Eric Church is launching a new line of whiskey. It’s called “Whiskey JYPSI” or something. It seems every artist wants to get in the business of spirits these days. Managers love to tell their artists that it helps establish their “brand.”
But lets not bury the lede here. While speaking with Esquire as part of a spread about his foray into the whiskey business, Eric Church dropped what have turned out to be some pretty incendiary comments about country radio and the country music business at large. Of course they’re 100% true. But in country music, you’re not supposed to tell the truth. You’re supposed to tow the line. But Church has never been especially good at that.
While touting the “Americana” community and artists such as Tyler Childers and Brandi Carlisle, Eric Church told Esquire, “I don’t think you have to have radio now. I don’t think you have to have a label, I don’t think you have to win CMA Vocalist of the Year—I don’t think any of that is necessary anymore. There’s people in the country music industry that have had multiple No. 1 songs that couldn’t play their own high school, and there’s guys out here that have never, ever been on country radio that are doing eight thousand tickets.”
Forget 8,000 tickets. Try 15,000-30,000. But Eric Church’s underlying point remains: radio, labels, and awards no longer mean what they once did. This is patently evident as we see folks like Zach Bryan, Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, Billy Strings, and others soaring in popularity, and selling out arenas and stadiums.
The comments from Eric Church dovetail with similar comments made recently by other major personalities in country music. It’s not that they’re especially revealing to anyone who is actually paying attention, but it’s the “saying the quiet part out loud” aspect that makes them so important.
In June, Garth Brooks also spoke out about radio, saying in part, “I think radio is a reflection of the labels’ agenda … the labels simply own radio, they just do. They can say they don’t, or radio can say they don’t, but the truth is that nobody is going to get played on there that doesn’t have a major-label deal …”
Garth Brooks made the comments ahead of launching his own radio station called the Big 615 on TuneIn, underscoring how alternatives to radio continue to pop up left and right. The biggest personality in country radio, Bobby Bones, made similar statements back in 2021.
“Here’s the truth about No. 1 songs: It’s politics,” Bones said in part. “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.”
Most anyone actually paying attention to how country music operates would agree with these statements, but that doesn’t mean everyone finds them agreeable. Josh Gracin who came up via American Idol and has a #1 himself with “Nothin’ To Lose” from 2004 (and probably couldn’t play his high school these days) didn’t take kindly to Eric Church’s comments, and left a few of his own on Facebook.
He just can’t keep his mouth shut. Little insider info, I was next to him on the radio tour when we first started out. He was singing about “two pink lines” with long hair and a shell choker. Got pissed off and whined about not being played on the radio.
Went away for years to build the ‘chief’ persona like he was some kind of outsider, a rebel radio didn’t want, yet he’s always been on Capitol records, a major label. He’s never been an outsider or rebel, just plays one.”
One of the worst singers as well. Tired of his mouth, it’s been running for 20 years unchecked. He’s done nothing but tear other artists down for years until he realized he needed back in current media, so he started taking Morgan Wallen out golfing.
No doubt he’s done well for himself but he shouldn’t throw stones considering he’s nowhere near authentic. Guy can’t swing a hammer let alone be a rebel, while sitting comfortably at a major label all these years.
In some respects, Josh Gracin is right about Eric Church. But that doesn’t make what Eric Church said about radio, labels, and awards wrong. Eric Church has enjoyed all three of them, including being named the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2020. But Church hits have always been hit or miss on radio, and he has built his fan base mostly on his own as opposed to following the major label formula.
Either way, we’re beginning to see major cracks form in the foundation of the major label/radio/awards system that has been controlling mainstream country music for going on a century. While massive stars are being launched independently and on social media, these institutions are slow to catch up. It’s creating friction inside the business. Though country music might be more healthy and supported than ever before, the old ways of the industry are very quickly becoming outmoded and irrelevant.
It makes sense for Garth Brooks to compain about radio because despite his continued success in the live context, he’s mostly struggled at radio in recent years. But Eric Church is still a current, relevant star, giving his words about radio, major labels, and awards much more weight.
It’s a very real possibility that in the next few years, the entire way we regard “country music” will be turned upside down. Institutions such as radio and the CMA Awards will either need to adapt, or be relegated to the dust bin of history. Radio can still survive, but only if it goes more local, and independent. And major labels are already signing independent acts left and right to distributions deals where they can keep creative control control of their masters just like Flatland Cavalry just announced.
Everything is changing, and at a quickening pace. And either you remain tethered to the dying modes and institutions, or you adapt. Eric Church will probably be fine no matter what he does since he’s developed loyalty in his fans base. But half a dozen #1’s on radio won’t do you much good when the current mainstream system implodes.