When the Pistol Annies sent the first single from their new record Interstate Gospel to radio, it came with a letter from the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville, Randy Goodman. In that letter, Mr. Goodman made a personal plea to radio programmers to give preferred treatment to the Pistol Annies in their playlists. The single, “Got My Name Changed Back,” deals with divorce, and as Goodman stated, it was a compelling and important topic.
“I told them, ‘I really want you to pay attention to this,’ ” Goodman said. “Twenty percent of listeners have experienced what this song is about, and (Pistol Annies) do it with aplomb and with a sense of humor. Why not address it?”
But the saying “Put your money where your mouth is” feels important to cite here. Randy Goodman may have been saying all the right things, but his actions speak louder. Writing a strongly worded letter is one thing. Putting a significant or even equitable promotional budget behind the single would be another, which it appears Sony Nashville has not done. Aside from a 1/3rd page ad in country radio’s trade periodicals such as Country Aircheck on the date the single was released to radio (October 31st), there has been no other public promotion of the single since. Subsequently, “Got My Name Changed Back” hasn’t even entered the Top 60.
And there’s a good chance it never will. Letter or no, “Got My Name Changed Back” was dead on arrival at radio, aside from being a novelty for a few radio stations to spin around the release of the new Pistol Annies record. This is true for many radio singles for women, and while many want to blame radio for the lack of female voices, in large part what radio chooses to play is what the industry tells them to, and not in letters, but in promotional money, of which “Got My Name Changed Back” received very little of.
You don’t want to throw good money at bad, mind you. That’s why promoting singles to country radio is more an art than a science. Established artists simply need to notify radio a single is on the way, and in all likelihood, it will get added immediately. That’s what happened with Luke Combs and his new single “Beautiful Crazy,” which is the most added song on country radio this week. In this week’s issue of Country Aircheck, Florida Georgia Line, Jimmie Allen, Granger Smith, and Russell Dickerson all have full page ads. Wonder how a male country artist barely anyone has even heard of can debut with a #1 radio single? It’s because their label spends money to put them there through ads and promotional budgets to regional radio reps working for the label.
Also with a full page ad in Country Aircheck this week is Big & Rich. They’re the perfect example of an older, past prime act that still can find success on radio, and specifically because they put the effort out to do so via a promotional budget and field team. Everyone thought they were done when the two singles they released from their 2012 record Hillbilly Jedi couldn’t even crack the Top 50. Part of the reason the singles failed is no promotional budget was spent. The lack of success eventually led to them parting ways with Warner Bros. Nashville. Then what did they do? They set up their own record label, started working with a radio promotional firm, and they had three singles from their 2014 record Gravity reach the Top 15, including a #7, “Look At You.” What was the difference? It was all about the effort to push the singles to radio.
Chris Stapleton is another example. After his massive 2015 CMA Awards, the big question everyone had was if radio would actually play him. It took a good while for radio to warm up to Stapleton, but when they actually started to promote him to the format, he got his first #1 in “Broken Halos.” The song has now been Certified platinum (and also won two CMAs), allowing whatever Mercury Nashville spent on promotion to be earned back in sales, spins, and accolades. You’ve got to spend it to make it, and this certainly applies for country radio singles. This week, Mercury Nashville posted a full page ad for Stapleton’s current single “Millionaire,” hoping to get the song to crest on the charts in the coming weeks.
In total, there’s six full page ads for males in country music in this week’s Country Aircheck. There are none for women. There’s not even any half page ads for women, while there’s two more for men.
This is how country radio works, and has for years. Listener requests factor in marginally, if at all to what a radio station plays. Public sentiment is only a slight factor. The principle component to how much radio plays a single is primarily tied to how much a label compels them to. If a single shows weakness, perhaps a label pulls back their promotional budget to save money. In certain circumstances, artists may even have to pay their labels back for radio promotion out of their royalties, which sometimes will pay off in increased sales and exposure, and other times may not. This is one of the reasons Kacey Musgraves and her team decided to purposely not promote any singles to country radio for her recent album Golden Hour, and work in a different direction.
Radio doesn’t have to be part of your plan. The success of Kacey Musgraves is a good example of that, beyond the stories of success in the independent realm of country that doesn’t even trifle with corporate radio. However, a single will never be successful unless a promotional budget is put behind it. And you can’t blame radio for not playing something that isn’t being promoted to it, because that’s they way their system works, fair or not.
People can clamor all day long for radio to “play more women.” But until country music’s major labels begin to heavily promote singles from women to the format in a similar fashion to the males, they’re shouting into the abyss, or at least in the wrong direction. And if there is a purposeful effort by the artist or label to avoid radio and take a different route to promoting an artist or a single like they did with Kacey Musgraves, you can’t blame radio, or the label either for lack of play. And if you have multiple women purposely avoiding radio, it then makes it more difficult for radio to find the equity some are demanding, because in this case, it’s at the choice of the artist.
The Pistol Annies are an important group in country music, and that’s why tracking the success or failure of “Got My Name Changed Back” was an important exercise. Unfortunately, there wasn’t even really anything to track because no real push behind it was ever made. Of course some of this is due to putting the cart before the horse, or assuming a single is going to fail so you don’t waste money promoting it in the first place. But assuming singles from women are going to fail is the self-fulfilling prophesy is at the heart of why the concern for the inequality on country radio is not just a hypothetical, or a tentacle of the #meetoo movement or a political action, but an actual, systemic issue that is going to take pragmatic action to help resolve to make sure every single is given equal opportunity to succeed or fail due to its own fate as opposed to the gender of the artist.
Ashley McBryde is another important artist to keep track of when it comes to the progress of radio singles. After “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” had some moderate success (#30 on radio), her latest single “Radioland” never even got off the runway. Warner Bros. Nashville has now announced her next single will be the great “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” and will be released in early 2019. It’s a song many had pegged as a single from the beginning. But whether radio will play it will depend less on the reception by the public, or some perceived gender preference of radio programmers. It will be primarily based upon the promotional budget put behind it.
Sometimes you put a big budget behind a single, and it still fails. Consumer sentiment, and the personal taste of certain people in radio still factor in to some degree. But it’s a guarantee a single will fail if it doesn’t get promoted. That’s why the radio promotion coming from labels, not radio itself, is key to returning an equitable representation of women on the format.
To get more singles from women played on country radio, you first must make sure singles are even released from women performers (which Saving Country Music advocated for with The Pistol Annies and Kacey Musgraves after delays). Second, you must make sure those singles are equitably promoted to radio. And then, and only then, can radio be lobbied by fans and the public to play those singles, and be held accountable for inequitable treatment if measurable public sentiment behind the single is positive, and it’s still not receiving radio play.
Radio doesn’t play genders. It plays songs. And as a for-profit venture, it’s simply playing what it believes is in its best financial interests. Telling radio to “play more women” when active singles being promoted by labels are scarce and under-promoted is an exercise in futility. Quality, sensible songs from women with proven appeal need to be selected for radio, then fully promoted by labels to be given an equal opportunity. Focusing on one song, one artist, one slot higher in the charts at a time, and then a second one, and then a third one is how a more equitable balance will be returned to radio.