Zach Bryan is currently crossing the final frontier yet to be conquered by an artist not groomed by Music Row. We’re speaking of course about country radio. For months now, Zach Bryan’s single “Something in the Orange” has been either the #1 most streamed song in all of country music, or #2 or #3. This week it’s spending its 6th consecutive week in the #1 streaming spot, while it sits at #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, which considers a broad base of consumption metrics, including country radio play.
“Something in the Orange” achieved another symbolic victory this week, at least on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. It finally made it to #39, which means it’s a Top 40 hit, and Zach Bryan is officially a Top 40 radio artist. The song was already so massive, country radio started playing it under its own volition—something that almost never happens. Generally speaking, radio plays what country’s major labels tell it to.
But a few weeks ago, Zach Bryan’s label Warner Records started actively promoting “Something in the Orange” to radio, giving it an additional boost. What this means is regional radio reps solicit radio stations for play, perhaps Bryan makes some appearances at local stations for interviews and such, and the label places ads in country radio’s trade periodicals like Billboard Country Update, and Country Aircheck promoting the single.
There are currently two different entities tracking radio play: BDS which Billboard pulls from, and Mediabase which Country Airplay uses. Beginning on November 12th, the two charts will officially merge under Luminate, eliminating this weekly discrepancy between the two charts. But currently, Zach Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” is charting worse via Mediabase. While it’s at #39 in Billboard, Mediabase has it at #44, and had it at #49 last week.
Even worse though is the discrepancy between the wild popularity of “Something in the Orange,” the wild popularity of Zach Bryan in general with his album American Heartbreak still solidly at #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart behind Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous, and where “Something in the Orange” is charting on radio. So to point this out, last week Bryan’s record label took out a full page ad in Country Aircheck, basically calling country radio to the mat.
As it points out, “Something in the Orange” was at #1 on the Mediabase streaming chart, with 16, 824,831 streams in a single week, while only coming in at #49 on the Mediabase airplay chart. And for good measure, it also points out that it has over 5 million more weekly streams than the #1 airplay song. Though all the other songs are blurred out in the ad, that #1 airplay song happens to be Morgan Wallen’s “You Proof,” which is currently earning a multi-week stay at #1 on both the Mediabase airplay chart, and the Billboard Airplay chart.
It’s not exactly the notorious ad Rick Rubin once took out in Billboard with Johnny Cash violently flipping the bird during his At San Quentin days, mocking country radio and the Nashville establishment for not playing his songs while he racked up Grammy Awards for his American Recordings releases. But in many respects, the ad much smarter, and more illustrative of just the kind of inequities more independent-minded artists face in mainstream country, regardless of their popularity, and especially on country radio.
Hopefully the ad is taken as informative without being insulting. Even on an equal playing field, singles still take time to develop on country radio. “Something in the Orange” continues to climb, and could still very well make it to #1 on radio too.
The ad also points out something else about the current balance of power in country music. Though it’s very fair to continue to consider Morgan Wallen as the #1 artist in country at the moment, Zach Bryan unequivocally has the #1 song. You combine that with the #2 album, the fact that Zach Bryan is beating Wallen on the Billboard Songwriters chart where he’s now been at #1 for 20 weeks in 2022, and you can make the case that Zach Bryan is challenging Wallen for country music’s most popular artist at the moment.
But of course, you won’t see Zach Bryan at the CMA Awards coming up on November 9th. He didn’t even receive a nomination for Best New Artist, let alone Album of the Year, or Single/Song of the Year for “Something in the Orange,” despite the dominance Zach Bryan is showing in country music at the moment. Zach hasn’t even been invited to perform at the CMAs at this point. He won’t be appearing or even presenting an award, unless the CMAs call a last minute audible. That’s right, the artist with the biggest song in all of country music at the moment, and the second biggest album all year won’t even be in the building.
But Zach Bryan doesn’t need country radio or the CMA Awards. Country radio and the CMA Awards need Zach Bryan. The mainstream can no longer afford to ignore the swelling appeal for artists not just thriving, but dominating country music outside of country radio and the Music Row system.
On October 19th, “Something in the Orange” was Certified Platinum by the RIAA while it still resided well outside the Top 40 on radio. Country artists like Zach Bryan no longer need radio to land a massive hit. Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, Whiskey Myers, and others have done this too. Continue to ignore Zach Bryan—on radio and elsewhere—and risk losing the last vestiges of relevance radio and the industry continue to cling to.