I don’t need a workup from Dr. Scratch-N-Sniff to know something is seriously ill with country music here in the first quarter of 2015. We’re not talking about the worn-out complaints about how pop country sucks and how Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line don’t belong. Take all of those concerns and put them to the side for a second. I’m talking about the once high-flying country genre that this time last year everyone was touting as the most dominant format in all of popular music, and how it now seems to be on this extended losing streak that has it perched precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff, threatening to fall off into the popular music abyss vis-Ã -vis the early 80’s.
This is what a site like Saving Country Music and other pontificators have been preaching against ever since Bro-Country took over the genre starting sometime in 2012, setting country up for a precipitous fall once the sugar high of the craze wore off, and country music’s much-coveted 18 to 34-year-old demographic moved on. Making it worse, Taylor Swift leaving the genre also took a massive amount of listeners and revenue away from the format, swinging those people back to the pop side of the popular genre pie chart.
But all this is good for a fan of country music that hates Florida Georgia Line and Taylor Swift, right? Finally the Bro-Country trend has undeniably ebbed, and Swift is finally calling a spade a spade. This is what we wanted, correct? That all may be the case, but all this downward trending could have an impact on artists that weren’t part of any of these ill-conceived “country” music trends to begin with, but may become the inadvertent victims of the end results.
Country music is in the midst of an identity crisis, and a serious ratings slump. This is what happens when you don’t build sustainability into your business model, and instead tie your saddle to wild-assed, uncontrollable trends that put you in a constant boom and bust cycle resulting in many broken bones, bad decisions, and lost opportunities. Where Bro-Country was bucking high nine months ago, now country music is face down in the muck, and many of the plans to build new infrastructure for the genre and support a crop of rising new artists are being put on hold because of a lack of revenue and attention.
The numbers couldn’t be much worse for country at the moment. That coveted 18 to 34-year-old demographic that was sketching Swiss Alp-style mountains on the country music Richter scale when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” was setting records and Bro-Country was riding high? They now have dipped into red ink. It has been one downward-trending month after another until now the recent Nielsen Audio country radio numbers at an 8.6 share are the worst 18-34 rating since January of 2013. Historically these numbers still aren’t terrible, but a two-year downward trend is still a very bad sign.
And as we saw in the end-of-year numbers for 2014, country music slipped 16.6% annually—not so exceptional because of declining sales in music overall, but Taylor Swift’s move from country to pop accounted for a huge portion of that declining percentage, while pop was the only genre in 2014 that actually registered increasing sales because of Taylor Swift’s participation. But it wasn’t just in sales that Swift’s negative impact was felt by country, “but also radio and televised events — is weaker without her,” says Billboard. When you lose the biggest artist in all of music, that means less ears and eyeballs for everyone, including the young women of country looking to replace Swift. Though we’ve seen country radio mostly respect Swift’s pop move, that’s also why we’ve seen so many country music news and entertainment outlets continue to run Taylor Swift stories—because she delivers consumers.
So why is all of this important to, let’s say, fans of upstarting country females like Brandy Clark and Holly Williams, legends like Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard, or newer artists like Sturgill Simpson? Because without all the money and resources flowing into country music, the desire to sink capital into new infrastructure to open up emerging avenues for music to be heard is extremely limited. When resources are tight, it’s every man for himself.
The narrative heading into 2014 was how country music was expanding exponentially because of all the interest in the genre. People and Rolling Stone both opened dedicated country music divisions. Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia)—the largest radio station owner in the United States—was betting big on syndicating their Bobby Bones morning show coast to coast, and starting a dedicated iHeartRadio country music festival in Austin. Cumulus Media—the 2nd-largest radio station owner in the United States—was expanding rapidly into the country music space with their NASH-branded radio programming and side products like restaurants and clothing. Country music was going to be the way for old media to meet the new paradigm.
Some of this still may come to pass, but now there’s just not as much to talk about in country music, and there’s less eyes and ears looking to consume that media. That fickle, pliable demographic of 18 to 34-year-olds has moved on, because they weren’t really country music fans to begin with. They were just chasing what was popular at the time, and since what brought them to country in the first place wasn’t substantive or sustainable, they washed out with the tide.
So ideas to expand the amount of avenues for country music worthy of a wider audience, like the country radio format split that was all the talk this time last year, seem dead in the water. With dwindling listeners already, country music has no desire to start splitting the remaining demographic down the middle. Though in the end being able to offer a product that appeals to a wider audience, with one side of country specifically designed to reach out to that 18 to 34 demo, and the other more catering to 25 to 54-year-olds seems like a good solution, this idea doesn’t seem to be on the mind of radio programmers and major label executives.
They seem more invested in turning their numbers around the easy way by chasing the next hyper-trend—very likely Sam Hunt and the similar doppelganger-style copycats we’re already beginning to see emerge. This will only continue the boom-and-bust cycle for country music, instead of implementing long-term solutions to attract more loyal country listeners—ones who will stay with the format for the long haul. By splitting the format in two to deliver a more dedicated form of what both sides of the country music divide desire, country music could grow along two different fronts, while having less conflict between the two sides.
Country music is at an important crossroads. And no matter how much pontificators peck away at keyboards about what to do about the genre’s ailments, it’s going to take the action of the individuals in charge to craft long-term solutions to insulate country music from the manic depressive economic mood swings, and build a more sustainable future that delivers fulfillment for all age demographics. If splitting the format is not in the cards, how about making a format everyone can enjoy together, regardless of age?
But doing nothing doesn’t seem like an option. Plunging country music into another half-decade-long dark age, or an even worse dilemma like the one facing rock music, seems to not be in anyone’s best interests. Sam Hunt and EDM-style “country” just seems like an excuse for listeners to turn the channel to a format that sounds more like that, robbing country radio of additional attention. If you live by the 18-34 demo, you die by them. And by not building sustainability into your business model, you make yourself susceptible to adverse trends.
The problem with country music is not a lack of talent or appeal. It is getting the genre’s most talented artists and most appealing music to the right people in an increasingly-crowded marketplace. It seems like offering listeners more choice might be a more viable long-term option.