Kacey Musgraves New Label Deal Speaks to Deeper Issue

On Tuesday (4-20), it was announced that Kacey Musgraves was entering into a unique label partnership between her current label UMG Nashville, and the decidedly non-country imprint Interscope Records. Word is the partnership agreement is only for one album at the moment, and for a new album Musgraves has been working on that’s scheduled to be released at some point later this year.

On the surface, this announcement may just appear to be an interesting behind-the-scenes footnote about the upcoming Musgraves release, though not of any major consequence. But reading the statements from the respective label heads, they all seem to be hinting that the upcoming Kacey Musgraves record may not be very country, and perhaps that Musgraves might not be long for the country music world moving forward, at least in a dedicated capacity as before.

“I have never worked with anyone whose cultural reach is so vast,” says UMG Nashville CEO & Chairman, Mike Dungan. “This artist and her music have thrived in so many diverse environments. Kacey, the music, and the career deserve the broadest base of experience and expertise. We have discussed some type of cross label partnership for her music for a couple of years now and this is the perfect fit. We’re excited to partner with our friends at Interscope on the next chapter of Kacey Musgraves.”

UMG Nashville President Cindy Mabe concurred, saying, “Kacey’s music has never had boundaries. Her clever songwriting, adept storytelling, vulnerable and real emotional delivery, and her overall ‘take me or leave me’ spirit have translated through genre, time, space and culture. As we begin to set up her new music, it made sense to once again push the boundaries to reach more fans around the world as we continue to serve the fans who have been here from the beginning.”

The strategy and reasoning here are pretty obvious. Kacey Musgraves has been a critical darling in country music for years, including winning the superfecta of awards for her last album Golden Hour (CMA, ACM, and Grammy Country Album of the Year, along with all-genre Grammy Album of the Year). But the country music industry and especially country radio has never known what to do with her. And even though Golden Hour sold through pretty well—especially after it won so many awards—it still feels like it fell short of what it could have done with even a marginal level of radio support.

Kacey’s singles have always floundered on country radio, aside from her breakout “Merry Go ‘Round,” which made it into the Top 10. But she didn’t do herself any favors with Golden Hour by virtually forgoing country radio entirely, sending two debut singles to the format at once in “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies,” and not really promoting either of them. Instead, Musgraves spent her time and money on music videos. Thus, her music really didn’t find a home on radio. Though you can’t necessarily blame her from that strategy since radio has never been receptive to her music.

After she swept the awards show cycle with Golden Hour though, Musgraves and UMG Nashville actually did release a proper radio single in “Rainbow,” and it got to #33 on the country format, and #18 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

But clearly they believe bringing Interscope on board will be better for bringing Musgraves music to the masses, and with the stubborn nature of country radio, it makes complete sense, similar to how she went out on tour with Harry Styles and collaborated with Katy Perry as opposed to country artists to help promote the album. But the thing about Golden Hour is it was one of many recent records that proved an artist doesn’t need radio to find success. Country radio didn’t support Kacey Musgraves. But the public did.

Golden Hour proved the increasing futility of country radio as it continues its stubborn ways while artists like Musgraves, Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks and others find success beyond its borders. While you have some mainstream country artists being propped up by radio and still not finding support beyond the format, you also have artists avoiding radio completely and finding greater support without it.

But the bigger concern here is that country music is running the risk of losing Kacey Musgraves as a country artist entirely, if that’s not the devil relayed in the details of this label announcement. UMG Nashville is not willing to relinquish her contract, since Musgraves is still making them decent money, despite the label not investing much in promoting her. But if Musgraves goes, that’s another major country woman out the door, just like Taylor Swift a few years ago. And similar to Taylor Swift, Musgraves is an artist that country has expended major amounts of industry awards upon to help prop up and develop over the last eight years.

Some purists will say good riddance if Kacey Musgraves dashes, just like they did with Taylor Swift. After all, Golden Hour is probably only fair to label as “country-inspired.” But large swaths of Kacey’s debut album Same Trailer Different Park, and especially her second record Pageant Material were most certainly country, even if it was a campy version of it.

If Kacey Musgraves does jump ship from country, or is transitioning away from it, it will once again put mainstream country in the precarious position of being unable to retain a top female talent within the genre’s fold. You want to know why so few women are on country radio? One reason is there’s so few women at the country radio level. In many respects, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Since women don’t find support, they either don’t develop, or in the case of Musgraves and Swift they do develop, but then they move on, and the gender disparity in country music persists.

Maybe the new Kacey Musgraves album will be country, but so far, the prospects are not looking too good. In an insufferable puff piece published by Rolling Stone recently, it’s revealed that along with the album likely unfolding like a tragedy about Kacey’s divorce from fellow performer Ruston Kelly, she is working with hipsters Daniel Tashian and Ian Fichuck again as producers (same as Golden Hour).

Musgraves also revealed she has 39-or-so songs she written over the last few years she’s choosing from, and names like Bill Withers, Coldplay, and Chris Martin come to mind with some of the songs, along with The Eagles and America. So who knows what we’ll get.

But since it’s Kacey Musgraves, the impact of her new album could be giant, no matter what genre it is or isn’t. She’s a 7-time CMA Award winner, and if like Swift, she leaves for greener pastures beyond the country fold, she will not be easy to replace.

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