A Note on Album Reviews and Saving Country Music

When I started Saving Country Music 10 years ago, reviewing records was never part of the intention or the founding principles. The point of Saving Country Music was to rage against the loss of creative control by country music artists to Music Row, to advocate for the independence of music expressions, and work to return the roots of the music back into the modern country context. The vehicle with which to achieve these goals was written articles featuring strong criticism, illuminations on the issues plaguing modern country artists, corporate watchdogging, history lessons on the long-standing conflicts between music and business in country, as well as sarcasm and hyperbole to help reveal deeper truths.

Very specifically, I had been reading about the struggles of Outlaw-era artists, saw the parallel between the struggles of today’s artists, and as a fan, wanted to do something constructive about it. Of course it would be impossible to help save country music without also shining a light on the artists who were helping to lead the charge. After all, they were the ones who would actually be doing the saving. The name of this website was simply the embodiment of an idea, not an insinuation that I was the one acting as country music’s savior—an often misunderstood point.

Nonetheless, artist features were just one part of what Saving County Music did. In fact the first thing resembling a proper album review didn’t appear on the site until a year after its existence. It was at the request of readers that album reviews became an increasing part of Saving Country Music’s coverage. As part of this transition came the need to not just be an advocate for independent music, but a critical voice, understanding that criticism aids in the creative process, builds objectivity into coverage, and ultimately helps create an equal playing field for independent artists when they’re featured right beside mainstream names, increasing name recognition and fandom for these performers.

Without a legacy media brand behind it, or a big promotional budget, Saving Country Music has never had a mammoth social media presence, or built-in readership. Instead, and from the beginning, the site has relied on the power of search engines to spread it’s message subversive to the mainstream mindset. Founded on the idea that there were millions of country music fans disgruntled about the direction of the music, Saving Country Music was constructed to be like a spider web, catching these music fans, and then exposing them to healthier listening alternatives.

In this pursuit, Saving Country Music has been very effective. Over time, the site has been tweaked to become even more more optimized at this effort, utilizing algorithmic data to understand when to post what to enhance exposure for important artists and critical subjects. It’s never perfect, and the digital media landscape is always changing. But the charge of the site remains the same. The careers launched, and the critical issues addressed and vanquished have at times been significant, despite missteps, a few misspelled words, and a dubious standing with certain artists, fans, fellow journalists, and industry entities.

But Saving Country Music is not a popularity contest. For it to be effective, it is imperative that mainstream artists and subjects are broached, not just to attract the broad-based readership it takes to breed new independent music fans, but also because you cannot save country music while ignoring the mainstream where the largest concentration of music fans exists, as well as the biggest media reach with radio and award shows. This is also why it’s important, if not imperative, to highlight when and where improvement is seen in the mainstream in hopes it breeds even more improvement, just like it’s important to be critical to independent music when necessary so it’s understood this is not a biased pursuit, aside from the bias against bad music and corporate control of the creative process.

Being honest and critical regardless of the popularity of these opinions is built into the very founding principles of Saving Country Music and it’s business model. The point is not to be a well-liked site, but an effective vehicle for positive change in the music marketplace. The emphasis is in increasing the flock, not preaching to the choir.

Over time, the readership of Saving Country Music has increased, as has its social media footprint. Many readers use the site solely for music recommendations. Many might be surprised how many industry professionals count themselves as daily readers. In fact the biggest concentration of readers is very specifically on Music Row in Nashville, speaking to the wide swath of country fans the site engages. A few years ago it was decided to give more focus on Texas country and Red Dirt music due to the lack of coverage of that scene. Aside from bluegrass, which is still covered here and there, Saving Country Music covers most every aspect of country music, including a special emphasis on international artists, minorities and women, and all as a one-man operation aside from some technical expertise.

There are certainly larger websites in regards to daily readers, but where Saving Country Music continues to outperform compared to any competition is in the realm of engagement. Whether social media posts or comments on a given article, it’s the site’s ability to engage that helps make it so effective. Part of this is due to the emphasis placed on comments since the very beginning of the site. I wanted people to know that their opinions matter to, and that I read them. That’s why I respond to comments still, even while many sites are eliminating their comment sections altogether.

However this engagement, and the site’s “spider web” design, also sometimes result in unintended consequences. Sometimes people become obsessed with Saving Country Music. This site has a large segment of hate readers, meaning people who come to the site solely to find something to be angry about. Call it the Howard Stern effect. Often these people spend more time on this site than people who like it. And with the propensity of Saving Country Music to offer strong opinions and sarcasm, it can sometimes be difficult to hold on to long-term readers, and the site often goes misunderstood. The name also lends to this misunderstanding since to some people think Saving Country Music should be something different than what it is, and unfortunately, everyone’s expectations tend to be different.

Every year, and at the request and the response to readers, Saving Country Music has increased the amount of album reviews posted to the site. 2018 is no exception, with more album reviews posted at this time compared to last year, or any year previous. I’m also posting more album announcements, and now playlist updates which is another discovery mechanism, as well as more articles cataloging and curating upcoming releases, all while the amount of mainstream coverage has remained static, despite the mischaracterizations of some. This isn’t an opinion that mainstream coverage has not increased, this is statistical certitude that anyone can verify by breaking down the site’s coverage.

Nonetheless, the criticism of Saving Country Music for not posting enough album reviews or positive music coverage in general, ignoring certain releases or artists, only posting about the mainstream or only posting negative coverage, or posting about mainstream artists in lieu of independent ones has only increased. In fact the more album reviews I post, the more complaints I receive for not posting enough of them. Also with the increase of album reviews, since so many albums are being covered, the ones that are not covered become conspicuous, making some believe certain albums and artists are being excluded, or I am personally biased against them. Redoubling efforts to post more album reviews, and even increasing vintage album reviews has only made the criticism of not enough album reviews being posted worse. Aside from a willful understanding of how Saving Country Music works, the only way to alleviate or decrease this unfounded criticism of not posting enough album reviews would be to not post any album reviews at all, just like this site did at the very start. But obviously this would not be good for anybody.

Greatly complicating this issue is Facebook’s algorithm. Since album reviews and positive music coverage in general tend to receive less likes, less shares, less clicks, and less comments, these articles are rarely shown in people’s news feeds, increasing the perception that they don’t exist at all, let alone make up the vast majority of Saving Country Music’s coverage. The general perception of the site on Facebook is one that only posts about Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt. This is aided and abetted by hate readers, rival entities engaged in turf wars, and disgruntled artists and their fans angry they have not been covered, or have been covered critically in the past. Their anger may be just, but the idea that Saving Country Music does not cover independent music, or does not cover independent music enough is still completely incorrect.

In truth, people complaining about the lack of album reviews or other positive coverage on the site are commenting way more on their own browsing habits as opposed to the site’s coverage map. Generally speaking, album reviews continue to be one of the least-read elements on the site. Yet reviewing albums is approached as a solemn duty, and and imperative service to the music community. That’s also the reason the effort can’t be approach lightly.

Artists put their lives into these records. The least you can do as an album reviewer is to listen intently, consider the messages and meanings, account for an artist’s biography and geography, perhaps step away for a few days and then listen again which fresh ears and a new perspective. And after that, compose a review that is compelling, worthy to the effort being described, and help frame the work in a greater context, not just for today’s readers and listeners, but for the same eternity that graces all good works of art. Two-sentence blurbs as album reviews are insulting to the work regardless of what they say.

That is why every album can’t be reviewed. It would be physically impossible for Saving Country Music to review more albums then it currently is. It is a misnomer that when something else is covered, regardless of what it is, it is in lieu of an album review. Sometimes an album review requires weeks of listening, and sometimes many hours of writing. News stories, song reviews, and other such material do not require nearly the commitment. Along with posting more album reviews then most any critic in any genre, Saving Country Music’s album reviews are also much longer. Also many hours of listening and sometimes research is devoted to albums the ultimately do not get reviewed for a myriad of reasons.

And not every album deserves an album review. Sometimes as a reviewer, you just don’t know what to say about an album. This shouldn’t be taken as an insult to the work. Like a handicapper in football, they don’t pick every single college and NFL game each Sunday, they pick the ones they think they have a handle on. Album reviews are the same. And similarly, there is too much music out there right now. There aren’t ten new albums, or ten new songs worthy of your ear each week, or ten new artists each month, despite the click-bait some sites create, saying only positive things about every album, and basically trolling the fan bases of the artists they feature for clicks and social media links.

With nearly 4,800 articles posted, and with the vast majority of those being of a positive nature, it is ridiculous to say or insinuate that Saving Country Music hasn’t put forth the effort to support independent music, all while asking not a single penny in donations, subscriptions, merch as to not undercut the artists and labels, as well as carrying one of the lightest ad sets on the internet, keeping the reading space free of ads, as well as not burdening readers with drop downs, click thrus, or video streaming ads. Estimates say that in two years, half of websites will be subscription-based, but this will never work for Saving Country Music, because the site depends on open, easy access to written material to be effective in luring new independent music converts.

All I have ever asked from anyone is their eyes and their understanding of what it is that I am trying to do, which is unusual, sometimes messy, occasionally ineffective, but at other times critically influential and important. Far be it from me do not want to be criticized. In fact I encourage criticism and suggestions, and have even made a forum for anyone to air their grievances or offer their opinions right beside mine. Some will point to this diatribe, pick it apart, and use it to criticize this site too. Others will ask why I couldn’t have spent this time writing an album review (see above for the explanation).

Saving Country Music is a very weird site, and don’t think that doesn’t go understood from the other side of the computer screen. One person blog-style websites no longer exist on the scale they once did. That segment of the internet and journalist economy has been eradicated, especially in music. But Saving Country Music continues to excel, and without having to pivot into video, get into podcasting, or stray away from it’s underlying mission and founding principles. I still believe in the power of the written word as superior in how it stimulates the mind.

But the idea that Saving Country Music does not support worthy music is incorrect and completely unfounded. The underlying basis for Saving Country Music will always be the album review, and features on independent artists. But efficiencies have been maxed out. There is no possibly way to write more album reviews, including not covering the mainstream or news stories at all. There’s just not any more time to cram more music in my brain, and write about it effectively, or in a compelling manner. I try the best I can.

I ask for your understanding.