Oh Kacey, what are we going to do with you?
Mid January is the season that most of the big mainstream country music acts unveil their touring plans for the year, and as Blake Shelton was announcing the “Hide Your Daughters” tour presented by Taco Bell, and Jason Aldean announced the “Overlords of Auto-Tune” tour with Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr, country music critical favorite Kacey Musgraves announced she would not be touring with one of her country music bunk mates, but of all people, the buxom purple-haired pop star Katy Perry. Kacey is reportedly writing with Katy too.
Some Kacey Musgraves’ supporters were disappointed, or even outraged, just as many of those same supporters were disappointed last year when she went out on tour with Kenny Chesney. As if Kacey, who despite her disposition of being slated beside artists like Jason Isbell instead of Jason Aldean, and Brandy Clark instead of Brantley Gilbert, isn’t still very much an artist existing in the highest reaches of the mainstream country music industry and all the trappings thereof. Maybe in some fan’s music brains she belongs on the club and theater circuit so they get to see her in a more intimate setting. But to Kacey’s label, there’s money to be made, and an artist to launch so she can eventually go on her own arena tours.
Others see this as an opportunity to spread the country music gospel—the ol’ theory of music osmosis that we sometimes see assigned to artists like Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. As if some 15-year-old girl is going to hear Taylor Swift and be inspired to lip sync in front of a full-length mirror to Ralph Peer’s primitive recordings of The Carter Family, or similar circumstances might transpire amongst the glitterfaced crowd at a Katy Perry concert because Kacey Musgraves looks so good in hot pants up there on stage. Sure, Kacey will likely win more fans for Kacey Musgraves, and ultimately that’s the point. But let’s tap the brakes on thinking this will be some monumental step for country music.
More importantly, what this concert pairing seems to allude to are important trends in both country music, and the career of Kacey Musgraves.
If it wasn’t clear that Kacey’s label Mercury Nashville had no idea what to do with her before, it is pretty evident now. The one thing we do know about Musgraves is that she enjoys the utmost in label support—arguably unparallelled and unprecedented in the industry. Remember when Kacey was nominated for the ACM for Female Vocalist of the Year in 2013 before she had even released a album or had a Top 10 single? Or how about at the 2013 CMA Awards when she received 6 nominations, as many as Taylor Swift and more than anyone else? Kacey is also up for 4 Grammy Awards here in 2014.
Of course Kacey’s work as a songwriter helped pad these numbers, and not to allude that she didn’t deserve these nominations—they were much deserved, and a sign of the righting of the country music ship in 2013. But a brand new artist like Kacey Musgraves does not receive these types of industry-leading accolades, especially when they’re not backed by sales numbers, without the undying and tireless support of a label looking to launch an artist they believe in both as an artistic and commercial success.
But that has been the biggest problem with Kacey—the commercial success. Compared to many of the other critical darlings Musgraves was amongst on various outlet’s “Best of 2013” lists, Kacey’s sales are astronomical. But compared to her country industry peers, they’re paltry. Kacey’s album Same Trailer, Different Park has just barely peaked over 300,000 copies sold. For comparison, all the other albums nominated for the CMA Album of the Year in 2013 have at least sold 1 million copies.
Kacey has also yet to have a Top 10 single, with “Merry Go ‘Round” coming the closest at #14. Her latest two singles “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Follow Your Arrow” both stalled out at #31 and #28 respectively, despite a big radio push and big budget videos. Still not bad numbers, but nowhere near the level Mercury Nashville must be wanting, or expecting from an artist that has achieved such industry accolades and undying label support.
Then there was the controversy about “the look” Kacey was caught giving while they were announcing the candidates for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards, and more recently, the Twitter brushup she got into with influential Clear Channel DJ Bobby Bones. As some pointed out, Bobby Bones at the time had more followers on Twitter than Kacey did, speaking to both the powerful influence of Bones, and the lack of wide support behind Musgraves. In the social network era, it’s not enough for an artist to release good music. Like the modern day NASCAR driver, they’re expected to be media savvy, not just skilled at their discipline to achieve at the top level.
Hence, a change of plans for Kacey. Some new scenery. Maybe country and specifically country radio is not going to be as receptive to Kacey as first thought. Maybe they’re not ready for the paradigm shift just yet. Maybe she’s too edgy. So go out there and find some more fertile ground. And hell, both her and Katy Perry have songs about kissing girls….
And this is where Mercury Nashville and Kacey seem to be miscalculating. Though Kacey is well-recognized as a critical success and symbolizes a new type of country star, they’re falling back on their old habits of how to present her to the masses by using marketing points. They release “Blowin’ Smoke,” hoping to capitalize off the popularity of pot in popular culture, despite the song not referencing reefer directly. “Follow Your Arrow” seemed to be released to radio not for its underlying message, but because the edginess of the content might stir controversy and create interest in the song and Kacey.
Instead of handling Musgraves like the next Loretta Lynn, leading the way by addressing deep cultural issues, they’re trying to make a her a one-trick pony to be popularized through buzzwords and politicization. What happened to letting the music speak for itself, and what happened to all the momentum built up by the success of “Merry Go ‘Round”?
Mercury Nashville was also at the helm for the lost opportunity with another artist that was a critical success and achieved the highest industry accolades at awards shows, but ultimately didn’t stick in the wide public perception: Jamey Johnson. Granted, Johnson is in the midst of a contract dispute and has been sitting on his writing hands now for years. But this was another artist that country fans clamoring for more substance in the genre could get behind, but so far has yet to make a long-term impact in the mainstream industry. The career of Jamey Johnson right now is very much adrift.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all Mercury Nashville’s fault. You can’t say they aren’t trying, and trying in an industry that is notoriously suspicious of change and slow to implement it, and that is looking to appeal to what are many times simple-minded fans who don’t want to look for the deeper meaning in songs.
Kacey Musgraves is too good for mainstream country, while at the same time maybe too edgy for the rank and file of country music’s traditional arm. Like Scott Borchetta of Mercury Nashville rival Big Machine Records said recently, the industry must dig a little deeper, and Kacey Musgraves is a positive sign of the industry committing to that. And it’s not like Musgraves hasn’t made back the investment her label has made in her, but the stretch of the Katy Perry pairing makes it appear like they want more from that investment.
What this all speaks to is a deeper, more fundamental issue: If Mercury Nashville, or any other label cannot create successful, or at least mainstream-sustainable careers out of these critically-acclaimed artists, and are forced to reach to outside of the country genre for support, then what is the motivation for these labels and the industry to continue to burn attention and capital on them?
In this respect, Kacey Musgraves must work, and the Katy Perry concert tour must be successful in Kacey’s pursuit of her true fan base. Because if not, Kacey could set the precedent for the rest of the industry of why to not invest in substance.
Meanwhile, all Kacey Musgraves wants to do is write, record, and perform songs. And if she is ultimately going to be successful, that is what she must focus on.