Kacey Musgraves, Radio, “Golden Hour,” & the 2018 CMA Awards

There was only one true point of intrigue when it came to the 2018 CMA Awards, and it was if Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour would pull off the upset for Album of the Year. What started off feeling like a sweet gesture to include Musgraves among the nominees when they were first announced began to swell into what would feel like a travesty if the trophy ended up in the hands of anyone else.

No offense to any of the other nominees, but Kacey Musgraves was the only right choice. Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain is a valiant return to his roots, but doesn’t really go very far to help define our space and time in country music. Chris Stapleton’s From A Room Vol. 2 might be the best record of the lot, but it’s pretty unimaginative, and Stapleton just doesn’t appear to have any appetite left after Traveller made him and his children, and his grandchildren millionaires. Thomas Rhett’s Life Changes is pedestrian at best. And let’s not even get started on the monstrosity that is Keith Urban’s Grafitti U. Urban’s win for Entertainer of the Year due to vote splitting among much more worthy candidates will be a black eye on country music history for years to come.

But it wasn’t Keith Urban’s night, despite the big win. It was the night of Kacey Musgraves. It was she who played Cinderella, even if it was just due to one trophy. She was the underdog who prevailed, and deservedly so. Despite the media trying to make Golden Hour into a rebuke of her country roots and the culture around the genre, or some sort of political expression which it decidedly isn’t (and Musgraves has said so herself), the record has proven itself to be an inspired and well-received work, even if a little sedated as a whole. Individual moments on the record like “Space Cowboy,” “Rainbow,” and “Mother” make up for the sleepy nature of the project, or the country disco sidebar, “High Horse.” Golden Hour is not a masterpiece, and it’s not the best record released in 2018, at least not in this periodical’s estimation. But it is one of the best released by a major label artist, and has some of the best songs released to the genre.

So why isn’t country radio playing any of them? If you read the scores of think pieces proffered up over the last few days, you’ll find the answer to be radio consultant Keith Hill and Tomatogate, or a complete lack of any support for country women on radio, or if the writers are feeling especially bold and presumptive, it’s outright misogyny from the country genre. No doubt country radio’s insular environment has most certainly led to the lack of Kacey Musgraves tunes on the airwaves, as well as tunes from Kacey’s female contemporaries. But there is also an ugly finger of blame to point at what may be an unsuspecting culprit: Kacey Musgraves and her management team themselves.

The Washington Post said about Golden Hour in the wake of it’s big win at the CMAs, “…although it may not be traditional enough for radio, the album got near-universal critical acclaim.” But there’s absolutely nothing “traditional” about today’s country radio, no matter how you use of that word. If you think women have a hard time getting played on country radio, talk to a country traditionalist. There’s nothing that receives more prejudice from country radio in 2018 than actual country music. In that respect, Golden Hour actually has an advantage over more traditional material since it incorporates some pop and indie rock sensibilities that might have done well on country radio if given an opportunity. Even then, Golden Hour is still way more “traditional” than 90% of what you’ll find on country radio.

The reason there are no Kacey Musgraves singles on the radio is because Kacey Musgraves and her team did not make any concerted effort to get them there. The country radio business is not one where autonomous disc jockeys at stations across the country choose records off the shelf to play according to their personal tastes and the requests of fans. Singles must be serviced to country radio for program directors to then add them to playlists that are often partially or fully programmed from on high at large corporations such as iHeartMedia and Cumulus. Then those singles are promoted direct to radio via regional sales managers who work for record labels. Singles are also advertised in country radio trade periodicals such as Country Aircheck and Billboard Country Update.

But with Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour, none of this happened, and at the behest of the Kacey Musgraves crew themselves. Instead, they sent “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies” to radio simultaneously instead of one at a time, and with no promotion behind either of them them. According to Musgraves, it was intentional, sort of like, “Here, play them if you want, but we’re not flattering you, and definitely not playing your games.” Then they used the money that may have gone to a radio promotion campaign for song videos, and kept the rest as pocket change so they wouldn’t have to pony up to the label to compensate for a bloated promotional budget.

Avoiding radio was part of a concerted, and greater alternative strategy to promote Golden Hour. Instead of going on tour opening for Kenny Chesney (which Musgraves has done before), she went out opening for Harry Styles. Instead of starting her “Oh What A World” Tour in the United States, she started it in Europe. It was an anti-country approach, even if she still considers herself a country artist, as do many of her fans. And it has worked, at least to the point where Golden Hour won the 2018 CMA Album of the Year.

Radio was left out of the picture on purpose by Kacey Musgraves and her team. The argument could be made that if they had approached radio, or considered it when the record was being produced, or spent the budget to promote the record to radio, Golden Hour wouldn’t have achieved the same positive results. Failed radio singles would have given the false perception of poor reception by listeners and the industry. It would have put bad data behind a record that has been receiving positive reception, and has sold steadily well. Sure, you can blame radio of setting up the environment where perhaps Kacey’s best move was to avoid it altogether. But you can’t blame radio for not playing Kacey when Kacey and her team made no effort in that direction themselves.

The reason they call it a “radio single” is because it’s one song you ask radio, playlists, and the public to specifically pay attention to for a given period. Once that single has run it’s course, you move to the next one. With the incredible volume of entertainment options consumers are faced with, you have to put all your effort behind one song you hope busts through the din of noise to get people’s attention, and lead them to a greater exploration of your record, and your career.

But Kacey Musgraves didn’t do that. After the halfhearted shipping of “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies” to radio, she went on Saturday Night Live and performed neither, instead deciding to go with “High Horse” and “Slow Burn.” Kacey also performed “Slow Burn” on the CMA Awards, but since it wasn’t a single, it didn’t receive the similar bump other performed songs did that are currently being serviced to country radio, and are showing up on major playlists.

When Chris Stapleton released his record Traveller in 2015, they had no significant radio strategy either (both artists are signed to UMG Nashville). However Stapleton did have a single currently sitting at radio when he won big at the 2015 CMA Awards. In the aftermath, country radio started spinning his single “Nobody To Blame,” which before was buried on the charts. It was a slow and steady slog, but eventually “Nobody To Blame” hit #10 on country radio. In Stapleton’s case, country radio had a choice: Either play Stapleton, or risk becoming irrelevant. Eventually, they chose the former. In 2018, Stapleton’s single “Broken Halos” became his first #1 song. Stapleton had won. He’d done things his own way, and made radio bend to him, instead of vice versa. “Broken Halos” went on to win Single and Song of the Year in 2018 as well.

If Kacey Musgraves had an active single at radio when she won Album of the Year, and perhaps if she had performed that single, it would have received a big boost like the other performed singles did. Perhaps radio would have played it even more in the proceeding days and weeks to celebrate Kacey’s Album of the Year win, which is not unusual for stations to do after the CMAs. “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy” had already charted at #32 and #30 respectively on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, which also takes into consideration streams and downloads, and this was without any significant radio play. Arguably one or both could have done decent at radio if the effort had been put out to promote them, as Saving Country Music and others requested.

But Kacey Musgraves didn’t fail because country radio ignored her. She succeeded because she ignored country radio. This is the lesson of Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour, and the 2018 CMA Awards. Of course country radio sucks, and is inequitable when it comes to women. But what are you going to do about it? When it came to Kacey Musgraves, she decided to side step the entire operation. The lesson of the Kacey Musgraves win is not that radio is stupid for not playing her, it’s that people are stupid for thinking radio is the only path to success, and giving it legitimacy by constantly harping on its level of inclusion and quality. Of course radio still has some power and should be a concern for those who care about country music, but too much attention gives radio more agency and power than it deserves. Kacey Musgraves won without radio’s help. So did Chris Stapleton. And so can others.

Kacey Musgraves and her strategy at radio (or lack thereof) also illustrates the complex nature of the issue of women on country radio, despite a bevy of terse voices who want to boil down the issue to how radio hates women, and the solution is for radio to just decide to play more women. Of course country radio deserves most of the blame for where it stands in regards to inclusion. But Kacey Musgraves is a Top 5 country music female that was nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year by the CMAs in 2018, and instead of attempting to court radio, she ignored it. It’s hard to argue with that strategy now, but you can’t blame country radio for ignoring her, you have to blame Kacey Musgraves. Even if a modicum of effort had been expended by the Kacey Musgraves team in radio’s direction, perhaps it would be a different story.

Kacey Musgraves deciding to not pursue radio was one less woman for them to play, and one of the top earners, and biggest names to boot. Radio plays what the industry asks them to play, and commonly the industry is not asking them to play women. Men get huge full page spreads in the trade periodicals on consecutive weeks, and then follow-ups when the single is heading to #1. Often women get one 1/3rd page ad on the opening date for a single, and that’s it. Screaming at radio stations and specific DJs on Twitter to play more women is fool’s errand since stations and DJs don’t even set their own playlists. And in the case of Kacey Musgraves, they’re not even the culpable party because they were never serviced a legitimate single.

But Kacey Muasgraves succeeded anyway. There are many avenues for success for artists, including for women, independently-signed performers, and traditionalists who receive inequitable consideration from the country radio format. This has been proven by Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell who’ve topped sales charts and won Grammy Awards without radio’s help. As concerned individuals champion important causes facing country artists, it’s also important to share the positive stories, not just to highlight successful strategies, but to inspire other artists that they have a chance, instead of constantly harping on the negative side.

If you’re a young woman thinking about pursuing a career in country music, all you’ll hear about is how radio won’t play you, festivals won’t book you, you’ll face constant sexual harassment or worse, only to be spit out of the back end of the industry after wasting your youth trying to pursue a dream. This discouragement keeps some talented women from even trying, or makes them turn to pop where the prospects are more positive.

Of course country radio sucks and is slanted against women. We all know this. And as Kacey Musgraves said herself after the CMA Awards and at other times, the issue has become tired, partly because it’s become too focused on the problems. It has become a vehicle for underlying political agendas and for people to bolster their media personalities as opposed to crafting pragmatic solutions like the one Kacey Musgraves employed with Golden Hour.

Either radio can evolve and elevate its system to perhaps become more equitable for all parties, and begin to consider quality as well as commercial reception in its equations of what to play, or it can continue along its antiquated system as iHeartMedia and Cumulus struggle through Chapter 11 restructuring, and continue to be left behind for the streaming model. Either way, artists shouldn’t wait on it. They should find a different way if need be. Chris Stapleton did, and became the best-selling country artist in the last five years. Sturgill Simpson did, and saw himself nominated for the Grammy’s all-genre Album of the Year. And Kacey Musgraves did with Golden Hour, and defeated all comers in 2018 in the CMA’s estimation.

Kacey Musgraves’ win is a big deal not just for women, but for country music. The long, droning arguments about what country music is, and where should go will continue as they always have. Commercial forces will encroach too far on the creative side, and the creative side will push back. The music will stray too far from it’s roots, and then get roped back into line. This is the way of country music, and always has been. It’s the battle of evermore. But as long as albums like Golden Hour defeat albums like Keith Urban’s Graffiti U, we’ll be okay.

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