Gary Allan Leaving UMG Nashville Can Only Be a Good Thing

After a quarter century, and a very messy last eight years or so, Gary Allan has just made it official: he’s leaving his long time label home of Universal Music Group Nashville. And though we won’t know for a while just where he’ll land or how everything will shake out—or if it was Gary’s decision or UMG Nashville’s to part ways—it feels like it can only be a positive development due to what has transpired in Gary Allan’s career recently.

On Friday, July 29th, Gary Allan released a statement saying, “For the last 25 years plus, UMG Nashville has been my record label home. I’m very thankful to the staff members at [UMGN imprints] Decca, MCA and EMI for the belief and support they have had in me, but it is now time for a new adventure. I am excited for what the future holds and look forward to sharing more news soon.”

Gary Allan started at the label when the old Decca imprint was still around, and eventually ended up on MCA Nashville where he spent the bulk of his time. He quickly became an important artist in country music as someone signed to a major label, but still able to keep his integrity and release quality songs, while also finding positive reception from a wide swath of fans, as well as country radio. Gary Allan accrued four #1’s, eleven total Top 10’s, and nineteen Top 25 hits during his tenure. But it all began to unravel after a 2013 interview with Larry King, when King asked Gary Allan if he thought artists such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood were country.

“You know, I would say no,” Allan responded. “I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.”

Of course what Gary Allan said was 100% correct. But in country music you’re not supposed to say the quiet part out loud or you’ll be ostracized, and that’s what happened to Gary Allan. 

Gary’s single “It Ain’t The Whiskey” released around the time of the comments to Larry King stalled at #40. Then Gary Allan commenced a period where he tried to reinvent himself into a sort of Sam Hunt/Thomas Rhett character to rekindle his relationship with radio, releasing the pretty terrible single “Hangover Tonight” which stalled at #49 in 2015.

This was chased by “Do You Wish It Was Me?” that stalled at #57 in 2016, “Mess Me Up” in 2017 that stalled at #45, and “Waste of a Whiskey Drink” in 2020 that stopped at #60. Instead of facing the reality that radio was done with him, Gary Allan and UMG Nashville seemed to be doing everything they could to fall back into radio’s good graces by releasing radio-friendly material, and still failing.

Amid this turmoil, Gary Allan moved from the MCA Nashville imprint—which had become one of the most restrictive at UMG Nashville at the time—to EMI Nashville in hopes of a rebirth. He scrapped at least one entire album, and started working with radio-friendly producers and songwriters such as Shane McAnally and busbee (RIP). It didn’t help. Gary Allan’s 2021 album Ruthless is mostly full of what come across as radio-courting songs that radio ultimately didn’t play, and his core fans were lukewarm on.

A frustrated Gary Allan then doubled down on his criticism for radio, along with Nashville’s major labels, saying in a December 2021 interview, “They’re not going to service [songs to] radio. They do not believe that it’s important. You’re going to start to see the A&R departments culling TikTok [for talent]. It’s embarrassing, but I think that’s where we’re headed … “Artists [sic, maybe labels?] would rather have someone that will just do what they’re told. It’s going to be really hard for us to have another Guns N’ Roses or people with attitude who don’t like the labels and want to buck the system.”

Really, it is a classic country music story: aging artist gets put out to pasture by radio, begins chasing trends to try and regain attention, label gets frustrated and starts diverting resources from them, and soon they get forgotten in the mainstream.

But Gary Allan is an important artist to country music, with a quality catalog of hit songs and a strong fan base that still comes to see him live. You regularly see Gary Allan performing or headlining festivals that straddle the line between mainstream and independent, and classic and contemporary.

Whether the creative direction of Gary Allan for the last eight years was his own, UMG Nashville’s, or a combination of both, a change of scenery can only help. Let’s face it, Gary Allan is never going to regain his prominence on country radio or rekindle his mainstream stardom. So instead of trying, he should settle in as a late career artist rekindling his hits, and join the resurgent wave of country artists young and old returning the soul and twang to country music, and doing so outside of the Music Row system.

Gary Allan had his moment on radio. Now it’s time to transition to becoming a burgeoning country legend, which doesn’t mean giving up writing and releasing new material, it just means giving up the rat race. There’s more dignity and fulfillment in that. Gary Allan needs to be Gary Allan. He’s too independent-minded and cantankerous for anything else. Hopefully parting ways with UMG Nashville will be his opportunity.

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