After Historic Sales Week, Americana Positioned to Become Major Rival to Mainstream Country

The Lumineers are one of the many performers with mainstream impact embracing Americana and the ideals behind it
The Lumineers are one of the many performers with mainstream impact embracing Americana and the ideals behind the genre designation.

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The second week of October 2016 may very well go down as a watershed moment in the history of American roots music. For the first time ever, and only six months after Billboard christened their previously-named “Folk Albums” chart the “Americana/Folk” chart, Americana as a genre outsold country music in the volume of album sales according to Billboard. Yes, more people bought albums from artists like The Drive-By Truckers and John Prine last week than purchased albums from Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line.

Earlier in the week, the big news was the stunning report that John Prine’s latest record For Better, Or Worse came in at a surprising #2 on the Country Albums chart. But Prine’s sales of 15,000 units was only good enough for #5 on the Americana chart, where the competition was unusually stiff. Bolstered by big releases from folks like Bob Weir and Van Morrison, Prine faced stronger headwinds in the more distinguishing Americana genre than even mainstream commercial country.

Even more stunning, and speaking to just how historic the sales week was, Americana also bested the Hip-Hop/R&B chart in sales, the Dance chart in sales, and all the other genre charts except for rock. And this is not just for the top titles, but the full breadth of the respective charts, even though the Americana/Folk chart stops at the Top 50, while the Top Country chart on Billboard goes out all the way to 75 titles.

Granted, it was a pretty spectacular release week for Americana (and a slow one for country), and a couple of the titles included on Billboard’s Americana chart could be quibbled with as actually being Americana, like Bon Iver who landed at #1 on the chart. But even excluding the Bon Iver numbers, Americana still beats country head to head.

So what does all of this mean?

First off, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this isn’t any more than a one week anomaly, at least at this point. But Americana has threatened to beat country in album sales in the past and has come very close. And it’s almost for certain to happen again in the future. And with the way mainstream country consumers stream their music instead of purchasing, along with a general down tick in popular interest in mainstream country in the implosion of Bro-Country—while the ranks of Americana fans continue to swell, and continue to be willing to support their artists financially by purchasing cohesive records in physical and digital form—this anomaly is most likely to become a common occurrence moving forward.

As Saving Country Music has been asserting for years, as soon as music listeners discover they have better and healthier alternatives, they will make better choices. We’re far from a downright implosion of mainstream country, and there will always be listeners who will listen to whatever corporate radio serves them. But it’s all of a sudden not out of the realm of possibility that Americana could become not just the scrappy, baby brother gadfly of mainstream country, but a true rival regularly equaling if not surpassing mainstream country in not just album sales, but overall popularity.

This isn’t possible, right? Small, independent labels and artists reigning in and equaling their popular country counterparts? It’s actually happened in the past, and to the point where the mainstream of a genre did virtually implode.

In the 80’s, throngs of disenfranchised rock music fans fleeing the trends of hair metal and rap metal started listening to bands like R.E.M., the Black Crowes, and the B-52’s that were harbored on the small college radio format before breaking out into the mainstream. Then grunge hit with acts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and alternative rock as a radio format and sales designation shortly began to overtake the well-established “mainstream” of the rock world.

Soon alternative rock became the mainstream, and it wasn’t strange to hear artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Marilyn Mansion on pop formats. It has been popular to say over the last few years that mainstream country needs to have “a Nirvana moment.” Well we may be seeing this with the major popularity and mainstream acceptance of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and many other major Americana acts with swelling fan bases and surprising sales numbers.

History is deemed to repeat itself, but more than likely, the way an Americana revolution of country and roots music would occur wouldn’t look exactly like the rock revolution of the 90’s, though the impact could be very much the same. Would anybody be surprised if Chris Stapleton is selling out arenas by the end of 2017? Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Aaron Watson, and Blackberry Smoke have already topped the country album charts. Radio is the last bastion of resistance to an Americana revolution, but even that stultified environment is beginning to see inroads with the success of artists like William Michael Morgan, Jon Pardi, and a #1 song from Americana favorite Lori McKenna with Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind.”

What the spectacular sales week for Americana means is that a scenario where an alternative to mainstream country rising up through the independent channels to challenge Music Row’s dominance is no longer a hypothetical, it is a reality. Granted, it is not the style of Americana or its many labels and artists to look at music as competition, and one of the reasons Americana has been able to build the strength and momentum behind itself to pull off such a unfathomable feat is by focusing more on sustainability and quality as opposed to commercial prowess exclusively. This puts Americana on much more firm footing in the future, so it doesn’t succumb to its own adverse trends in the marketplace, or simply becomes a home for fake interlopers fleeing the dying mainstream country model.

At the same time, one of the strengths of Americana has been how it embraces artists of quality as mainstream country summarily pushes them to the side. Isn’t it fitting that right as Americana is hitting its high water mark in regards to album sales, artists like George Strait and Dwight Yoakam are embracing the format by making appearances at the recent Americana Music Awards, and it’s older acts like John Prine and Dwight Yoakam helping to push those sales over the top.

One of the reasons we feel so surprised at Americana’s success and so many have been so slow to recognize it is because it has been a slow and steady process as opposed to the overnight sensationalism that accompanied the rise of alternative rock. Because of Americana’s model of sustainability, the revolution has been plodding, yet purposeful. And now it’s success is palpable, and measurable by industry-standard metrics.

Mainstream country must either figure out how to incorporate elements of the burgeoning Americana movement into their model—or at the least offer a more diverse alternative to ingratiate themselves to the growing demand for more choice in the American country and roots marketplace. Or it may not be out of the realm of possibility that we see an implosion in the country industry. We definitely saw that with rock, and mainstream radio is already sitting on the precipice of financial implosion.

But at the same time, the success and embracing of Chris Stapleton by the industry, the rise of a new generation of true country stars embodied in William Michael Morgan, Mo Pitney, and Jon Pardi, speaks to how the country mainstream sees these trends as well, even if it’s molasses slow to maneuver, and only gets the spirit behind the Americana insurgency half right.

All of this also puts pressure on Americana to step up its game while it deals with the economic realities facing independent music. One of the things that made this record-breaking week for Americana possible was the christening of new infrastructure for the genre, specifically the new Billboard distinction, which felt like a long time coming. AmericanaFest held in September saw record numbers, and help put momentum behind the album projects of John Prine, Bob Weir, Dwight Yoakam, and others to push overall sales for Americana over country. Americana now is defined in the dictionary and has Grammy awards, even though these awards have to be fought over to preserved each year. But with distinctions such as this record-breaking sales week, it helps solidify support behind the Americana idea.

But let’s not abandon the idea of country music as a worthy genre either. Ideally, this upsurge in Americana would not spell doom for country, but inspire it to search for the generational talent that Americana currently boasts, to offer more variety through its format, and diversity among its ranks. It would push country music forward in a healthy competition that doesn’t just use radio play as a primary metric. And just maybe the idea of saving country music could become less of a fanciful, idealistic notion, and more a present-day reality delivered by a new era of creative freedom for all artists, and a fair environment where the most talented, not the most closely-connected, rise to the top to the benefit of all music fans, and to the benefit of those singular artists who were put on the planet to touch us with their musical talents, and inspire us all to pursue and fulfill our own dreams and passions uninhibited and full of purpose.

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