Look, we all know that the country music mainstream radio carousel system of #1 hits is manipulated behind-the-scenes to ensure major label artists get their fair share of exposure through what’s nothing more than a promotional arm of the industry. And we also know that country music’s major awards shows like the CMAs and ACMs are addled with bloc voting and horse trading that doesn’t always nominate and award the artists, songs, and albums that are most deserving, but who labels are looking to push in a given season.
At this point, even saying all of this stuff feels so incredibly trite. These were the observations a site like Saving Country Music would harp on ad nauseum a decade ago. Now it’s just taken as a given by everyone. It goes without saying. In fact I can remember back in 2011 when long-time country music broadcaster Jimmy Cater (no, not the former President) caused a stir when he said Carrie Underwood was systemically getting screwed over by the ACMs.
“Miranda Lambert. Is she the most popular act in country music? I don’t think so. I think she has gotten the most publicity because the machine is behind her,” Jimmy Carter said at the time. “Is she more popular than Carrie Underwood, who didn’t get a nomination at all? It’s crazy political…”
So now the biggest radio personality in mainstream country—the grandiose and bespectacled Bobby Bones—who is always laboring to be the undivided center of attention, took to TikTok to say the quiet part out loud, and is now drawing the ire of many in the industry.
Now first, is there anything more Bobby Bones than addressing some issue through the medium of TikTok like a 14-year-old girl participating in a dance challenge? Either way, on August 29th, Bones posted a TikTok video with him saying:
Here’s the truth about No. 1 songs: It’s politics. They trade them out like baseball cards. A record label will talk to another record label and go, ‘OK, I’ll give you this No. 1 on this date; you give me that No. 1 on that date.’ Which really, it just should be the song that’s the most wanted, the most listened to, the song that people demand … and so when you hear someone talk about a No. 1 song, I would say half of them aren’t legitimate No. 1 songs. They have to be good to get to the top 10. There’s a lot of research done into these songs. But when it gets to being a No. 1 song, it’s people going, ‘OK, I’ll give you this; you give me that.’ And it’s everybody trying to create as many No. 1s as possible, because everything’s the same. Everybody gets a participation trophy at No. 1. For example, a Luke Combs song could be No. 1 for 10 weeks, but because of politics, the label will go, ‘Ah, let’s let somebody else get in that spot,’ and they’ll move Luke Combs to No. 2 and he’ll sit there for a few weeks. The same thing with like a Maren Morris.
Now again, what he said was basically true, and everybody knows it, and everyone who knows anything about country music knows it so inherently that if myself or someone else in the media had said something similar, people would roll their eyes and tune out because at this point it’s insanely exhausted. Granted, Bobby Bones probably isn’t 100% correct about this. He’s probably being a little hyperbolic for effect. There is still some public sentiment that does weighs at least a little into radio decisions. But the crux of what Bobby said is true.
Then in a separate TikTok that has since been deleted, Bobby Bones made the same basic and banal observations about country music’s awards shows.
Let’s say you work for Record Label A, which has 3,000 people that works there and they have an artist up for entertainer of the year, and Record Label B has 250 people that work there and they have an artist up for entertainer of the year. Well, what Record Label A does is they organize everyone to bloc vote, so those thousands of votes go to their artists, and then Record Label B, that doesn’t have near the number of workers or voters, are kind of screwed unless somehow they get votes from everybody else. But bloc voting is done in the awards shows, but not illegal actually.
Again, this is essentially true, and everybody knows it. Just like the radio observation, it is a bit boiled down though. For example, The CMAs have such a wide and diverse voting body, it’s harder for voters to vote in bloc to guarantee the outcomes they wish, and that’s one of the reasons we saw things like Chris Stapleton surprisingly win of many of the big awards in 2015, and acts like Jason Isbell and The Highwomen get nominated. The ACM Awards are really the ones where such voting shenanigans are pervasive. The ACMs were the awards the legendary Jimmy Carter was taking about above in 2011. Again though, Bobby Bones is pretty much right.
But of course, you’re not supposed to say any of these things in the polite society decorum of mainstream country. The fact that Bobby Bones is the country radio industry’s primary dancing monkey and mouthpiece is why this situation is so scandalous, at least in the eyes of many who feel Mr. Bones just spewed acid in their faces.
Both the CMAs and ACMs have responded saying that they have checks and balances in place to ensure such things don’t happen, which is both true, and not. Yes, there are checks. No, they don’t keep the horse trading from happening, especially at the ACMs. How else do you think you get the last three Entertainer of the Year winners were Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett (who somehow “tied” with Carrie Underwood), and last year, the rapidly-declining Luke Bryan?
What Bobby Bones didn’t address is how actual politics now play a big role in these awards as well, as everyone tries to keep an extremely loud, but severe minority of Twitter larpers at bay. If nothing else, the statements of Bobby Bones should pilfer even more holes in the idea that what happens on country radio is in any way representative of the actual world of country music.
Country radio represents 5% or less of the artists that make country and roots music for a living. Yet think piece after think piece emanating from outside of the country music fold and often from academia complaining about the lack of diversity in country music uses radio data as the statistical basis for their conclusions about the entire genre.
Country radio isn’t diverse. It’s incredibly homogeneous and insular. But that’s only because it’s a dying medium that in the streaming era only appeals to a niche audience that continues to be attractive enough to corporate beer distillers and domestic full-size pickup manufacturers for them to still advertise on the airwaves despite sagging ratings and relevancy. Corporate country radio listeners are a small, but very reliable “work hard, play hard” super consumer.
The other thing Bobby Bones exposed as the ultimate country radio insider is how this is all being orchestrated by the major labels, not radio. The corporate radio stations go along with whatever the labels tell them, because the labels advertise and promote their big arena tours through those stations, because touring is where the true money is in country music thanks to artists signing 360 deals.
Twitter activists screaming at individual radio station handles or specific DJs to play more women or minorities are exposing their utter cluelessness of how the mainstream country industry works. As Bobby Bones just admitted, “A record label will talk to another record label and go, ‘OK, I’ll give you this No. 1 on this date; you give me that No. 1 on that date.’” The folks at radio are mostly just facilitators.
Meanwhile you have an artist like Tyler Childers minting now two Certified Platinum singles, and two Certified Gold singles, and a Certified Gold album, all with virtually no help from corporate country radio at all. It’s over. Radio is no longer the gate keeper of country music. And continuing to larp about how they won’t let so-and-so in is wasted breath. Sure, corporate radio still does have some power of exposure and lingering relevancy. But that dwindles more and more every day, while independent radio stations, podcasts, and playlists are the wave of the future. Artists obsessing over radio play as if it is the only avenue to popularity are living in the past just as much as country radio itself.
It’s also fair to point out that Bobby Bones has his own bones to pick here as well. On a few occasions when he’s been passed over for the radio awards for the CMAs and ACMs (yes, those exist, but are rarely televised), it’s his tendency to cry about it in some capacity since he thinks he’s owed them annually. Bones thinks he’s supposed to be Ryan Seacrest at this point in his career, while he’s still stuck in Nashville on a dying medium, and trying to draw attention to his media brand by competing on Dancing with the Stars and launching a lame reality show on the flailing National Geographic channel.
Even before this incident, Bobby Bones had been a very polarizing character both in the industry, and with artists. His feuds, and his incessant need for attention is the reason he’s often passed over for certain industry awards. He may have many loyal listeners, but many in the industry do not like him. Bobby’s comments might have an element of revenge to them.
But again, what Bobby Bones said here was fundamentally true, and he deserves respect for saying it. If the country music industry had any smarts, they would be looking to address the insular systems that props up hollow “country” stars through transparent and increasingly-outmoded radio manipulations, while reforming awards shows that don’t seem long for the post-pandemic world with ratings that are sagging even worse than country radio.
The industry could get mad at Bobby Bones for exposing the truth that the rest of us already knew—and many passive music consumers are quickly waking up to—or they could answer the criticism by opening up radio playlists, by opening up the awards show process, and letting the best man or woman win, with the true appeal and critical acclaim choosing who prevails, as opposed to the outmoded, insular, and oligarchical system that is no longer relevant to the streaming world, and will ultimately do it in.
But we’ve been complaining about these things for well over a decade, and some have been complaining about it since the 70’s. And still, the antiquated Music Row system lumbers on. Bobby Bones may call attention to it, but he’s also still an integral part of it. He’s one of its primary spokesmen for it every morning, Monday through Friday.
Luckily though, there’s never been more avenues to circumvent Music Row. So keep crying and shaking your little balled-up fists at “the system,” or get busy working beyond it. That’s what Willie and Waylon did. And that’s what guys like Tyler Childers and Cody Jinks are doing today, and succeeding by doing it their own way.