This week in Nashville is the annual CRS or Country Radio Seminar where executives and personalities in country radio gather with executives and artists in the country music industry to hobnob, network, and attend workshops and presentations about the direction and future of radio and country music. This year the backdrop of CRS most certainly will be the Country Music Media Arms Race breaking out in 2014 (see more about this below).
Bits of interesting news about the country music radio industry tend to trickle out of CRS week, like a couple of years ago when an Edison Research study concluded that country listeners wanted more classic country on the radio. Edison Research President Larry Rosin said at the time, “I believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations. While many people don’t want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and we’ve let them float away”¦We run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.”
Scott Borchetta Quizzically Compares Big Machine Music to a Ferrari, not McDonald’s.
Even before the CRS events got started in earnest Monday evening, many interesting pieces of information about radio and country music emerged in the run up to CRS. Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta had the most puzzling quote, choosing a strange, if not unfortunate analogy to compare his label’s music to when explaining why he chooses to delay releasing music from artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Moore on Spotify and other streaming services until months after the release date has passed. Borchetta told The Tennessean:
“I’m not McDonald’s. I’m not 1 billion served. I’m much more in favor of building a Harley-Davidson or a Ferrari and take that 1 or 2 percent of the population who love what we do and super-serve them.”
It seems like that analogy needs to be flip flopped, but big power players like Borchetta, and their ability to control the market with landmark deals with Clear Channel and others entities will certainly be one of the big topics at CRS 2014.
Why Radio Still Matters
Every time Saving Country Music broaches the subject of country radio, the alternatives such as satellite and streaming services are brought up as evidence of why radio doesn’t matter anymore. Though radio may not matter to a specific consumer, when it comes to the research, the experts, and to the culture and listeners in country music specifically, radio is still by far the most dominant format, especially for consumers to discover new music.
“Time and time again when studies are done, broadcast radio remains the No. 1 source for discovering new music,” Broken Bow Records executive Jon Loba told The Tennessean ahead of CRS. “Radio is still 80-plus percent of your music exposure. One thing I remind staff at least once a month in an artist development meeting when we are focusing on other mediums of exposure that are important streaming, or press for TV, or whatever else I try not to let everyone get in the weeds with that. Radio is still the primary form of exposing new music.”
Despite dramatic growth in music streaming across the board, just like with the transition from CD’s to downloads, country music is lagging behind other genres in the changeover, allowing country radio to continue to hold onto its power over consumers. As Nate Rau writing for The Tennessean explains:
“An analysis of music streaming data for 2013 shows that, despite growing noticeably, country still lags behind the other genres. Of the top 10,000 streamed songs last year, 28 percent were rock songs, 28 percent were hip-hop/R&B songs, 19 percent were pop songs and 8 percent were country songs, according to Nielsen data. But on traditional radio, country music outranks all other genres as the most popular format.”
Radio Losing Its Autonomy From Record Labels
Whereas in the past many radio stations were independently or regionally owned and their charge was to serve their communities with music, now that radio consolidation has put the majority of radio stations in the hands of a few select companies, principally Clear Channel and Cumulus, the point of radio in many instances is not to serve communities, but to serve record labels. As Broken Bow’s Jon Loba explains:
“When I got into the business, at my first CRS in 1997, I remember radio stations saying, ‘It is not our job to sell records. Our job is to keep listeners tuned in to our station. That is it. If we happen to sell records as a byproduct, that’s fantastic, but it’s not our job.’ [Now] there’s a much more symbiotic relationship, not just in words, but actually in action. CBS and Clear Channel both are taking the time to say very proactively, ‘We want to help you highlight your priorities, we want to help you sell records. We know healthy record labels are a large part of our business.’
The Country Music Media Arms Race is Heating Up
Similar to how all popular music is coalescing into one or two huge mega-genres or mono-genre, the media that covers and serves country music fans in radio, print, online, television, and social formats is consolidating around two big media players: Clear Channel & Cumulus—the two largest radio station owners in the United States, supported by partnering or gobbling up other important players in the country music media realm.
In December of 2013, word came down that Clear Channel had cut a deal with CMT to create nationally-focused country music programming to be distributed across the 125 country radio stations owned by the company, as well as some digital and television platforms. This move was in response to Cumulus, the 2nd-largest radio station owner in the United States behind Clear Channel, which had created its own national syndicated format earlier in 2013 under the NASH-FM brand, serving 70 separate radio markets.
Then Cumulus matched Clear Channel’s cross-media move by partnering with the long-running magazine Country Weekly to migrate the NASH-FM brand into print and online media. Announced in late January, Country Weekly in the next couple of quarters will become NASH Weekly. Cumulus has also registered nashweekly.com, and is expected to make an online presence for the NASH brand a focus. Then yesterday, even more ventures and partnerships were announced from Cumulus, including a television station, live concerts and events, even potentially restaurants and consumer products will be part of the massive NASH brand expansion.
Personalities and cross-platform promotion are what is driving the media arms race. CMT’s Cody Alan who now also appears in Clear Channel’s syndicated radio network can do an interview with a big country star, and use that interview both on television and in radio, transcribe it for print and/or online media, and promote it through both company’s social networks. However there are obvious trappings to having one or two companies control all of country music’s media.
“From the record company standpoint, it is absolutely more efficient and cost-effective with respect to reaching a larger audience in one shot,” says Broken Bow’s Jon Loba. “But it can also be somewhat scary in that there are fewer voices and opinions being heard out there.”
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What’s for certain is that in 2014, country music media will go through the biggest paradigm shift in the genre’s history, touching every facet of how consumers engage with country music, and creating two massive companies who will dominate the media landscape, partnering with the country music recording industry and blurring lines between covering music and creating music like never before.