Things are going from bad to worse in country music radio rankings, and now were starting see the lengths country radio is willing to go to in an attempt to rekindle the magic. Just six short months ago it looked like popular country music was poised to take over the music world and take down pop as the most dominant genre. Now Bro-Country has been put out to pasture (though someone forgot to tell Granger Smith), Taylor Swift has moved to pop, and the ratings for country radio’s key demographic of 18 to 34-year-olds continues its precipitous slide.
Two weeks ago Saving Country Music presented the case of why Country Music is Sick in 2015, citing the genre’s ratings tailspin as one piece of evidence. Since then, the ratings for February have been released by Nielsen, and they show things continuing their downward trend. Country has slipped once again from an 8.6 share to an 8.4 share amongst the key demographic of 18 to 34-year-olds, and is now third overall compared to other formats. These are also the worst ratings for country since December of 2012. Historically, these numbers still aren’t terrible for country, but considering where the genre was in the fall of 2014 compared to now, alarm bells are starting to ring, and some program directors at important radio stations are beginning to take drastic measures to right the ship.
The flagship of Cumulus Media’s country music NASH-branded empire—WNSH 94.7 in New York City—has been somewhat of a losing proposition ever since it was launched some two years ago. But now they’ve resorted to unapologetically playing pop music in an attempt to lure in more listeners. As Billboard’s radio expert Sean Ross reports, the radio station has made the unusual move of adding older pop songs from acts such as Daughtry, John Mayer, the Plain White T’s, as well as bringing Taylor Swift back to the rotation in an effort to court younger listeners.
This may not be all that unusual for a country station trying to hack it in one of the hardest markets for country music in the United States. But even more troubling, this trend is beginning to reach the heartland.
On March 8th, one of the longest-serving and most well-recognized radio personalities in country music named Terry Dorsey passed away. His 34-year reign at Dallas/Ft.Worth’s formidable 96.3 KSCS was one of country radio’s most historic tenures, and yours truly grew up listening to Terry with his partner Hawkeye for many years. Terry Dorsey had just retired on December 17th, and like so many who sink their life into one pursuit, Dorsey wasn’t around much longer after he called it quits. Terry’s retirement and passing were seen as yet another sign of the changing of the guard in country music.
Now KSCS has joined WNSH in New York in breaking format in an attempt to stop the bleeding of the 18 to 34-year-olds. Recently added to their playlist was Taylor Swift’s buddy Ed Sheeran and his super hit “Thinking Out Loud,” as well as the Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFive Seconds” that has been called “country influenced” by some because of the presence of an acoustic guitar.
Ed Sheeran regularly builds his music out from the acoustic guitar as well, and this signifier is beginning to be used by some as the bridge to crossover appeal. Where country music has begun to implement electronic intros, drum beats, and synth beds into big singles more and more—especially with acts like Sam Hunt—pop music has actually been going in the opposite direction, opting for more earthy and organic sounds in songs, like in Ed Sheeran’s music for example. And one can’t find it too surprising that this trend coincides with country radio’s ratings slide and a dip in sales, while pop has seen a measurable uptick and regained its perch atop popular music, of course partly from Taylor Swift’s shift of allegiance.
The arguments you see in country music about the lack of quality are not being mirrored equally in the pop world at the moment. From Ed Sheeran, to yes even Taylor Swift, it can be argued American pop music is in a period of elevated substance, while country appears to be in a headlong search for the bottom, despite a few bright spots at the back end of the Top 25.
Furthermore this effort by certain country radio stations to build pop titles into their rotation (and pop radio playing clearly pop “country” songs) continues to break down the distinctions in American music, and sends us further down the road towards one big mono-genre where all popular music sounds like the same homogenized blob.
From the beginning, naysayers like Saving Country Music have been warning that country music was binging on a sugar rush with Bro-Country and other adverse trends, setting itself up for a precipitous fall. Now we’re seeing the results of this. Sam Hunt and Metro-Politan haven’t been a significant Bro-Country substitute, at least not so far. And like when Russia pegged its budget to oil selling at $120 a barrel and then the price falls to $46, it throws budgets out of whack, sends radio stations and labels bathing in red ink, puts future plans on hold, and has the genre searching for which way is up.
By playing songs that are either marketed as pop, or pop songs marketed as country, all country radio is doing is advertising the virtues of the pop format to their country listeners. Why would a listener tune into a country station to hear Ed Sheeran and Sam Hunt between more twangy tracks when they could tune into KISS-FM and hear pop music all the time? Instead of emulating what pop is doing or being envious of pop’s top artists, country radio and the genre at large should advertise what makes the country format distinct from others, and promote the virtues of country music that other formats can’t deliver. This would be the soluble way to stabilize country from its current fall. Collaboration and even crossover songs are okay as long as you come back to what distinguishes you from the competition. Otherwise country music will continue to chase its own tail, and continue to lose listeners to formats that don’t apologize for what they play or covet the music of other formats, but play their own music proudly.