If you listen to the rhetoric of country music’s major labels or the executives of country radio’s biggest companies, most will tell you all is rosy on the country radio front. But the research tends to always be on the side of country music fans sounding the warning bells that the genre has strayed too far away from its roots, and is being unresponsive to the wishes and tastes of a wide swath of the country music listening demographic. Such was the case in 2012 when an Edison Research study concluded that listeners want more classic country on radio. Edison Research’s Larry Rosin as part of the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville said,
“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.”
This year at the Country Radio Seminar, Larry Rosin was once again sounding the warning bells about the viability of country music on the radio moving forward in the face of rapid consolidation, the evaporation of local and live programming, and the emergence of new technologies and services competing with radio like Spotify and smart phones.
Though things are looking very good for country music in general, country radio is another case according to Rosin and Edison Research. Despite 77% of people agreeing that “Country music is a significant part of American culture,” and 73% of people agreeing that “Country music is becoming more popular,” Larry Rosin says that “Country radio radio is in the fight of its life,” and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows are “essentially a disaster for the radio industry.”
Why? Because country music’s demographics are becoming much younger as the format moves away from the more traditional sound of the genre. Edison Research found that the amount of 12 to 34-year-olds listening to country music positively surged in 2013 from 12% to 27%. But since millenials are more likely to consume their music through technological alternatives to traditional over-the-air radio, the future looks grim for the format. As country radio is abandoning older demographics in favor of a new sound, and the fans of the new sound are abandoning the radio format in favor of new technologies, the amount of people country radio appeals to is getting slimmer by the minute.
Another very interesting statistic Edison Research found is that 62% of people believe “too many country songs sound the same,” once again calling concern to country music’s current trend of male-dominated laundry list or “bro country” songs and the limited amount of songwriters writing the majority of country music’s current hits.
The accumulative conclusions of Edison Research speak to what Saving Country Music and other critics of country music’s current trajectory have been saying for years: that country music is amidst a sugar rush of popularity that is statistically unsustainable and may result in not just creative, but economic burnout of the format in the coming future, especially on radio. So what can be done about it?
According to Larry Rosin and Edison Research, country radio needs to “double and redouble” its efforts to feature live and local shows. The reason is because research into the listening habits and desires of country music’s growing millenial population says that they favor buying local, and they like local personalities as part of their music listening experience. On-air personalities and programming custom made for local tastes and local listeners is the strategic advantage radio has over services like Spotify and Pandora. “It’s never been more important to play up live and local,” says Edison Research’s Jane Charneski.
But of course, this is the exact opposite of what is happening with country radio. Amidst a country music media arms race, the two biggest radio station owners in America—Clear Channel and Cumulus—are fighting it out for who can feature the best nationalized programming under the premise that it is cheaper to pay one DJ and distribute them across your entire radio network as opposed to paying local DJ’s at every radio station the company owns. But once again, this is just feeding the American consumer’s flight from traditional radio. Though companies like Clear Channel are dramatically cutting costs through their consolidation efforts, the company reported a $309 million loss in the last quarter, compared to a $191 million loss in the same quarter the year before. So not only is it bad for radio’s big consolidators, it’s getting worse.
It all is enough to leave the country music radio consumer baffled as to why anyone thinks the idea of radio consolidation will work. Dissent against radio for abandoning country music’s traditional roots, for leaving behind local programming, and for trying to make money by cutting costs instead of trying to appeal to more consumers is not just a matter of taste or opinion. It is clear through specific statistics and research that these things are eroding country radio’s long-term foundation, and the only way to stop it and to retain the solvency of country radio itself is to reverse course.