If you’re going to release a country music song that is likely to completely alienate the core of your fan base and cut against the grain of all of the long-standing principles of your career, it better be commercially successful. Otherwise you’ve angered the constituency that helped create your success in the first place, and you haven’t even added any new members to your fandom or received a financial windfall to help justify the move.
Unfortunately for some artists and bands, they are finding themselves at the wrong end in of this equation. Acts you would have never dreamed of becoming robust trend chasers a few years ago are finding themselves chasing their own tails and failing to connect with the wider fan base they coveted through singles outside of their established sound. Many of these singles surround the latest country music trend of mixing R&B and EDM influences into the music.
The first such fail we saw was at the start of country music’s new EDM fascination, but it happened after some big success. Jerrod Niemann and his blockbuster “Drink To That All Night” was the first time we saw EDM and country music blended successfully in a commercial capacity, and after the song was released in 2013, it hit #1 on country’s radio charts and has since garnered platinum status.
But that success was short lived. The parent album to “Drink To That All Night” called High Noon was a commercial failure, and the remix of “Drink To That All Night” with Pitbull failed to give it a second wind. Subsequently, Niemann’s next single “Donkey” was dead on arrival, and couldn’t get above #43 on the radio charts. Since then Niemann has failed to find the next-tier success he was hoping to win with his music’s new direction.
Eli Young Band was not necessarily known as a critical darling in country music, but as a product of the Texas country scene, they certainly weren’t considered in the same sentence as many of the sellout acts of Music Row. Then they shocked everyone by releasing a completely trend-chasing four-song EP in March called Turn It On that hoped to capitalize off the new R&B/EDM craze. The title track was rushed to radio with big promotion behind it by by Republic Nashville. Since then, how has “Turn It On” fared?
Terrible. “Turn It On” was a turn off for country radio programming directors and many Eli You fans, and it currently sits mired outside the Top 40 in airplay. All that effort to rush out the new single and EP to exploit the popularity of Sam Hunt failed to create even the slightest bit of sizzle. So much for riding the new trend to success.
A similar story has transpired for Gary Allan, who may be the most surprising of country music’s most recent trend chasers. Allan once took Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and country radio to task for not being country enough, but apparently he forgot about all that when it came time to record and release his latest single, “Hangover Tonight.” As you might guess, the results have been very similar to the Eli Young Band’s. The song has stalled outside the Top 40. Also released in early March, a rally seems unlikely for “Hangover Tonight,” even though a new video just released and a host of CMA Fest appearances might give the single a very slight boost.
The lack of success of Gary Allan’s and the Eli Young Band’s singles is a testament that radio and the country music listening public aren’t buying into songs, they’re buying into artists. Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and even newer stars like Cole Swindell are nearly guaranteed #1 performances by singles, while the rest of country artists struggle to crack the top of the charts. In the short lifespan for mainstream artists and country’s obsession with youth, a name like Gary Allan or even Eli Young Band could be just as much of a burden as an asset.
And this phenomenon is not just confined to men and the Metro-Bro trend chasers. Ashley Monroe was labeled a turncoat by some when she released the first single to her upcoming album The Blade called “On To Something Good.” How did the single fare? It peaked at #53 on the Country Airplay chart and has since disappered. Of course that could be partly to blame on the discrepancy between males and females in country radio play—a.k.a Salad-Gate—but Monroe was recently featured on a successful single from Blake Shelton, and her affiliation with The Pistol Annies has made her a more common name in country music. Known for her songwriting and more traditional style, “On To Something Good” had high hopes as a breakout single, and fizzled.
Meanwhile what is succeeding on country radio? The same usual suspects, but a few surprising breakouts who are not chasing the trends, including A Thousand Horses and their #1 song “Smoke.” Eric Paslay’s “She Don’t Love You” just got through with a surprising country radio run. That doesn’t mean you can have chart success with well-written songs, but this all may mean it’s not worth chasing trends unless radio is likely to pay attention to you anyway.
As bad as critics may say they are, the reason Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line are perennials at the top of the charts at the moment is not because they are chasing trends, it is because they are making them. Instead of following, older and up-and-coming artists should either trying sticking to what they do best, or trying to make some trends of their own.