Eric Church Cautions New Artists Not to Solely Rely on Radio

Eric Church is one of those rare animals that is able to straddle the line between the independent and the mainstream, commercial success and grassroots support, and put a massive crowd of fans together regardless of how radio is treating him at the time, or if he has a critically-acclaimed record out at the moment. The main reason for this is due to him not depending on country radio for support for his career, unlike most mainstream stars, and instead taking it when it comes and cultivating a fan base in a more direct way by serving an under-served constituency.

In comments recently to country artist Kelleigh Bannen who hosts a country radio show for Apple Music, Eric Church spoke about how many new artists signed to mainstream labels lose their opportunity to create true fan bases and lasting careers by depending too much on radio and chasing popular trends.

“New artists are set up in a lot of ways to fail and they don’t know it, because what promotion wants—and you know this—they want the easiest path to chart success, but normally the easiest path to chart success, is not something that’s going to matter,” Church says. “That’s why it’s the easiest path. It’s what researches well, it’s what tests well, but that’s not what sticks. That’s not sticky.”

This is how you can have an artist such as Brett Young mint five #1 songs in a row, and still be a club act, or artists such as Travis Denning or Matt Stell that barely anyone has heard of hit #1, but still not benefit from any meaningful name recognition, often because they have yet to release any deeply meaningful or resonant songs.

“I think a lot of artists don’t understand that they’re already in a bad spot,” Eric Church continues. “How do you become sticky? How do you care? Why does somebody know your name? And labels are not set up to do that because those things, that’s different songs, those are songs that only go to #20.”

Eric Church meanwhile is selling out arenas and winning the CMA Entertainer of the Year, even though it’s common for his singles to peter out before getting to #1, or even the Top 10. Out of Church’s 28 official radio singles, only 6 have ever reached #1.

But even though Eric Church might like to say he doesn’t care that much about radio play, each album tends to have at least one song that caters to the radio format at least somewhat, so he is still able to use the apparatus of radio to his advantage. He just doesn’t depend on it. “If you look at our career, it’s pretty easy to see our first single off of every album in our career has been aggressive, including this last one, ‘Stick That in Your Country Song.’ That’s aggressive. But the next one’s normally a pretty big hit,” Church says.

In the interview with Kelleigh Bannen, Church also tells a story of demanding Mike Dungan, who is the CEO of Universal Music Nashville, to release his song “Smoke a Little Smoke” as a single. Dungan throws his glasses across the table at Church and tells him, “It’s your funeral,” but ultimately gives in. It was Church’s 3rd single from the 2009 album Carolina, and it only reached #16. But it established Eric Church as a rebel in the mainstream, and bolstered his bad guy image. It also gave Eric Church the ability to pick his own singles henceforth.

“From there we’ve been able to dictate a lot in our career that other artists don’t get a chance to… It reaffirmed what I believe about music, is when creativity is the lead, that’s how you lead, it works,” Church says.

Of course, nobody believes in Eric Church more than Eric Church, and he always loves to give himself credit for his creativity. Undoubtedly, he might be one of the most creative, and one of the most liberated artists in the mainstream. But taking a wider shot of modern country music and the other artists out there in the independent realm, it’s all still relative.

Nonetheless, Eric Church has done what every mainstream artist should do, which is fight for their creative freedom, and not use radio as a crutch for their careers, but a complimentary partner. Because that’s the way you get the kind of recognition Eric Church has enjoyed independent of radio.

Radio success is the short sugar rush that can feel good and gain you a measure of recognition. But to build a major career like Eric Church, or other mainstream stars like Kacey Musgraves, it takes asserting your own vision as opposed to the one assigned to you by a label, just like many of the successful independent country artists such as Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson have done without mainstream radio’s support at all.

Eric Church’s upcoming release will be three records instead of one, titled Heart & Soul. Heart will be made available on April 16th, Soul will be released on April 23rd, and ‘&’ will only be available as a vinyl record to members of his fan club on Tuesday, April 20th.

Parts and pieces of the Eric Church interview can be seen here.

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