.
Photo via Air Works.
2014 has been a year of great flux in country music, with some legendary successes by independent artists and new mainstream artists, and the shuffling out of other artists and the fumbling of what once were legendary, high flying careers. Here’s a run down of the five biggest winners and losers in the greater country music world in 2014.
PLEASE NOTE: Calling someone either a “winner” or a “loser” in no way should be taken as a ringing endorsement or an absolute admonishment of any artist, organization, or the music they are a part of. It’s simply meant to illustrate the trends they’ve been a party to, and the decisions they have made in the last calendar year.
WINNER – Scott Borchetta
The only question now is what slows Scott Borchetta down? It’s his Music Row-based independent label that is responsible for the biggest blockbuster album not just released in 2014, but in the last decade plus in Taylor Swift’s 1989, and that doesn’t even delve into the rousing success of Brantley Gilbert, Florida Georgia Line, and lot of his other artists in his expanding empire which now accounts for five total imprints and a ridiculous roster of commercially-successful talent. Add on top his recent partnership with American Idol which will bring Borchetta out of the shadows to become a prominent figure in pop culture, and we may be looking at the most powerful man in the recording industry, if not now than in the coming years.
WINNER – Sturgill Simpson
What can be said about Sturgill Simpson that hasn’t already been said before? The man has been on an absolute tirade in 2014, defying all the odds for an independent artist. After releasing what has become one of the most universally critically-acclaimed albums in recently memory in Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill played Letterman and Conan, was picked up on the Zac Brown Band tour, won Emerging Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association, and now has been nominated for a Grammy. On his current headlining club tour, he’s selling out every single night and causing incredible local buzz. His next tour will have to graduate to the theater level, and we may even she Sturgill on a major label moving ahead, whether he wants to or not, simply to accommodate the demand. He’s still many steps from being a household name or receiving mainstream radio play, but he’s captured the imaginations of many fans as an artist who can take the independent spirit to a mainstream-caliber level.
WINNER – Brandy Clark
The reason Brandy Clark’s ascent is even more spectacular and promising than Sturgill Simpson’s is because she’s doing it within the Music Row mainstream system. She’s now signed to a major label, and is being named as a nominee for major industry awards like Song of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards, and Best Album at the Grammy Awards. What she doesn’t have as of yet that fellow songwriter and critical darling Kacey Musgraves has is a presence on mainstream country radio. But with a major label now behind any future projects, this becomes even more of a possibility. And wherever you stand on the contentious “gays in country” issue, you can’t help but give Clark credit for integrating the format in the most passive and respectful way. And even more promising is that you get the feel Brandy Clark has years of upside potential ahead of her in the industry.
WINNER – Brantley Gilbert
What has Brantley Gilbert done right in 2014? Why would this Bro-Country knucklehead be characterized as a “winner”? Because while you weren’t looking he quietly has amassed the most loyal fan base in mainstream country music this side of Carrie Underwood, and has the towering sales numbers to prove it in an environment where such sales numbers were thought to be in the past for a second-tier country star. Brantley’s Just As I Am has sold over 640,000 copies. That’s more than the recent albums from Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton combined, or more than the albums of Keith Urban and Brad Paisley combined. Gilbert has sold nearly twice as many albums as Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes, 3x the amount of Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley’s recent releases, and 4x the amount of Brad Paisley’s. Many gave sideways glances at their televisions when Brantley Gilbert was given the American Music Award for “Favorite Country Album,” but by definition, it was deserved. Brantley is the mainstream star with grassroots support, and with that kind of structure, he’s become country music’s great underrated commercial powerhouse.
WINNER – Sam Hunt
In an industry where launching a female artist seems nearly impossible these days, country music’s rising male talent faces the opposite problem of an overcrowded field at the top. But songwriter Sam Hunt, who decided to saddle up with Shane McAnally and attempt to become country music’s EDM superstar has done just that with the mega single “Leave The Night On” and surprising sales for his debut album Montevallo. Where another, more-established country artist in Jerrod Niemann attempted to go EDM with and have a very successful #1 single in “Drink To That All Night” to back it up, Niemann still only garnered album sales of 14,000 for his latest release. Meanwhile Sam Hunt saw a debut week of 70,000 sales, and subsequently has seen strong reception for his country/EDM concept, including surprisingly from many critics. A charmer who can actually speak well for himself who hit on an idea that however vomit-inducing for country music’s traditional listeners has resonated with the wider public, Sam Hunt has revealed himself right out of the gate as a long-haul country star we’ll be hearing about for years, like it or not.
LOSER – Garth Brooks
Without question Garth Brooks has proved his touring muscle did not atrophy one bit during his nearly 15-year retirement. But what was supposed to be the biggest comeback in country music history has fallen completely flat in regards to album sales, radio play, and overall cultural impact. The selection of singles and the rollout of Garth’s new album was critical, and the momentum and intrigue surrounding his comeback couldn’t have been fumbled any more, resulting in sort of a “ho hum” reception from consumers. He can still sell out five consecutive concert dates in 30 minutes, but without any radio support for his new music, and his insistence on attempting to create his own trends instead of catering to the new era of media, he’s put himself at a distinct disadvantage. Take out the touring success, and right now it is “Machine” one – “Man” zero.
LOSER – Jerrod Niemann
If you want a cautionary tale of what not to do with your country music career, look no further than this once critically-lauded artist who decided to go all techno and appears to be paying the price for his country music transgressions. When the EDM-landen single “Drink To That All Night” was cresting #1 on country radio’s Airplay Chart on its way to certified platinum status, it was all high fives in the Niemann camp. But since the release of the second single from his latest album High Noon called “Donkey,” Niemann has been hard to find. Where “Drink To That All Night” apparently walked right up to the line and titillated the country music public enough to become successful, “Donkey” crossed over it, and now the question is if Jerrod Niemann will ever be able to recover. His latest dreckish single “Buzz Back Girl” doesn’t appear to be making any buzz at all, stalling at #35 on Country Airplay. All the attention for “Drink To That All Night,” and the album High Noon only sold 14,000 copies upon its release. Those are Sturgill Simpson-like numbers with no major label, no name recognition, and no radio play. Subsequently High Noon has only sold around 60,000 copies at last count. Meanwhile the high-production video for “Donkey” apparently showing Niemann awe-struck by the size of his own genitals remains on the shelf.
LOSER – Blake Shelton
Forget that NBC’s The Voice most prominent judge has won the CMA Award for Male Vocalist of the Year for now five years straight, there has never been an artist who has been so quizzically ensconced as the face of the genre who has delivered so little in regards to commercial or critical success, or cultural impact. Shelton’s 2014 album Bringing Back The Sunshine might go down as the biggest dud of the year. As of this moment, it has only sold just shy of 208,000 copies. Compare this with Brantley Gilbert, who has never even been nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year, and has sold upwards of 640,000 copies of his latest release. And because of his commitments to The Voice, Blake Shelton’s touring revenue is also paltry compared to his peers. At this point, Blake Shelton is more famous for being famous, not for country music.
LOSER – The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)
Bluegrass. Sweet, wholesome bluegrass. One of the most inspiring, inclusive, sustainable scenes in not just country, but in the greater music world, with festivals, children’s workshops, prestigious awards, and worldwide appreciation for the artform. But somehow in 2014, this environment of togetherness and organization has been shattered by unbelievable turmoil in the IBMA’s Board of Directors. The not-for-profit first showed signs of problems when the board gave their Executive Director Nancy Cardwell a vote of “NO Confidence” and moved to replace her the very week after what appeared on the outside to be a very successful 2014 IBMA Awards and World of Bluegrass gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina in October. Now there has been multiple resignations from the Board, many open letters back and forth to and from IBMA members as the drama that can fester in a music “scene” emerges for all the public to see in all of its confusing ugliness.
Bluegrass, and even the IBMA will be fine in the long-term, and maybe there were some systemic issues that needed to be addressed in the recent and ongoing turmoil. But from of all places, the bluegrass world gave us an example of what can happen when behind-the-scenes drama overrides the passion for the music.
LOSER – Brad Paisley
Every artist faces that moment where their commercial relevancy begins to slip through their fingers, and 2014 was that year for Brad Paisley, and in a big way. Earlier in the year saw Paisley touring around with no name for his tour, no designs on the sides of his buses and semi’s, in a symbolic marker of his lack of direction in his undeniably-successful, but twilighting career. He came out of the gate with his new album Moonshine in the Trunk already complaining that of all things, the flack he received for the song “Accidental Racist” had somehow torpedoed his career, and the sense of bitterness from what is supposed to be mainstream country’s happy go luck superstar tarnished the sentiment of a man that won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year just four short years ago. Sales for Moonshine In The Truck have been abominable for an established, mainstream star, coming in at 107,000 at last count. Every artist faces the eventual fall from prominence, but Brad Paisley’s has been especially precipitous.
“Girl In A Country Song” becomes:
- First #1 song on radio by a female act in over 2 years.
- First #1 debut song on radio by a female act in nearly 5 years.
- First #1 debut song not by Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, or Taylor Swift in 10 years.
- First #1 song on radio for DOT Records in 40 years.
- Only second #1 debut song from a female duo in Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart 25 year history.
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When Big Machine Label Group’s President and CEO Scott Borchetta signed a completely unknown 18-year-old singing duo based seemingly on the strength of one song, it seemed like a risky move, and one betting on the fact that the country music public was tiring of the Bro-Country trend and heading towards a backlash. Though the rise of “Girl In A Country Song” has been very slow (which is customary with many premier singles from previously-unknown artists in country), Scott Borchetta’s gamble has paid off, and the song is now #1 on country radio according to Mediabase. The distinction shatters a slew of dubious distinctions for the country format, and helps to slay the absolute dearth of female representation on country radio.
“Girl In A Country Song” received 7,986 spins from November 30th to December 6th according to Mediabase, besting its nearest competition, Tim McGraw’s “Shotgun Rider” by an impressive 684 spins. The song also gained 502 spins week over week. These numbers are good enough to land Maddie & Tae at #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart to be published Monday afternoon.
What does this all mean? It means that country radio has its very first female-led act to hit number one on country radio in over 2 years. “Girl In A Country Song” is the first to top the chart since Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” in October of 2012. That was a whopping 26 months ago. That’s right, not even the Carrie Underwood / Miranda Lambert collaboration “Somethin’ Bad” went to #1 on radio, nor did any of those Taylor Swift blockbusters.
You have to go back even farther, nearly five years ago to January of 2010, to find the last time a country female artist had her first #1 hit on radio. It was Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar.” Even more stunning, you have to go all the way back to 2004—over-10 years ago— to find the last time a woman that wasn’t Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, or Taylor Swift celebrated a debut #1. That would be Gretchen Wilson according to the tabulations of country writer Billy Dukes. This doesn’t take into consideration groups with females in them like Sugarland or Lady Antebellum, but deals solely with solo artists or acts exclusively consisting of females.
Also the super duo The Wreckers made up of Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp had a “debut” #1 single in country called “Leave The Pieces” in 2006, but since both of these women had major singles as part of pop careers previous to their country success, it wasn’t a debut for the artists, just for the artists in the country format.
“Girl In A Country Song” also happens to be the first #1 for Big Machine’s DOT Records imprint in 40 years—which is where Maddie & Tae reside—but that is more of a symbolic victory since the label was mothballed for a majority of that time.
“Girl In A Country Song” has already gone gold, denoting over 500,000 digital downloads, and the video has already received over 13 million views. And all of this from a duo who when listening to their EP, leans more towards the traditional side, and for a song that overtly challenges the role females are cast in with many of country music’s other big hits.
If you needed yet another sign that Bro-Country is on it’s way out, the airplay success of “Girl In A Country Song,” which is a better barometer of the industry compared to metrics that factor in sales and streams, is a pretty good indication. Like the song or not, Maddie & Tae have have just etched an indelible mark on the country music timeline that will be very important for both women and the content of country moving forward.
As first reported on Tuesday (12-3) and then confirmed Wednesday afternoon, President and CEO of the Big Machine Label Group Scott Borchetta has partnered with American Idol to become the show’s new “mentor”—a position that was held for years by producer Jimmy Iovine, and then last year by Randy Jackson who moved into the position from a judge spot on the show. Jackson announced earlier in the year he was leaving the show after being a part of all 13 seasons.
Today we get confirmation of the Scott Borchetta addition, but even more intriguing is what the partnership will entail. Borchetta will not only be American Idol‘s mentor, he will also sign the eventual winner of the show to Big Machine Records—the home of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry, Tim McGraw, and many others. This extra layer of commitment between Borchetta and American Idol could have big implications for both parties. And as arguably the most influential label in country music currently, it could have a big impact on country music at large with American Idol potentially becoming a proving ground for Nashville-based talent moving forward. Borchetta has already participated in the show’s “Hollywood Week” portion by watching performances of contestants he will be advising moving forward.
All of this news comes in stark contrast to how Scott Borchetta felt about the show in 2010 in the aftermath of Taylor Swift’s now legendary off-key performance at the Grammy Awards. Facing fierce criticism for the performance, Borchetta defended his burgeoning starlet by calling her the “voice of a generation” who was above the criticism of her not technically perfect singing. “This is not ‘American Idol,’” Borchetta said. “This is not a competition of getting up and seeing who can sing the highest note. This is about a true artist and writer and communicator. It’s not about that technically perfect performance.”
American Idol Season One winner Kelly Clarkson took exception to Scott Borchetta’s comments and fired back.
“I understand defending your artist obviously because I have done the same in the past for artists I like, including Taylor, so you might see why it’s upsetting to read you attacking ‘American Idol’ for producing simply vocalists that hit ‘the high notes.’ Thank you for that ‘Captain Obvious’ sense of humor, because you know what? We not only hit the high notes, you forgot to mention we generally hit the ‘right’ notes as well. Every artist has a bad performance or two and that is understandable, but throwing blame will not make the situation at hand any better.
“I have been criticized left and right for having shaky performances before (and they were shaky), and what my manager or label executives say to me and the public is ‘I’ll kick butt next time’ or ‘Every performance isn’t going to be perfect.’ I bring this up because you should take a lesson from these people and instead of lashing out at other artists (that in your ‘humble’ opinion lack true artistry), you should simply take a breath and realize that sometimes things won’t go according to plan or work out and that’s okay.”
Whether it’s selective amnesia, a change of heart, or simply a savvy business move, Scott Borchetta has officially decided to step out of the shadows of country music label ownership to become a public pop cultural figure, and one who could have a big stake in making sure the next American Idol winner or winners do something that many recent winners have failed to pull off: actually becoming “Idol’s” instead of names forgotten a week after the finale.
That’s right, the The Country Music Antichrist, aka President and CEO of the Big Machine Label Group Scott Borchetta is in talks to become the newest mentor on the singing reality show competition American Idol. He would be replacing Randy “Dog” Jackson—the only member of the show’s original cast aside from host Ryan Seacrest who’s been on the show all 13 seasons. Jackson was a judge for the first 12 seasons, and then moved into Jimmy Iovine’s role as the show’s “mentor” for season 13 before announcing he would exit the show entirely for season 14. Last year’s judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. are all slated to return this upcoming season.
As a respected talent evaluator in the industry, and one that lately has shown more interest in coming out of the shadows and becoming more of a public personality, Borchetta as American Idol‘s mentor makes savvy sense for both parties. Borchetta was responsible for discovering Taylor Swift, the biggest pop star in the world right now, and Big Machine properties also have under contract Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry, Tim McGraw, and now Reba McEntire under the new NASH Icon joint venture with Cumulus Media. Scott Borchetta is arguably the most powerful man on Music Row in Nashville, and now he’ll be taking his name international if the reports from US Weekly are correct.
If consummated, it would make Borchetta not just one of the most powerful label owners in music, but also one of the most visible, bolstering both Big Machine’s and Scott’s personal brands. Reports from late October saying the Big Machine Label Group was up for sale were later denied by Borchetta, but remaining one of music’s few major independent labels, sale rumors continue to linger. Scott’s partnership with American Idol could also facilitate more collaboration between the reality singing competition and Big Machine artists in live performances and song choices.
Scott Borchetta was affectionately coined the “Country Music Antichrist” by Saving Country Music in 2009 for his stretching of the term “country” with artists like Taylor Swift. However unlike many of Music Row’s label heads, Borchetta is known for extending more creative freedom to his artists.
Once again Scott Borchetta reveals his desires to be much more than simply a record label head, but a powerful and influential entertainment mogul of the recording industry—a desire that could continue to send reverberations throughout the country music industry.
Defendants of the adverse trends corrupting mainstream country music will give you many reasons why the trends aren’t really adverse at all, including that if you don’t like the music, you should simply exercise your right to not listen, and that the music isn’t necessarily affecting behavior so in the end it’s harmless. But part of the problem with popular country music these days is that it is so effusive throughout society. You turn on a college football game or watch a wrestling broadcast, and there Florida Georgia Line is singing the intro or taking you into a commercial break. Country is now the most popular genre of American music, meaning it’s being piped into grocery stores, being played at schools, and is ever-present in cars being driven by moms and dads all across the country as their kids sit in the back seat soaking it all up and singing along to catchy songs with simplistic rhythms and repetitive themes perfect for getting stuck in the heads of youngsters.
Compounding the problem is that just a few short years ago, country was one of the safest places on the radio dial for parents with small kids in the car. Think about the “soccer mom” effect that country music was cultivating in the late oughts, when artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts were dominating the country airwaves. Country radio was full of fluffy pop country songs that parents could feel fine, if not proud of playing in front of their kids compared to the filth pervading Top 40 radio at the time.
Now the entire radio field has been reversed, even though parent’s presets may still be on the country station. Country is where the perverse sentiments of popular culture have come to roost, and the endless droning in songs about drinking, drug use, materialism, and misogynistic views towards women are nearly required to get your music at the top of the country charts. It’s been theorized by Saving Country Music that part of the reason for this trend is a backlash from the mid-00′s when the rising sentiment became that country music was becoming woosified. That’s when you had artists like Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and then later Brantley Gilbert and Florida Georgia Line beginning their ascent, purposely focusing on many non family-friendly themes and constantly trying to prove how country they were in their lyrics.
However we got here, country music is now a haven for filth on the radio, easily giving pop and even hip-hop stations a run for their money. And as mom and dad find their own personal preference on the country station, the themes in the music get incessantly pumped into the young skulls riding in booster chairs and holding sippy cups in the back seat. It’s not that drinking themes haven’t always been present in country—you could argue they’re one of the foundations of the genre. It’s more about who they’re being played to and in front of, and how these themes are being portrayed (glamorous instead of cautionary). Even if you choose to avoid the music yourself, you can’t help but worry how it is affecting society as a whole when so many young people are being subjected to this music.
This was illustrated just about perfectly on Friday (11-21) by CBS Evening News reporter Steve Hartman when he took a deeper look into how his two young kids were computing the lyrics of country songs in their developing brains as they sat and listened to popular country music in the family motor carriage.
Steve Hartman’s conclusion? “I’ve got some sobering news — Nashville is alcohol-poisoning the minds of our young people,” he says in his report.
Hartman goes on to illustrate just how deeply popular country’s drinking themes have burrowed into his two son’s brains as they recite titles and lyrics to popular country songs effortlessly. Hartman turns his blame to Kix Brooks, the host of the syndicated American Country Countdown, where apparently the majority of the Hartman kids’ exposure to popular country music comes from as they listen to the weekly show on the way to swimming lessons. So papa Hartman took the kids to Kix Brooks’ studio and asked the man himself what he thought about the trend of drinking songs in country, and Kix initially drew a blank, illustrating the sort of “deer in headlights” moment many parents feel when faced with the reality that what their kids are listening to might affect them adversely in the future.
Reporter Steve Hartman did a good job of explaining how kids listening to popular country songs can be a good teaching opportunity for parents to explain the ideas behind responsible drinking, etc., but it may be a little too much to expect this from most busy parents who listen to popular country song’s party themes as their own form of escapism. And as Hartman says, these lessons were something he was hoping to avoid until “after 1st grade.”
And Steve Hartman can’t be painted as some modern country hater or alarmist. After all, he was voluntarily listening to the American Country Countdown himself, and many in the industry, including Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta have seen their own dilemma with so many drinking songs, saying in December of 2013, “Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24-7. We’re a bunch of drunks down here. There’s too much, to be honest with you. We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc.”
Of course all of this is anecdotal. There’s no direct data corroborating that five-year-old’s are hitting the sauce too early because they listened to Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking.” But it does illustrate how when people show concern for the themes of country songs, even if they’re not inclined to listen themselves, they’re concerned that it could be having adverse effects on society as a whole. Like teachers in a madras, with a lack of variety, these popular country songs drive home the same themes over and over until it can be recited effortlessly by impressionable minds. It also make one wonder if the underlying reason is to make young consumers for country’s principal advertisers, like the Joe Camel effect of 2014.
Hartman’s report only deals with the drinking aspect of popular country songs, but really you could do a similar experiment dealing with sexual themes, possibly with very young female listeners. This all doesn’t mean these songs are patently evil. Music made for adults who (hypothetically) have the ability to rationalize what they’re listening to and not let it affect them adversely is fine. But just like drinking itself, the music should be consumed by an age-appropriate audience, and as with all things, in moderation. However mainstream country at the moment is on the drinking song binge of its life, even if the substance of the songs is slowly improving, and the question remains if it’s having an effect on the behavior of listeners, or if it will shape the behavior of listeners in the future.
Saving Country Music’s 2013 Album of the Year was not Jason Isbell’s breathtaking Southeastern, or Sturgill Simpson’s breakout High Top Mountain, but the comeback record from the Latin-inspired Raul Malo and The Mavericks called In Time. The reason was because in Saving Country Music’s esteemed judgement, no other record in 2013 afforded a much musical enjoyment as The Mavericks’ first studio effort in a decade.
Now The Mavericks have announced that they’ve been in the studio again and will release the followup to In Time called Mono on February 17th, 2015. The band made the announcement while performing at the Grand Ole Opry on November 18th. Like their previous album, it will be released by the Valory Music Group, a division of Big Machine Records. Yes, the same label of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, and Brantley Gilbert. “You know, they did right by us,” Raul Malo tells Rolling Stone. “Heck, they let us make a record at this stage. I know people probably have a hard time imagining this, but it’s not the easiest thing to get these days, to be able to make records and have a record contract.”
However The Mavericks will be moving forward down a man. Robert Reynolds is taking some time off to attend to his ailing wife Angie Crabtree Reynolds who is battling Cancer. That leaves the core of The Mavericks as singer/songwriter/guitarist Raul Malo, lead guitarist Eddie Perez (guitar player for Dwight Yoakam & others), drummer Paul Deakin, and Jerry Dale McFadden on keys. The band will also be embarking on a world tour around Mono‘s release (SEE DATES).
Jason Isbell is the most critically-lauded artist in the Americana music realm at the moment, walking away from September’s awards with Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Artist of the Year, but apparently NBC’s talent competition The Voice doesn’t believe he’s well known enough yet that the flotsam and jetsam of the American public wouldn’t potentially gobble him up as an undiscovered gem in prime time. After apparently coming across Isbell “online,” the producers felt his prowess in the competition could be at such a degree that they decided to reach out him to participate in industry auditions.
Yes, imagine the irony of Blake Shelton picking Jason Isbell to be “coached” with the help of Taylor Swift on singing, style tips, and choreography.
“I am a talent producer on NBC’s ‘The Voice,’” read the email that Isbell posted partially on his Twitter account. “I came across Jason Isbell online and was hoping to chat with him about auditioning for us if it’s something that interests him? We are getting ready to travel the country and will be having invite only industry auditions (these are not open calls)…”
Apparently Isbell is only entertaining the matter as fodder for humor. “My audition on ‘The Voice’ will be a solo vocal and French horn rendition of ‘Oh Comely’ by Neutral Milk Hotel. I will wear a #bikini,” Isbell tweeted out in response. I would take that as a sign that there’s probably not a good of chance of that happening.
Though it’s a sexy idea of Jason Isbell being featured on what has become America’s biggest singing competition and exposing millions of viewers to the powers of Americana’s most iconic artist at the moment, the idea of the opportunity being effective for either entity is questionable. Though competitions like The Voice receive a lot of attention, their ability to actually launch stars has been called into severe question over the last couple of years. Many times winners tend to sink right back into obscurity after the finale, or fight for attention as middling stars in an industry now stacked with reality show talent vying for attention.
Though you can’t blame producers for trying. Isbell possesses the type of talent that would validate a show like The Voice, and an opportunity like that could be a big moment for Americana. But in the end, if there’s an artist that has ever found his place, it would be Isbell. And if you want a chance to see him on the boob tube, he has a live DVD of his Austin City Limits performance coming out November 24th, and will be featured on the re-airing of the Americana Music Awards via PBS Nov. 22nd on Austin City Limits. Here’s a taste of what Americana has, and what The Voice wish they did:
UPDATE: BILLY BRAGG HAS APOLOGIZED. SEE BELOW.
Yes, Billy Bragg is is the super cool British songwriting icon with a sharp wit and a penchant for social justice that many know and love, and Taylor Swift is the American pop princess with shallow radio singles selling out stadiums and amassing more money than God in a bid for nothing short of world domination. But the shade Billy threw Taylor over her decision to pull her music from Spotify, though conveying some logic and insight, is riddled with spite, and rooted in a wild-ass conspiracy theory with absolutely no factual basis.
In short, Billy Bragg accuses Taylor Swift of pulling her music from Soptify in favor of Google and YouTube’s new Music Key streaming service as a means of making money on an undisclosed endorsement deal, thereby discrediting all of her rhetoric about standing up for the value of art and the fair compensation of songwriters. Bragg says Taylor “sold her soul” to Google.
“But she should just be honest with her fans and say ‘sorry, but Sergey Brin gave me a huge amount of money to be the headline name on the marquee for the launch of You Tube Music Key and so I’ve sold my soul to Google’,” Billy Bragg says (read full statement below). “Google are going after Spotify and Taylor Swift has just chosen sides. That’s her prerogative as a savvy businesswoman – but please don’t try to sell this corporate power play to us as some sort of altruistic gesture in solidarity with struggling music makers.”
Bragg’s accusation is that Taylor Swift has become the poster girl for YouTube’s Music Key, but no such relationship exists. A detailed combing of the entirety of Music Key’s internet properties, advertising, verbiage, images, or any other media finds not a single mention of Taylor Swift whatsoever, let alone a “headline name on a marquee” as asserted by Bragg. There’s no “Subscribe to the service Taylor Swift is still on.” There’s no pictures of Taylor Swift. Nothing. At all.
Furthermore a spokesperson for Taylor Swift has confirmed, “Taylor Swift has had absolutely no discussion or agreement of any kind with Google’s new music streaming service.”
Something else not taken into account by Billy Bragg is that Taylor Swift’s music also remains on Beats streaming service and other streaming services beyond Google and YouTube’s Music Key. If her intent was to undermine other streamers in favor of Google, why wouldn’t she pull her music from all streaming services?
The fact that Taylor Swift only pulled her music from Spotify and not other streamers has been one of the most under-reported and important notes to her Spotify decision, and Saving Country Music has been attempting to reinforce that point ever since Taylor’s Spotify decision was made. For most artists, the default in their distribution deals is for their music to appear on music streamers unless it is explicitly stated for it not to. For Taylor’s music to not appear on Google’s streaming services, she may have to serve these companies with takedown notices, meaning just because her music appears on a service doesn’t mean she explicitly decided to have it there. Taylor Swift may not even know that her music is being made available on these new streamers, or it may have to do more with the payouts Spotify gives to artists compared to other services.
Something else Billy Bragg asserts is, “You might ask yourself why Google are setting up a commercial streaming service that will ultimately have to compete with their own You Tube behemoth? My hunch is that they are following a ‘Starbucks strategy’: it doesn’t matter if your own coffee shops on every corner are competing with one another, so long as they ultimately put all of your rivals out of business.”
It is somewhat curious why Google needs to have two streaming options under their umbrella, and Bragg may have a point. But industry analysts have believed that Google’s split of their streaming services is because Google Play is meant more for use on mobile devices such as phones, while YouTube’s Music Key is more about integrating music streaming into the already-established YouTube format, which has become one of the leading places to stream music especially for PC use. There may be some overlap in the two services, but they don’t necessarily compete with each other.
Audiophiles, Billy Bragg fans, and people generally distrusting of big music stars and corporations will herald Billy Bragg as a hero for exposing Taylor Swift’s evil plan that attempts to placate music makers while in truth she is undermining them. And yes, there is no doubt that there is a financial motivation to Swift pulling her music from Spotify that music be weighed against her altruistic assertions. But in a word, Billy Bragg’s conspiracy theory is bullshit.
Billy Bragg’s full message:
What a shame that Taylor Swift’s principled stand against those who would give her music away for free has turned out to be nothing more than a corporate power play. On pulling her music from Spotify recently, she made a big issue of the fact that the majority of the streaming service’s users listen to her tracks for nothing rather than signing up to the subscription service.
“I don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free” she said in a statement to Yahoo last week.
These worthy sentiments have been somewhat undermined by Swift making her new album and back catalogue available on Google’s new Music Key streaming service…..which also offers listeners a free service alongside a premium subscription tier.
Given that this year is the first to fail to produce a new million selling album, I can understand Taylor Swift wanting to maximise her opportunities with the new record – and it worked: she shifted 1.28m copies of 1989 in the first week of sale.
But she should just be honest with her fans and say “sorry, but Sergey Brin gave me a huge amount of money to be the headline name on the marquee for the launch of You Tube Music Key and so I’ve sold my soul to Google”.
If Ms Swift was truly concerned about perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free, she should be removing her material from You Tube, not cosying up to it. The de facto biggest streaming service in the world, with all the content available free, You Tube is the greatest threat to any commercially based streaming service.
You might ask yourself why Google are setting up a commercial streaming service that will ultimately have to compete with their own You Tube behemoth? My hunch is that they are following a ‘Starbucks strategy’: it doesn’t matter if your own coffee shops on every corner are competing with one another, so long as they ultimately put all of your rivals out of business.
Google are going after Spotify and Taylor Swift has just chosen sides. That’s her prerogative as a savvy businesswoman – but please don’t try to sell this corporate power play to us as some sort of altruistic gesture in solidarity with struggling music makers.
UPDATE (11-20): Billy Bragg has apologized, read full statement below.
I want to apologise to Taylor Swift for accusing her of selling her soul to Google. I have learned that her music will not now be available on the new YouTube Music Key service, which launched this week. This is despite a number of credible sources stating in the last seven days that it would be – including yesterday’s CMU newsletter.
My criticism was based on the fact that Swift’s back catalogue was the central feature of a demonstration of the Music Key services given to journalists in London last week, as outlined in the article below. In response to specific questions about Swift’s music, journalists were assured that her back catalogue would be available on the service, including the free tier. This fact was reported in the Observer article that I linked to on my first post on this subject.
Learning that Google were using Swift to promote Music Key gave me the impression that her music was going to be front and centre of their launch, the implication being that her Spotify boycott was a corporate power play, rather than an attempt by an artist to make the point that music has value.
I now realise that I was mistaken in this assumption and wish to apologise to Ms Swift for questioning her motives.
The fact that our music is widely available for free on the internet is a problem that all artists struggle with. While so much material is instantly accessible on YouTube, subscription streaming services will always find it a challenge to build enough users to make music viable for artists, who at the moment seem to be at the end of the queue for remuneration.
The time will surely come when content creators have to band together to challenge deals done between rights holders and service providers, details of which are kept from artists and their representatives. If Ms Swift is going to lead that fight for transparency, she will have my full support.
I would like to add that I will be boycotting the first media outlet to use the headline ‘Bragg makes Swift apology’
On Monday, November 17th when Garth Brooks appeared on Access Hollywood promoting his upcoming tour dates and the release of his new album Man Against Machine, he was pretty loose lipped about his hatred for certain elements of music technology, and how it has taken a lot of the power out of the hands of artists. This philosophy is what is behind the country singer refusing to release his music to iTunes and streaming services, and is the theme behind his “Man Against Machine” album title and opening track. Brooks has set up his own iTunes rival called GhostTunes which allows artists to sell their music however they want, including as whole albums or in bundle packages.
When Garth was asked what he thought about Taylor Swift’s public feud with Spotify, he responded,
I think a lot of people are going to start following. (If) music starts standing up for itself, it’s going to get a lot better. And you know guys, there’s some big friends of ours in music that we need to stand up to to. I mean, if iTunes is going to tell you how to sell your stuff, and it’s only going to go this way, don’t forget who’s creating the music and who should be doing the stuff. And I’m telling you, the devil? Nice people…YouTube. Oh my gosh. They claim they’re paying people a lot, but they’re not paying anything either. And people get millions and millions and millions of views and they don’t get squat. Trust me, songwriters are hurting, so I applaud Ms. Taylor, I applaud everyone for standing up for the songwriters because without them music is nothing.
Garth then talked about a meeting he had with YouTube where he tried to persuade them to completely remove anything having to do with him from the format. None of Garth’s music or videos can be found on the video giant, but live videos from concerts, etc. have made it on the service from his recent concert appearances.
You can’t get out of it. I had a sweet meeting with them. They were all fired up. They were the sweetest, and they’re all like twelve. They’re the sweetest kids. So young. And so I got the first question, “How do you get out?” And silence. You don’t. You don’t get out. Thanks for our wonderful someone judging on this one on the government. But yeah, it’s totally backward right now. But music, if the artists will just keep hammering away, unify, stick together, then music will become the king again, which is where it should be. Music should always be first.
YouTube has just launched its own subscription service to rival Spotify and other streamers, after a prolonged period of trying to negotiate for music rights from organizations representing independent artists and other publishers.
Whether it’s ultimately successful for Garth Brooks or not, he appears to be bound and determined to do music his way and fight against the current in the way technology is serving music to the public. But with Taylor Swift, and now Jason Aldean and Justin Moore pulling music from Spotify, Garth Brooks is no longer alone, and country is the genre emerging as the one leading the charge.
As said by Saving Country Music in the review for Taylor Swift’s new 1989 album, “It is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall…even though it’s not country….Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed.” Now we are seeing this play out as a host of country artists have pulled their newest albums from Spotify, following Taylor Swift’s lead of leaving the streaming giant, and making country music the genre leading the Spotify exodus.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 was never released to Spotify, and this is being given credit by many in the industry for Swift putting together the best sales week for any album since 2002—in a rapidly-depreciating sales environment mind you. Now her former country music bunk mates are following suit.
On Monday, Jason Aldean pulled his latest record Old Boots, New Dirt from Spotify—a big loss for the company from one of country’s biggest stars, and one who has set streaming records. Old Boots, New Dirt set a new record for best-ever debut week for a country album with more than 3.04 million streams. Aldean and his label have yet to speak publicly about the decision.
Subsequently, Brantley Gilbert, whose 2014 release Just As I Am has been receiving surprising sales numbers, has also been pulled from Spotify. All that remains on the streaming service is his single “Bottom’s Up.” Gilbert shares the same label as Taylor Swift. They both operate under Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group.
And another Big Machine artist, Justin Moore, has also scrapped his latest album, 2013′s Off The Beaten Path from Spotify. This has put both Spotify, country music fans, and the entire industry on watch to see what country artist may be next to diss the music streamer, while there has yet to be any major names from the pop or rock worlds make similar moves.
It also should be pointed out that another big release, Garth Brooks’ Man Against Machine will not be making it to Spotify, though we’ve known for a while the superstar would be going his own route with GhostTunes. Nonetheless, it is another landmark release from a country artist that won’t be featured in the service. As country music continues to dominate the overall music marketplace, these developments can’t be good for Spotify.
One wonders however what material gain Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, and Justin Moore expect to land by pulling their albums from Spotify now. Will this move stimulate higher physical and download sales like it did for Taylor Swift? That hardly seems likely, since most core country fans will have already either purchased the album, or streamed it on Spotify previously.
Something else going under-reported about the Spotify exodus is that it is not happening to music streaming overall. For example, Taylor Swift’s 1989, and all the other country albums pulled from Spotify still remain on the streaming service offered by Beats. The issue is not necessarily streaming in general, but with Spotify specifically, whose free option and minimal payouts was causing controversy way before the Taylor Swift decision.
Taylor Swift explained to Yahoo why she decided to pull her music from Spotify.
all I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free. I wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this summer that basically portrayed my views on this. I try to stay really open-minded about things, because I do think it’s important to be a part of progress. But I think it’s really still up for debate whether this is actual progress, or whether this is taking the word “music” out of the music industry. Also, a lot of people were suggesting to me that I try putting new music on Spotify with “Shake It Off,” and so I was open-minded about it. I thought, “I will try this; I’ll see how it feels.” It didn’t feel right to me. I felt like I was saying to my fans, “If you create music someday, if you create a painting someday, someone can just walk into a museum, take it off the wall, rip off a corner off it, and it’s theirs now and they don’t have to pay for it.” I didn’t like the perception that it was putting forth. And so I decided to change the way I was doing things.
Spotify responded to Taylor Swift, saying they have paid out over $2 billion dollars to music makers.
“Taylor Swift is absolutely right: music is art, art has real value, and artists deserve to be paid for it,” says Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “So all the talk swirling around lately about how Spotify is making money on the backs of artists upsets me big time…We’re paying an enormous amount of money to labels and publishers for distribution to artists and songwriters, and significantly more than any other streaming service.”
Spotify also says that without their service, Piracy would become an issue again. “Here’s the overwhelming, undeniable, inescapable bottom line: the vast majority of music listening is unpaid. If we want to drive people to pay for music, we have to compete with free to get their attention in the first place.”
However Taylor Swift’s rebuttal has been that there needs to be an overhaul of the cultural mindset revolving around music. When her album 1989 leaked online, her fans confronted people downloading the album illegally, asking why they would want to steal someone’s creative work. Judging from the sales of 1989, the pirated leaks did little to hurt overall sales, though this might not be the case for other artists.
Meanwhile the Spotify watch is up for country music and beyond. Who will be next to vacate the streaming service, and are we seeing a brand new era emerge in how music is bought and sold?
“You can paint a wall green and call it blue, but it’s clearly not blue. That would go over badly, because people know. When people trust you, they believe you’re investing them with a piece of your life—and their lives in turn, so you want to keep that trust at every level.”
No this isn’t some illumination by a country music purist criticizing the excessive use of the term “country” these days to describe what is really pop, rap, rock, or some other form of music. These are the sage words from none other than Taylor Swift of why she decided to call her new album 1989 pop instead of country.
Taylor Swift went on to say, “So, it felt like it was important to tell people what  was…I don’t really think people were surprised I made a pop album; I think they were surprised I was honest about it.”
Contrast this with Sam Hunt, and his new album Montevallo. Forget all of the tired arguments about what is country and what is pop, and how pop has always been a part of country. All of that goes without saying when broaching discussions on acts like Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line, to the point of calling them not country is as cliché as their vacuous laundry list lyrics. But this Sam Hunt business enters an entirely new stratosphere of “country” term-perversion.
In a nutshell, Sam Hunt and Montevallo are not country, and this goes beyond opinion. So what that a couple of songs feature a banjo or a steel guitar. This arguably makes the offense even worse because it proves they know they’re trying to put one over on consumers. For every element someone presents to claim this album is country, I can present fifteen that prove it patently isn’t. And it’s not really even close.
Montevallo is country music in marketing only. This is EDM/pop. So the next question is, where is the label MCA Nashville in all of this, and the Country Music Association? Don’t they have a stake in making sure at least some control is levied and boundaries set around what country music actually is? Where are the radio programmers putting up the stop sign, protecting the integrity of the genre? How about Billboard who is including Sam Hunt’s albums and songs in their country charts?
At the moment, Sam Hunt’s Montevallo album bests all other country albums, sitting at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for its debut week. His lead single “Leave The Night On” is #1 on the Country Airplay chart, meaning no song was played more on country radio in the last week. And it is also #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, meaning overall it’s received more attention than any other song by radio and consumers. There was barely time to pay attention to Hunt’s X2C EP released in August before his full-length was announced to take advantage of his rapidly-rising demand. This is not Jerrod Niemann striking out with a gimmicky EDM song as the last dying gasp of a sputtering career, this is an artist poised to become a country music mega-star. But he’s not country, in really any capacity.
Montevallo is an excruciatingly-typical urban dance album that does Molly-laced grinds up against every single worn out trope of the velvet-roped, indirect-lighted, $15 cocktail club scene and the music thereof. Aside from the banjo in the song “House Party,” the steel guitar in “Single for the Summer,” and the sentiment in “Break Up In A Small Town,” this ten-song LP is a product of the pop/EDM world 100%.
This is the type of gaming of the country music term that has become typical over the past couple of years. Label managers looks for what they perceive as vacancies in the marketplace and interject manufactured stars to fill them. Hey, claiming rap and rock as country has been quite lucrative, so why not just launch your own EDM star and make believe it’s organic and erudite for the genre. Sam Hunt showed up into Nashville as a songwriter, and not a terrible one at that. But his most valuable asset revealed itself to be a willingness to make himself a blob of silly putty for marketing executives to fashion into whatever monster they so choose. Not that Sam doesn’t have his own motivations of money and stardom, or even sonic inspirations to take his music in this direction. If Sam Hunt’s music can make it in country, literally any type of music that exists on the planet can, and be successful enough where it tops the charts. This is not hyperbole. This is proven by Sam Hunt’s success.
Montevallo sits down in a space occupied by young white affluent to semi-affluent Americans that frequent the glitzy clubs of the shallow “see and be seen” world. Its lack of breadth and unifying emotional sentiments are striking. The songs “Break Up In A Small Town” and “Take Your Time” make use of the awful trend in EDM of talking verses in hushed tones, and transitioning over to heavily-infused Auto-Tuned singing towards the end. Jealousy and other signifiers of the under-maturated late-teen, early 20-something world are big players on Montevallo in songs like “Ex to See” and “Make You Miss Me,” while drum machines, DJ scratches, and synthesized accoutrements are featured unflinchingly. Though these things may be new to country, they come across as typical, if not tired elements of the EDM/dance world that has generally moved on to more complicated structures. Montevallo feels dated and unimaginative even in its native genre.
About the only saving grace of Sam Hunt and Montevallo is that the dude genuinely does not seem like the type of waste of human flesh that some of pop country’s other worst offenders embody. Sam Hunt seems more misguided. Similarly, a lot of these songs aren’t heavily-offensive to the ear on their own. The only reason to call them offensive is because they’re being called country—the same conundrum cast against Taylor Swift early in her career. The other question is why a 29-year-old is singing about the emblematic behavior of young adults just now exploring their legal right to drink?
Sam Hunt and Montavello symbolize nothing less than a dangerous, bordering on cataclysmic paradigm for country music where the genre could lose its identity long-term, rendering its autonomy and the entire meaning of “country” inert. Nice guy and good songs or not, Sam Hunt isn’t stretching the “Country” term, he is a downright attacking it, and represents a fulfillment of the mono-genre that should be roundly rejected by country music or face potentially dire long-term consequences.
Two Guns Way Down.
Who would have thought that Vince Gill would emerge as one of the big winners in country music over the past seven days, culminating in last night’s 48th Annual CMA Awards? Who even knew that the CMA was still paying attention to Vince, who once did a stint manning the hosting duties for the show for a dozen years during his heyday. But that’s the thing about Vince Gill. His accomplishments sort of creep up on you because he’s so refreshingly understated, honest, and humble.
You may do a double take to learn that Vince once won the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year five years straight between 1991 and 1995, and two of those years won Entertainer of the Year. Yes, this was during the heart of Garth-mania. You might be surprised to hear he’s won 20 Grammy Awards. But over the past seven days, the recognition Vince has received might top many of his other accolades because of its personal nature.
Last Wednesday, October 29th, Vince gill was in Oklahoma City at his alma mater, Northwest Classen High School, attending an unveiling of a 9 1/2-foot statue and plaque erected to commemorate the school’s most famous graduate. What did Vince Gill have to say?
“If you’re kind, life is going to be just great. I told somebody, I was joking, I said, ‘Oh, great, they’re going to put a statue up of me, and kids are going to go out there and put cigarettes out on my face.’ Maybe it’s too tall. But more than anything, I hope that where that statue sits that it’s not too much about who’s on that statue but just that it’s a place where you go out and be nice to each other.”
Then Tuesday night, the night before the CMA Awards, Gill was honored at the BMI offices on Music Row with the BMI Icon Award. BMI’s annual ceremony honoring songwriters is the oldest in the business, and past recipients of the Icon Award include Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson. “I look at the past recipients of this award, and it’s pretty heavy,” Gill said. “It’s amazing people. There are so many people who mentored me and inspired me, and it’s a little overwhelming.”
Then at Wednesday’s CMA Awards, nobody was expecting Vince Gill to be honored. Nobody knew they had put together a video package with artists paying tribute to him as far ranging as Taylor Swift and Merle Haggard, making Vince weepy when Merle referred to Vince as a “friend,” and that the CMA’s had minted an Irving Waugh Award of Excellence trophy for the guitar player, tenor singer, and songwriter. Who even knew an Irving Waugh Award existed? Johnny Cash was the only other performer to receive the award. It was the moment the CMA made good on all the hard work Vince had put in over the years for the presentation, and all the contributions he’d accumulated to country music over the years.
Vince’s 26 million albums sold have bought him a lot of butter and beans, and all those CMA’s and Grammys sure must feel nice. But to be honored at his most humble beginnings by his high school, by his distinguished peers at BMI, and then the industry at large during the genre’s biggest night of the year, sure must feel good for ol’ Vince. Hopefully it reminds him that he’s not forgotten, and that country music still needs artists like him.
This story has been updated (see below).
The potential sale of the Big Machine Label Group—home of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Brantley Gilbert, and many more—just got a whole lot more interesting, and now has sprouted tentacles that could have major implications across the entire music landscape as Taylor Swift has unexpectedly pulled her complete catalog from Spotify.
Murmurings of an impending Big Machine sale first surfaced in a Hits Daily Double column posted on October 23rd, and were expounded upon by Saving Country Music on October 27th. Subsequently The New York Post released a story on November 1st reinforcing the presence of behind-the-scenes chatter on an impending sale. Reports have Big Machine President and CEO Scott Borchetta asking $200 million for the label group that includes the subsidiary labels Valory Music, NASH Icon, and joint ventures with Universal Republic Records, Republic Records Nashville and Dot Records. Big Machine is an independent label distributed by Universal Music Group—one of the parties rumored to be interested in purchasing the star heavy label.
From the beginning, the lynchpin of any deal has been centered around superstar Taylor Swift who has one more album to release with Big Machine before the expiration of her contract. Making matters that much more intriguing, and potentially making the value of Big Machine never greater, is the development that Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 released on October 27th has become nothing short of a historic commercial blockbuster. Preliminary sales numbers have 1989 selling 1.3 million copies in its first week—the best one week sales performance for any album since Eminem’s The Eminem Show released in May of 2002. When taking into account the flight from physical sales and now even digital downloads in the face of streaming services such as Spotify, this sales feat is nothing short of miraculous.
One of the factors being given credit for Taylor Swift’s tour de force in sales is the Spotify embargo she usually puts on her releases for the first 60 days to stimulate more album sales. Scott Borchetta told Rolling Stone near the release of Taylor Swift’s Red in 2012. “Why shouldn’t we learn from the movie business? They have theatrical releases, cable releases. There are certain tiers. If we just throw out everything we have, we’re done.”
Scott Borchetta had mostly held pat to this Spotify approach until recently. Releases by other Big Machine artists in the last few months such as Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line were released straight to Spotify, though Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am released in May did not, holding to the 60 day embargo. Sales for Brantely’s album where much higher than most industry experts expected, and the album has now sold over 600,000 copies—this from an artist who is not considered to be on country music’s top tier.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 did not appear on Spotify upon release, though the lead single “Shake It Off” was available. Then the shocking news came down Monday morning that Taylor Swift’s entire discography was pulled from the Spotify network, singles and all.
“We love Taylor Swift, and our more than 40 million users love her even more,” Spotify posted Monday morning after her music disappeared. “We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone. We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy. That’s why we pay nearly 70% of our revenue back to the music community.”
Billboard on Monday also posted quotes from a Spotify employee with “intimate knowledge of the situation” saying, “This came as a complete surprise. Big Machine is in the process of selling itself, and that can’t be forgotten here. [They're looking to] increase the multiple for the sale of that company. Scott Borchetta is a very old-school thinker. He’s wrong.”
However there may be an element of spin going on from Spotify, or multiple elements of spin. Though Spotify is trying to link the Big Machine sale to Taylor Swift pulling her music, every other Big Machine artist still has all of their music available through the streaming service.
Also in Spotify’s official comments, they speak more specifically about the philosophical and financial dilemma Spotify is posing to the music industry at large. “We believe…artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy. That’s why we pay nearly 70% of our revenue back to the music community.” Why would Spotify bring up this point if the concern was the Big Machine sale and not Swift seeing the financial benefit for herself and other artists at large by exiting the streamer? Also, is Scott Borchetta though to be an “old-school thinker”? Most in the industry consider Borchetta the opposite, and it very well could have been Swift’s decision, not Borchetta’s, to pull the catalog from Spotify.
In a Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal posted in July, she said, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.”
The impact of Taylor Swift removing her music from Spotify, especially after she just revealed herself as the biggest artist of the last decade-plus and possibly of a generation, cannot be overstated. This could be the moment of leadership music has been waiting for that spurs other artists to stand up to the incremental loss of revenue presented by the streaming paradigm, and it could also have a big impact on Spotify’s standing in the marketplace. Or it could simply mean you can’t stream Swift on Spotify. Either way, the implications of Swift’s decision should be watched very closely, and could have big reverberations throughout music.
Whether the Spotify decision is linked at all to Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine sale is difficult to determine without access to the specifics of any deal. But to be sure, 1989‘s resounding commercial success is necessitating a shift of perspective on how music is sold in America, and the standing of Big Machine Records as one of the most important and influential labels in music today.
Meanwhile streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and others continue to have issues showing how their business model can become profitable, with some looking to negotiate the royalties paid to artists down even more.
***UPDATE (11-4): According to Scott Borchetta of the Big Machine Label Group, the company is not up for sale. Borchetta told All Access, “If you notice, any time we put a Taylor album out this little item comes up again. We are not for sale, but Taylor’s great new album ‘1989’ is!” Of course, companies are notorious for refuting any sale rumors … until they eventually sell. So this should be taken into consideration. As should the fact that if it is true that Big Machine is not up for sale, this would refute the Spotify insider who told Billboard the Big Machine sale has to do with Swift pulling her music.
“This site’s called savingcountrymusic.com. Why are you talking about Taylor Swift? She’s not country. She never was. Now she’s even saying she isn’t.”
Well guess what, tough titty. This is my damn website, and if I want to talk about Taylor Swift, I will. And guess what, you’ll probably read about it.
It’s true that Taylor Swift has officially left country, and the majority of the country music media needs to ween themselves off the Taylor Swift click bait and recuse themselves from running features on every Instagram picture she posts. But I can make the case that when it comes to this specific album, 1989, it is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall, and for a host of reasons, even though it’s not country. Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed, to the point where it would be almost irresponsible not to broach the subject of this album, and the potential repercussions it could have on the country genre at large.
For starters, if you trace back to the origination point 1989, it will lead you to the corporate headquarters of Big Machine Records—an independent label located at 1219 16th Ave South in a portion of the City of Nashville known by locals as Music Row, aka the mother brain of the country music industrial complex. Not to mention that said Big Machine Records also happens to be up for sale according to reports that first surfaced the third week of October, and have subsequently been stoked anew, and specifically name this album, 1989, it’s success, and the success and contract status of Taylor Swift as linchpins to the entire deal.
But let’s not bog down in business jargon and behind-the-scenes details. The reason 1989 is important to country music is not in lieu of Taylor Swift declaring herself and this album pop, it is because of it. Country music isn’t mad at Taylor Swift for leaving the genre, they’re mad because she blew their cover. Of course she’s not country, and never has been. Nor is the majority of what is clad in country clothing. It just happens to be that Taylor Swift is the only artist with the balls to say it, and the balls to admit she wants to make pop music. Oh my heavens, what a shock! Meanwhile the rest of country is syncing up banjos with drum machine beats, and singing about getting high in the bathrooms of downtown clubs. Say they’re not country though, and they’ll admonish you as a closed-minded purist, and claim what they’re doing is “evolution.” If nothing else, give Taylor Swift some damn credit for being honest with herself and her fans. That’s one big monkey off her back … at least for now.
But genres aside, 1989 has already revealed itself as transcendent from a commercial perspective. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to quantify what kind of feat this album has achieved by selling more albums in a week than any other project in a dozen years. When you factor in the unchecked flight from physical product and now even downloads that is absolutely ramrodding the music marketplace into a downward spiral, this feat is nothing short of miraculous. Would this be the equivalent of selling 2.5 million records on debut in 1989—the year the album is named for? Three million? More?
The decision to not make 1989 available on Spotify proved to be a smart one, as 14-year-old girls all across the country crashed their local Target stores to obtain their copy. Remember the Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal and her fearful plea? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she said. “In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow… It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album…”
Unless you’re Taylor Swift.
Why is Taylor Swift’s 1989 relevant to a country music website? Because it is relevant to any music website, because we very well may be looking at the very last American album sold in a physical form that permeates the entire population. Vinyl collectors will tell you, if you crash any given pile of records, whether at a garage sale, a thrift store, etc., you always see the same revolving titles: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass for example. It’s uncanny, and doesn’t matter where you are in the country. It’s because everybody bought those records. Or at least the people that bought records did. 1989 may be the last record of that lineage, and the only person or album that might have a chance at besting or repeating this deed would be Taylor Swift in two years when she releases her next one. It was Taylor Swift’s last album Red that 1989 broke the record for a debut week initially, until the tally of 1989 sales started to reach past 1.25 million, and we had to go all the way back to 2002′s The Eminem Show to find a peer. That is an illustration of how Taylor Swift truly is the artist of a generation, even before factoring music’s dramatic sales slide. And the fact she accomplished all of this after declaring herself no longer country is a footnote worth not glossing over.
How did she do it? The Spotify embargo helped, but she also did it by showing love to the physical format. The cover of Swift’s 1989 is fairly nondescript, but purposely so, and you can almost squint and tell how over time it could become iconic with its retro attitude. But it really was the little treats Taylor Swift put inside each package that made her many fans and even passers by decide to go physical. In each package is a card that enters listeners into a sweepstakes for a chance to meet Taylor Swift. A Willy Wonka golden ticket so to speak. It also comes with a little package that says “Photos” that includes 13 cards, or mock Polaroids of Taylor Swift, each numbered as part of a bigger sequence, with the lyrics to songs scribbled in Sharpie on the bottom.
This all gives a physical representation to the incredible amount of social traffic Taylor Swift generates. It’s something tangible that separates her from the virtual stars of today. Like the spinning cover of Led Zepplin’s III‘s original album cover where you could change what’s peeking through the windows, it shows imagination, and effort.
The problem with 1989 though is that it is just not a very good album. Country, or not. The analogy employed for Taylor Swift albums by this country music critic for her previous releases was that of an Italian food critic sent to a Chinese restaurant, and asked to judge the Chinese food … as Italian food. Clearly the result would be a failing grade, and that is what Taylor Swift received, regardless of how good the music was as pop. But judging it as pop music specifically, it was hard to not admit that the music had its moments, and its depth and value.
1989 has some depth too, and some value here and there, but overall you feel like you’re getting the worst of all those older Taylor Swift albums—the unabashed pandering to the public at large in smash singles, and some of the self-ingratiating sentimentality—all condensed into one. There are respites, and as Taylor Swift says herself, this is the most cohesive album she’s ever made sonically, and that may be true. But I’m not sure that is something to be boasting about when this is the result.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 could have been great, and you get a sense that it almost was. The idea of this retro, 25-year throwback perspective personified in new music is probably a worthy one. That 25-year marker is thrown around regularly as the measurement of when music of the previous generation reaches its apex of emotional virility and maximum memory response in its listeners. Before the 25-year window, the music feels unfashionable. Beyond it, and it feels outmoded. 25 years is the sweet spot, and that is why country music is seeing a revival of its “Class of ’89″ artists like the recently-unretired Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson who is going on a 25-year Anniversary tour.
25 years ago was a big time in country music, or at least the time of a big freshman class. But what about pop? 1989 was the year of Milli Vanilli. The 80′s were already an era of music that would be called lost by some, and laughable by others. Why does a lot of commercial country today sound like bad 80′s hair metal? Why did Taylor Swift’s Big Machine record label release a Mötley Crüe tribute album this year? Because it hits on that 25-year sweet spot. But hair metal and Milli Vanilli were godawful, just like much of 80′s music.
If you wanted to look for what has withstood the test of time from the 80′s era of pop, you look to New Wave, and one hit wonders. Yes, this was the era when synthesized music took hold in earnest, but it was also the time of tantalizing melodies and arrangement—guilty pleasures for Audiophiles and ear worms galore for the masses. And we’ve already seen Taylor Swift tap into this retro music magic, and rather successfully ahead of the 1989 release.
A song like “Enchanted” from Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now has that 80′s synth pop thing going strong. On 2012′s Red, a perfect example of this is the song “Starlight.” And the single that preceded this album called “Sweeter Than Fiction” that appeared on the soundtrack of the film One Chance also found Taylor Swift revitalizing the New Wave vibes that marked some of the best moments of 80′s pop, and doing it with Jack Antonoff as producer—the guitar player for the band Fun, and the man who also co-wrote and produced two songs for 1989, including one of the lead singles, “Out of the Woods.”
Listening to “Sweeter Than Fiction” and some of Swift’s other synth-pop songs from the past, you though that if this was the direction 1989 took, the results could be quite tantalizing. Taylor has proven to be adept at re-imagining the 80′s. But I hate to say, this album did not take that direction, really whatsoever. If “Sweeter Than Fiction,” or even “Starlight” or “Enchanted” were included on this album, they would immediately become the best tracks by far. One of the surprising things about 1989 is how much it resides solidly in the here and now, startlingly so. There’s not really any retro vibe. Instead we get Max Martin/Shellback smash single formulas, a fairly lackluster, unimaginative, and disappointing performance by Jack Antonoff, and only a few songs that really simulate any intrigue to the discerning ear.
1989, just like the year itself, is sort of a bore. The cohesiveness of the album eliminates any spice or suspense. The modes of production are transparent, and the melodies are rendered powerless by rhythmic seizures, excessive repetitiveness, and poor decision making in the composition. This album is just kind of a mess in places, guessing at what might make a song a smash hit instead of doing the inspiration justice.
It’s been the assertion by Saving Country Music that all popular music is slowly transitioning to simply being noise scientifically formulated to stimulate the highest possible dopamine response in the brain. Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback—who joined Taylor’s team at the behest of Scott Borchetta during Red—are the precursors to this impending era. They were responsible for Red‘s three huge pop hits, but like Taylor accurately picked up on, their compositions came out of nowhere on that album, like interjections to the listener, and hurt her overall effort, regardless of the success of the songs themselves. She avoids that same mistake here, but unfortunately she does it by enacting this Max Martin/Shellback composition-by-formula across the board on these 13 tracks.
Whatever the original melodies to these songs were, we’ll never know. Taylor herself has probably forgotten them already. I have little doubt most of the words are her own. But then she brought them into the studio, was asked to sing them a certain way, and then they were summarily dumped into a sound file, cut and pasted like text from a Wikipedia page into a student’s history report, and then used as the producers wished to craft what they believed would be infectious patterns for mega hits. The result is that any and all inspiration behind the songs has been scrubbed from the performances. Taylor Swift’s words and voice are just another sonic elements to fit into a pre-arranged composition optimized for mass consumption. The curly-haired awkward girl sitting in her bedroom writing down her feelings while playing her acoustic guitar was not only lost in this process, she was murdered.
What’s the most shocking about this is that we can expect this kind of behavior from the music cretins like Max Martin and Shellback, who along with Joey Moi and other producers are really at the heart of destroying American popular music. But Jack Antonoff of Fun, and Ryan Tedder—the OneRepublic frontman who also co-writes and produces a couple of songs on this album—seem so eager to play ball with this formulaic approach. This was possibly the fatal flaw of bringing in Max Martin on not just as a songwriter and producer, but as the executive producer of the project. Everything was exposed to his corrupting mandibles, aside from maybe the song “This Love” that Swift did with her long-time original producer Nathan Chapman.
In fact the guest producers do such a poor job and this album is such a lowering of the bar overall, the songs that shine the brightest are arguably the ones Max Martin and Shellback had the heaviest hand in—a complete role reversal from Red. Even Imogen Heap’s contribution on the final track “Clean” feels tired, forced, and unimaginative. However, this is nothing close to praise of the Swedish pair. It’s just happens to be that a few of the songs they didn’t completely suffocate the melodies or ruin the songs with rhythmic pap, though many of them they still did.
The song “Style” works well as a modern pop song, and the theme about being classic and above style trends is really smart, while the song also conveys the story of a passionate romance. The other standout of the album is “How You Get the Girl.” Despite being hamstrung by the annoyingly-rhythmic confusion at the beginning of the song, it rallies to evidence one of the most catchy moments on an album that is curiously lacking in them for a pop project. “This Love”—the only solo write by Swift on the entire album and produced by Nathan Chapman—is alright, but is a little too flat and Enya-like to hold the attention for very long, even though for once on this album you get the sense you’re listening to something very personal.
Other songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” would have been good, buy why, why choose to put some ridiculous banshee yawp enhancement on the final “stay” of every phrase to take a perfectly fine pop song and make it polarizing? “Wildest Dreams,” “I Wish You Would,” are just okay, and don’t even get me started with the album’s lead singles: “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Welcome To New York.” These songs are just bullshit. “Out of the Woods” can’t be saved by the inclusion of a personal narrative because it is simply caustic to the ears with its rhythmically disjointed repetitiveness. “Bad Blood” is downright annoying. The entire project is so racked with poor rhythm decisions, repeated words and sounds, Shellback loading up Taylor Swift’s voice in a memory bank and playing it back on a MIDI controller like a Moog, it’s just objectionable to the ear in many places. 1989 is the worst album Taylor Swift has every made.
But how about the words, is there any redemption here? Sure, maybe. But once again we’re asked to praise Taylor Swift the songwriter when her words have been buried beneath layers of synthesizer beds and over-production that screams out for the predominant attention, while the lead single of the album is built around the vacuous “Players gonna play, and haters gonna hate” über cliché of our era. If Taylor Swift wants respect as a lyricist, she needs to put the material out front that flatters these attributes, not that refutes them. Yes, there are some good lines, and good sentiments on 1989‘s lyrical set. But we’re not seeing Taylor Swift evolve. When she was fifteen, we were amazed at the maturity and self-awareness she embedded in her cute little pop songs. Now you’re starting to wonder if and how her fame has stunted her emotional development.
That doesn’t mean songs like “Wildest Dreams,” “This Love,” and “I Know Places” don’t have a little something. But songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” come across as immature and self-indulgent. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift is still only 24. But where before she was a 15-year-old writing as a 24-year-old, now it feels like she’s a 24-year-old writing as an 18-year-old in segments of this album.
Where does 1989 rate when it comes to the great pop albums of this generation? It’s fate is probably secured in being considered top grade simply because of its commercial performance. Hell, the City of New York has already named Swift their “ambassador” for the next two years based off of 1989‘s lead song and Swift buying and apartment in Manhattan. But I’m sorry to say, “Welcome to New York” as a song offers nothing. At all. 1989 held up against Lorde’s Pure Heroine, or Adele’s 21, or even taking a further step back and looking at Nelly Furtado’s Loose for example, and you feel like it would be patently unfair to compare those projects to what Taylor Swift has offered up here. It’s more on par with Ke$ha’s Animal—simply a collection of digital production performances and studio magic with some flashes of fair writing.
Swift seems to think that to loosen the bonds of country, she had to completely go away from instrumentation. Virtually the entirety of 1989 was sequenced on Mac computers, and you can feel that in the results. Yet you listen to where the rest of pop music is headed, and you see it beginning to favor instrumentation more and more, like the standup bass in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that has consistently bested Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the charts.
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There are some decent moments on this album, and I don’t want to downplay this opinion. And I would be interested in hearing the songs that did not make the cut, as I’m sure there were many fleshed out in the studio that we’re not getting a chance to hear.
But it’s over. That young girl with big dreams and an acoustic guitar sitting on the edge of her bed writing silly little heartfelt songs that became America’s sweetheart has become just a franchise name for dubious-intentioned producers to do with what they will. Max Martin finished the job in 1989 he started on Red. The fact that Taylor Swift still writes most of her lyrics is simply a facade that she has complete control over what is transpiring, misleading not just her fans and the public, but more disappointingly, herself. The problem with money and success is that you can always have more of it, and this is usually where the compromising of principles occurs, trying to best records you’ve already broken. When you attain goals by reaching outside yourself, the losses are greater than the gains.
1989 does not represent the year Taylor Swift was born, it represents the moment her music died as a form of her original expression.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
Mostly known by industry types as a songwriter whose pen to paper has resulted in some very memorable cuts, including the recent Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” one of the most recognizable songs from ABC’s drama Nashville called “Don’t Put Dirt On My Graves Just Yet,” and even some songs from bigger names such as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, Caitlyn Smith steps out from the songwriting shadows to release a seven song EP full of wide ranging emotions, slickly-penned sentiments, and spectacular vocal performances worthy of wider attention.
When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
Though it may be a stretch to call this Everything To You EP traditional, the amount of banjo on this album is surprising, and really comprises the sonic base for a few of these songs. And I’m not talking about the six-string version of the banjo with a Stratocaster head stock and flames painted down the side, these are songs bred from inspiration, not formula, even if a few songwriting hands were employed before calling them finished. Fiddle and mandolin float in and out as well, as does some heavier guitar riffs when the composition calls for it. But really the focus of Everything To You is squarely on Caitlyn, her songs, and her voice, which is where it should be, and this is where this album will build its greatest consensus amongst listeners with country sensibilities.
Everything To You starts out with the driving “Fever” with its two-part chorus and towering requests for Caitlyn to immediately hit top-register notes and nail them, which she does with ease. This leads into the more subdued and acoustic “Dream Away”—an empowering testament about sticking to your dreams; something Caitlyn can speak about from the experience of being a small town girl from Minnesota desiring to be a songwriter and now singing along to some of her co-writes on the radio.
“Wasting All These Tears” takes a more somber pitch, almost like a jilted Taylor Swift song from earlier in her career, then the autobiographical “Everything To You” immediately shifts gears to a more happier tone. “Grown Woman” finds Caitlyn evoking the common “I’m a woman, hear me roar” attitude we’ve been hearing often from mainstream women, while the yearning and wrenching of “Novocaine” cuts at the listener’s emotional stability. The album ends with the thankful and sweet “All My Lovers” about Caitlyn finding her way to her husband.
Though Everything To You never turns you off, it never really takes any chances either, or sails into the uncharted waters beyond the familiar harbors of co-write country. The songs all seem to authentically emanate from Caitlyn’s life story and this feels like a very personal album, but you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve heard a version of some of these songs before. Slick arrangements, production, and instrumentation make Everything To You accessible, though not necessarily challenging. However Caitlyn Smith and Everything To You very much embody the idea that there are artists out there with mainstream-caliber chops who if just given a chance could shift country in a more substantive, and even sustainable direction.
2013 was considered by many to be the “Year of The Woman” in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.
Before Garth Brooks decided to go with “People Loving People” as his first single after coming out of retirement, another song on his new album called “Tacoma”—written by Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero—was scheduled to be the return single. Only stands to reason “Tacoma” will be released as a single eventually, and with the timely release of this EP, it very well may deliver an extra bit of interest to a well-deserving and hard working songwriter with a voice worthy of much more than the audience listening song pitches on demo tapes.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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Nashville’s and country music’s most influential record label is reportedly getting ready to be put up for sale according to a new report from Hits Daily Double, and Taylor Swift’s 1989 album release and pending contract situation could have a big impact on it. $200 million dollars is said to be the asking price for Scott Borchetta’s prized possession.
Despite being a big label with many famous artist and significant subsidiaries, the Big Machine Label Group remains independently owned, operating through distribution deals with Republic Records in the United States, and Universal Music Group internationally. Along with Taylor Swift, the label group is the home of Florida Georgia Line, The Band Perry, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Justin Moore, Reba McEntire, and many more.
This is not the first time Big Machine has been rumored to be up for sale. In 2011, Sony was reportedly in negotiations to acquire the label for the same sum of $200 million, and they weren’t the only ones showing interest. Big Machine’s distribution partners Universal Music Group were also rumored to be considering entering a bid on the label.
Key to this new deal would be Taylor Swift according to reports, who after the release of 1989 will owe Big Machine one more record before being free of her contract. Whether Scott Borchetta can re-sign the mega-star, or whether she will decide to run her own labeling and distribution similar to how she does with booking and management remains in question. “Swift’s valuation will be far more meaningful for Borchetta if he can re-sign her, because she’s clearly the jewel in Borchetta’s crown,” says Hits Daily Double. “The fact of the matter is that Borchetta must bring Swift with him in order to make his company truly attractive in the eyes of prospective bidders.”
Taylor Swift is considered one of the biggest artists, if not the biggest artist of this generation, and many of the early estimates of how many albums 1989 could sell have her becoming 2014′s first Platinum-selling act, denoting 1 million albums sold. Her last album Red debuted with 1.2 million in sales on the way to marking over 4 million units moved, but this was two years ago before music streaming took over in earnest. Others are wondering if Swift moving from country to pop will put a dent in her sales from loyal country fans.
Also interesting, and something that has gone virtually unreported is that Borchetta recently dropped his moratorium on releasing albums to Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming service until after a certain time period. “We’re not putting the brand-new releases on Spotify,” Borchetta told Rolling Stone near the release of Taylor Swift’s Red in 2012. “Why shouldn’t we learn from the movie business? They have theatrical releases, cable releases. There are certain tiers. If we just throw out everything we have, we’re done.” But recent Big Machine releases from Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line were available immediately on Spotify. So far, Swift’s 1989 released officially on 10-27 has not surfaced on the streaming service, though her first single “Shake It Off” is available. The Spotify quotient could cause cause Swift’s album sales numbers to be more robust compared to other 2014 releases that went straight to streaming.
Another question appears to be the standing of both Scott Borchetta and Taylor Swift in the greater country community. Swift leaving country may have ruffled the feathers of Big Machine’s Music Row bunk mates who also may fill the roster of prospective buyers. Meanwhile Borchetta has been making waves of his own on Music Row, with his aggressive practices angering some in the business. Borchetta tends to play by his own rules as opposed to the unspoken writs of the Music Row oligarchy. His big deals with iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) on radio play rights, Cumulus Media with NASH Icon, producer Dr. Luke with writing and production work, and similar deals have Borchetta running circles around his Nashville competition, and leaving some with a sour taste.
The Big Machine Label Group was founded by President and CEO Scott Borchetta in 2005 after he left DreamWorks Records, and includes the subsidiary labels Valory Music Group, Dot Records, NASH Icon, and a joint venture with Universal Republic Records, Republic Records Nashville. The label began as a partnership with Toby Keith, but Keith dropped his affiliation with Big Machine in 2006 to start his own Show Dog-Universal label. Keith still owns a stake in Big Machine however, and this is one of the reasons he remains the highest-paid entertainer in country music. Taylor Swift’s father, Scott Swift, also owns a stake in Big Machine. Taylor Swift was Big Machine’s first signing.
This song from former The Voice contestant and now Valory Music-signed 20-year-old country music starlet Raelynn has been lurking out there for a while now, garnering tacit approval from the country music listening public and sitting down in the 30-something range in chart performance, while driving other listeners crazy for a host of reasons. “God Made Girls” looked like it was destined to ride off into the sunset, and possibly, take Raelynn’s puttering country career with it. But a renewed push from Clear Channel’s well-meaning but controversial “On The Verge” program meant to give extra attention to up-and-coming artists may very well see a re-emergence of this song and a reset of its topside potential. On The Verge was the impetus behind the making of recent stars like Iggy Azalea and misappropriated EDM/country star Sam Hunt.
Requests have trickled into Saving Country Music headquarters to properly roast this offering for various offenses, including its potentially subservient representation of females as being made by God simply to be pretty objects and companions for men. But this is no “Girl In Your Truck Song.” It’s tough not to recognize there could be an acquiescence of the female perspective here, but that’s sort of a stretch, and I find it a little hard to get too exercised about it, while some female listeners may even find the song empowering. Plus if you’re evoking God in the conversation, there’s that whole rib and apple story to contend with.
What is more troubling, or at least annoying about “God Made Girls” is the immature/fairy tale aspect the whole song takes on to an almost unhealthy degree, especially when you consider this song is for grown ass adults and country music fans. Raelynn is all giggles and coos in this song, tilting her head and gazing into mirrors like a still emotionally-developing adolescent-aged cutesty wootsy star struck suburban American princess watching Frozen on continuous repeat. Not even a 15-year-old Taylor Swift evidenced such an abandonment of maturity as Raelynn does in this song. Though even with this criticism, “God Made Girls” yearns for depth by talking about girls being an emotional crutch for men, and being the ones to “drag his butt to church.”
The music of “God Made Girls” is generally unoffensive, though it’s also fairly unremarkable too. The one tough hurdle for this song to overcome is how it repeats the chorus line “He stood back and told the boys I’m ’bout to rock your world” twice per refrain instead of either evolving or resolving the line the second time through as would traditionally be done in more elaborate, or even average songcraft. But “God Made Girls” is catchy, and buoyed by Raelynn’s young, naturally cute voice and aspect. It’s probably also worth pointing out that this is a song for girls, by girls, and will resonate along sex lines disproportionately, which there’s nothing inherently wrong with. It was co-written by Nicolle Galyon, Lori McKenna, and famous early Taylor Swift co-writer Liz Rose. Joey Moi, the madman behind Nickelback and now Florida Georgia Line, is the producer of the track.
The video for “God Made Girls” works to reinforce the adolescent nature of the song, and even takes creative license to exacerbate it with endless staircases ascending into the sky and fairytale dress and scenarios—even images of young girls playing pretend. One strange aspect of the video is a woman on horseback that seems to be interjected for no apparent reason into the narrative, especially at the 2-minute mark of the video where she randomly appears shirtless.
“God Made Girls” is not terrible, and not even as bad as some country music fans with their dander up looking for songs to destroy would have you believe. But it does serve an an excellent example of country music’s current obsession with youth and unwillingness to mature beyond the 15-year-old perspective, along with conveying a questionable value of women in society, even if it does attempt to increase the sense of value in themselves.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
The Country Music Association Awards, or CMA’s are nigh upon us, and set to transpire on Wednesday, November 5th. And to get you all horny for the festivities, it’s been announced that ultra pop star Ariana Grande, and “All About That Bass” overnight sensation Meghan Trainor will be part of this year’s presentation. Miranda Lambert will be performing “All About That Bass” with Trainor, and Ariana will be performing with Little Big Town. Because you know, a country presentation devoid of high-caliber pop stars would be inherently boring and way too country to entice John Q Public to tune in apparently.
Pop stars and other non-country performers are nothing out-of-the-ordinary on the CMA stage, so let’s not make too much of this. Over the last few years, a non-country appearance by a big current star has almost become the norm. Remember when Kid Rock performed on the 2008 CMA Awards, and Lil’ Wayne showed up on stage, not really doing anything but soaking up face time on primetime television? This is all a symptom of country music’s lack of self-esteem and feeling like it needs to apologize for being country and prove it isn’t to win your interest. Instead the genre should be putting its best foot forward during its most prominent event of the year and making new fans by showcasing what it does best, and what makes it unique from the rest of music.
The problem with this particular selection of pop stars is that it speaks to a much deeper dilemma country music is facing, or more aptly, unwilling to face, and that’s why we’re taking critical awards show time from much more worthy country artists and relenting it to female pop stars outside the genre. It’s like when the country industry started nominating Kelly Clarkson for awards out of nowhere because they felt there were no other worthy names. Right now females are dominating the pop charts, holding the top five spots on Billboard’s Hot 100, including Meghan Trainor coming in at #1, Ariana Grande at #5, and lookey there, the artists formerly known as country, Taylor Swift, taking the salutatorian spot at #2.
Meanwhile, where are the women in the country charts? Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water” made a valiant showing, cresting at #2. But except for that, there’s not much to be found. Mark my words, the booking of Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande is directly tied to the genre losing Taylor Swift this year, and needing a high-caliber pop-oriented female artist to compete for viewers. Really, if you’re going to go out and get a pop star, why not Taylor Swift? She’s got a brand new album coming out, and a history with the genre neither Meghan Trainor or Ariana Grande do. But Taylor is making a concerted effort to divest herself from the country mindset, and for reasons it’s hard to fault her for. This all says something very serious about the state of females in country music, and the country industry’s inability to develop female superstars.
No offense to Ariana Grande or Meghan Trainor whatsoever. In this day and age of country music, Ariana can blow pretty much every single one of country’s weak, Auto-Tuned voices right off the stage save for maybe Carrie Underwood, and it will be refreshing to see an astounding voice perform instead of just another Bro-Country act up there hobbling though a backwards baseball cap white boy rap performance. And Meghan Trainor, who is a Nashville resident, has done something the girls of country have been unable to do heretofore, which is challenge the image-driven, male-dominated landscape with a self-empowering message that captures the zeitgest, regardless of how annoyingly ubiquitous and automated that particular song might be.
But why not give those performance positions to some of country music’s amazing young female talent, or some of the more mature talent that is being shuffled to the side? Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” is no “All About That Bass,” (and their performance on Letterman was pretty terrible), but why not give them the opportunity? How about Lee Ann Womack who has a new album, or Ashley Monroe who has a song out with Blake Shelton? The only way country will ever become independent of the pop world for eyeballs is if it develops its own performers of interest.
The CMA’s job is to promote the Country music industry, and the bump Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor will receive won’t do that; it will diminish the country focus in a time support for country music’s female artists is needed the most. The CMA stage could make a star on November 5th. But only if they’re given the opportunity.
And then there were two. This is the assessment most country music power brokers were forced to swallow when Taylor Swift made it clear she’d be moving on in her career without country, leaving only Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood as proven country music females who could actually release singles and have them be heard on the radio. And then Carrie Underwood recently announced that she’s with child. Though this isn’t a guaranteed nail in the coffin of a high flying country career by any stretch, it certainly bisects any plans she might have with a maternity leave, and many times this is proceeded by successful women in entertainment with a re-assessment of priorities more towards family, which is natural and healthy. It’s not up to Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert to carry the female torch in country music forever, it’s up to the industry to solve this riddle of why they can’t develop female talent to help them.
On Friday (9-26), Carrie Underwood made an appearance on the TODAY Show to make a big announcement. You had to be pretty dim to not know that a new album would be involved in the appearance in some capacity, but it was somewhat surprising to hear that it would be a Greatest Hits package instead of an album of completely new music. Carrie has only released four records since 2005, and her last album Blown Away was released well over two years ago. And with a little bundle of joy on the way and Greatest Hits: Decade #1 not hitting shelves until December 9th, this stretches out the calendar even more before a new original album from Underwood may arrive.
However Carrie also said as part of the announcement that some new music would be part of the Greatest Hits album, and on Monday (9-29) she released a brand new single called “Something In The Water.”
A wide, sweeping undertaking, “Something In The Water” sees Carrie Underwood carve out the sweet spot for her voice and make an inspiring and faith-based composition the vessel to illustrate the mighty ferocity of her God-given vocal prowess, along with instilling the moments with an elegance and grace that in unison swell to achieve one awe-inspiring performance height.
“Something In The Water” is purely pop country from a stylistic standpoint, but draws heavily from country’s Gospel roots and the ritual of river baptisms to create the compelling narrative at the song’s heart. Though the “something in the water” colloquialism is not wholly unique in this context, the content is nonetheless refreshing in the way it disregards all concern for trends or tropes and instead shows confidence in Carrie’s voice to carry a tune to the top levels of widespread appeal. Resolving with the verses of “Amazing Grace” intermixed with the song’s melody, “Something In The Water” traces a lineage directly back to the very primitive beginnings of country music, intertwining old roots among the song’s otherwise pristine and nouveau passages.
Carrie’s voice is so soaring and strong in this moment, it will comes across as polarizing to some ears, especially to those not used to such bold expressions as this in country music. That is one of the problems for country in 2014: with such a lack of raw talent and the vehicles to express it, when somebody does do something bold, it comes across as an oddity, as too much to take in, almost like it is a pompous attempt to overtly impress instead of sincere expression. In the pop world, this type of exhibition of talent isn’t just common, it is necessary. Pop and R&B can field an army of sensational singers, whereas country commonly leans on the services of Auto-Tune and talk-style phrasing to make up for a lack of natural aptitude. Carrie Underwood once again proves she’s one of the strongest singers of this generation.
“Something In The Water” will also be jeered as pure pop by many, but even with this assessment it still puts it in front of the garbled, directionless multi-genre hodgepodge presented by many of the genre’s top male stars. This is the true “anti Bro-Country” salvo country music has been lacking—one that doesn’t write its plan as the exact opposite of the scribblings in Bro-Country’s playbook, but one that blows the entire argument out of the water. Call it pop if you want, but the delineation the song truly strives for is “timeless.”
It is fair though to to assess that “Something In The Water” may be a little too perfect, a little too esoteric. It’s too much Celine Dion and not enough Oklahoma, while others will question if this rather unapologetic foray into non-secular material should, or can be valued with high regard in the commercial world. But true, openhearted fans of music will find the sway of “Something In The Water” hard to resist, and it should fare positively on country radio which is thirsty for female voices, and Carrie Underwood’s specifically.
Very, very powerful.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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