One of the big stories involving the back end of country music in 2014 has been the potential formation of a brand new radio format to give a home to the older artists quickly being shuffled off of mainstream radio in the movement towards youth. The announcement of the joint venture between Big Machine Label Group and radio owner Cumulus Media called NASH Icons is what started the buzz, and then mere weeks later a regionally-owned radio station in Kentucky changed it’s name to GARTH-FM, and all of a sudden the split of the country music radio format looked to be imminent. Since then the idea has been put in sort of a limbo state as NASH Icons isn’t even set to launch until 2015, but it still looks like a format split and the formation of a “classic” country radio network is still very much a real possibility.
The big question that remains is how the new format for older country music could take shape. NASH Icons and other early players have already pegged a 25-year window as the foundation for the format, featuring many of the artists that launched their careers in country music in 1989, including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black. Artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill have also been mentioned, and so has the inclusion of new music from these artists, making the new format not just about old songs.
Depending on how it breaks, a big new batch of classic country stations on the radio could be a Godsend for classic country fans, or it could be a nightmare. Since the idea still remains in its formative stages, this is the time that classic country fans have to opportunity to voice their opinion of what they would like to see from the new format. Whether these fans will be listened to by the industry or not is another matter. In the end NASH Icons and any other station that decides to switch to the new format will be doing so not from some philosophical desire to see older country back on the radio, but as a business decision.
Assuming that 25-year window is the one constant, let’s look at the two scenarios of how the classic country format split could transpire.
NOTE: Some have said that “classic” is not the best word to describe what the new format would be. But in lieu of a better succinct describer, we will use “classic” in this case.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
- It would focus on the 25-year “classic” window, but wouldn’t shy away from dipping a little deeper into country music’s past, especially for artists who were still relevant 25 years ago, and are still relevant today. For example, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson all released albums this year that had record charting performances and were very well-received by the public. These albums were released by major labels, who would see the benefit to promoting singles through a new country format for older artists if there was one.
- It includes playlists that are wide and diverse, and don’t just focus on the narrow window of usual suspects who had their biggest success in the 90’s. It doesn’t just play the artists that were great from the classic era, but the songs that were great from the era from some of the lesser-known artists.
- Unlike the classic rock format, it keeps playlists spicy. Understand that even with older artists, there are still trends and artists can get hot, or go cold depending on current events and other factors. If an older artist is going on a big tour or is releasing a new album, there may be renewed interest in that artist that demands more rotation time. Maybe a movie or documentary about an artist is released, or maybe they make an acting appearance that may raise their public interest. Play off of those trends to keep the format engaging. It listens to what listeners want.
- It doesn’t completely cannibalize the already-existing traditional country stations, especially in markets where they are successful—“traditional” meaning stations focused mostly on music before the 1989 window. In some very small markets, the older listening audience is still going to enjoy the country oldies more than more contemporary stars from the 90’s and 00’s. And in very large markets, there will always be enough listeners to support traditional country stations. Some traditional country stations are sure to switch over to the new format because it will be more commercially-lucrative for them. But it shouldn’t be expected that all of them should or have to.
- It is almost implied that with NASH Icons, there will be some nationalized programming as part of the format. But just like with Cumulus’s current NASH network, the new format should let local programmers decide how much national programming to carry. It should encourage local shows to create personal relationships with listeners, making listeners feel like they’re listening to a live human selecting the songs just for them and their community. As Edison Research has discovered through multiple studies, people connect better with locally-generated content, and this is especially true with the older demographics a classic country format would appeal to.
- The new format leaves open the possibility of allowing new artists that play an older style of country music to be included. Of course not every younger traditional country artist can be included, but when you have a band or artist who has proven their commercial viability and wide appeal like Old Crow Medicine Show or Strugill Simpson for example, throw their new single in the rotation. This will also keep the appeal of the classic format diversified, and allow for labels to help support the format with single releases. At the least, it leaves open the possibility of having weekend shows that feature new artists with a classic sound.
- Since the Country Music Association (or CMA) is made up of elements of the country radio world, they add new awards to recognize the new format. Similar to how the Grammy Awards distinguish subgenres and “Classic” and “Contemporary” artists in separate awards, name a “Classic Country Album of the Year”, “Classic Country Song of the Year”, and “Classic Country Artist of the Year”. You could still keep the purity of some of the other awards, like the “Entertainer of the Year”. As we saw with George Strait, classic entertainers could still be considered for any individual artist distinction. But a few select awards to recognize great contributions from classic country artists that would otherwise go unrecognized would fill the same gap that is opening up in radio for classic country artists.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
- The “classic” country format becomes nothing more than a way to consolidate and streamline most or all of the existing traditional or classic country radio stations by firing local talent and implementing syndicated programming 24/7, or close to it.
- It focuses on a narrow range of artists that had only the very top of commercial success in the early 90’s an not much more, avoiding artists whose heyday was before 1989 completely or whose fame was short-lived.
- Playlists are rarely or never freshened like the current classic rock format to where the new format plays virtually the same songs for decades.
- It mostly cannibalizes country music’s existing traditional country stations to the point where songs and artist from before 1989 can barely be found on the radio dial.
- It ignores both the legends that are still putting out commercially-successful music, and the up-and-comers.
- NASH Icons on the radio is nothing more than an infomercial for the label arm of the organization, with little to no outside support for other artists or meaningful representation of classic country music.
- Classic country artists are still left with little to no representation at country music award shows.