Album Artists, Single Artists & Why Both Need to Ditch The Old Rules

Everybody likes to talk about the genre divides in music today and how this places creative restrictions on artists, but to me there’s an even greater divide and it’s causing a much greater restriction on music creators: artists who focus on albums and artists who focus on singles.

Artists who focus on albums are usually independent/independent-minded artists (with occasional exceptions in the mainstream like Adele, Chris Stapleton, Beyoncé, etc.) that don’t get radio attention or rack up a lot of streams. Albums are meant to draw people to live shows, where they make their money. Typically their fans are more hardcore music listeners. Think artists like Kacey Musgraves, Cody Jinks, Carly Rae Jepsen and Freddie Gibbs.

Artists who focus on singles are usually mainstream/mainstream-aspirant artists that have had radio/mainstream success and/or do really well on streaming platforms. In other words they’re really popular. While they also make most of their money off live shows and hope to lure fans with big singles to them, they make a good chunk of change off the singles sales and streams too. Typically their fans are more casual music listeners. Think artists like Drake, Luke Bryan, Shawn Mendes and Post Malone.

(And yes not everyone will fit exactly into one of these two groups. But for most music listeners, if you think about your listening habits, you know you mostly fall into one of these two groups most of the time.)

This wasn’t always like this in music. It used to be purely singles driven. It wasn’t until the 1960s with artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Beach Boys started to take their albums seriously front to back that it prompted a wide-spread attitude change towards the concept of albums. It was standard practice up until this point to put out an album with a few singles and then literally put filler in the rest. Listen to early albums from The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as even they engaged in it. But then they put out legendary records like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and everybody decided to put out serious albums, at least for a little while.

Through the 70s and 80s this died down and more artists started to focus back towards singles, while there were still plenty who focused on albums too. But both still pushed albums equally. Then we get to the 90s and early 2000s, where album and music sales reached their absolute peak. Also known as when you had to drive to Walmart and pay $20 for a CD and you only knew two songs on it, praying that you didn’t just flush $20 down the drain (often times you did). Then along came Napster and the Internet and then everything in music changes. It became much friendlier towards fans, as we could now listen to music before buying and led to the streaming-driven music world we have today.

I give this little history lesson to demonstrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But also how some things haven’t changed, yet should. I’m referring to the fact that album artists are still being forced to release singles and singles artists are still being forced to release albums. It’s a huge hinderance on creativity. Why is the music industry forcing these artists to fit a square peg into a round hole?

On one side you have album artists like Sturgill Simpson, who don’t give a shit about singles because they know they’re not going to get enough attention from them to generate the amount of sales and streams needed to justify it, yet they’re forced to do the standard single release plus album announcement, followed by a month or more of PR and other unnecessary bullshit before finally dropping the album. All while the album has been ready for release for months.

On the other side you have single artists like Drake and Post Malone, who really don’t give a shit about albums because they know their bread and butter is made by releasing catchy singles that net huge airplay and streams. But yet they’re still forced to release so many hit singles before announcing an album that’s like 20 songs long that they know is just a lot of filler, but the label knows they can exploit this for streaming and chart purposes. Oh and they still do the whole PR thing for a month or so and talk about how they really “care” about the album before finally releasing it.

In both scenarios, the artists and their fans are being screwed over by having to follow this archaic and traditional method of releasing music. Why aren’t labels adapting around these artists and their fans?

Album artists should announce their albums on a Monday and then release it that Friday. Or just drop it. There’s no need for all the waiting around and picking out singles to release when they ultimately don’t matter. Single artists should just release singles when they’re ready and after releasing so many, just put them on a playlist and call it an era instead of forcing them to release albums they don’t even want to make.

I know why this traditional method is still used and it’s because it’s how many people who work at labels justify why they have a job. But really the continual use of this method just proves why their jobs aren’t needed. Many in marketing don’t want to wake up and realize that 2/3 of today’s marketing is by the end user/customer. This is why I advocate for more artists to go independent, but I digress.

Many album artists have been beating a similar drum for years, but not so much single artists. Fortunately that might finally be changing for the latter, as in country music Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton have both said in interviews recently that they’re now just releasing singles instead of albums. I applaud both of them for acknowledging the type of artists they are and serving themselves and their fans the way they should.

There are many artists unhappy with the way they’re being compensated for their music and the first step that needs to be taken in them seizing more control of this is acknowledging and changing how music is distributed. Not only this, but it could also create a fairer playing field when it comes to crowning what’s popular. Right now we have a chart system in place that heavily leans towards rewarding singles artists and streaming, while ignoring album artists and those with fanbases that prefer buying physical albums. I find this funny because labels know this, otherwise why would UMG keep Kacey Musgraves and RCA sign Freddie Gibbs and Tyler Childers? It’s because their album sales demonstrates a strong and consistent fan base, which in turn translates to steady concert sales.

The third thing this traditional release method is doing is creating unfair expectations and judgement of artists. It leads to dismissal of album artists for releasing a lead single that is only a small part of the greater picture they’re trying to show you, while single artists are getting slammed for releasing bad albums they don’t even want to make because at the end of the day they just want to release catchy hits.

No matter what side you fall on, neither are right or wrong. But both are being screwed over by the system. I know we could just keep going along with the current system (just ignoring the albums of single artists and patiently waiting for the album artists to release a record), but when there’s a better way of doing things staring you in the face, why ignore it?

Predictions for Country & American Roots Categories at the 2017 Grammy Awards

Grammy

This Sunday we celebrate the biggest music awards show of the years. I’m of course referring to the 59th Grammy Awards, set to air Sunday night at 8 pm ET on CBS. Many of the awards however are presented in the pre-show that’s live streamed online and information for this can found be found here. After hosting for five years, LL Cool J steps aside as host and The Late Late Show host James Corden takes over. Multiple country artists will be performing on the show, including Sturgill Simpson, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban (most likely new single “The Fighter”), Little Big Town (part of tribute to Bee Gees), Maren Morris (duet with Alicia Keys) and Kelsea Ballerini (duet with Lukas Graham). Now let’s get to the predictions! Keep in mind I’m not the best at this prediction game, but I feel like I do a little better each year. The award shows can be unpredictable. And be sure to make your own predictions in the comments.

Note: I will not be doing a live blog this year. I will however be live tweeting it all on Twitter, where you can all of my live thoughts as the show unfolds. Just go to twitter.com/realcountryview to follow if you don’t have Twitter. I’ll also most likely be doing a recaps/reaction post.

Album of the Year

  • Adele – 25
  • Beyoncé – Lemonade 
  • Justin Bieber – Purpose 
  • Drake – Views
  • Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

What I Would Pick To Win: Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth of course. Just imagine the outcries afterwards of all the big names that got taken down by some guy from Kentucky who made an album for his son.

What I Predict Will Win: Beyoncé’s Lemonade is the clear favorite I think, with Adele being the closest competition. But with other big names in Drake and Bieber also here, the votes could easily split and lead to Sturgill pulling off an upset similar to Beck a few years ago. I’d be fine with Beyoncé and Adele winning if Sturgill doesn’t, as I enjoyed both of their albums.

Best New Artist

  • Maren Morris
  • The Chainsmokers
  • Chance The Rapper
  • Kelsea Ballerini
  • Anderson .Paak

Who I Would Pick To Win: Anderson .Paak or Chance The Rapper, as both of their latest albums were awesome. But if I had to pick between these two, I would go with .Paak.

Who I Predict Will Win: Honestly I have no clue here. I could see any of these nominees winning, even Kelsea Ballerini because despite being a complete unknown outside of the country music bubble, Black River Entertainment continues to prove they have a lot of friends in high places. Morris is getting to duet with Alicia Keys and is quickly becoming a darling on the awards circuit. I’ll be content as long as Ballerini or The Chainsmokers don’t win.

Best Country Solo Performance 

  • Brandy Clark – “Love Can Go To Hell”
  • Miranda Lambert – “Vice”
  • Maren Morris – “My Church”
  • Carrie Underwood – “Church Bells”
  • Keith Urban – “Blue Ain’t Your Color”

What I Would Pick To Win: Miranda Lambert’s “Vice” (Anything but Urban’s song, which is ironically exactly what I wrote here last year)

What I Predict Will Win: Maren Morris’ “My Church” due to as I said above Morris quickly become an awards circuit favorite and this single being extremely popular. The other favorite I would think is Underwood, as she’s been a favorite of the Grammys.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

  • Dierks Bentley & Elle King – “Different For Girls”
  • Brothers Osborne – “21 Summer”
  • Kenny Chesney & P!nk – “Setting The World on Fire”
  • Dolly Parton & Pentatonix – “Jolene”
  • Chris Young & Cassadee Pope – “Think of You”

What I Would Pick To Win: Woof this category is rough. I guess I would go with “21 Summer.”

What I Predict Will Win: Dierks Bentley & Elle King’s “Different For Girls” because apparently people are okay with stereotypical bullshit and really think this is some deep song.

Best Country Song

  • Keith Urban – “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (Clint Lagerberg, Hillary Lindsey & Steven Lee Olsen)
  • Thomas Rhett – “Die A Happy Man” (Sean Douglas, Thomas Rhett & Joe Spargur)
  • Tim McGraw – “Humble and Kind” (Lori McKenna)
  • Maren Morris – “My Church” (Maren Morris & busbee)
  • Miranda Lambert – “Vice” (Miranda Lambert, Shane McAnally & Josh Osborne)

What I Would Pick To Win: Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” (Not Urban or Rhett)

What I Predict Will Win: Any of these have a great shot at winning I think. But I think they’ll go with “Humble and Kind” or “Vice.”

Best Country Album

  • Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town
  • Loretta Lynn – Full Circle
  • Maren Morris – Hero
  • Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth 
  • Keith Urban – Ripcord

What I Would Pick To Win: Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

What I Predict Will Win: A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is pretty much a lock here, with Simpson getting an overall Album of the Year nomination and a performance slot.

Best American Roots Performance 

  • The Avett Brothers – “Ain’t No Man”
  • Blind Boys of Alabama – “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time”
  • Rhiannon Giddens – “Factory Girl”
  • Sarah Jarosz – “House of Mercy”
  • Lori McKenna – “Wreck You”

What I Would Pick To Win: Rhiannon Giddens – “Factory Girl”

What I Predict Will Win: The Avett Brothers – “Ain’t No Man”

Best American Roots Song

  • Robbie Fulks – “Alabama at Night” (Robbie Fulks)
  • Jack White – “City Lights” (Jack White)
  • Roddie Romero And The Hub City All-Stars – “Gulfstream” (Eric Adcock & Roddie Romero)
  • The Time Jumpers – “Kid Sister” (Vince Gill)
  • Lori McKenna – “Wreck You” (Lori McKenna & Felix McTeigue)

What I Would Pick To Win: Lori McKenna – “Wreck You”

What I Predict Will Win: Jack White – “City Lights”

Best Americana Album

  • The Avett Brothers – True Sadness 
  • William Bell – This Is Where I Live
  • Kris Kristofferson – The Cedar Creek Sessions
  • Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle
  • The Time Jumpers – Kid Sister

What I Would Pick To Win: Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle

What I Predict Will Win: William Bell – This Is Where I Live

Album Review – Lady Antebellum’s 747

Lady Antebellum is one of those bands that are tough to figure out. The dual vocal power between Hilary Scott and Charles Kelley certainly give the band a strong edge in the pop country world. Kelley has a nice rock grit to his voice that shines on older tracks like “Love Don’t Live Here” or “We Owned The Night.” Hillary Scott’s smooth voice elevates songs like “American Honey” or “Dancing Away With My Heart.” When combined together, these two singers have brought out some of the best pop country, adult contemporary songs like “I Run To You,” “Just A Kiss” and especially “Need You Now.” However, the group, for whatever reason, thinks that they need to release some trendy new-age country music with this new album, 747. Of all the acts of country music today, I don’t see why a band like Lady Antebellum would need to fight for relevancy by adopting sonic trends into their music. Sure when Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean are finding success through bro-country, it makes sense for solo male acts to follow suit and fight for their own solo-male act relevancy. But groups and duos, by the nature of the act, have additional avenues to help them stand out amongst a diluted crowd rather than join the club. Yes, Lady A does stick to their adult contemporary roots on a few songs here, but their attempts to make their music relevant in the short-term makes 747 a choppy, some-what frustrating listen.

Best Songs on the Album

One of the tracks that stand out among the crowd is “Damn You Seventeen,” a song about a young couple who are nervous to pull the trigger on sex. The vocals from Charles and Hillary are great here and they sing their respective parts of the couple well. The stripped back instrumentation of the track sells the regret they feel perfectly. From the songwriting view-point, I think this is the best of the whole album, with great imagery and comparisons. “One Great Mystery” is a passionate love song, again, sung by both Charles and Hillary. The song is simply about the couple pondering how the other can love them so selflessly. The guitar of the song is bluesy and maybe a little R&B influenced. It’s not really a country song and the track is certainly adult contemporary pop, but from a universal musical viewpoint, I think it’s a good song. It’s the type of song that made Lady Antebellum popular.

Worst Songs on the Album

Luckily, most of the album is better than it’s lead off single, “Bartender.” But there’s one song that is actually worse than Bartender, and that abysmal track is called “Freestyle.” Firstly, Charles Kelley talks to no one in the opening words saying things like “We gonna do this thing?” Next, he and Hillary Scott basically rap about nothing and name drop Macklemore. Yup, Macklemore. Yet another rapper we can add to the country name drop list alongside Drake, Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain. Oh and they sing “peeling off her blue jeans.” You’d think that Florida Georgia Line wrote this one, but no it was all three Lady A members with Shane McAnally. Word on the street is that “Freestyle” will be the album’s next single, so prepare yourselves.  Lady Antebellum is capable of great upbeat, good time songs like “Downtown” (a song I actually like) and “Sounded Good At the Time” (see the next section), but neither “Bartender” nor “Freestyle” are even remotely good upbeat, good time songs.

The Rest of the Album

747 kicks off the with hard rocking “Long Stretch of Love.” A song about a couple who fight a lot but always have makeup sex which is apparently awesome enough for them to stick together through what appears to be a frequent pattern of fights and then making up. “Down South” is probably the most “country” sounding song of the album. There are mandolins and acoustic guitars and no electronic pop effects (is the lack of electronics making it sound country really the standard we’ve dropped to for mainstream acts?). Lyrically, it’s yet another small town love song where the narrator has left and wants to return. “Sounded Good At the Time” has some pop machine effects, but the song is a fun, up-tempo nostalgia track about some of the best times as a youth. For instance, the second verse tells a story of how their car broke down and they hitchhiked to a concert, a decision that “sure sounded good at the time.” “She Is” describes a girl from Boston who has her own sense of entitlement and attracts men. Essentially, this is the city girl version of David Nail’s “Whatever She’s Got,” but it’s much more adult contemporary pop friendly in its instrumentation. “Lie With Me” is an easy listening, mid-tempo track with heavy drum kicks and light guitars driving the tune. The song is about a couple, primarily the man, wanting one more night together before the end of the relationship inevitably arrives; a song about goodbye sex. The title track is actually pretty good. It’s about a couple in a long distance relationship making a last-ditch effort to save the relationship. I like the story, and Hillary Scott sings with a good amount of passion, but it’s auto-tuned. It’s slight, but it’s there, it’s unnecessary and it’s frustrating. The album ends with the relatively good “Just a Girl.” A song about how the female narrator realizes she is more than just a one-night stand object. She finally learns her lesson and ends whatever notion of a relationship she had with the male in question.

Overall Thoughts

747 should hardly be considered country; it’s full on pop music that uses just about every electronic musical effect possible. The vocals here aren’t as strong as in past albums. You can tell the focus here was on the production to make the songs 2014 relevant rather than the timeless sounds of songs like “Need You Now” or “American Honey.”  The two best songs I listed above are the strongest along those terms, but most of 747 is Lady Antebellum toeing the line between their brand of pop country and the modern heavily pop infused “country” that’s found it’s way into the mainstream. The lack of focus here hurts the band on this record. Overall, the song writing isn’t terrible; in fact for many songs, the writing is the redeeming factor to save them from being garbage except for “Freestyle.”  That song is absolute crap. They do offer some crossover friendly songs like “Lie With Me” and “She Is” that are poised find success on just about any radio station that’ll play modern music. Overall, 747 tries a little too hard to be a little bit everything that today’s mainstream country likes and it doesn’t work.

Grade: 4.5/10

 

Zac Brown Band’s New Strategic Partnership for Southern Ground

Zac_Brown_USO_tour

On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.

Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.

For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.

Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.

Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.

Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.

Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.

More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.

Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.