When researching the country music industry, it’s impossible not to note the importance of radio during country music’s near-100-year history. As a country music fan and consumer, I have personally grown up listening to country radio. To artists and professionals within the industry, radio is the gatekeeper that decides which artist will and won’t have a successful recording career. Country music artists become superstars after either garnering a collection of successful hits, hitting it “big” with one single or, in most cases, both. Country music artists of the past owe their careers to radio. Over this past decade, I have observed artists utilize alternative forms of marketing, promotions and channels in order to have their music heard by the public (and, subsequently, reach their target demographic). From utilizing social media in the mid-2000s to now adapting to music streaming and other forms of viral marketing, artists have had opportunities to think outside of the box and reach their target audience through other means. Some artists have chosen to do this, and some of those same artists are now among country music’s biggest performers. Still, industry professionals will insist that promotion through radio airplay is the main (and, more importantly, only) key to success. But considering there are artists who have become superstars through both traditional and alternative methods, it’s hard to say where the industry will head in the future.
As a student and historian of the country music genre, I wanted to find out why these new viral forms of marketing and promotion were working for country music artists. I also wanted to know if, in fact, radio airplay should still be the primary marketing channel to promote artists in the industry. Because of this, I chose to research and discuss the idea further in this thesis. The purpose of this research is to: (1) review the critical and historical role of radio in the development of the country music industry, (2) discuss the role and meaning of radio today, (3) provide case studies of emerging independent business models, (4) highlight the impact of new technologies including streaming, and (5) reflect on the role of radio in the industry in the future. Throughout my research, I found that most industry professionals and some scholars view radio airplay as the most important channel for country music artists. I found several factors that have helped to build up the idea that radio is key. Those factors were: no country artist up until this point has become a superstar without radio airplay, country music artists are forced by their respective record labels to go on radio tours to promote themselves, and finally, radio airplay is how country music gained popularity as a commercial genre. Through the use of several examples of artists sidestepping airplay as their gateway into the industry, I chose to study these artists because of their impressive sales, chart, and award histories. This thesis explores the idea of alternative channels for country artists to have their music heard and what value it holds for consumers and the industry in general now and in the future. This paper has four parts. In section one, I review the history of the role of radio in the development of the country music industry, including the impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In section two, I discuss the traditional and emerging role of radio, controversies surrounding its importance, and how radio has been integrated into the demand generating and distribution process. In section three, I present case studies that reflect emerging independent, integrated, and hybrid models driven by country-music performers. I also discuss key research concerning what drives the diffusion and popularity of songs. In section four, I discuss technological impacts especially with respect to streaming services as well as a discussion on what radio is today. Finally, in section five, I conclude with an assessment of the role of radio today and its probable impact in the future. The study will be structured as follows:
- Development of the Industry
- 2. Revisiting The Controversial Quote
How The Process Works
- Independent Models
Doing Well Without Radio/Do All Artists Desire Airplay
What Makes a Hit a Hit
- Case Studies
– The Underdog, Aaron Watson
– Sturgill Simpson
– Chris Stapleton
– Radio Is Useful, Kacey Musgraves
– Legacy Arts
– Cody Jinks
– Kane Brown
Implications – What is Radio About?
- Streaming and New Technologies
Streaming and Technology
- Discussion – Radio in the Modern Era
Meaning of Radio
- Radio and the Future
Conclusion – Radio Stills Matter For Now
Introduction to the Study
The belief that country music artists can only succeed through marketing themselves to radio personnel will no longer make sense in the contemporary country music industry. According to data reported at the Billboard Country Music Summit (2011), the current country music audience no longer matches with the country music audience of the past. The data presented at the Summit was based upon a Mediamark Research and Intelligence (MRI) survey of 25,000 Americans as well as surveys of 3,600 CMA Music Festival attendees. This research showed 42% of the U.S. Population are country music fans, approximately 95 million people. Country music is no longer confined to only rural audiences – it reaches individuals from all regions, income levels, and age ranges. CMA Market Research Director Greg Fuson says that country music audiences of today need to be engaged because of the spending power they hold. This expansion of country music’s demographics has left an unanswered question of how all these people are listening to country music.
In the country music industry, radio airplay is the most important entity for an artist to have, according to industry professionals. While a quote surrounding this will be further examined and dissected later in this thesis, former CEO of Sony Music Nashville Chairman Gary Overton once said, “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist” (Rau, 2015). The marketing for artists when it comes to airplay is also intense as evidenced by radio consultant Keith Hill who said, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out” (Country Aircheck).
Several industry-specific publications were consulted for this thesis: Rolling Stone Country, Roughstock, the Recording Industry Association of America, Billboard, the Tennessean, Country Aircheck, Saving Country Music, and Radio & Records all provided information such as chart statistics, interviews, and other data that was beneficial to the study. These industry-specific sources provided information and unique insights into the country music establishment. Additionally, these sources also provided certain information that is not readily available from other sources. The types of literature reviewed from these publications included sales data, news, and feature articles and interviews.
Several scholarly writings were also consulted for this study. “A Tower In Babel” by Eric Barnouw, “The WLS National Barn Dance Story The Early Years” by George Biggar, “The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry” by Diane Pecknold, “The Oxford Handbook of Country Music” edited by Travis Stimeling with a heavy focus on Eric Weisbard’s “Country Radio: Format and Genre,” and “Music radio: The great performers and programs of the 1920s through early 1960s” by Jim Cox were all pivotal works in helping me to shape my discussion on country radio’s history from its inception up to the modern day. “A Creative Industry in Transition: The Rise of Digitally Driven Independent Music Production. Growth and Change” by Brian J. Hracs and “Appetite for Self-Destruction” by Steve Knopper, helped shape my discussion on the rise of streaming services and new technological channels opening up in the music industry. “How Nashville Became Music City, U.S.A.: 50 Years of Music Row” by Michael Kosser helped me to tie in country music’s long-standing history of traditionalism and conservative business practices with a vision for the future of why the industry must adapt to survive. All of these sources provided knowledge both from the content and presentation of the work as general knowledge as to how radio has impacted the country music genre.
Additional sources included an interview conducted with industry veteran Tammy Ragusa in October 2018, who provided excellent insight into how country music singles are selected for radio play and what goes into the process. I also conducted an interview with Bloodshot Records marketing director Michael David Smith in January 2019. The purpose of this interview was to gain an insight into how marketing directors at labels who handle country music artists market their artists without the help of FM/mainstream radio.
The purpose of this study is to explore some aspects of the country music industry including its history with the radio format as well as its future. This study will utilize data collected from artists who don’t receive regular airplay to show how artists can sustain a thriving career without the help of country radio. I will also pull data from studies that suggest radio’s troubles in the near future as well as offer a plan for artists moving forward in the music industry. This study intends to further explore ways in which artists can market themselves through all of the available channels they have in the modern day.
This study was guided by four main research questions:
Research Question 1: Why has radio seemingly been a strong part of country music’s history?
Research Question 2: In the modern day, why are record labels pouring so much money into sending singles up airplay charts as well as sending artists on radio tours when other methods exist?
Research Question 3: What aspects of the country music industry have compelled certain artists to remain “independent,” that is, remain either with an independent record label or leave radio out of their marketing plan?
Research Question 4: How do record labels select which singles from artists will compete for radio play?
Problem & Significance
One problem that exists in the contemporary country music industry is the conflicting viewpoint that artists do and don’t need radio airplay in order to break into the market and reach their target audience. According to former Sony Nashville Chairman/CEO Gary Overton, “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist” (Rau, 2015). Meanwhile, former journalist Grady Smith says, “it’s imperative that country radio starts looking … to the people not already on radio. Because if the format doesn’t, then country radio will become so one-note that it will collapse upon itself and go the way of rock radio, ceasing to exist altogether” (Smith, 2015). These conflicting viewpoints come from similar industry professionals working within, industry journalists and scholars who write about country music, and finally, the artists themselves. This study seeks to examine the impact of radio on country music’s history and to explore whether it is, in fact, the key driver for success in the country music industry. This study seeks to annotate country music’s history and relationship with the radio format and digital landscape over the past 20 years.
The research method utilized for this study was document review. Documents reviewed included scholarly journals, industry publications, business publications and hardcover books written about the genre presented. One key benefit to conducting document review, according to the University of Portsmouth, is that it allows readers to access information that is otherwise unobtainable (Portsmouth, 2012). This is especially true in this study, as reaching out to industry professionals is either very difficult or impossible. Document review also allows readers to use research spread out across long periods of time. This study explores the country music genre all the way since its inception in 1922 of note. This study will also benefit from the perspectives of both marketing director for Bloodshot Records Michael David Smith and former Capitol Records affiliate Tammy Ragusa.
Country Music on the Radio in the Beginning (1920’s-40’s)
The symbiotic relationship between country music and the radio is not surprising. After all, country music has been around nearly as long as the radio. The southern United States’ first radio station wasn’t even intended to popularize hillbilly culture. On March 15, 1922, an artist named Fiddlin’ John Carson entertained audiences on WSB in Atlanta, Georgia in what researchers believe to be the second performance of a country artist on the radio (Weisbard, 2017). As noted by historian Wayne Daniel, the first daily schedule printed in the paper included Earl Fuller’s Original New York Jazz Orchestra, with station management averse to promoting any sort of old-time talent. In a business sense, hillbilly culture had no room for WSB’s marketing. Yet within the first eight days of the broadcast, Carson, a man with a history of fiddle contest wins, soon became a station fixture. Radio made the first country star famous.
WSB saw this as an opportunity in the waiting. By 1930, the station hosted more than 100 acts marketed to a rural audience. Many other southern radio stations also began broadcasting country musicians who came their way through vaudeville or minstrel circuits or from rural areas and mountaintops. Most of these artists played for free since the radio gave them free exposure and opened new pathways to new audiences. In fact, prior to these broadcasts, record companies recorded very few hillbilly acts since they didn’t think they would be popular enough to justify the expense.
Carson and others had proved them wrong. For Carson, his celebrity status translated into releases on Okeh Records, as did they for Roba Stanley, the first woman recording old-time music and a WSB regular. Riley Puckett of WSB became the first country artist for Columbia Records in 1924 (Ankeny, AllMusic). “Hillbilly,” a term synonymous with country music, became popularized when George Daniell’s Hill Billies appeared in 1925. This station, like all stations of the time, broadcasted content for different audiences. Farmers were targeted as listeners early in the morning and during dinner breaks; comedians told jokes, and acts traveled the broadcast area to perform. If anything, radio time was merely used for branding purposes, not to get paid.
Radio’s success forced record companies to expand their record catalogues because many people quit buying albums of music they could hear on the radio for free (Barnouw, 1966). It was only after those first few country radio performances that record companies began to take its popularity seriously. In 1924, the hunt for talent began with Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were within two days of each other. From there, a very simple business model emerged – the country singer was now a commercial singer; therefore, he, she or they tended to adapt his, her or their style to whatever would please the listener. Radio was undeniably a huge force in determining how musicians presented their material.
While WSB was the first of its kind to properly identify an audience, WLS, based out of Chicago, produced country radio’s first pivotal format – the radio barn dance. Known for being a program filled with fiddle and banjo solos along with square dance, country music, and comedy, WBAP based out of Fort Worth, Texas is credited with broadcasting the first barn dance on January 4, 1923 (they were not associated with most of the earliest barn dances, however, since theirs weren’t regularly scheduled until sometime in 1927). It’s believed that by introducing the barn dance concept, WBAP may have influenced the program elsewhere (such as on WLS) seeing as how they could be heard as far as New York, Canada, Hawaii and Haiti (Carney, 1974).
WLS’s Saturday evening program took the same approach to the barn dance theme by incorporating dance tunes, comedy skits, ballads and anything else that would fit. They launched stars of their own, one of whom was George D. Hay who would later start the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee (Hay was merely a station announcer at the time). One hour of the show was sponsored by Alka-Seltzer and broadcast on the NBC Radio Network from September 30, 1933 to April 28, 1946, launching several stars in the process including Gene Autry, Jimmy Dean, Red Foley and Bradley Kincaid among others, more examples of radio introducing new artists into the format (Biggar, 1971). WLS started out broadcasting like many other stations, but according to station manager Edgar L. Bill, “when it came to Saturday night, it was quite natural to book in old-time music, including old-time fiddling, banjo and guitar music and cowboy songs. We leaned toward the homey, old-time familiar tunes because we were a farm station primarily” (Biggar, 1971).
WSM, based in Nashville, took this barn dance format a step further when it introduced the Grand Ole Opry. They began broadcasting October 5, 1925, with George D. Hay joining them one month later (Kosser, 2006). Before all of this, Dave Macon, a banjo-skilled vaudeville professional (who would later be the Opry’s first big star) had appeared in what later became the Opry’s home and “mother church of country music,” the Ryman Auditorium. Macon had performed there for a policemen’s benefit show on WSM. Beyond taking the barn dance concept even further, WSM succeeded because it had a quality investment behind it (which was unusual for the broadcasting industry in these days). The station was owned by National Life and Accident Insurance Company, co-founded by the Craig family. The idea for radio came to fruition when Edwin W. Craig, the son of the company’s president, C.A. Craig, suggested that a radio station could help with selling insurance. It seems strange to think of an early radio station crucial to the rise of country music as one that was ahead of its time. With velvet drapes, first-class microphones and a gorgeous studio though, WSM fit that description nicely. According to Robert Oermann, “From the very get-go, it had one of the most powerful signals in the South” (Kosser, 2006). Initially rated at 1,000 watts, this put WSM in the top 15% of radio stations around the U.S., giving exposure in locations hundreds of miles away.
The Grand Ole Opry show began about a month after the station began broadcasting. Over the next three decades, many well-known Saturday night country music based shows would air on radio and television, airing in locations all over the country. However, these shows paid their artists very little. However, as previously stated with WSB, the performances meant free exposure for the artists to allow them to book into schoolhouses and gyms around local areas. Unfortunately, these live shows also paid very little to their artists. Throughout country music history, while radio gave rise to country music’s stardom, it also came at the price of little to no pay for artists. By 1932, The Opry continued to maintain a unique identity among other radio shows. They built a tower on Concord Road in Brentwood, Tennessee that, at the time, was the tallest radio tower in the world. Wanting to also maintain its first-class status, they upped the signal to 50,000 watts (Kosser, 2006).
This first-class status didn’t mean The Opry didn’t have its competitors, however. In 1937, John Lair created the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Unlike The Opry, Lair forbade cowboy attire. He also won a General Foods sponsored CBS network pickup for his “Valley Where Time Stands Still” homespun mix of an all-women string band, comedians in overalls named Homer & Jethro and a media savvy Red Foley (Stamper, 1999). In 1948, Shreveport, Louisiana gave birth to the last of the big radio barn dances when it introduced the Louisiana Hayride. It became known as the “cradle of the stars” for launching stars like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. In contrast to The Opry, Louisiana Hayride welcomed drums and female singers, giving a start to both Kitty Wells and Rose Maddox (Weisbard, 2017).
The Opry fought back, seeking to remain the best and biggest station by recruiting many of the biggest stars of the day, one of which was the aforementioned Williams. By making it star-studded, record companies in Nashville were attracted to this concept. It became easier to bring the equipment there and record rather than taking the artists to places like Dallas or Chicago (Dallas was a big recording area for country music at the time).
As shown through its history and even the competition between radio stations, country music as a category of American commercial music rose up through live radio broadcasts. By 1944, Billboard counted 600 regular country radio shows in the United States aimed at around 40 million listeners. This included both barn dances and single-artist programs. For country music, this rise can also be attributed to the intimacy of the artist-fan bond that radio offered listeners – something that grew especially strong as radio replaced records during the Depression years. Aside from this, country singers simply lacked other media outlets to have their music heard at the time. The only other option to be a singing cowboy or cowgirl in the film industry. Southern, working-class white performers garnered reputations as “hillbillies,” meaning that country radio became the place to succeed within the stereotype, feel, and challenge those limits (Weisbard, 2017).
Personality Radio (1940’s-70’s)
In the three decades after the end of World War II, country music’s golden age centered on the story of Nashville as a center of music production more than it did the radio. However, radio can be thanked for country music’s music publishing. Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) was started by the National Association of Broadcasters to challenge the Tin Pan Alley music publishers of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). In addition, new institutional players were emerging, such as when Fred Rose partnered with Opry idol Roy Acuff to establish Acuff-Rose, a publishing wing on the growing Music Row, followed by recording studios. Rose could network with Mitch Miller, head of A&R at Columbia Records based in New York, to get Rose’ biggest signee Hank Williams’ songs covered by pop superstars such as Tony Bennett. In terms of music business, Nashville during this time was swiftly becoming an industry town (Weisbard, 2017).
By 1950, approximately 1,400-disc jockey programs devoted to country music existed nationally, and record spinners began meeting regularly at WSM’s (home of The Opry) annual Disc Jockey Festival. While BMI attended, ASCAP didn’t. In 1953, 65% of American radio stations played country music on at least one show, with 236 radio stations playing country music for more than 20 hours per week. While this will be explored further, by 1956, country disc jockey power was fading due to payola fears restricting radio jocks’ music choices. By 1961, this effect was seen, as only 36% of radio stations offered a country music show. In addition, only 112 radio stations played up to eight hours of country music per week (Pecknold, 2007).
In response to these shifts, country music leaders took action. The Country Music Association (CMA) started sponsoring sales pitches to radio stations switching their playlists to include less country music. This meant that country music listeners became a distinct audience – blue collar in jobs and taste, yet urbanized and in postwar prosperity spending a middle-class income (Weisbard, 2017). Still, the words associated with the audience began to change too, with California radio stations moving from an emphasis on “talking hillbillies” to an audience that, as Joe Allison states, could “keep it smooth” (Pecknold, 2007). By 1960, Allison took steps toward turning the Bay Area’s KSAY radio station to an all-country music station called “The Blue Collar Giant.” At KRAK in Sacramento, Allison adopted a looser format approach in 1962, mixing old and new country music styles. Radio stations in New York and Chicago took similar approaches in 1965. In fact, when New York City’s WJRZ switched to country music, a memo from management told staffers, “it will be sophisticated, it will not be ‘hokeyed up’” (Pecknold, 2007).
As a result of these changes, country music experienced tremendous success. The 81 fulltime country music stations in 1961 had grown to 606 in 1969, with superstars such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard emanating from this boom. Country music had moved from a “hillbilly” culture to one that was more savvy and sophisticated, something that led to Johnny Cash hosting his own national television show. These strengths did not come without their weaknesses. Program directors began moonlighting in other areas, such as the WENO program director who introduced producer Shelby Singleton to a performer named Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson (later renamed Jeannie C. Riley), who was given the huge hit song, “Harper Valley PTA.” The song that sold 4.8 million copies since it was aimed at a pop audience just as much as it was aimed at a country music one (Hemphill, 1970).
In fact, pop music was beginning to loom over country music. Industry figure Chet Atkins even worried that country music was “going to lose its identity” (Hemphill, 1970). On country radio during this time, Jack Stapp of Tree Publishing noted that “they started modernizing it more because disc jockeys began to get more requests whenever something came out that was a little smoother, like an Eddy Arnold song … It just got smoother and smoother, and then it started blending with more pop music” (Hemphill, 1970). This didn’t come without its benefits though. To give one example, Webb Pierce sold 100,000 copies of one single, meaning he made a total of $6,500, and similar situations occurred for other artists (Hemphill, 1971). Country radio’s tone changed. Older disc jockeys with exaggerated drawls and hayseed jokes were on their way out to make room for disc jockeys who showed class and advertised.
As captured by Kim Simpson, country radio formats boomed for a second straight decade. In 1977, market share had increased by 52.3% in only five years (Simpson, 2009). Still, this didn’t come without its inner conflicts on how to maintain this consistency. Winning radio stations blended formats and favored artists with general-appeal sounds. Certain program directors like Ted Cramer of KCKN based in Kansas City worried about “message music” such as Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” offending the non-hardcore country music fans. MCA especially favored crossover hits, with top 40 hits for Conway Twitty, Olivia Newton-John and Jeanne Pruett all emanating during this time period. Charlie Rich “celebrated” this crossover success by burning the card that named John Denver the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1975 (Simpson, 2009).
This polarizing nature could be seen for many artists. On one hand, someone like Johnny Cash felt suppressed by country radio programming at the time, putting an advertisement in a trade publication for his Bitter Tears album accusing stations of wanting to “wallow in meaninglessness” (Cash, 1997). On the other hand, someone like Loretta Lynn used the support of country music disc jockeys to her advantage, using their power to turn her first, independently released single, “Honky Tonk Girl” into a hit. Later on in her memoir, Lynn would criticize country radio for being hesitant to play her birth control anthem, “The Pill,” but it had enough support behind it regardless to become a top 5 hit (Lynn, 1976).
Country Music’s Commercial Boost (70’s-90’s)
In 1975, WMAQ became the most listened-to radio station in America after new station manager Bob Pittman became program manager and changed it to fit a “rural contemporary” country music format. WAMQ’s style was “a researched format with a short playlist and a contemporary Top 40 presentation” (Salamon, 2013). Pittman had found discrepancies between record sales and call-out research. For example, pop-leaning artists such as Glen Campbell or Olivia Newton John appealed to passive listeners who didn’t buy albums or call radio station request lines. Pittman wished for active listeners and a strong format identity. With these tactics, country radio had become the most powerful player in the country music industry. During this time, playlists had become relatively narrow and restricted, but it could now launch superstars as successfully as any other genre in commercial music. As music sociologist Keith Negus said in 1996, radio had become “the funnel that we all had to go through” (Negus, 1999). Country music had suddenly become fashionable with its own brand image. Between Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, hit movies such as Urban Cowboy and Coal Miner’s Daughter and the hit television series, Dallas, Detroit program director said, “as people are thinking more and more of patriotic things, this has helped country radio more than anything” (Duncan, 1980).
Country music’s pop culture status was short lived. By 1985, the Urban Cowboy phenomenon had ended, and sales of country music albums were down to levels not seen since before the boom. A study from Radio & Records found that Top 40 radio stations featured under 2% country-originated songs before the boom, 5-6% from 1980-82, and as of 1985, none. Ken Barnes of The New York Times even speculated if the genre was “dying out” by then (Barnes, 1985). In 1987, WHH completely dropped country music from its rotation. In order to combat this decline, country music was forced to reinvent itself. Producer Jimmy Bowen’s arrival helped with that. Bowen, who brought Los Angeles clout to record selling, worked with young up and coming artists such as George Strait, the Judds and Reba McEntire to craft what was known as a “neo-traditional” sound, a sound that shunned any sort of pop or AC (adult-contemporary) crossover. A Seattle radio program director noted at the time that this approach worked because “they [the artists] sound traditional to the upper demos while also being acceptable to the younger demos” (Helton, 1987). Country music was now fully centered on FM radio stations.
By the end of 1991, country music had bested adult contemporary (AC), with country music holding 46% of listeners while AC held 24%. Younger listenership rose, as evidenced when Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” spawned a line-dance craze in 1992. Cyrus, then a hunky, good-looking singer was adored by younger female listeners. With the arrival of younger listeners, older listeners over the age of 35 fell that same year. Cyrus’ hit even crossed over to AC and Top 40. Norm Schrutt remarked that “country records that cross over have the highest degree of burn” (Radio & Records, 1993). Country music was simultaneously in good hands and trouble. Listener numbers plateaued in 1993 before dropping in 1994 and beyond. Columnist Lon Helton remarked at the end of 1995 that “1995 will go down as the year programmers, consultants and researchers detected waning ‘passion levels’ for the music among country listeners” (Helton, 1995).
In the 1990s, Congress and the FCC, both bent on deregulating radio, tossed the old model of radio stations as locally-owned business serving a local public aside (Kosser, 2006). As a result, companies such as Infinity, Cumulus and especially Clear Channel Communications spent copious amounts of money to buy huge numbers of radio stations. Tim DuBois explains simply that the amount of revenue radio can generate is limited due to time constraints. Due to the public not wanting to sit through multiple commercials in one day, the growth opportunities are limited, meaning that costs have to be reduced somewhere (Kosser, 2006). In radio’s case, those reduced costs come through in the promotion costs. With radio stations getting record labels to step up and provide entities such as free artist shows and free merchandise, this goes toward cutting those costs. “Because you have six and seven radio stations owned by the same chain in a metropolitan area, they don’t cross-promote. They don’t attempt to bring people over from other formats nearly as aggressively as they used to, because you’d be bringing them over from their own stations” (Kosser, 2006). DuBois refers to this as a “cluster mentality” which means radio attempts to increase the time spent listening within said cluster, which they do by trying to figure out their core audience. As a result, this leads to radio super-serving this core audience in order to increase their listening time. With a single act of legislation, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed corporate conglomerates to own an unlimited number of radio stations. This event traces its roots back to the 1940s when the United States Federal Communications Commission strictly limited owners to a single station. Those restrictions eroded over time, with ownership in 1996 capping at 40 per owner before the act was enabled.
The result of this act led to quick consolidation. In seven years, Clear Channel Communications grew to own more than 1,200 stations. As of 2002, only 10 companies controlled a 65% share of the radio audience, and the stations that were programmed by the owners were expected to operate in uniform fashion (Cooper, 2006 Kingsbury, Nash). Artistically, this also affected the types of songs that would succeed at radio. Everything from then on was expected to fit neatly into a prescribed format, with one song’s drums, bass, and other elements not dissimilar from the next. The goal now for radio programmers was not to sell music for artists and record labels, but to keep people from turning the dial, which they might if they heard something out of the ordinary. As such, something such as the O Brothers, Where Art Thou? soundtrack released in 2000 could win Grammy awards and sell eight million records but couldn’t break through to FM country music airwaves (Cooper, 2006). Looking at country music through a broader scope that focuses on its business end, radio was not the only facet of the music business affected by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. During country music’s “boom” years in the early 1990s, there were multiple record companies. By mid-2005, there were four major companies left – Universal, Sony BMG, Warner Brothers and EMI. Only four major publishers remained too – EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner Brothers – all owned by the aforementioned companies which control the record labels. As such, songwriters who worked for these publishers had a better chance at getting their songs cut by a major label artist, but they were also discouraged from penning their songs alone. Instead, they were encouraged to co-write as many songs as possible. According to Peter Cooper, there was an average of 1.12 songwriters per No. 1 Billboard country music hit in 1961. By the mid-1990s, there were above two writers per hit (Cooper, 2006). The thought process behind this was that the if there were more writers contributing to a song, the idea would become more formulaic after awhile instead of original, something which once again factored in to every song needing to fit nicely into the aforementioned prescribed format.
Radio In The Modern Day (2000 – present)
Unfortunately, country radio’s history over the past two decades has not been well-documented. The history that is documented shows country radio was affected by singular events rather than the movements or timeframes of before. The story of the Dixie Chicks is one such story that is believed to be about the radio. When singer Natalie Maines (one-third of the group) made comments saying how she was ashamed former President George Bush was from Texas in 2003, many country radio stations started dropping their music. WTDR based in Talladega, Alabama was the first station to boycott their music even though they had the number one song in the genre at the time. Events discussed before circulating around the Telecommunications Act affected this ban, because the end of ownership limits with the act meant that other stations could easily follow suit. Again, radio’s job is to not offend people, so a polarizing comment such as that meant that radio and the Dixie Chicks could not reunite.
Another instance that saw country music start to have to embrace the future was the arrival of Taylor Swift in 2006. Swift had name-checked Tim McGraw in her aptly titled debut single, “Tim McGraw,” saying at the time, “radio is the biggest priority for me and building those relationships” (Weisbard, 2014). On the other hand, she was covering rapper Eminem in her concerts and courting contemporary pop culture. Big Machine Records label head Scott Borchetta said, “we wanted her to go viral, and she was – particularly with the younger, internet-savvy crowd” (Weisbard, 2014). Even radio programmer Becky Brenner had to admit, “her popularity on MySpace was a big deal for us.” In 2014, Swift announced plans to record her next album, 1989 outside of the country genre, marketing it exclusively to the pop music market. As evidenced from the portion of the study, country music’s relationship with the radio runs deep. Had it not been for radio, there might not even be a country music genre. Still, with impending changes facing radio in 2019, it’s time to start looking toward the future and seeing how country music can adapt to radio’s changes.
Behind The Scenes of Radio Play in Country Music
Revisiting The Controversial Quote
It’s important to remember the context of when and where Gary Overton made his now infamous remarks on the country music industry. He stated these words to reporter Nate Rau in an interview with The Tennessean while Overton was at CRS, otherwise known as Country Radio Seminar.
CRS is, according to Overton, “a trade organization specifically for a certain genre of music for radio” (Rau, 2015). What started out as a way for radio DJs to come to town so they could see the artists and interact with the record labels grew into an event with panels set up throughout the day. The agenda is set by the Country Radio Broadcasters (CRB), and the panels discuss everything in the business such as how to drive numbers, what social media means in the modern age, how to drive more revenue, how to make a festival a winning festival and much more. “I can’t imagine this happening in any other genre of music,” Overton said at the time, and given country music’s history with radio, that’s more than a fair statement (Rau 2015). CRS offers a time for record labels to tell programmers, operation managers, and station owners what their priorities are with current superstars and introduce new artists.
In regards to his more controversial quote, Overton expanded on it, stating, “I can’t think of one star, much less superstar in country music, who wasn’t broken by country radio. It’s just a fact. That’s where the active audience is … I defy you to tell me one act that made it big without country radio” (Rau, 2015). Still, even Overton had to admit later on, “just being on the radio in and of itself is not a goal for us because we have to sell. So you could have a single that goes up the charts and does very well at radio, but we don’t make money at that. We have to sell” (Rau, 2015). Overton stated that due to decreased digital track sales because of streaming, he picked singles based on the concept of, “If we truly have one shot, what would I want the world to hear of this artist?”
An in-depth investigation by music journalist Emily Yahr in June 2017 revealed what goes on when an artist begins their development at radio. Her story begins with Carly Pearce, a signee of Big Machine Records who released her debut single, “Every Little Thing” in February 2017. Pearce’s radio tour first involved trying to impress three people in a conference room at 94.9 FM The Bull in Atlanta, Georgia. The three people are the assistant program director, the music director, and the program director (the boss). This is the process that determines whether or not an artist makes it at radio. If the program directors find favorable reception with the artist in question, that artist’s music gets added to the stations. It could move from light to medium to heavy rotation, and if enough stations follow through, the song could eventually reach No. 1 on the charts. This leads to the release of an album which leads to being a bigger draw at concert events, to earning awards and, finally, launching an arena tour (which signals the true mark of a superstar).
According to Yahr and even Overton’s comments from before, this is a tradition very steeply ingrained in country music. Even in the modern age, radio is the gatekeeper. In Pearce’s case, this process extends for months, forcing her to travel all across American to radio stations so she can introduce herself and play her music for radio programmers. Per Yahr, “they focus on the approximately 172 country stations whose ratings make up the Billboard and Mediabase charts out of about 1,850 total in the country (Yahr, 2017). The cost for the record label equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The biggest catch of all is that there’s no guarantee of success.
In 2017, country music was the third-largest radio format in the nation, reaching as many as 68 million listeners a week (Yahr, 2017). Overton’s remarks about the closeness between country radio and the artists was not an exaggeration. As established before, even someone like Loretta Lynn had to drive around to radio stations all around the country to get them to play her debut single, “Honky-Tonk Girl.” As to why programmers do it, they have a limited amount of space on their programs, so the tours offer them a chance to judge the artists themselves and see if there’s room for them. Basically, radio is in the advertising business, because if stations make an investment in an artist, it has to pay off.
The actual day could look like the following – the artist travels around in a rental car, bus, or airplane with a regional radio representative. The early morning could involve vocal warm-ups before a visit to a certain station. The afternoon could consist of visiting one or two more, with dinner with a station taking up the majority of the night. If the radio station has partnerships with other businesses, they could ask the artist to play there, or they could stream their performance on Facebook Live.
For record labels, they will initially foot the bill for this tour (and it is certainly required of all artists), with costs running anywhere between $7,000 to $10,000 a week (Yahr, 2017). This is a smart investment for record labels since they can usually recover those losses from artist’s future recordings. For the artists though? The cost may not be worth it. They don’t receive a daily rate during the radio tour, but everyone around them does. Country artist Kelsea Ballerini even remarked that she couldn’t pay her rent when she got home from her radio tour. Any artist signed to a major record label that thinks they can skip around the process is wrong, because even record label executives are on board with the idea. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I don’t send a new act on a radio tour,” said Jon Loba, executive vice president of Broken Bow Music Group (Yahr, 2017).
The model is not outdated either. Artists Parmalee and Justin Moore didn’t initially embark on a radio tour. In Parmalee’s case, their debut single, “Musta Had A Good Time” peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in 2012. When they went on a traditional tour promoting their second single, “Carolina,” the single climbed all the way to the top spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Moore’s debut single, “Back That Thing Up” was accompanied only by a music video upon initial release in 2008. Coincidentally, it also only snagged a No. 38 peak on Billboard’s Airplay chart. His follow-up single, “Small Town U.S.A” went to the top spot after Moore embarked on a traditional radio tour.
Ultimately, the main element to garner from Yahr’s investigation is that radio is undeniably the gatekeeper when it comes to determining who will and won’t make it in country music. Any financial costs can easily be recovered by the label, but it does call into question whether or not the physical and mental exhaustion is worth it for the artist in question. At the end of the day, the music business sells people as products. Plus, artists make no money for months and don’t know if it will work out. Proof of this can be seen in the case of duo Love & Theft. While the duo originally garnered a No. 1 hit with “Angel Eyes” in 2012, their follow-up singles failed to gain traction. It’s not as if they didn’t try to turn them into hits, however. Per Stephen Barker Liles (one half of the duo), “For the last two years, we have done a lot of radio shows. We really committed to that. We were on the road 250 days last year , I think” (Gold, 2015). The other half of the duo, Eric Gunderson shared that their efforts paid off in certain markets. “In three or four markets in the country, we’re one of their biggest artists. We go there and can play to 15,000 people and go to another market and you sell 250 tickets. It’s amazing what kind of effect radio does have on your ticket sales” (Gold, 2015).
If anything, this entire concept calls back in mind to when artists played their Saturday night shows on The Grand Ole Opry for little pay. The pay comes through in exposure, but there’s a big difference between a business model that worked in the 1920s compared to one in 2019. Fortunately, while radio is still the best avenue for artists to reach their target market, it is no longer the only avenue.
Doing Well With and Without Terrestrial Radio
Do All Artists Desire Radio Airplay?
A 2012 piece from Brian Hracs highlights the biggest problems facing independent musicians in the modern world. According to Hracs, independent musicians now have to work longer hours and devote more time to non-creative tasks, such as booking shows, applying for grant money, and promoting their music online. Despite working harder however, artists are earning less money, with incomes declining approximately 26% for musicians (Hracs, 2012). With this in mind, one has to wonder, why certain musicians choose to market themselves this way
There are many answers to that question, with one offered by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton’s discussion on what identity is in a study. The two describe identity as, “a term used to describe a person’s social category, a person’s self-image, how people feel about themselves as well as how those feelings depend on their actions (Akerlof, Kranton, 2005). Perhaps independent musicians choose to remain independent because of their identity. The artistic side of the musician doesn’t want to have to compromise with a business side. They also mention “norms,” which is how people think they, as well as others should act (Akerlof, Kranton, 2005). They determine what we should all be doing. The radio is an example of one of these types of norms. Traditionally, the radio has always been a way of telling what is and what isn’t popular. What they play is what we as music consumers listen to. If we do not like it, we may choose not to listen to it, however if we do wish to listen, the music the radio plays is what we will hear. Their playlist is a norm for one’s listening experience. The two also mention “social categories.” We use these categories to break down groups of people and classify them by how they act. This is something seen with not only the artists played on the radio today, but also with the consumers who listen to music. With any genre of music, you have artists who conform to the mainstream norms and record music that fits with the friendly radio climate, as evidenced as far back as when artists adapted to fit consumer desires on WSB back in 1924. You also have the non-mainstream acts who, while often recording more critically acclaimed music, often suffer from a lack of radio play. Taste is a subjective component of music. How that is decided is up to each individual person. Choosing styles of music genre that we like, as well as leaning more towards mainstream or non-mainstream is how we identify with a particular group.
What Makes A “Hit” Song?
How do we gain an accurate measure of what is and what isn’t likely to succeed? After all, according to Michael Kosser, “the most basic truth in commercial music is that nobody knows a hit before it’s a hit” (Kosser, 2006). Even as far back as 1948 when Hank Williams performed “Lovesick Blues” during a recording session in Cincinnati, Ohio, producer Fred Rose said it was the worst thing he had ever heard. Williams, on the other hand, knew it was a hit, mostly because of the huge fan reaction he’d get whenever he played it on The Louisiana Hayride. Even historian Colin Escott told Williams the song was, “all out of meter” (Kosser, 2006). Released February 11, 1949, “Lovesick Blues” sold almost 50,000 copies within two and a half weeks. Less than two months after that, it hit the No. 1 spot on the country charts and stayed there for sixteen weeks. This was at a time where the average country song sold approximately 10,000 copies, meaning that “Lovesick Blues” sold more like a pop hit. True to form, it even received airplay from pop stations as well (Kosser, 2006).
The “Lovesick Blues” example is just one example of how fans decided what was a hit rather than radio. Still, by all accounts, given that the song was in fact out of meter as Escott noted, it’s hard to say exactly what made the song a hit. Also, recording any old song and simply “hoping” there’s a strong fan reaction isn’t exactly a secure business model, so what exactly makes a hit song in the modern day? That is a question Ruth Dhanaraj and Beth Logan both address. In their study, they examined attributes that comprise a song, such as lyrics and sound. They found that lyrics are the most important part of determining what will be a hit after conducting a study involving standard classifiers. After determining that lyrics are the most important part, they conducted an analysis of eight topic lyric vectors to determine exactly what words do and don’t work in a hit song. When looking at topics one and six, the two found that the words in those topics were less likely to produce a hit song. Topic one words include “blood”, “children”, “war”, “dance”, and “he’s”. Topic six words include “away”, “day”, “eyes”, “there’s”, “I’ve” and “gone”. Of the eight topics, topic four was the one that was most likely to produce a hit song. The words in this topic include “yeah”, “oh”, “girl”, “hey”, “she’s”, and “baby”. In addition to the lyrics, the two found that the absence rather than the presence of certain semantic information in the lyrics means a song is more likely to be a hit (Dhanaraj, Logan, 2005).
Hits in The Country Music Industry
As discussed before, Taylor Swift’s departure from country music left a gap to fill, and in response, country music turned to the next trend. In late 2012, a duo named Florida Georgia Line hit the market. When the duo’s debut single, “Cruise” was released in late 2012, it changed the way the country music industry operates today. The single went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart on December 22, 2012, and remained at the top until August 2013, only being interrupted for a few weeks at a time by huge hits from Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Wagon Wheel,” respectively (Billboard, 2013). In total, the single spent twenty-four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, with nineteen of those weeks being consecutive stays at the top. The single spent nineteen consecutive weeks at the top from April 20, 2013 to August 24, 2013. The single also set a record for the most downloads sold of a single country song. In January 2014, the song’s sales had amounted to a grand total of 6.33 million, which broke the previous record set by Lady Antebellum with their 2010 single, “Need You Now,” which held the record at 6.27 million. As of April 2015, “Cruise” had sold 7.4 million copies, with that total remaining at 7.5 million copies as of November 2016 (Bjorke, 2016).
Questions arise relating to the “Cruise” phenomenon. First, how did this song become so popular, and how was it able to usher in a new audience? The answer to the first question relates back to Dhanaraj and Logan’s theory of what makes a song a hit. As mentioned earlier, the songs that had mentions of the words, “yeah”, “oh”, “girl”, “hey”, “she’s”, and “baby” were likely to be more successful than songs that use words such as “blood”, “children”, “war”, “dance”, “he’s”, “away”, “days”, “eyes”, “there’s”, “I’ve” and “gone.” “Cruise” most certainly fits these criteria. The song makes absolutely no mention of the words that are advised not to be used, and actually opens with the verse, “baby you a song,” which, according to Dhanaraj and Logan, is more likely to result in a hit (which it most certainly did). In addition to “baby”, the song also makes mention of “girl,” “hey,” “yeah,” and “oh.” The only word that isn’t mentioned that should be is “she’s,” and that’s only because the song implements the singular version of the word rather than the plural version. In addition to having key buzzwords, the song also features no semantic information, which is another key feature that promotes a hit song.
How Else Do Singles Get Picked?
In some cases, such as the aforementioned “Lovesick Blues” example, the singles get picked due to the sheer demand of that song. However, the actual process is more complicated than this. Twenty three-year music industry veteran Tammy Ragusa, formerly of Capitol Records, says that “The truth is, there is no hard and fast or easy answer, but there are a few practices that labels have utilized to their full advantage. One way that the label tries to choose singles, and perhaps the most effective, is that their regional radio promoters often take or send a demo of 3 to 5 songs from an upcoming or current project to the Program and Music Directors at their respective radio stations for feedback on what song they think would be the most successful in their marketplace. Knowing how the songs will fit into their rotations gives the PDs and MDs a different kind of insight. It’s technical in some respects, but it’s also another connection to the fans. It’s tender though, because those relationships are so important, and there have been incidents of stations refusing to play the single that was chosen because their pick wasn’t. The label also tries to utilize their own people. Not all of them are country music fans, so they can offer a broader insight. The staff also consider how the prospective singles will sound in the landscape of radio, alongside other artists. They consider things like psychographics – ballads often do better in the cooler months while up-tempo tunes react more in the warmer months – top-down weather. They look at beats per minute and compare them to other successful songs on the radio, and there’s that oh-so-important hook. Fans typically respond to what is familiar, so keywords and phrases carry weight. Songwriter Dallas Davidson said that when he had his co-writers wrote Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” someone mentioned to him that urban artists were always telling people to put their hands up. Just incorporating that into a song produced Luke’s third No. 1 song. Focus groups have been utilized and, thanks to technology, this has become a much easier and possibly more effective method since labels can narrow down a fan base. They don’t usually do this for a first single, but it can help pick a follow-up after an album has been released. It’s simply an ask and tell. In the old days, actual groups were brought in, fed, paid, and they listened to music. The problem is, the sample size was much too small. The fans can help out in another way, too. Regionals, publicists, artist managers, booking agents will attend concerts and watch for crowd reactions to new music, which is part of the reason that artists will play new songs so early on in the recording process. Sometimes it also helps them select what will go on a project. Of course, the artist and their team have a voice in the selection, but the concern is often that they are too close to the music. They’ve lived with it longer than anyone (if they wrote or co-wrote it), and they’re artists, so they aren’t always thinking like a consumer, or they have a personal agenda (a break-up, a new love, etc) and need a level-head or voice of reason to help them make a decision that they won’t regret. Remember, they may have to sing that song the rest of their careers. But most importantly, they’re on the front lines and the information they’re getting from fans is vital. Again, crowd reactions at shows, comments in meet and greet lines and especially social media are important. Fans may not think they’re being heard when their favorite song doesn’t become a radio single, but they are, and majority rules. The reality is, the labels typically incorporate multiple methods for selecting singles because, on any given day, the human condition dictates how someone will hear a song. Again, these are not hard and fast. It’s a tough decision and everyone wants the artist to succeed – from fan to label president” (Ragusa, 2018).
On August 11, 2013, music critic and author Jody Rosen of the New York Magazine wrote an article that criticized a new trend in mainstream country music. He referred to the music as “bro-country”. “Bro-Country” according to Rosen is “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude” (Rosen, 2013). Since that article, many more criticisms of “bro-country” have risen as well as defenses of it, coincidentally enough coming from the artists who make that kind of music. With any business cycle, there is always a trend that lasts for a certain amount of time, going through the traditional industry timeline of introduction, growth, maturity and decline. “Bro-country” had reached its peak and decline as well. In February 2015, Neilson, an information and measurement company, reported that country music’s ratings had fallen to an 8.4 share amongst its key demographic of 18-34 year olds, and was ranked third overall amongst other formats. It should also be noted that these were the lowest ratings for country music since December 2012, shortly after Florida Georgia Line emerged onto the market. While country radio had a new demographic, it was obvious that this trend was somewhat waning, especially since these ratings had slowly been declining since 2014 whenever the ratings reached their peak.
With the industry puzzling its next business move that year, things heated up outside of it. To proceed, we need to revisit Gary Overton’s quote stating “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” In an almost ironic twist of fate, Texas-country artist Aaron Watson claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Country Album Charts with his album, The Underdog, selling 26,340 copies in its first week almost a week after Overton’s quotes were issued (Leahey, 2015). Texas-country is a sub-genre of Country music that is considered non-mainstream, therefore, it fits with the points that are about to be made. It should also be duly noted that Watson never came close to matching those numbers before. His previous album, Real Good Time, released in 2012, only debuted at No. 9 on the album charts, and his album before that, 2010’s The Road and The Rodeo only managed a No. 25 debut spot. Although there are no concrete sales numbers given for those two albums, there is certainly a noticeable trend in increasing album sales for Watson. Despite the overall trend of declining album sales, the numbers for The Underdog aren’t exactly the best. However, for someone who had never once been played on the radio these numbers are fantastic, and are actually better opening sales than we’ve seen from some mainstream country acts, more notably, people with No. 1 singles. The week that The Underdog hit the top spot, Watson issued a statement that was most certainly directed towards Overton when he said, “My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the No. 1 record in country music this week. I do exist” (Coroneos, 2015). Surprisingly enough, Gary Overton stepped down from his position as the head of Sony Music Nashville in mid-March, a month after his comments were issued. According to Overton, he left of his own accord, although a concrete answer was never established, thus making it unfair to assume that he left due to criticisms he received from his original comments. However, his words were ones that came back again and again that year, as Watson was not the only act that has enjoyed the benefits of a huge album.
Perhaps what is most astonishing with Watson’s situation is the time frame in which it happened. As mentioned before, we live in a new age, an age where people have more freedom to choose what they listen to and how they listen to it. We no longer live in an age where the radio is the only solution for music. Watson rose to fame through his grassroots fan base. What’s important to note is that Watson’s example, as well as the following examples of other artists, are not meant to say that radio is “dead.” In a study from Nielson, it was found that country was the top national format for millennials, people ages 18-34, which relates back to the marketing tactics used when promoting Florida Georgia Line back in 2012. As mentioned before, country radio specifically had been in a tailspin with its key demographic, so while radio is the number one source of discovery for new music, it most certainly is not the number one thing that is pleasing consumers. While we have great streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify that pride themselves on being places for musical discovery, the truth is that radio is still having the largest impact on peoples’ decisions with music, especially when it comes to discovering new artists. Since non-mainstream acts can’t count on streaming services to help spread their name (at least not for mass success), what would happen if one of the biggest non-mainstream artists received some sort of exposure such as radio play? Would it help the declining radio ratings?
The following section will take a look at five different artists who have attained legitimate success in the country music industry through alternative avenues to traditional radio airplay. Through these examples, we will study artists who have utilized grassroots support, viral moments, and Internet marketing to capture attention and sales that rival artists who achieve the same success by adapting to the traditional system. One case will also explore an artist who was forced to seek alternative avenues after her already achieved radio success was no longer there to support her. These case studies are here to prove that not only do alternative avenues to success in country music exist, but that there are artists who can rival the sales and clout of artists achieving success through the traditional system.
The first major notice of a non-mainstream artist selling more than the average non-mainstream usually sells began in May 2014 with Kentucky-native, Sturgill Simpson. Prior to January 2015, Simpson was signed to his very own Hightop Mountain Records. In May 2014, Simpson released his second studio album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. The album opened to high critical acclaim, and for its time, high sales numbers. The album debuted on the Billboard Country Album Chart at No. 11, selling 5,500 copies in its first week (Bjorke, 2014). Now, for mainstream musicians, these numbers would be downright awful. For an independent country artist however, these were groundbreaking sales numbers that catapulted Simpson’s notice. On July 14, 2014 Simpson appeared on Letterman, exposing him to a mass audience. The numbers for his album continued to grow, eventually landing him a major record deal with Atlantic Records in January 2015, which in turn caused his album to sell even more, eclipsing 100,000 in sales the very next month in February (Bjorke, 2015). Of course, we need more than one artist to validate the theory that there is a potential market for non-mainstream acts, and there are certainly more examples than Simpson and even Watson, as discussed earlier. Simpson’s rise is essentially one of the first times a non-mainstream act had done this well, and the interesting part is that more independent artists have surprised everyone with relatively strong sales numbers since then.
There is not a better example to test this theory than with events that happened at the CMA Awards in November 2015, one of country music’s biggest awards show. Chris Stapleton is an artist who was nominated for the CMA Male Vocalist Of The Year, New Artist Of The Year, and also had his album, Traveller, nominated for Album Of The Year. Much like Simpson, Stapleton was, at the time, someone who wasn’t played on the radio. However, he is a bit different from the aforementioned examples of Watson and Simpson. To start, Stapleton has written many hit songs for mainstream country artists, including Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, George Strait, Josh Turner and Trace Adkins, while also cementing himself as a critical favorite, which has helped his album, Traveller (released May 2015), secured spots not only on the Billboard Country Airplay charts, but also the Americana airplay charts as well. After performing with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards, Stapleton’s popularity skyrocketed, winning all three awards he was nominated for, beating out prominent mainstream figures, and upsetting Blake Shelton’s streak for winning Male Vocalist of the Year. This night was huge not only for Stapleton, but also country music in general. Stapleton’s album, Traveller, opened up with units of 27,000 in the first week of its release, which enabled it to have a No. 2 peak position on the Billboard Country Albums Chart. Since October of that year, the album had sold 66,900 more copies, equating to a grand total of 93,900 copies until that performance. With the aftermath of the CMA Awards, Traveller sold 176,000 albums in its next week, which is nearly 50% more than the album had sold in total, and a 6000% increase over its sales from the week before (Hodak, 2015). Not only did the album climb from No. 25 to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album Chart, it also re-charted at No. 1 across all genres of music, and in addition, stayed at that top spot for a second week after selling 109,000 more copies. In addition to increased album sales, Stapleton’s (then) current single from the album, “Nobody to Blame” climbed all the way to No. 10 on the Billboard Airplay chart after looking like it was going to stall out, picking up adds from radio stations across the country (the previous single from the album, the title track, failed to even chart). Meanwhile, the song that Stapleton preformed at the performance, “Tennessee Whiskey,” had seen a massive sales increase similar to the album from which it had come, selling a total of 118,000 downloads the week after the performance. What’s important to note is that Traveller is Stapleton’s debut album. Even though he already cemented himself as a songwriter, Stapleton is still considered a new artist, and to see a new artist see this much of a climb is another factor that adds to the importance of this. One important aspect of all of this is the fact that prior to these awards, Stapleton never saw the light of day on radio, at least not as an artist. There is no doubting that he gained a phenomenal exposure that had an arguably even bigger impact on his career than if he had merely followed the traditional radio tour plan. This also calls into question why radio never played Stapleton before. Even though he claimed positions on the Americana Airplay Chart, the fact remains that he is signed to Mercury Nashville, a major label. Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that if there’s an obvious market for his music, and radio is still the number one way for artists to get discovered, what is it that has kept Stapleton from gaining airplay? All we know is that with Stapleton, his exposure didn’t come from the radio, it came from an awards show and further Internet exposure.
Further Examples – Legacy Acts
Toby Keith was an interesting figure to examine for 2015. Keith is an artist who has been around since 1993, racking up a total of 20 Billboard Country number ones and selling over 40 million albums since his emergence. On October 9, 2015, Toby released his 18th studio album, 35 Mph Town. Despite having the name recognition to help boost sales, the album only sold 18,700 copies in its first week, a number fairly pretty poor for someone of Keith’s stature (Asker, 2015). Since Keith came up through the radio, perhaps it’s not surprising or unfair to attribute the poor sales numbers to the lead-off single, “Drunk Americans” only snagging a No. 27 peak on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart. What’s more surprising better album sales numbers were reported that year from non-mainstream artists not nearly as big as Keith. In February 2015, southern-rock group Blackberry Smoke released their fourth studio album, Holding All The Roses. The band was at one point signed to country artist Zac Brown’s Southern Ground record label. The album sold 19,200 copies in its opening week, 500 more units than what Toby Keith sold (Bjorke, 2015). The Turnpike Troubadours, a Texas-country act in the vein of Watson from before, also sold more albums than Keith with their self-titled fourth studio album with units of 19,400 copies (Leahey, 2015). Also, as mentioned previously, Watson sold 26,300 copies with his album and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album Chart. Even Chris Stapleton sold more than Keith in his first week with Traveller. The point here once again revolves around exposure. If acts such as the above mentioned are selling this well without the support of a major label or radio, how many more albums could they sell with the same level of support? One last note that should be made about these increased sales is that, as discussed with Watson, all of these independent artists’ previous albums opened up with sales that did not come close to matching their recent ones.
Another example of this dichotomy can be seen from a 2016 study of album sales between artists Chris Lane and Cody Jinks. Lane released his debut album, Girl Problems August 5, 2016. Jinks released his fifth studio album, I’m Not The Devil the following week on August 12. Lane is an artist played by country radio, whereas Jinks is not. At the time, Jinks only received radio play from Texas stations as archived by the Texas Radio Regional Report (Texas Top 100). For the week of August 20, 2016, Lane sat atop Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart with his debut single, “Fix,” a song that, at the time, had garnered 291,000 total digital sales (Bjorke, 2016). Despite this, Lane only managed to debut at No. 8 on Billboard’s U.S. Country Charts with 6,200 total albums sold (Bjorke, 2016).
Comparably, Cody Jinks debuted at No. 4 on the charts with I’m Not The Devil, selling over 11,000 albums (Asker, 2016). As of December 18, 2017, Jinks has sold 67,100 copies of that same album. The last sales data reported for Lane’s album came in July 2017 when it was revealed the album had sold 22,000 copies by that point (Bjorke, 2017). On one hand, comparing Jinks’ fourth studio album to Lane’s debut album may seem unfair, but Lane is the artist in this situation with a No. 1 song. As evidenced before, radio play equates to power in the country music industry, and yet someone with a No. 1 sold 5,000 units less than someone who doesn’t receive any mainstream radio play.
While Kane Brown is now a consistent hit-maker on the charts, he didn’t start out that way. Brown grew through a different medium than the aforementioned artists – social media. With over 3 million Facebook followers and videos of his performances shared around the Internet with more than 100 million views and shares, it’s easy to see why radio hasn’t been supportive (Watts, 2016). As with the aforementioned examples, radio wasn’t the reason for Brown’s initial success. His co-penned single “Used To Love You Sober” debuted at No. 2 on the Country Digital Songs chart, No. 7 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart, and No. 22 on the based on just two days of sales with 38,000 copies sold (Bjorke, 2015). Despite this, the single peaked at No. 35 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Even beyond sales numbers, Brown had spent much of 2016 on tour with Florida Georgia Line and headlined the Monster Outbreak Presents: Kane Brown Ain’t No Stopping Us Now Tour. Country music historian Bob Oermann theorized that Brown’s lack of radio success could be attributed to the fact that Brown used social media for his launch medium rather than radio. As discussed before, radio prefers to be the medium that launches artists.
In That Case, What Is Radio All About?
While the aforementioned examples of artists and their sales numbers compared to their airplay peaks seem to be outliers, the truth is that certain radio program directors are aware of these artists. In a piece asking “is country radio where difference goes to die” written by Phyllis Stark and published in Billboard on December 1, 2015, two radio program directors shared what country radio is all about. Per Bob Walker, program director at WCTK in Providence, Rhode Island, “We are not in the music business. We are in the business of connecting our audience with our clients” (Stark, 2015). “Clients” in this case refer to the advertisers who pay to keep radio on the air. Advertising is the primary source of revenue for terrestrial radio channels. Apart from that, they also make money through sponsorship, paid products, movie and event promotions and finally, hosting events of their own. Rick Kelly, vice president at Marco Promotions even acknowledges many of the aforementioned artists and why they don’t get played on country radio. “While country or country-leaning artists like Sturgill Simpson and [Chris] Stapleton and [Jason] Isbell have had banner years, outselling many chart-topping radio artists, programmers have not embraced them. These artists are more critically lauded than the artists that make up much of country playlists. Lots of music fans consider country radio to be a foreign thing that has nothing to say to them … There was a time when radio programmers were arbiters of taste, but that was a pretty long time ago. Now there are more ways to find the music you like than ever before. Country radio … is not about music, it’s about commerce. Once we all accept that, these arguments are moot” (Stark, 2015). While Kelly alludes to this in his quote, it’s worth noting and calling back to earlier research that country radio stations used to stand as pillars of their communities.
The examples of artists such as Watson, Simpson, and Stapleton are not meant to signal the first time something such as this has happened. Back when Warner Brothers were marketing duo Big & Rich, Paul Worley remarked “the marketing on Big & Rich is very wide. We knew it was gonna be a tough sell at radio … you know we still haven’t had a top 5 single” (Kosser, 2006). The author, Michael Kosser remarks how foolish this is, mostly because there were country music artists at the time who would get number one singles, yet their albums wouldn’t make it past the half-million mark. Meanwhile, Big & Rich’s biggest single from their debut album, Horse Of A Different Color in 2004 called “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, with the album receiving sales of over 3 million copies (RIAA, 2007).
We don’t even have to be confined simply to the music industry to see that radio isn’t everything in the industry anymore. In Chris Anderson’s theory of long tail economics, long tail refers to an increased shift away from a focus on a relatively small number of major hits at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail (Scott, 2015). As production and distribution costs decrease, there isn’t a strong need any more to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. This is an era free from constraints such as shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, meaning that narrowly targeted goods can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare. For example, Amazon makes available thousands of products not stocked in local chain stores, and iTunes legally brings niche music not found in record stores to people who crave niche artists. Netflix utilizes the same concept only for movies and television shows rather than music. Basically, businesses that exploit the long tail of demand reach underserved customers and satisfy demand for products not found in traditional stores. As David Scott states, “yes, big hits are still important. But as these businesses have shown, there’s a huge market beyond The Hobbit, U2, Taylor Swift, and Top Gear” (Scott, 2015).
All of the aforementioned artists initially rose to fame without the help of radio, and all rose due to different circumstances. With Aaron Watson, a strong grassroots fan base built up over time contributed to his success. For Chris Stapleton, having the right exposure on an awards show helped. For Kane Brown, his success is the most unconventional because it’s the most modern example. Social media had yet to impact country music artists until Brown came along, and with the way country music is targeting a younger audience, it would be wise to pay attention to rising business trends in the future. One such trend that’s already impacted the music industry in a big way is the concept of streaming.
Alternatives to Radio: Record Labels Innovate
Bloodshot Records, a record label known predominantly for its rise during the alt-country era of the 1990s, shares that mainstream radio is not a consideration for their artists, and never has been. Instead, Bloodshot Record’s chief marketing director Michael David Smith shares that, “radio is still a large component of our promotion for releases though. Many of our artists fit into college radio, non-commercial, and seldomly the AAA format. However, we work with a handful of artists who receive little to no radio airplay at all, but they have still found an audience via online & print publications and communities, live shows, support tours, mid-level festivals, synch licenses in TV & film, or just good old fashioned word-of-mouth. We approach every project differently, as will fit the needs of each artist based on where they are in their career, the stylistic elements of the music, and other criteria.” Smith says that success for the individual business strategy of every artist is dependent on the following elements: national (and often international) touring, national PR (both print and digital), regional tour PR, digital and print advertising, social media engagement (including video strategy), sponsorship opportunities & licensing, terrestrial and satellite radio promotion, direct mail and email marketing, digital distribution/streaming/download distribution, and physical retail distribution & record store marketing (Smith, 2019).
On The Other Hand … Radio IS Useful
Another example of an artist who sold more albums and singles after having some big exposure is Kacey Musgraves. She released her debut single, “Merry Go Round” on September 10, 2012 through Mercury Nashville. The song is a mid-tempo, moody country song accompanied mainly with guitars and banjos that criticizes small town life lyrically. Basically, this is a song that has everything that should equal a misfire in terms of mainstream radio play and success according to Dhanaraj and Logan’s study mentioned earlier. However, it defied the odds as it climbed all the way to No. 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart and sold over 1 million copies despite it being vastly different from anything else on the radio at the time. Her Top 10 earned her a fan base as well as critical acclaim. As more of her music became available, people could see that Musgraves was outspoken on issues such as LGBTQ rights, which is believed to have led to some backlash from country radio. The follow-up singles to “Merry Go Round” did not fare nearly as well. “Blowin’ Smoke” climbed to No. 23 and “Follow Your Arrow” only made it to No. 43. Needless to say it looked like Musgraves’s stay at radio was over as quickly as it began. Despite all of this, her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart, but also went on to sell 519,000 copies earning it a Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association Of America (Asker, 2015). Additionally, “Follow Your Arrow” sold over 1 million copies as a single despite not even cracking the top forty. Surely numbers such as that from someone who merely scored a top ten hit would be an alarm to play more of this artist. The leadoff single to Musgraves’s second album, Pageant Material, “Biscuits” peaked merely at #36, and the follow-up single “Dime Store Cowgirl” failed to even chart. Despite not having a top ten to help with sales this go around, Pageant Material still debuted on the Billboard Country Album Chart at No. 1 with sales of 60,000 units, more units than its predecessor’s debut (Caulfield, 2015). Even though the album had not gone on to sell as many units as its predecessor overall, it still has sold a total of 179,400 units as of September 2016, which is quite an accomplishment for an artist that radio has seemed to shun (Bjorke, 2016). Even though Same Trailer Different Park was Musgraves’s major label debut, it was not her first album. Prior to her major label debut, Musgraves had released four albums independently. So, the fact remains that much like Stapleton, Musgraves skyrocketed in sales once given some type of exposure. The difference between Musgraves’s case and the aforementioned examples is that Musgraves’s exposure initially came through radio play, and as evidenced by her impact, radio does carry a legitimate claim to helping her grow her fan base. Radio is not an obsolete medium. The point here is to call into question their methodology in regards to what does and doesn’t become a hit.
Simultaneously, Musgraves has now forced radio to play her songs through exposure on other channels. At the 61st Annual Grammy Awards hosted February 10, 2019, Musgraves won awards for Best Country Solo Performance with her song, “Butterflies,” Best Country Song with her song, “Space Cowboy,” Best Country Album with her 2018 album, Golden Hour, and finally, Best Album Of The Year with Golden Hour as well (Atkinson, 2019). After the Grammys concluded, Musgraves’s sales for Golden Hour increased 597%, up to over 3,000 sold on February 10 and from less than 1,000 on February 9 (Caulfield, 2019).
Golden Hour was released without the support of a traditional radio single. Given how her previous album, Pageant Material, fared at radio despite impressive sales, it’s no surprise that her team explored alternative avenues. Golden Hour’s marketing was largely based on previous critical acclaim and social media marketing. On March 10, 2018, Musgraves announced the Oh, What A World Tour in support of the album while touring in London. The album initially debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart with 49,000 units sold (Caulfield, 2018). As of January 2019, the album’s sales had risen to a total of 141,100 copies (Bjorke, 2019). Also, after the Grammy awards, Musgraves and her team finally announced they would be sending the single, “Rainbow,” the final song off of Golden Hour, to radio. Thirty-seven stations added the song on Monday, February 11, bringing the number of stations playing the track to 53, making it Musgraves’shighest first-week add total of her career (Reuter, 2019).
Streaming – The Old Alternative Becomes The New Mainstream
How Music Became Digital
While music streaming is a relatively new concept, its history dates back to at least the 1970s when German audio engineers were working on their PhD theses at the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg. During this time, Professor Dieter Sietzer tried to transmit speech more quickly and efficiently over phone lines. While he was working on this, Sietzer thought it would be even more interesting to send tiny music files over phone lines, a concept that was well ahead of its time (a confused German bureaucrat denied him a patent). Sietzer responded by having one of his PhD students work on a project to shrink the music (Knopper, 2009). The student, Karlheinz Brandenburg, joined a team of ten to 15 audio engineers who spent the next 12 years working on Sietzer’s problem. The process involved other scientists from other laboratories and even several companies, but eventually, they all made a compressed audio file which would become known as the MP3.
The idea came from an existing science known as psychoacoustics, which has to do with how the human brain perceives sound as well as what sounds it deliberately leaves out. This science had been applied to loudspeakers, telephone networks, and other high-tech sound developments as early as the 1930s, although which of the research teams was the first to adapt this science is unfortunately unknown. The team proposed that if CDs took up 16 bits of data to sample music 44,100 times per second (coming at about 1.5 megabits per second), a compressed version of the music could use a significantly smaller number such as 128,000 bits per second (Knopper, 2009). The simple question relating back to psychoacoustics was how and where to allocate those bits in sampling the music. Due to the technology simply not being invented yet, scientists struggled to make further progress with the experiment until 1991 when they had enough resources to perfect the MP3.
Record labels were completely oblivious to the advent of this technology. They didn’t know any music fan in the world could stick a CD into a recordable device on a computer and rip every song into a compressed, easily stored form and then proceed to burn the MP3 to a blank disc, post it freely on the Internet or share it through email.
By the late 1990s, trading MP3s online had become revolutionary, but Shawn Fanning was looking for a way that was faster than other web search engines. Inspired by the IRC format where users’ names appeared on the screen when they were logged in and gone when they weren’t, the idea for Napster was born. With a search box set up like Google, this would make it easier to find music by artist or title, with the actual file sharing taking place between individual users’ computers. Joined by Sean Parker, the idea took off. After writing the code, Fanning gave the first version of Napster to around thirty friends. By June 1999, fifteen thousand people downloaded it (Knopper, 2009).
Unfortunately, Napster really never had any central business plan during its operation. Their basic plan still amounted to allowing users to communicate with one another and share music, but on the inside, top executives disagreed on company strategy, some wanted to charge a monthly subscription fee, and others wanted to sell merchandise. Instead of adopting one idea to charge by the song (an idea that would come to fruition with other online music business models like iTunes), John Fanning (Shawn’s uncle) simply wanted to “take down the music industry by giving away free stuff” (Knopper, 2009).
After a series of lawsuits, including one in February 2001 when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concurred with Judge Patel’s ruling, Napster was now illegal. They declared bankruptcy on May 14, 2002 (Knopper, 2009). Still, while Napster’s rebellious “outlaw” (illegal) business nature went away, the concept of file sharing was just getting started. As evidenced by Napster, the internet has emerged as a primary vehicle for music promotion for all artists and record labels. The popularity of music and social networking websites have given artists new platforms for promoting their music without capitulating to the restrictive gate-kept traditional platforms evident in primary media, television, and radio.
One feature that has long been thought of to contribute to the “fall” of the music industry is the streaming service, Spotify. According to Luis Aguiar and Joel Waldfogel in their research on the subject, there are some disadvantages to Spotify in terms of record sales, but also advantages in terms of the overall industry. As far as disadvantages are concerned, Aguiar and Waldfogel found that streaming led to fewer track sales. For every 137 streams, there was one fewer sale for a single. It’s no secret that Spotify doesn’t accumulate a ton of revenue for artists or record labels. Revenue from track sales amounts to $0.82 cents per sale, and the average payment received per stream is $0.008. (Aguiar, Waldfogel, 2015). So how does either side, be it the consumer or the artist, benefit from this? Of Spotify’s 159 million users, a little less than half (70 million users) pays $10 a month while others who choose to listen for free pay indirectly through the exposure to advertising (Statista). It is not an extreme amount of revenue by any means, but it’s still revenue. Also, with the way Spotify is set up, the rate of pirating illegal music has decreased. In an effort to counter Aguiar and Waldfogel, the director of economics at Spotify, Will Page claimed that the decline of sales in the music industry had little to nothing to do with Spotify. Page claimed that the decline in music sales is a structural shift in the industry that would have happened regardless of the rise of streaming (Aguiar, Waldfogel, 2015). So while streaming services such as Spotify aren’t necessarily doing a whole lot to help record sales, they aren’t doing anything to hurt them either. What Spotify, as well as other streaming services really serve as are platforms for music discovery. For mainstream musicians, this discovery doesn’t seem necessary considering they usually break through major radio stations anyway. But for independent musicians, it brings them a whole new way for marketing themselves to consumers.
Now, some will most likely take issue with Will Page’s claim that the decline of sales would have happened naturally without any streaming services. After all, Page provides no evidence to support his claim. However, further evidence proves him right. In an excerpt from Alan Kreuger’s The Economics Of Real Superstars, Kreuger talks about the increase of concert ticket sales in the rock & roll genre due to a decrease in income from record sales. This piece, written in 2005, states that record sales were down at the time because people were downloading music for free from the Internet and copying CDs illegally, an activity that Spotify has helped to decrease with its features. Kreuger states that touring is the number one way that artists stay financially afloat. (Kreuger, 2005). About 20% of Americans spend roughly $15 billion to attend concerts each year, so the return on investment is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Going back to Page, as stated before, this piece was written in 2005, and Spotify didn’t hit the North American shores until 2011, so Page’s claim that the decrease in sales was an inevitable factor to consider with the aging industry holds some truth. Looking at the effects of touring is an interesting factor to consider, especially when it comes to non-mainstream, independent musicians, and this will be explored later.
An Increased Resemblance To Radio
“Radio” as a term has been split into two different categories – terrestrial and Internet radio. A 2017 survey conducted by Nielsen revealed terrestrial radio was still the number one choice for discovering new music by consumers (in comparisons to hearing about it from friends, online music services, social media, online radio and satellite radio) at 49%. For now, this option still grabs most Americans’ hearts. Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School believes this is the case because of what’s called the tyranny of choice (Wang, 2017). When confronted with all of the music in the world (as most music services do), the tyranny of choice takes effect when consumers can’t make a decision due to the overwhelming amount of choices. Miller believes in order for people to make that decision, they need to be told by others what music is good, something radio has essentially done over its existence. Because of this, more streaming services have started looking more like a terrestrial radio format, thus giving the format some needed competition.
If one were to log onto a music service such as Spotify from a desktop or mobile device, they would find themselves on the “Featured” page which offers an array of playlists built for the consumer. Spotify has countered this tyranny of choice by offering playlists such as “Release Radar,” a weekly playlist that changes according what new music releases every Friday based on the artists the user follows. “Discover Weekly,” true to its name, is about discovering new artists curtailed toward the listener based off other music they’ve listened to. Both playlists offer anywhere from 30-40 songs, a healthy number considering that, according to author Amy Wang, “they [consumers] want music to be a passive experience … something to have on in the background” (Wang, 2017). It would appear that industry executives and artists are also noticing this change for future decisions. This is the new “terrestrial radio.”
Streaming … The Way Of The Future For Country Music?
While radio is still undeniably the gatekeeper in determining what’s popular in country music right now, it could very well face some competition in the future. Artists are already using Spotify data to drive their careers forward. They’re also using it for more than determining what the next single should be. Country artist Brent Cobb’s manager Don VanCleave noticed that Stockholm was Cobb’s biggest streaming market. With this information at his fingertips, VanCleave scheduled gigs through Cobb’s agents in the U.K., stating that, “he hasn’t headlined America yet and he’s selling out Amsterdam and it’s only because of streaming” (Leight, 2017). While streaming has impacted pop and rap significantly by launching artists into viral stars, country music has been the last adopter because, according to Sony Music chairman/CEO Randy Goodman, “historically, country music always lags behind in terms of technology adoption” (Leight, 2017). Perhaps country music’s slow rise to embrace technology can be attributed to a statement made by chief executive officer of Universal Music Group Doug Morris. As he was talking about major record labels in the late 1990s and why he and his contemporaries didn’t plunge into internet music more quickly, Morris stated “there’s no one in the record company that’s a technologist. That’s a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do. It’s like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?” (Knopper, 2009).
Trouble For Major Labels
On April 3, 2018, Spotify made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange, opening at a price of $165.90 per share, giving the service a market cap just under $30 billion (Greenburg, 2018). In 2017, the company actually posted an operating loss of $461 million, but it wanted investors to value it at something above $20 billion the day it went public (Kafka, 2018). In order to have this happen though, something has to happen with the way Spotify works with one of its most important partners – record labels. Big record labels provide Spotify with the music that makes up 87% of the company’s streams, and in exchange, Spotify provides record labels with billions of dollars in revenue, which is money that’s replaced what labels used to receive from CD and digital download sales. They currently have deals with three big record labels – Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment Group, and Warner Music Group, with Sony Music also owning more than 5% of the company (Castillo, 2018).
Despite this deal, it appears that Spotify is trying to cut out the middle man. According to Billboard in June 2018, Spotify has started licensing some songs directly from artists and their managers, paying advances of “several hundred thousand dollars” for an assortment of tracks (Karp, 2018). For Spotify, the benefits come through in the long term. After cutting an initial check, Spotify then pays artists a lower royalty rate than it pays to record labels. For artists and their managers, the benefits come through in getting to keep all of the royalties instead of surrendering the majority of that money to a record label. Whether they will admit it or not, Spotify is competing with record labels when they offer artists the opportunity to make more money selling their music directly to them instead of a record label.
As of this writing, only predictions can be made as to how this will shape the music industry. Spotify themselves, however, imagine that over time, a growing tier of music artists or small independent record labels won’t use big record labels for distribution. Instead, they’ll work directly with Spotify (Kafka, 2018). If this were to happen, Spotify would be able to command better terms from the small artists and labels than it gets from Universal Music and other giant record labels. The catch is that small artists and record labels would end up keeping more money than in earlier arrangements since they won’t have to pay big record labels to bring their music over to Spotify or other outlets. In addition to this, Spotify will not own the music it is licensing, nor will it demand exclusive distribution rights. It also isn’t going after big artists with record deals on big record labels. Their plan is to target mid-tail artists who may not be in demand with record labels anyway.
Of course, that’s what being said in 2018. The bottom line here is that radio isn’t the only traditional asset of the music business that has something to worry about in the future. With Spotify just beginning to stretch its creative muscle, Spotify could very well become a big competitor for record labels in the future.
Country Music’s Next Superstars Are Relying On Streaming Data
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine this year, country music artist Maren Morris owes streaming services to getting her signed by a major record label. According to her, “Just from being placed on a playlist, it [debut single, “My Church”] caught like wildfire. It made all the labels in Nashville say, ‘Who is this girl and what is happening with this song’” (Hudak, 2019)? Morris further states, “Spotify really changed the game in that it put an unknown artist’s song on a much bigger platform, with more eyes than country radio was doing at the time. It was an amazing experiment of testing out songs before research ever came into play” (Hudak, 2019). According to Spotify’s global head of country music, John Marks, Spotify’s strategy in Nashville is to break in new fans. During summer 2018, Spotify hosted free performances by rising country music talent at Ole Red on Broadway during the CMA Music Festival. Since opening a Nashville office in 2013, Spotify’s marketing tactics to reach new fans include staging Fans First events with artists such as Kacey Musgraves, Kane Brown and Keith Urban, and advertising with billboards promoting new albums from artists such as Randy Houser, who released his album, Magnolia in January. During the festival, Spotify spent an entire day showcasing its platform to country music listeners, setting up an interactive display at a designated shared booth. As far as Spotify is concerned, Nashville is its own niche market. Spotify also understands how its audience listens to music. Spotify’s head of artist and label marketing, Brittany Schaffer says, “It’s about access, and how you can access music any time you want. As the country audience learns about that, they learn streaming is the way people are consuming music these days” (Hudak, 2019).
Streaming Data Is Starting To Dictate Live Shows
As previously stated in an example with country artist Brent Cobb, streaming data is starting to give insights into which markets artists should play as well as what songs they play. This relationship is crucial, as touring accounts for the largest amount of revenue in the music business. According to a poll from Statista, concert ticket sale revenue amounted to $1.1 billion in North America in 1990. As of 2017, that total has risen to $8 billion and has grown every year (Statista, 2017).
Before country artist Luke Combs’ single, “Beautiful Crazy” was released as a single to radio, the song caught attention when Combs posted a video of the song shot on his iPhone to Facebook in 2016. The video collected more than 3 million views and quickly found its way into Combs’ concert set lists (Hermanson, 2018). While not due to streaming, the song did utilize a form of social media marketing that bypassed the traditional radio model to find its way to fans. On May 19, 2018, “Beautiful Crazy” debuted at No. 6 on the Hot Country Songs chart, seven months before it was announced as an official single (Asker, 2018). It did, however, achieve that position through digital download sales and streaming following its official release as an actual song (but not a single).
Singers are now beginning to pick up momentum in streaming before even earning major label record deals and pushing for the more traditional exposure on country radio. Sam Hunt was the first country artist to do this in 2014. Hunt’s manager, Brad Belanger, says, “We didn’t have the money or the knowhow to get CDs in Target. But we could record songs at home and put them up on Spotify or SoundCloud or Pandora. It was free, easy, quick, and the way to get to all the fans, not just the country fans, since the streaming services have a much lower wall between genres than terrestrial radio or television” (Leight, 2017). Many of the aforementioned artists in this study, such as Maren Morris, Kane Brown and Combs have followed this path, with Russell Dickerson not too far behind on his own path. Dickerson started out in Spotify’s New Boots playlist [592,218 followers as of February 15, 2019], moved up to Wild Country [747,381], and then ended up in Hot Country [5,257,641]. No, this data doesn’t compare to country radio’s data, but it does give artists immediate access to a large and dedicated listenership. Belanger says, “Radio doesn’t break anybody overnight. They don’t find a song and it’s popular a week later. Spotify can do that. Pandora can do that” (Leight, 2017). In addition, streaming allows artists, especially younger ones, to put multiple songs into rotation at once, giving them more opportunities to connect with potential ticket buyers for concerts. Singles at country radio move tremendously, as No. 1 hit can sometimes take more than 40 weeks to climb to the top of the chart, or, at the very least, peak in any other position. Dickerson’s “Yours” rose at radio for five months after these quotes were made, but he had already released another digital single during that timeframe. Executive VP of Broken Bow Records Jon Loba says, “Touring wise, it really can accelerate and elevate offers” (Leight, 2017).
Touring Is Also A Lucrative Market For Exposure
On Billboard’s Country Airplay chart dated for December 8, 2018, for the first time since the radio-based survey launched in January 1990, the top 20 did not feature any female artists (Asker, 2018). The highest position belonged to Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins” which sat at No. 22 that week. Female artists have traditionally fared worse than their male counterparts when it comes to radio airplay, leading some to seek additional avenues to reach fans. Female artists have found opportunities in touring to reach fans both inside and outside country music. In the summer of 2017, Kacey Musgraves landed a touring opportunity opening for One Direction’s Harry Styles. Maren Morris opened for another One Direction member, Niall Horan in the summer of 2018. Meanwhile, country singer Cam (Cameron Ochs) opened for pop singer Sam Smith at the same time as Morris. Morris had also collaborated with EDM producer Zedd and musical duo Grey on “The Middle,” a song that charted at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2018 (Billboard, 2018). Before this, Morris and Horan had collaborated on “Seeing Blind.” Cam, meanwhile, helped pen “Palace” for Smith’s 2017 album, The Thrill Of It All. For Musgraves, the connection between her and Styles came from a mutual support for LGBTQ rights. Musgraves’s radio success has already been discussed, but despite Cam earning a No. 2 hit on the Country Airplay chart with her single, “Burning House,” she has not been able to follow-up with the same success. “Burning House” was certified platinum by the RIAA for a total sales number of 1,216,000 as of November 2018 (Bjroke, 2018). Her follow-up single, “Mayday” only reached No. 36 on the airplay chart, with “Diane,” her next single, settling for a No. 43 peak. For Cam, “Burning House” was released as a single after performing it twice on The Bobby Bones Show, garnering authentic attention for it. Morris has fared better than either artist on the airplay chart, with her lowest charting single being 2016’s “80s Mercedes” which peaked at No. 12 on the Country Airplay chart. Of the five singles she’s released that have peaked, four of them have achieved RIAA platinum certifications. Despite this, only one of her singles has reached No. 1 on the airplay chart, 2017’s “I Could Use A Love Song,” once again indicating a discrepancy between sales numbers and radio airplay chart positions. She has an additional No. 1 credit, but it’s due to a feature on Thomas Rhett’s 2017 song, “Craving You.”
What this study shows is that while female artists are signed to major labels, they face obstacles not unlike the aforementioned independent artists discussed, particularly when it comes to country radio airplay. Through touring these artists were able to hold onto not only the critical acclaim they already had, but also exposure to a new market of fans exposed to country music. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether one can draw a line between this phenomenon and further success in country music, but considering Musgraves has been able to sidestep radio and win a Grammy award, this form of exposure is not going unnoticed.
Discussion – What Radio Meant And What It Means Now
Traditional Meaning of Radio
As evidenced already, radio has dominated the way we access new music for years. It’s now an often passive and non-interactive form of entertainment not unlike television or the Internet (Kusek, Leonhard, 2005). Before the launch of talk radio as a mainstream medium in the 1970s, music was usually included in radio shows. As Jim Cox explains, “Long before the invention of talk radio, music was filling the medium’s programming – often by itself, yet also seeping in between features, filling in the background, and identifying to audiences the shows that were coming on and exiting the ether” (Cox, 2005). Philip Eberly expands on this, stating how the American appetite for popular songs was created by both the phonograph and radio (Eberly, 1982). Jazz music dominated in the 1920s, meanwhile swing music took over the 1930s. Rock ‘n’ roll was the main source of profit for radio playing popular songs in the 1950s. “Top 40” as we know it today was born through this institution, built as a radio format to play the current popular songs.
In a general sense too, radio stations and record labels worked closely together as early as the 1920s. As Russell Sanjek says, “throughout the 1920s, record companies had actively sought boosting of their products by radio” (Sanjek, 1983). Victor Records was the leading company to implement this practice of promoting its new product through radio. When record sales fell from $75 million in 1929 to $17 million in 1931, record label executives pointed the finger of blame at radio. As such, record labels began to withdraw their attention from the radio (Sanjek, 1983). This changed in 1943 when Capitol Records started building relationships with radio stations by sending personalized copies of new music releases to certain key disc jockeys. This free supply for disc jockeys led to further cost-free service before it finally led to what’s known as “pay-for-play”, or payola, which in the simplest way possible means “financial, sexual, or other inducements that are provided by music labels in return for promotion” (Shuker, 2008). This of course was unethical, as evidenced by disc jockey Alan Freed who was found guilty of accepting payola in 1958. This happened to other lesser known disc jockeys as well. The power of influence disc jockeys carried began to fade.
Clear Channel, founded in 1972, is the largest radio network, operating more than 900 radio stations across the country as well as also owning concert venues, theaters, billboards and nightclubs (Kusek, Leonhard, 2005). While occupying the biggest market and playing similar songs all the time, Clear Channel also promotes what’s known as “legal payola.” Here, record labels give financial support and an array of other prizes to Clear Channel in exchange for promotion of their artists (Kusek, Leonhard, 2005). In 2019, there are now new avenues to promote new music.
What was just described in this section is known as what radio was – terrestrial radio. Terrestrial radio is simply AM or FM stations on local or national broadcast. Artists such as Jay-Z claim that radio is dead, as does Norway, apparently, considering they became the first country to switch off FM radio in 2017 (Mortimer, 2017). Considering radio takes the crown of listenership at 49% according to Neilson, data will show that radio is more alive than ever. There may be a way for both Jay-Z and Norway as well as Neilson to be correct in their conclusions however.
The New Meaning Of Radio
While terrestrial radio remain the biggest mass-reach medium in the United States with more than 90% of consumers listening on a weekly basis, it remains to be seen how its future will look. New York University’s Larry Miller of the Steinhart Music Business Program offered an outlook on the future of terrestrial radio. In his report, Miller argues that terrestrial radio has failed to engage with Generation Z (people born after 1995), and that unless it upgrades, its relevance could be consumed by other mediums in the near future. To back up his claims, Miller points out that Generation Z will account for 40% of all consumers in the United States by 2020, and because they have grown up in an on-demand digital environment, they show little interest in traditional media. AM/FM radio is also in the middle of a massive drop-off as a music discovery tool according to Miller, with self-reported listening to AM/FM radio among teenagers ages 13 and up declining by almost 50% between 2005 and 2016. Music discovery is moving toward streaming services such as YouTube, Spotify and Pandora, with 19% of a 2017 study of surveyed participants citing them as sources for keeping “up-to-date” with music, down from 28% in 2016. (Miller, 2017). By 2020, 75% of new cars will connect with digital services, rendering radio’s monopoly on the car dashboard obsolete and leaving AM/FM radio as just one of many ways to listen to something in the car. Because the typical car in the United States was only 11.6 years old in 2016, this explains why radio has not yet faced a major disruption. Additionally, the onset of “smart speakers” such as Amazon Echo (which do not have an AM/FM antenna) are swiftly dominating the market as home entertainment without broadcast radio which doesn’t even have a digital option. Lastly, Miller states that broadcast stations don’t pay royalties to record labels for the use of master recordings. Digital services on the other hand do, making them much more valuable to record labels (Miller, 2017).
These findings present problems for the music in general, but especially for country music, a genre that’s still a slave the radio mindset. Miller further states that the addition of streaming data to the Billboard Hot 100 chart (which is still the primary chart in the United States) means that streaming now plays a crucial role in determining which songs are played on radio rather than the traditional other way around (further reducing radio’s status as a taste-making tool). Streaming now accounts for 20-30% of the data that comprises the Hot 100, with sales at 35-45% and airplay at 30-40% (Miller, 2017). Miller’s study highlights many key facts, one of which is that while terrestrial radio is fine as of right now, it likely won’t be in the near future. To survive, radio has to innovate and learn from other media in order to forge a new path forward. Terrestrial radio may struggle with innovation considering that the “new radio” – Internet radio, which is digital stations such as YouTube or Spotify without the physical limitations – is already one step ahead of them. In fact, radio will never die, because the “idea” of its existence continues to live on.
Radio Does Matter
As evidenced by this thesis, country radio does still matter, even in 2018. The premise here isn’t to try and discount radio’s importance, because ultimately there is no evidence to suggest it carries no importance in 2019. The premise here is to try and state that there are other avenues for artists to reach their target audience should they choose to utilize them. However, one could also make the premise here that instead of not needing radio, artists might not need major labels either to market their music. In the aforementioned examples, artists such as Aaron Watson and Sturgill Simpson would still be worthy discussion points, but artists such as Chris Stapleton or Kacey Musgraves wouldn’t. Radio’s influence can still carry a lot of power.
An example of this can be seen with artist Scotty McCreery. In 2015, McCreery told Rolling Stone that “we dedicated all of 2014 to radio. This is a relationship business; it’s all about folks being friends” (Gold, 2015). McCreery was smart to say those words. After all, that same year, his 2014 single, “Feelin’ It” cracked Billboard’s Country Airplay chart to become his second top 10 hit. In 2016, McCreery parted ways with his record label, Mercury Nashville. This came shortly after McCreery’s final hit on the label, “Southern Belle” only managed to peak at No. 45 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. McCreery signed a new management deal with Triple 8 on October 24, 2016 (Hollabaugh, 2016). On May 5, 2017, McCreery released a new song called “Five More Minutes” to digital retailers and streaming services (and later to radio as an independent artist) (Casey, 2017). In August of that same year, “Five More Minutes” became the first song released without a record label to ever chart on the Country Aircheck/Mediabase Top 50 (Sony Press Release). On August 15, McCreery signed a new deal with Triple Tigers Records/Sony Music Entertainment. After spending more than 40 weeks on the charts, “Five More Minutes” became McCreery’s first ever No. 1 song in March 2018, surpassing the peaks of any of McCreery’s Mercury singles. Sales were good for the single too, as it sold a total of 332,000 copies as of May 2018 (Bjorke, 2018). In this scenario, it was radio that helped to turn this into the hit it became, with no major label in the equation whatsoever.
Streaming Is Not An Ideal Future For The Industry
Both artists and record labels will lose if streaming is the primary way musicians gain exposure or reach their target audience. Spotify, for example, pays about $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream to the holder of music rights. And the “holder” can be split among the record label, producers, artists, and songwriters. CNBC offers an example of what that ultimately looks like. In their example, they point to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” which earned between $280,000 and $390,000 after garnering 46.3 million streams (Sehgal, 2018). As they point out however, this is for one of the world’s biggest pop artists. 1 million plays on Spotify translates to around $7,000, and one million plays on Pandora generates $1,650. Spotify, as evidenced already, is taking steps to make this better by signing artists directly, therefore cutting out record labels which can take up to 70% of artists’ royalties (Constine, 2015). Regardless of what streaming does for artists and record labels though, it is the growing choice of listening for consumers. More than 30 million people are now paying for a subscription streaming service in the U.S. as of 2017, which pushed streaming revenue up 48% , to $2.5 billion, in the first half of last year. Streaming now accounts for 62% of the U.S. music business (Kafka, 2017). If nothing else, until the pay issue resolves, Spotify and other streaming services offer readily available data that previous services couldn’t. While the future potential is high, even now and as evidenced already, streaming data can help to plan tour schedules or fan perception to songs.
This study would benefit from future research into how Spotify’s signings impact the music industry moving forward. It would be helpful to see if this could lead to Spotify, or other streaming services, emulating similar services such as Netflix, a service that started out as a DVD rental service before churning out its own original content. It would then be helpful to see how this affects consumer preferences or how they react to these changes. Future research would also be helpful in determining the percentages of which people listen to the radio and which people stream their music.
Radio has been a vital part of country music’s formation and subsequent rise to fame. In the twentieth century, artists relied on this format to be heard by their listeners. As evidenced by certain industry leaders, artists who aren’t on country radio don’t even exist. However, the findings of this study seem to suggest that alternative pathways are available for artists to reach their target audience. Artists such as Chris Stapleton, Aaron Watson and countless others are evidence of this. Country radio, once centered on live performances, then personality radio, then format radio now manifests itself as two separate entities – terrestrial and internet radio. To repeat myself from earlier, while we have great streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify that pride themselves on being places for musical discovery, the truth is that radio is still having the largest impact on peoples’ decisions with music, especially when it comes to discovering new artists. While terrestrial radio remains strong for now, its future looks bleak, and “internet radio” corporations such as Spotify have already made moves to bypass these traditional systems.
The beginning of this study posed four research questions. One, why has radio been such a strong part of country music’s history? That is because country music as a commercial genre was formed through the advent of technological advancements, and a major part of that was the emergence of radio airplay. Two, in the modern day, why are record labels pouring so much money into sending singles up airplay charts as well as send artists on radio tours when other methods exist? Radio is still a powerful force in the industry, and this thesis was never meant to prove otherwise. Therefore, when a large percentage of listeners still listen to traditional radio, it’s not surprising to see record labels so invested in radio airplay. As also evidenced in this thesis, country music as a commercial genre has simply not yet embraced new channels such as streaming, viral hits or other alternative avenues. This is due to a long-standing history of country music’s conservative stance toward embracing new trends. Three, what aspects of the country music industry have compelled certain artists to remain “independent,” that is, remain either with an independent record label or leave radio out of their marketing plan? Brian Hracs’ study found that this independent spirit is linked largely with cultural identity. Four, how do record labels select which singles from artists will compete for radio play? This answer comes in a multitude of forms, but the answer lies mostly in market research conducted based off fan perception and what radio stations will be eager to play.
As a recommendation for future artists looking to bypass the traditional radio plan, the following steps should be taken. As mentioned previously, Sony Music chairman/CEO Randy Goodman said, “historically, country music always lags behind in terms of technology adoption” (Leight, 2017). Country artists today, whether they explore a traditional radio plan or explore other avenues, should first and foremost have a website. This allows people to find basic information and shows a willing investment from the artist. Second, artists need to engage heavily with social media marketing, and Kane Brown is the best example to showcase why this matters. Even critical music outlets can help in the formation of marketing tools. Kyle Coroneos of the country music blog, Saving Country Music, posted a review of Sunday Valley‘s To The Wind And On To Heaven album in 2011 after being tipped off about the band by Blake Judd of Judd Films. Sturgill Simpson, one of the focuses in the previously mentioned case studies was the band’s lead singer at the time. According to Coroneos, during the same week, he was contacted by promoter Zale Schoenborn of the Pickathon Festival in Portland, Oregon, looking for recommendations for potential performers for the next season. Sunday Valley does not make the list, because, at the time, Coroneos had never seen them perform live. Nevertheless, Schoenbrn read the Sunday Valley review and decided to book Sunday Valley anyway. Buoyed around their Pickathon appearance, Sunday Valley booked a West Coast tour. The Pickathon booking was later seen as Simpson’s (and Sunday Valley’s) big break (Coroneos, 2014). As evidenced this and the previous case studies, artists can break through via multiple channels, but above all, they need to be active in their marketing promotion. Success will not just come naturally.
This study identified three cultural aspects of the country music genre which have built up the idea that radio airplay is the key for success in the country music industry: no country artist up until this point has become a superstar without radio airplay, country music artists are forced by their respective record labels to go on radio tours to promote themselves, and finally, radio airplay is how country music gained popularity as a commercial genre. These factors continue to be present for right now, but with Spotify setting up to offer better deals for artists, the toll that radio tours can take may not be as glamorous to artists as they once were. Also, no, no superstar has emerged without the help of country radio, however this thesis has identified, (and could further identify) several artists selling well and building careers without adhering to traditional norms. This thesis has also identified that for consumers, radio is no longer the entity that dictates the public’s tastes. Lastly, while country music is a genre which upholds authenticity and tradition as its main identifiers, perhaps radio airplay is one tradition that should be discarded in the future for country music’s continued growth as a music genre.
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