2014 has been a year of great flux in country music, with some legendary successes by independent artists and new mainstream artists, and the shuffling out of other artists and the fumbling of what once were legendary, high flying careers. Here’s a run down of the five biggest winners and losers in the greater country music world in 2014.
PLEASE NOTE: Calling someone either a “winner” or a “loser” in no way should be taken as a ringing endorsement or an absolute admonishment of any artist, organization, or the music they are a part of. It’s simply meant to illustrate the trends they’ve been a party to, and the decisions they have made in the last calendar year.
WINNER – Scott Borchetta
The only question now is what slows Scott Borchetta down? It’s his Music Row-based independent label that is responsible for the biggest blockbuster album not just released in 2014, but in the last decade plus in Taylor Swift’s 1989, and that doesn’t even delve into the rousing success of Brantley Gilbert, Florida Georgia Line, and lot of his other artists in his expanding empire which now accounts for five total imprints and a ridiculous roster of commercially-successful talent. Add on top his recent partnership with American Idol which will bring Borchetta out of the shadows to become a prominent figure in pop culture, and we may be looking at the most powerful man in the recording industry, if not now than in the coming years.
WINNER – Sturgill Simpson
What can be said about Sturgill Simpson that hasn’t already been said before? The man has been on an absolute tirade in 2014, defying all the odds for an independent artist. After releasing what has become one of the most universally critically-acclaimed albums in recently memory in Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill played Letterman and Conan, was picked up on the Zac Brown Band tour, won Emerging Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association, and now has been nominated for a Grammy. On his current headlining club tour, he’s selling out every single night and causing incredible local buzz. His next tour will have to graduate to the theater level, and we may even she Sturgill on a major label moving ahead, whether he wants to or not, simply to accommodate the demand. He’s still many steps from being a household name or receiving mainstream radio play, but he’s captured the imaginations of many fans as an artist who can take the independent spirit to a mainstream-caliber level.
WINNER – Brandy Clark
The reason Brandy Clark’s ascent is even more spectacular and promising than Sturgill Simpson’s is because she’s doing it within the Music Row mainstream system. She’s now signed to a major label, and is being named as a nominee for major industry awards like Song of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards, and Best Album at the Grammy Awards. What she doesn’t have as of yet that fellow songwriter and critical darling Kacey Musgraves has is a presence on mainstream country radio. But with a major label now behind any future projects, this becomes even more of a possibility. And wherever you stand on the contentious “gays in country” issue, you can’t help but give Clark credit for integrating the format in the most passive and respectful way. And even more promising is that you get the feel Brandy Clark has years of upside potential ahead of her in the industry.
WINNER – Brantley Gilbert
What has Brantley Gilbert done right in 2014? Why would this Bro-Country knucklehead be characterized as a “winner”? Because while you weren’t looking he quietly has amassed the most loyal fan base in mainstream country music this side of Carrie Underwood, and has the towering sales numbers to prove it in an environment where such sales numbers were thought to be in the past for a second-tier country star. Brantley’s Just As I Am has sold over 640,000 copies. That’s more than the recent albums from Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton combined, or more than the albums of Keith Urban and Brad Paisley combined. Gilbert has sold nearly twice as many albums as Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes, 3x the amount of Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley’s recent releases, and 4x the amount of Brad Paisley’s. Many gave sideways glances at their televisions when Brantley Gilbert was given the American Music Award for “Favorite Country Album,” but by definition, it was deserved. Brantley is the mainstream star with grassroots support, and with that kind of structure, he’s become country music’s great underrated commercial powerhouse.
WINNER – Sam Hunt
In an industry where launching a female artist seems nearly impossible these days, country music’s rising male talent faces the opposite problem of an overcrowded field at the top. But songwriter Sam Hunt, who decided to saddle up with Shane McAnally and attempt to become country music’s EDM superstar has done just that with the mega single “Leave The Night On” and surprising sales for his debut album Montevallo. Where another, more-established country artist in Jerrod Niemann attempted to go EDM with and have a very successful #1 single in “Drink To That All Night” to back it up, Niemann still only garnered album sales of 14,000 for his latest release. Meanwhile Sam Hunt saw a debut week of 70,000 sales, and subsequently has seen strong reception for his country/EDM concept, including surprisingly from many critics. A charmer who can actually speak well for himself who hit on an idea that however vomit-inducing for country music’s traditional listeners has resonated with the wider public, Sam Hunt has revealed himself right out of the gate as a long-haul country star we’ll be hearing about for years, like it or not.
LOSER – Garth Brooks
Without question Garth Brooks has proved his touring muscle did not atrophy one bit during his nearly 15-year retirement. But what was supposed to be the biggest comeback in country music history has fallen completely flat in regards to album sales, radio play, and overall cultural impact. The selection of singles and the rollout of Garth’s new album was critical, and the momentum and intrigue surrounding his comeback couldn’t have been fumbled any more, resulting in sort of a “ho hum” reception from consumers. He can still sell out five consecutive concert dates in 30 minutes, but without any radio support for his new music, and his insistence on attempting to create his own trends instead of catering to the new era of media, he’s put himself at a distinct disadvantage. Take out the touring success, and right now it is “Machine” one – “Man” zero.
LOSER – Jerrod Niemann
If you want a cautionary tale of what not to do with your country music career, look no further than this once critically-lauded artist who decided to go all techno and appears to be paying the price for his country music transgressions. When the EDM-landen single “Drink To That All Night” was cresting #1 on country radio’s Airplay Chart on its way to certified platinum status, it was all high fives in the Niemann camp. But since the release of the second single from his latest album High Noon called “Donkey,” Niemann has been hard to find. Where “Drink To That All Night” apparently walked right up to the line and titillated the country music public enough to become successful, “Donkey” crossed over it, and now the question is if Jerrod Niemann will ever be able to recover. His latest dreckish single “Buzz Back Girl” doesn’t appear to be making any buzz at all, stalling at #35 on Country Airplay. All the attention for “Drink To That All Night,” and the album High Noon only sold 14,000 copies upon its release. Those are Sturgill Simpson-like numbers with no major label, no name recognition, and no radio play. Subsequently High Noon has only sold around 60,000 copies at last count. Meanwhile the high-production video for “Donkey” apparently showing Niemann awe-struck by the size of his own genitals remains on the shelf.
LOSER – Blake Shelton
Forget that NBC’s The Voice most prominent judge has won the CMA Award for Male Vocalist of the Year for now five years straight, there has never been an artist who has been so quizzically ensconced as the face of the genre who has delivered so little in regards to commercial or critical success, or cultural impact. Shelton’s 2014 album Bringing Back The Sunshine might go down as the biggest dud of the year. As of this moment, it has only sold just shy of 208,000 copies. Compare this with Brantley Gilbert, who has never even been nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year, and has sold upwards of 640,000 copies of his latest release. And because of his commitments to The Voice, Blake Shelton’s touring revenue is also paltry compared to his peers. At this point, Blake Shelton is more famous for being famous, not for country music.
LOSER – The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)
Bluegrass. Sweet, wholesome bluegrass. One of the most inspiring, inclusive, sustainable scenes in not just country, but in the greater music world, with festivals, children’s workshops, prestigious awards, and worldwide appreciation for the artform. But somehow in 2014, this environment of togetherness and organization has been shattered by unbelievable turmoil in the IBMA’s Board of Directors. The not-for-profit first showed signs of problems when the board gave their Executive Director Nancy Cardwell a vote of “NO Confidence” and moved to replace her the very week after what appeared on the outside to be a very successful 2014 IBMA Awards and World of Bluegrass gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina in October. Now there has been multiple resignations from the Board, many open letters back and forth to and from IBMA members as the drama that can fester in a music “scene” emerges for all the public to see in all of its confusing ugliness.
Bluegrass, and even the IBMA will be fine in the long-term, and maybe there were some systemic issues that needed to be addressed in the recent and ongoing turmoil. But from of all places, the bluegrass world gave us an example of what can happen when behind-the-scenes drama overrides the passion for the music.
LOSER – Brad Paisley
Every artist faces that moment where their commercial relevancy begins to slip through their fingers, and 2014 was that year for Brad Paisley, and in a big way. Earlier in the year saw Paisley touring around with no name for his tour, no designs on the sides of his buses and semi’s, in a symbolic marker of his lack of direction in his undeniably-successful, but twilighting career. He came out of the gate with his new album Moonshine in the Trunk already complaining that of all things, the flack he received for the song “Accidental Racist” had somehow torpedoed his career, and the sense of bitterness from what is supposed to be mainstream country’s happy go luck superstar tarnished the sentiment of a man that won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year just four short years ago. Sales for Moonshine In The Truck have been abominable for an established, mainstream star, coming in at 107,000 at last count. Every artist faces the eventual fall from prominence, but Brad Paisley’s has been especially precipitous.