On The Grand Ole Opry Investing in Whiskey Riff

In the media business, you’re not supposed to acknowledge your supposed competition, unless you’re lambasting them for doing something wrong or bad. You’re supposed to pretend they don’t exist, lest your readers/listeners/fans figure out they have other options, and jump ship.

I have never felt that way operating Saving Country Music, partly because covering how the media covers country music has been one of the primary beats I cover. This site has been a terrible business from the beginning anyway, and remains that way to this day. The reason I started the website was to help spread the word about worthy country artists, to remember the legends of country music, and to hold the country industry accountable. If others want to help in that effort, more power to them. Getting in their way, bad mouthing them for no other reason than they’re perceived as rivals, or being jealous or angry at their success is just selfish and petty bullshit.

Make no mistake though, when Whiskey Riff first came online about eight years ago, I was not impressed. It seemed to me like they took Barstool Sports, a bad version of Saving Country Music, and wrapped it into a concept to sell hats and T-shirts. They were a lifestyle brand using country music to create attention for themselves. And their lightweight content with click-bait headlines riddled with ads was the last thing we needed in the country music media ecosystem.

In some respects, I still feel this way about Whiskey Riff. Their content is so extremely loaded with ads—including multiple streaming popup video players—it’s virtually unreadable. There were stretches over the last few years where if you wanted to see what was coming up on Whiskey Riff, all you had to do was read Saving Country Music because it would be over there an hour or two later, just reduced and dumbed-down. In fairness, Saving Country Music has also seen stories first in Whiskey Riff, and later reported on them as well. The coverage of the two sites is very much like a Venn diagram.

Here eight years later, all of these Whiskey Riff gripes remain concerns, along with others, like reposting of old content as new stuff, and other questionable practices to drive traffic. If you follow them on Twitter, you have to take your country music news with endless ads featuring booty chicks in corporate beer merch, and videos of babies getting gored by elk and other such viral video nonsense from their outdoors spinoff. It’s a little much to say the least.

But if I sat here and tried to convince you that the success of Whiskey Riff hasn’t been a significant factor in the rapid growth throughout the independent country sector we’ve seen over the last few years—and specifically the success of artists such as Zach Bryan, Charles Wesley Godwin, Gabe Lee, and others—I’d be a liar. Sure, their breathless, overzealous selling of artists is borderline fan girl behavior. But their effort to pile drive the names of these artists into the zeitgeist has absolutely made a positive difference, even if that effort extends to artists well outside of the types of artists Saving Country Music sees as important—guys like Kip Moore and Koe Wetzel.

It would be really easy to get angry and jealous as Whiskey Riff‘s traffic numbers dominate the country media space, their social media presence dwarfs other country sites, and no doubt, the dollars come pouring into their coffers. But despite the laundry list of criticisms one could list off about Whiskey Riff, unquestionably, their impact has been more positive than negative in the effort to save country music.

This is unlike some other outlets, like Rolling Stone Country for example, which has so completely abandoned their original promise to not get political, now every single bit of their content comes with a political quotient, stoking the culture war and exploiting the political rift that runs right through the center of independent country and Americana for clicks, causing significantly more harm than good to this community, even if they inadvertently put some meager attention behind worthy artists.

It’s hilarious that when publicists and labels send out press releases, you will commonly see quotes from outlets like Rolling Stone, Billboard, and others, but rarely from sites like Whiskey Riff, or Saving Country Music, even though pound for pound, a feature in Saving Country Music will get significantly more attention from the public, and in Whiskey Riff, that attention is even greater, and by numerous multipliers. Of course, Whiskey Riff doesn’t have a legendary name like Rolling Stone. Your parents won’t be as impressed. But the impact will likely be greater.

There is engagement at Whiskey Riff, because just like Saving Country Music, the public knows that Whiskey Riff is not bringing an agenda, beyond making oodles of money. Whiskey Riff is not in the pockets of publicists and labels. They are speaking from the heart. The content may be presented poorly, and readers have to swim through a mountain of advertising copy to consume it. But it’s honest.

And furthermore, there is no doubt that the Whiskey Riff founders Steve Gazibara and Wes Langeler work their asses off to not just make the website a success, but to serve the public with music news that they want to see. Recently on their podcast, they talked about how they’ve been working sometimes 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for going on eight years. Don’t take that as hyperbole. That’s what it takes to run a website like that, and I can attest because I’ve been doing the same thing here at Saving Country Music, just for twice as long.

Meanwhile, you have other supposed “journalists” who create almost no content because they spend most of their time on Twitter looking to cut down others that are outworking and outsmarting them, including some that are only responsible for a small handful of articles all year, but are somehow praised as leading voices in the industry, simply because they’re constantly in people’s Twitter feeds playing the clinical hero/victim narcissists role, and engaging in character assassination in an attempt to equal the playing field due to their laziness, and lack of expertise and commitment.

All of this is leading me to this recent partnership that Whiskey Riff announced with the Grand Ole Opry. On March 9th, it was announced that Opry Entertainment Group has made a minority investment in Whiskey Riff. In other words, the Opry is now a partial owner of the online publication. “They have created a really compelling brand, one that has built an incredibly loyal following,” Mark Fioravanti, president and CEO of Ryman Hospitality Properties said. “They attract a younger demographic, and this gives us another way to connect our brands and the artists we support with younger fans.”

Speaking of institutions on a winning streak, the Grand Ole Opry has definitely been on one themselves. Rising to the occasion of the pandemic, the Opry launched some of the most memorable streaming content of the era. Then they rode that momentum into the post pandemic era by finally inducting some worthy veterans and up-and-comers to the membership ranks and offering career-defining Opry debuts to important artists to the point new where nearly every Opry presentation has a debut as part of it. General manager Dan Rogers has done a masterful job at both modernizing the Grand Ole Opry, and at the same time making sure the institution respects its roots better than in previous eras.

There are many reasons to be both positive and bullish on the Grand Ole Opry and its future. Some may forget, but when Saving Country Music came online in 2008, the Opry was mostly a relic, and virtually derelict as a cultural institution. The ageist lawsuit by Stonewall Jackson exposed how the Opry wasn’t taking care of its legends, while the Opry simultaneously couldn’t attract younger talent to its old tour bus audiences. It had no idea how to adapt to the changing media landscape, and manager Pete Fisher ran the institution with a closed mind, and an iron fist.

When the Whiskey Riff/Grand Ole Opry deal was announced, my general attitude was mildly disfavorable, but also nonchalant. These kinds of deals are very commonplace these days, like the Opry selling a minority stake to NBC Universal in 2022, which recently resulted in the announcement of yet another ill-advised country music awards show in the offing.

What made me decide that someone needed to speak up and offer a little bit of context on the Whiskey Riff/Opry deal is when I saw so many bands, artists, fans, and even some media members strongly praising the partnership. Again, I do not begrudge Whiskey Riff on their success or this deal specifically, and I can understand how this feels like a big achievement for their brand, and a financial backstop to their efforts. Saving Country Music has been offered these kinds of deals in the past (not from the Opry specifically), and it’s not always easy to say “no.” But call me old school, I just don’t think that media outlets should be financially tied to the institutions they’re tasked to cover. It’s very clearly a conflict of interest if you want to be considered an objective source.

Granted, Whiskey Riff has said over and over since the deal that the Grand Ole Opry will have no editorial oversight on the outlet, and they know that Whiskey Riff can get opinionated, and share controversial viewpoints upon occasion. I would take both the Opry and Whiskey Riff at their word that this won’t impinge on their coverage priorities. But the simple fact is the Opry’s stated reason for acquiring a minority stake in Whiskey Riff is for the outlet to be a mouthpiece for the Opry to the younger demographic the Opry desires to not just ensure the Opry’s future, but attract advertisers that appeal to younger audiences.

The Opry’s new partners at NBC Universal and other paper pushers are probably demanding the Opry steer its demographics younger so they can attract more lucrative advertisers to get a greater return on their investment. This is how this game works. These big corporations are beholden to showing increased revenue every quarter. That is how everyone’s job is evaluated, and so this is the ultimate priority. The minority acquisition of Whiskey Riff is a numbers/demographics play to leverage advertising opportunities.

Can Whiskey Riff be a financial partner with the Opry and still act as an objective 3rd party? Yes and no. We’ve seen how these media/corporate partnerships can result in coverage choices and other passive censorship decisions that wouldn’t be the case from an otherwise autonomous media entity. The Washington Post has faced heavy criticism for its hands-off approach to Amazon after Jeff Bezos bought the paper, for example.

SXSW is in Austin this week. There was heavy criticism when Billboard and Rolling Stone owner Penske Media purchased a stake in SXSW, which refuses to pay performers reasonable stipends, doesn’t allow them access to the entire festival, and operates a pay-to-play model with their submission fees. Will you see anything about the grassroots initiative to hold SXSW to account for the way they treat musicians in the supposed progressive, pro-labor Rolling Stone? Of course not.

A couple of years ago when Opry’s parent company Ryman Hospitality Properties purchased the Block 21 development in Austin that houses the 2,750-seat Moody Theater where Austin City Limits is taped and ACL Live events happen weekly, a similar concern was raised. It’s just better to keep these things separate and distinct as opposed to so many properties that are important to country music all being held in the portfolios of the same handful of corporate structures.

Let’s also appreciate that we’re in the honeymoon of this Opry/Whiskey Riff deal. The Moody Theater acquisition fell apart at one point, and left a lot of indecision of what would happen. In 2012, Dolly Parton partnered with the Opry to build a theme park. When they later pulled out, it resulted in bad blood between Dolly and the Opry that still persists. These deals always look rosy right after the paperwork is signed, and everyone feels full of promise. Then reality sets in.

Is this deal the end of the world, or the end of Whiskey Riff as we know it? Absolutely not. In the end, the effects or consequences may be marginal, or perhaps even non-existent. As some will point out, at one point the Grand Ole Opry was owned by Gaylord, which was primarily a media company itself. The company owned television and radio stations, including Opry home WSM, which it still does.

But what has been great about the current independent country music revolution is that it has remained independent and autonomous from the country music industry and its institutions like the Grand Ole Opry, which during previous regimes, very much stood in the way of progress and independent voices in the genre. The current revolution we’re enjoying the fruits of grew out of the grassroots, and off the hard work of artists and bands, independent labels, and hard working journalists like Steve Gazibara and Wes Langeler at Whiskey Riff.

But now independent music has become so successful, it’s becoming part of the mainstream itself. Maybe Whiskey Riff partnering with the Grand Ole Opry is only fitting then. But it’s also fitting for the public and the rest of the media to be clear-eyed about what’s happening here. What’s been cool about Whiskey Riff is that unlike so many other country media outlets, they’re not just puppets for publicists, or the industry. Hopefully that remains to be the case. But now there is another hand in their back pocket, and the public should be apprised of this moving forward. Because just like we saw with Rolling Stone Country, promises can be broken.

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