Classic & Contemporary Country Could Go Separate Ways
Courtesy of SCM’s Special Effects & Poor Photoshopping Dept.
Last week when it was announced that arguably the most powerful country music label in Nashville—-the Big Machine Label Group—was partnering with the 2nd biggest radio station owner in America—Cumulus Media—-to launch a brand new “classic” country venture called NASH Icons that will cover country music from the last 25 years, including releasing albums, setting up live events, and producing comparable programming for radio, there was a sense from the people that cover such things that this news was much more important than the particulars of the Cumulus/Big Machine deal itself. It seemed to be the first step in a precarious walk that country music has been on the brink of for a while now: a potential format split—a clean break for classic country and contemporary country to go about their merry ways and pursue their own fortunes, to be beholden to each other no longer, and put deep-seated resentments and incessant arguments about the direction of the genre to bed for good.
Envision a day where all the current Top 40 country that classic country fans are incensed over is segregated into its own autonomous format, with its own radio stations, and potentially even its own awards, special events and festivals. And the same could happen for classic country. It could have it’s own place to not forget the past, and respect the roots of the genre. With the announcement of the Big Machine / Cumulus deal, the daunting task of splitting country music not only looks possible, it looks like it could be mutually amicable, and a potentially pragmatic way to address many of the problems plaguing the format.
Simply looking at the research data for country radio, a format split almost seems pre-ordained. Country radio is not working, and this is beyond opinion, this is tirelessly borne out in research. Every year, radio luminaries and personalities congregate in Nashville in late February for the Country Radio Seminar, and virtually every year, a market research company called Edison Research delivers dire reports about the state of country radio and its continued slide. In 2012, Edison Research brought a study to the conference that proved that country listeners wanted more classic country on radio, and that by following the youth movement, country radio was abandoning large segments of its core audience.
“I believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations,” Larry Rosin of Edison Research said. “While many people don’t want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and we’ve let them float away”¦We run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.”
In 2014, Edison Research went further to explain that the same young listeners that country radio is relying on more and more are themselves relying more and more on streaming and other alternative options to radio as opposed to older listeners who tend to use radio more. Larry Rosin implored that “Country radio radio is in the fight of its life,” and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows were “essentially a disaster for the radio industry.”
So the writing is on the wall that something needs to happen to country radio, and even though the research and numbers irrefutably seem to be telling country radio that the narrowing of the format to focus on youth and consolidated programming to syndicated national shows is not working, country radio seems to be powerless to change any of these trends. Money is slipping through the fingers of the country music industry because they are under serving so many of the same demographics that have always made up the genre’s core audience.
So here comes Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta, a savvy, new school-style music executive who is a master at finding holes in the market that nobody ever even knew existed, and turning them into revenue streams. As much as some classic country fans may want to decry Borchetta for deepening the youth trends in country, he himself can see there is millions being lost by under serving country’s more classic-style listeners, and he decides to do something about it.
Could a spit of country radio really be possible? Billboard’s radio expert Sean Ross, writer of the Ross on Radio column seems to think so, saying in a recent article, “By partnering with Big Machine Label Group, Cumulus has planted the seed for country radio to do something it has resisted for years: fragment into two different formats that both expose current music.”
Key to the split appears to be this 25 year mark, which as Sean Ross points out was “a period of superstar acts and mass-appeal records that were more widely heard at the time, and heard by a younger audience.” But even more important to understand is that this new “classic” format is not just about playing old songs from older artists, but playing new songs from older artists, and potentially, even older-sounding songs from newer artists. In other words, if this new classic country format becomes a reality, it could not only give a home to artists like Randy Travis and George Strait who’ve been all but forgotten by radio, it could also give a home to artists like Sturgill Simpson and the Turnpike Troubadours who play new music, but in a more classic style. The new classic format could finally be the much longed-for way to expose country’s overlooked independent artists to a wide, national radio audience.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Big Machine and Cumulus could be two huge companies with a lot of sway in the music industry, but do they really have the muscle to set up an entirely new radio format by themselves? They may not, and most important to understand about the NASH Icons deal is it doesn’t just involve radio, but album releases, and other cross-format events that will certainly take into consideration the current realities of music, including the declining use of radio in general, as well as declining physical sales.
NASH Icons will be multi-pronged. But so will be the potential answer from Cumulus and Big Machine’s competition, especially if the venture is successful. It seems strange that Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta chose Cumulus as his dance partner, instead of their bigger rival Clear Channel, which Borchetta has already made a number of historic deals with in recent years. It could be because Cumulus is more focused on their NASH branding, and is willing to concede certain things to get their big ‘N’ emblem out there. But this certainly doesn’t mean that Clear Channel will sit tight and not try to launch their own classic format.
Clear Channel & Cumulus have been locked in a media arms race. When Clear Channel started adding more syndicated, national programming with personalities like Bobby Bones and Cody Alan, Cumulus launched their “American Morning Show” with Blair Garner and Terri Clark. When Clear Channel began to focus on their iHeartRadio app, Cumulus partnered with streaming app Rdio. It’s certainly not unreasonable to think Clear Channel could launch a venture similar to NASH Icons soon, and this could start a chain reaction across the country and spring a brand new classic country format into being.
Of course there is a long way to go before this is a reality, but with the announcement of NASH Icons, we’ve never been closer to a classic/contemporary country divorce. Would it be good for country music, and for country radio? That would remain to be seen, borne out in the particulars of how the new split formats formed. The classic rock format has obviously been wildly successful for radio over the years, aside from feeling tired from a lack of new music being interjected into it by its programmers. And classic rock has existed right beside “oldies” stations, which are the equivalent to the traditional country stations that exist to a smaller degree in the American radio landscape, and do quite well in certain places covering music beyond the 25-year “classic” window.
The difference between NASH Icons and classic rock though, is the new music quotient that would keep the format relevant and vibrant. We could even see the CMA recognize both “Classic” and “Contemporary” Albums of the Year, and other fundamental changes to the format to face both it’s growing reach, and widening demographics. Remember everyone talking about George Strait’s wins for Entertainer of the Year at the CMA and ACM awards as parting gifts to classic country? This could be another sign of the almost inevitable split.
Of course we may be getting way ahead of ourselves. But the possibility of a format split, and a new “classic” country format being launched is very real. And if the new format does take hold, it may dramatically change the paradigm for country music, and finally return classic-style country to the ears of thirsty listeners.
May 19, 2014 @ 11:49 am
I hope this comes to fruition. It would be the best for both sides, benefitting the fans, the artists and the labels. If this would come to pass, I would never complain about bro country again because my favorite artists would finally be getting the recognition they deserve. Everyone would have their cake and be able to eat it too.
May 19, 2014 @ 12:16 pm
I think it’s wishful thinking that a new “classic” format would have any home for newer artists at all. Think Sirius Prime Country. That’s what you’ll get.
What we need is for someone in a large market to take a chance on an Outlaw format… the problem in radio is that they all want a bigger share of a shrinking pie. With corporate consolidation, there is no innovation, no risk-taking. Just more of the same.
May 19, 2014 @ 12:50 pm
The “Outlaw” label will not connect with most of today’s audience. Furthermore, it can be easily construed to play 70s country songs on an endless loop.
How about calling it “acoustic country”? Or “melodic country”?
May 19, 2014 @ 1:08 pm
I would call it traditional country. Simple and easy to understand.
May 19, 2014 @ 12:19 pm
I could see this backfiring very easily. After all, one of the conditions that allows “classic” radio stations to exist is that they don’t usually play new music, even if it’s a part of the style and that works to keep costs down. For instance, I was reading about MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e and their plans for a new album the other day, and bassist Nikki Sixx said that he doubted they would release it as an entire work. He went on to explain that the band is “too old” to be played on contemporary stations and that classic rock radio doesn’t play anything new. Of course, there are certain exceptions to this rule: hair metal has never been looked back upon as anything but dated and silly, which probably adds to the stigma for the CrÃ¼e. AC/DC had no trouble getting on contemporary radio in 2008 with their album Black Ice and its corresponding single “Rock & Roll Train,” which was a tad overplayed to say the least. They’ll probably have no trouble doing it again when their new album drops later this year, either, but AC/DC are the exception, not the rule. Will the classic country radio format just lead to more stations that play the same old hits of yesteryear? That doesn’t seem to be the intention, but it seems like it would get expensive to license newer material after a while if this project doesn’t reel in the listeners. What would be the conditions of licensing newer independent material, anyway? I’m sure a lot of artists like Sturgill Simpson don’t have anything in their contracts that governs radio play since the liklihood of it happening is very slim. And does this also mean that music by George Strait and the few traditionalists that are still having any measure of mainstream success will be completely relegated to these classic stations or will they be played on the contemporary stations as well as they currently are?
Regardless, I’m interested to see where this goes. I’m looking forward to the day that I can turn on the radio and hear Rebel Son or something of that sort. Yeah, that’ll probably never happen due to the nature of that band, but it would still be amusing. Speaking of which, Trigger, do you plan to review Rebel Son’s newest acoustic album Deo Vindice? I don’t see a whole lot of coverage for them around here. I understand that you’re busy as always, but they’re nonetheless relevant to the mission.
May 19, 2014 @ 1:44 pm
As far as the licensing, I think Scott Borchetta is one step ahead of you. Remember, this isn’t just all about radio, this is also about releasing CD’s from some of these classic artists, including new music, so the licensing and performance rights would already be part and parcel with many of the artists to be featured. Also, an artist like Sturgill Simpson isn’t going to put up a fight if a big national format wants to play his music, he’s going to roll out the red carpet.
As for relegating older artists to the “old folks home” format, I do think this is a serious concern, and raised it in the first article I did on this subject. In the end, radio play on the “other” country radio format would still be better than no country radio play at all.
Have not heard the new Rebel Son album just yet.
May 19, 2014 @ 12:52 pm
Wait…I thought this happened years ago? Sure sounds it when I actually listen to terrristial radio….except Merle 96 which has some variety..including Americana
May 19, 2014 @ 1:44 pm
In my town, we think of Sirius Radio as a jukebox.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:07 pm
“Classic country” means 90’s pop country to these idiots.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:23 pm
You got that right, amigo.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:14 pm
As long as contemporary country rebrands itself as something that doesn’t include the term “country,” I’d be happy.
But that’s not going to happen, which is why I don’t support it. When you can separate it, there’s no more arguing that the contemporary isn’t country, so this isn’t the solution to our fight–it’s the way those who are uninformed can stay uninformed.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:17 pm
Frankly, I don’t care about the uninformed. I just want a station on my radio dial that consistently plays lyrically and melodically beautiful country music.
May 19, 2014 @ 3:12 pm
There’s plenty of classic country on AM stations. You just gotta push the SCAN button and find them.
May 19, 2014 @ 4:59 pm
Not here in the Bay Area, unfortunately.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:38 pm
Yes. If “classic” and “contemporary” country are going to be torn asunder, we need to come up with a whole new term to refer to the contemporary crap, which has almost completely diverged from any recognizable definition of country music at this point.
We have the bro-country term, but that still has the word country in it.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:28 pm
I am not going to let these folks define classic country, outlaw country, genuine country, etc., music for me.
I listen to Comcast Music Channel’s Classic Rock and Classic Country channels when I am getting dressed in the morning, and their definitions of classic aren’t always consistent with mine by any stretch.
Sometimes the Classic Country has Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon, Willie, Don Williams, Kitty Wells, Loretta, etc. (i.e. music to my ears) and other times it’s Donna Fargo, Eddie Raven, and similar country pop.
“Old” doesn’t necessarily equate with “classic”.
But Comcast apparently hasn’t gotten the Memo on that point.
May 19, 2014 @ 2:42 pm
AT&T is the same way.
They have a “classic country” channel, but they don’t bother to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes you hear Merle or Waylon, but you’re just as likely to hear Eddie Rabbit, Anne Murray, or Exile.
May 19, 2014 @ 3:09 pm
Anne Murray, doesn’t that name give you the chills.
Her home town is about maybe 4 hours from me, if that wasn’t bad enough.
May 20, 2014 @ 7:46 am
Kind of like Ballie and the Boys and Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
May 20, 2014 @ 10:42 am
Sweethearts of the Rodeo lived kicked more ass than Vince ever did.
Never comment but...
May 19, 2014 @ 3:18 pm
I would love for this to be successful. I am (or was) a mainstream country radio listener. Classic country doesn”™t have new music to get excited about and/or they play the same songs over and over again. New Trisha Yearwood, Dwight Yoakum. Chris Young, Joe Nichols doing their style without having to consider (current) radio play. Tim McGraw and others could release album cuts that would never get played on current radio now. Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe. Too many to list. No, it”™s not underground or Americana or whatever you want to call it so a lot of you won”™t care, but there are a lot of us somewhere in the middle and I think it could be a great thing. And let Clear Channel in on it. Competition is a good thing. For sure there will be some songs I won”™t like, but it would be a lot closer to what I want to hear than I stand a chance of getting now.
I know I read/search for/listen to more music than the average radio listener, but the truth is I don”™t have the time to do it “right”. And honestly I haven”™t found the right (for me) filters to help. I think a station like I envision this to be would be a great help.
While I know my likes/dislikes vary from most of the readers here and this is “Saving Country Music” I think we should care more about saving the music than with saving the name. A rose by any other name”¦
May 19, 2014 @ 4:19 pm
This has been a long time coming. This concept has worked out great for rock, with stations that play modern rock and stations that play classic rock. There are no classic country stations where I live, and I would love to have one. Even if they do play pop country from the 90s, it’s still better than Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia line.
May 19, 2014 @ 10:18 pm
This is an interesting concept. I have long felt that current country was where the pop/rock of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was found. I’m not the guy who is going to bemoan the direction of what is considered “Country Music”. I’m just a fan of good music, whatever genre it comes from.
Having said that, what is being played currently on country music radio is not good. The laundry list songs, the EDM and rap infatuation, the autotune, it’s all, shall we say, crap.
As far as readers of SCM go, I’m in the minority, and that’s OK. I liked what was being played on country radio a couple of years ago. It was the pop/rock I grew up with. I’ve never been a country traditionalist/purist., and never will be. Regardless of true genre, what’s being played now is just plain bad.
I would be happy with a traditional/contemporary split. Right now I would be leaning heavily towards traditional because the contemporary is not good. When it was more Southern/Classic Rock, I probably would have leaned more contemporary. That’s just me.
Either way, I will continue to find my artists through non-traditional venues.
May 20, 2014 @ 7:35 am
As great as this may sound don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes, the classic country that they are speaking of will more than likely just be the shitty pop of the last 25 years. Compared to the current radio this may seem at first a pleasant relief to the ears but you start thinking back to the 90’s and there was a lot of shit on the radio, there was also a lot of great music but chances of hearing the good is slim to nil.
May 20, 2014 @ 8:45 am
I’ve been saying for about 5 years now that a spilt was coming. The fact that it is closer than it has been in some time makes me happy. I think the key part here is playing newer music from “classic” artist. I’ve always said good music doesn’t have an age limit, so it’s always a shame when certain artist get ignored just because they are no longer as marketable to the young crowds. Could this backfire? Of course it could. But it’s worth a shot.
May 20, 2014 @ 1:35 pm
Speaking from the perspective of someone in the radio industry, I am not very confident in this potential split. While it would certainly be a nice idea to please every listener, the radio companies do not think this way. These corporations will realize that its much easier to garner advertisers for a radio station that sticks to the “fresh and now” because advertisers want to reach out to the younger demographic. I’m not going to sit here and claim that a “true country” format will never work, but i’m not sure if its viable. I personally love my local AM Classic Country music station, which specializes in music from the 50’s through the 90’s. This station works because its owned locally, and gains advertising from local businesses.
May 20, 2014 @ 4:06 pm
I’m not going to get my hopes up too much for this but anything that supports more traditional sounding country music these days is fine by me! The downside is the “new” artists likely to be featured on the classic/traditional channel will probably come from Music Row (and especially the Big Machine label group) rather than the fantastic indie artists like Amber Digby and Kimberly Murray out working the honky tonk bars of Texas.
The 25 year rule is also hogwash! This means the song playlist will be dominated by artists like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill! (Barf!) If they want to focus on the previous 25 year period but still toss in a great “oldie” now and then, that might male it a bit more interesting.
I’m guessing Sirius/XM and Willie’s Place aren’t sweating over this much…
Enjoy Every Sandwich
May 20, 2014 @ 4:53 pm
In theory this move could get back over-the-hill types like me who grew up before the internet existed, but in practice it won’t work that way. Radio of all formats alienated me long ago, and I’ve gotten accustomed to living without them. I spend far more time listening to local artists than to “mainstream stars” and I’ve grown to like it that way. I’ve grown to like that I have control over what I listen to. I’m doubtful that radio will ever be able to compete with that.
May 21, 2014 @ 10:00 am
May 21, 2014 @ 5:56 pm
My concern here is that young people will grpow up on this new country and think that THIS is country music when it isn’t. And when the classic country fans die out because there was no education or support from a wide swath of the young populace what’s the point. Though some classic country is better than NONE. But radio has been taken over and you don’t get the art of the DJ anymore, it is preordained what they have to play. You may get classic country but will you get the same 60-70 classic country songs like on my TV over and over. Many radio DJs prerecord their sets and just autopilot it. We need to bring back in studio DJs, live request and all that jazz to return radio to the art it can be.