The fight to save country music has never been about the complete eradication of pop country. Sure, in an ideal world, perhaps this would be possible. But taking a realistic perspective, the principle fight is for balance in the genre, where all the elements and influences that represent “country” to a diverse population of listeners are given a fair chance by the industry and the institutions that are charged to represent and promote it.
Over the last few years, dramatic inroads have been made in this fight towards a positive direction due to the successes of independent, or independently-minded artists who work well outside of Music Row’s norms, and who often carry a more traditional sound. The albums charts are now regularly crowned by independently-released titles from up-and-comers and older legends. Awards shows are now regularly seeing an encroachment by independently-minded acts, including such acts winning many of the major distinctions.
But radio has remained the outlier, and the last bastion of ultimate power and control by the Music Row oligarchy. It has seemed impossible over the last few years to break down radio’s barriers to allow a more balanced playlist of songs to be served to the public.
But now that is beginning to change as well. Chris Stapleton’s #1 for his current single “Broken Halos” is an achievement that was thought to be impossible even a couple of years ago when Stapleton was dominating everything else in the genre. This is yet another accomplishment for Stapleton, and another accomplishment in the effort to restore balance to every sector of the country music genre.
Of course there will be many traditionalists decrying the significance of this feat. Yes, we get it, Chris Stapleton isn’t right-down-the-middle country. You’re preaching to the choir, and going on like a broken record at this point. The underlying point is a #1 from Chris Stapleton—just like a win for the CMA Album of the Year or Male Vocalist of the Year—is so much more of a favorable outcome than a similar accomplishment from Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt. It also opens up the possibility for other artists and songs that don’t fit the conventional radio formula to be considered for the format in the future, because now there is a model of success.
It’s important to understand the flux the radio landscape in America is in at the moment. iHeartMedia (formerly ClearChannel) just declared bankruptcy. Cumulus Media declared bankruptcy a few months back. Though both companies were able to settle with creditors to avoid liquidation, both have to be taking a long look in the mirror, and taking stock of how the last 20 years of consolidating playlists into homogenized offerings has put their industry on unsure footing.
Even more alarming for them, radio is no longer the only game in town when it comes to passive listening. Streaming and satellite radio continue to see increases in market share, while radio relies on consolidation and cost cutting to boost revenues. With the overwhelming success of Chris Stapleton on the albums sales charts, the people have clearly spoken that they want to hear his voice. Finally, after over two years of insurmountable data supporting this fact, radio is finally listening.
And the #1 for Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” is just one of many positive signs for radio moving forward. Aaron Watson’s recent Top 10 for “Outta Style” shattered expectations from a purely independent artist. Scotty McCreery’s #1 for “Five More Minutes” was a shock to the country radio system after they had declared his career dead. Even more quality and country-sounding offerings from Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and others are surprising critics, yet still performing strong commercially.
It can get so easy to stay in a negative mindset about the direction of country music, especially when poor offerings from certain artists still most definitely exist. But there are also plenty of reasons to have a positive prospectus for country radio in 2018 with all the unexpected successes sprouting up all over the place. Chris Stapleton’s #1 is just the latest. One big issue—the lack of women representation on the radio—still persists as strong as ever, and must be addressed. But perhaps were finally seeing the last stronghold of mainstream country music’s monolithic approach finally turning in the right direction.