The Hodgepodge: Artistic Expression vs. Profit

Moneymusic

When it comes to singers and bands, there seems to be a general consensus of either making songs that are radio hits, or album cuts that are more rich in artistic expression. I think you can make the argument for any genre with a radio outlet that there are songs written and recorded for the sheer purpose of making money without any regard for the content of the song. If it’ll sell, it’ll be made. This has been the idea in country music for years from the Nashville sound of the 60s and 70s to bro-country and metro country today, producers and labels cater to the hot trend and nothing else. In the minds of the label executives and producers, making music for profit and making music on the basis of artistic expression seem to be mutually exclusive values.

Dierks Bentley’s new song, “Somewhere On a Beach,” hits all the checklist points of a cater-to-the-radio-trend single. After announcing an album that promises to be a personal one about relationships, a screw-you single is a release way out of left field. It’s not hard to imagine that this Dierks Bentley playing give and take with his label and producers. Dierks wants to release an album with heart and soul. His label says yes, but you must record this song so we can have a guaranteed radio hit from the album. Dierks comprises. Riser was an album full of heart written in the wake of Bentley’s father passing on. Singles like “I Hold On” and “Bourbon in Kentucky” and album cuts like “Here on Earth” were responses to that tragedy. Dierks also had balled singles from “Say You Do” and “Riser” while party songs like “Back Porch” and “Pretty Girls” were left on as mere album fillers. If anything, Riser proved that an album in this decade and era of country music could be filled with soulful radio singles and remain mildly successful, even if “Bourbon in Kentucky” and “Riser” didn’t make the desired chart impact.

Did every country fan in 2013 really want to listen to 15 remakes of “Cruise”? Were producers naive to think that they, too, could have a country/rap crossover hit? Or did label executives see an ignorant fan base and take advantage of the listeners’ blind acceptance of music on the radio? Whatever the reason for the sudden rise of bro-country and its lingering effects, artistic expression in mainstream country music was a victim.

The approach to country music for the past couple of years has been radio hits. That’s why we get albums with 90% radio ready hits: some bro country, some slow jam inspired ballads, club-like jams, etc. They’re not albums in the artistic sense; they’re collections of songs. Committees are brought into the music lab to write, mold, listen, create, and conjure up the perfect song for radio to go on the perfect album. This album will sustain the artist through a long tour with at least four singles ready for whatever radio trend they predicted to arise.

But country music was built on artistic expression. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon, Cash, Yoakam, all our country music heroes are icons because these are the artists who dug deep, allowed themselves to be vulnerable, and put their hearts and souls into the music. These guys have the reputation of fighting the establishment because they’re not just singers, they’re artists. They have a voice, a purpose, and story to tell. Most singers on the radio today are just that: singers. They’re not artists with a story to tell. They are merely singers whose sole purpose is to make money.

Every now and then, these producers realize that they need to remind these radio listeners that country singers are artists. They try to convey a facade of artistry with a committee written ballad. The result of which are contrived songs like “Confession” and “You Should Be Here.” These songs are labels trying to convince fans that Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell aren’t just party animals, but also “deep” artists. This is the problem though, when you create a persona through several singles than try to backtrack and reset the image. They want these singers to seem deep, but they can’t compromise any chance of losing traction on radio in the process. So throwaway lines about cold ones and cold beers are thrown in to remind the fans that it’s still a party.

The artistic expression of mainstream country is lost. Maybe it wasn’t the best option for Bentley to go back-to-back with ballads as singles, but was “Riser” such a bomb that Bentley’s label had to back track to a generic, soulless song? Or are label executives just afraid to let their singers dig deep and actually be artists? And the real victim of it all is the general radio fan of country music. These are fans who probably don’t know that there are singers like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Tami Neilson out there making some of the best music today. Instead, these fans are subjected to party anthems, classless revenge sex songs, and half-assed ballads. And because of this, songs like “You Should Be Here” and “Die a Happy Man” are praised as deep, thoughtful, expressive ballads. And that’s exactly what will happen when you put three people in a room to conjure up a hit ballad. However, true artistic songs are ignored. Songs which are true expressions of the artists’ heart. Song which required the writer to be vulnerable and dig deep within him or herself, sometimes in the most painful places, to find the words. Those are the real, powerful songs country music needs. You don’t get a song like “Cover Me Up” from a committee writing session.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Aubrie Sellers, daughter of Lee Ann Womack, will release her debut album New City Blues on January 29. Sellers recently released the music video of her single “Sit Here and Cry.”
  • Tomorrow, The Cactus Blossoms, will release their album You’re Dreaming. 
  • Bluegrass and Americana artist Sierra Hull will release her new album, Weighted Mind, on January 29. 
  • “Humble and Kind” is officially Tim McGraw‘s next single.
  • Another 90s rock act has gone country. Sister Hazel will release a country album called Lighter in the Dark on February 19.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Reno” by Nic Cowan. Nic Cowan (now officially named Niko Moon) is a Georgia based singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Zac Brown on many songs for the band’s albums. The narrator meets a singer and a painter and is mesmerized by their creative passion. In light of today’s post on artistic expression, this song seemed appropriate. “What is it that drives you to create? She said ‘I never had a choice to make. It chose me long before I wrote a song. It’s what I feel, boy.'” That first chorus says it all.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


Daughter Not To Disappear. This English indie folk trio released their second album last week. Lead singer Elena Tonra’s voice is quiet, yet haunting as she sings her songs of loneliness, love gone wrong, and even a mother dealing with Alzheimer’s. The album is hindered by a production monotony among several of the songs, but poignancy of the music and lyrics are worth giving this album a listen.

Tweet of the Week

I certainly hope that “if” becomes a “when” because an Isbell – Simpson collaborative album would be incredible!

Two Simple, But Great iTunes Reviews 

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The effective review of “absolute garbage” was left on Drew Baldridge’s EP. If you don’t know who Drew Baldridge, he’s a pop/dance/disco singer being passed off as country. Do your ears a favor and take this reviewer’s for it.

The eloquent “pure unadulterated garbage” was left under The Raging Idiots’ kids’ music EP (The Raging Kidiots). It’s children’s music so it’s meant to be goofy, but the EP popped up in the country section in iTunes, so why not put it here. Who would want to pass up a chance to make fun of Bobby Bones?

12 thoughts on “The Hodgepodge: Artistic Expression vs. Profit

  1. Raymond January 21, 2016 / 11:40 am

    I just wish that Somewhere On A Beach didn’t sound like Home Alone Tonight. A petty revenge sex song that’s so beneath his talents. I still have a lot of faith in Dierks will deliver a great album. I’m assuming you guys aren’t calling him a sellout.

    I just wish there was passion in what mainstream artists sang I mean artists like Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert get it. I wish others would to.

    Also have u guys yet hear Miranda Lambert new song Sweet By and By. Any thoughts?

    Like

  2. Josh Schott January 21, 2016 / 11:54 am

    Nothing else I can add. You’ve written a lot of great Hodgepodges, Derek. But this may be your best ever. This artistic expressions vs profit argument is really starting to come to a head and it’s getting really interesting now when Stapleton is proving you can have both. He had no intentions of commercial success and is now being heralded as the Adele of Country Music. Hopefully Stapleton will inspire more to follow his lead.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nadia Lockheart January 21, 2016 / 2:27 pm

    Sister Hazel is actually a better-than-average bet as far as country crossovers are concerned.

    Their sound has always struck me as country-influenced from the beginning much like Hootie and the Blowfish. Much like O.A.R., it also had this college rock sensibility as well but with more of a decided Southern flavor. I think their end result will be more authentic than most crossover attempts.

    *

    Looking forward to hearing the new Cactus Blossoms album too! =)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cobra January 21, 2016 / 9:44 pm

    I find it difficult to be too hard on the content of a “revenge sex” song, if it’s done well. To me, the real issue is that the execution of a song like “Home Alone Tonight” is just terrible. Songs like his CAN be done well if they’re done correctly: look at Wade Bowen’s “Resurrection” for an example: it presents similar content, but is done in a way that doesn’t feel dirty or crude: in fact, it actually goes far enough to try to show that it is in fact as a result of heartbreak, with lines like: “I’ve died a thousand times since you left me” and “I hope this postcard finds you lonely – I hope you’re as lost as I was when you left me.”

    To me, it’s not the content of “Home Alone Tonight” that’s the issue: it’s just that it’s run of the mill poor execution.

    .

    Now, as for Sister Hazel: they’re actually one of my favorite alt-rock/90s bands that has continued to put out solid releases despite being ignored by radio. I’ve seen them live three times, so I’ve heard at least a couple of the songs that are on their new album. While I would never have gone so far as to call them “country,” there are some country influences in their songs – enough so that I don’t see this attempt at a “crossover” as a ploy to just play to current trends. I’ve been long looking forward to their new album.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Derek Hudgin January 22, 2016 / 9:34 am

      That’s a good point, Cobra. I probably should have added the notion that the songs we’re subjected to in regards to “revenge sex” are more immature and classless than others. “Resurrection” is a fine example of that kind of song being executed well. Thanks for bringing that up here!

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  5. jess January 21, 2016 / 10:11 pm

    I have a few things I’d like to pipe up and say-

    I have been reading your blog for about 6 months after being totally disgusted with some award show that was on last summer (CMT Awards??) and completely fed up with the nonesense that is Florida Georgia Line.

    Before stumbling into your blog I was another one of the blind radio listeners, never completely satisfied with what the radio people had to offer me. Although I’m young, I have always loved the country music of the ’80s & ’90s that doesn’t ever come on anymore, except for the lone ‘Throwback Thursday’ song of the week, which just so happens to be the same three or four songs every month.. There’s just something about that time that was more… free? There is no music of today that even compares to then.

    So then, what does a blind listener do? I searched endlessly for YEARS of somewhere I could find maybe independent country artists to listen to, or even find out some good ones to buy an album or to. THAT DOES NOT EXIST. At least so I thought…

    That’s when I discovered this blog and learned about Americana music. I find more and more that Americana is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for, yet it’s so hard to find! Now mind you, I don’t like all of it, I probably don’t like most of it. But what I do like and can actually appreciate is the hard work and effort I think a lot of these artists are putting forth. I had ZERO clue of even who Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell were until coming to your blog. THANK YOU.

    Thank you so much for providing a platform so people like me can actually find something other than the putrid shit spewing out of the radio. I can’t even begin to understand how everyone at the same time decided that the only thing country fans want to hear is something about a girl in a truck that goes down a dirt road, gets to a field, gets drunk, has a party, and gets fcked. Really????

    So, getting into spewing out songs for pure profit. Are the only fans that matter are young 20 something college kids? Are there no other demographic the execs think matter? HELLO most 20 something college kids don’t have a pot to piss in, let alone money to waste on the next Sam Hunt album… right? I myself am a 20 something college kid and am absolutely disgusted by it. I mean. Doesn’t someone like my dad, who used to REALLY enjoy music, matter just a tiny bit more, since he has a bit more discretionary income?

    I don’t get it.

    But that’s something else I wanted to ask your opinion on, and excuse me if you’ve already written about this. What is country music? What defines it? I assume most record execs think that if you throw in a random banjo or fiddle that boom you have a magical country hit.

    But after reading your blog… I don’t think that’s quite it.

    I have this discussion with my dad a lot. We used to live in Nashville when I was young. My dad used to have jam sessions once a week at our house with local artsits he met here and there. It was a basic open invitation with no restrictions and just let people jam and try new things. Someone would get going on a guitar and someone would jump in on a banjo, then maybe another guitar, harmonica, etc. etc.

    That’s what he says is country music. I tell him no, that’s just bluegrass. It becomes country music when you add a story to it.

    Sorry to ramble, I am not a good writer and I’m sure my thoughts are all over the place. I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you for your blog. I didn’t even know this stuff existed 6 months ago and I thought I was the only one who also hated country radio. I am so glad I am not. I look forward to reading your reviews, and I hope in the future there continues to be more to come from real artists that actually deserve to be discovered and heard.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Josh Schott January 22, 2016 / 1:15 am

      Thank you so much for the kind words and your support, Jess! It’s comments like these that remind me of why I created this blog and why I will continue to keep this blog going indefinitely. You have no idea how much I appreciate these type of comments. Thank you!

      As far as what is country music, Willie Nelson said it best. It’s three chords and the truth. Country music tells the honest stories of the every day person who’s busting their ass at a 9 to 5 job, looking for love, looking for answers and simply trying to find their way in life. It’s songs for the heartland by the people of the heartland. I think that’s the most concrete way I could describe it in words. Really the best way to understand and define country music to someone is to listen to a song like “Pancho & Lefty” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” because country music is just something you can feel. You can’t feel country when you throw in drum machines or vapid party lyrics. That’s what country music is to me. I hope that helps answer you question.

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      • jess January 22, 2016 / 10:21 am

        My thoughts exactly, I just could never put it into actual words.

        Keep up the good work!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. southtexaspistolero January 22, 2016 / 10:05 am

    I hear some people try to rebut the assertions voiced here by saying that people have always said, in every era, that the music is worse than it’s ever been, or that it was better in some previous era. To an extent such is right, and it has always been about the money to an extent, but on the other hand the people saying the music is worse than it’s ever been are going to be right at some point. And I honestly can’t see how it can be argued that mainstream country is at least as good now as it has ever been, or better than it has ever been, or that it is not any more about money now than it has ever been. I have said it before and will say it again: there is a market out there for music with substance. If there wasn’t, folks like Sturgill Simpson and Aaron Watson would be stocking the shelves at Walmart. I have a very, very difficult time believing their music would not resonate in the mainstream on some level. They might not sell 10 million copies per album, but country music has always been a niche genre to an extent anyway. In that respect, I think folks like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were arguably the worst things ever to happen to mainstream country music, because the record labels saw that kind of success and started chasing after it as hard as they could, identity of the genre be damned. Of course, there’s the whole Dixie Chicks thing to contend with also; had they not been blacklisted back in 2003, they could have been a counterweight to the more pop influences that came along in the later half of the 2000s. Their first three albums combined sold 25 million copies, and there’s no doubt they had years of great music left in them. We probably wouldn’t be having this discussion if they were still around. For all anyone knows, Watson and Isbell might even be mainstream stars.

    Pretty sure I was actually subjected to Drew Baldridge in the grocery store this morning as I was getting coffee. It was bad indeed.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. AndyTheDrifter January 22, 2016 / 12:47 pm

    Like so many others I feel totally abandoned by mainstream country music, and have been for some time. Thankfully, there’s so much good music from past eras I haven’t heard yet, as well as all the great stuff coming out of the indie/Americana/alt-country realm, that what the mainstream does is pretty much irrelevant to me. Thank goodness for blogs like this one to keep us informed.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Amanda January 25, 2016 / 9:20 am

    Hi Josh, Derek, and Zack! I really enjoy reading your blog, especially the pulses, the Hodgepodge, and the clever and insightful reviews. I have a suggestion if it’s not too much trouble for ya’ll: would you guys please do some more past pulses? I loved reading the ones you guys did, it brought back so much nostalgia and memories of songs I loved as a child. Thanks again! 🙂

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