The Hodgepodge: A Country Perspective Roundtable Discussion on Viral Stars & Digital Streaming

Two weeks ago I wrote about how streaming is affecting music as it continues to grow and garner more validity in the music industry. As I wrote that piece, I came up with another idea of expanding on the idea of viral and digital music stars getting signed to major labels, like Kane Brown and Maren Morris. Similar to how reality shows like American Idol and The Voice were a go-to spot for musical discovery, I theorize that with the turn of digital music consumption, digital success and “going viral” could be the next way for labels to find new artists.

So instead of just writing about my ideas, I’ve recruited both Josh and Zack to join me in a discussion of this theory. Starting from the theory of scouting the digital world for new stars and building from there, we discuss how that could change radio, how success could be measured, and how sustainable this may be. So please read on to view our discussion and continue in the comments below!

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Derek: Good afternoon, fellas! To kick off this roundtable, I pose this first question. I think that viral video stars could be the future pool for labels to discover new singers to sign. Do you agree?
Josh: I definitely agree with this, as I think country music is slowly realizing that they need to embrace the digital world more. They have to know they can’t keep relying on radio when other genres don’t even care about the format. Kane Brown and Maren Morris are two new acts that didn’t need radio to get noticed.
Zack: I believe that’s the case. No matter how manufactured it may or may not have been, there’s an unfortunate reality that someone like Kane Brown is now a major label star. Of course, as Josh said, perhaps we can get someone good out of it like Maren Morris. It remains to be seen how long of a shelf life these artists have, but I do believe that this could be the future.

Derek: Yes, more & more we could see digital popularity translate into a major label signing. What do you think that could hold for the future of radio and its importance and/or necessity? Already, we’ve seen a radio powerhouse like iHeartRadio facing [high debt] and a negative cashflow, despite having dozens of stations nationwide. If Spotify/Youtube/Apple Radio popularity = success, I think we may very well see some sort of change with the traditional radio.
Josh: I think it will be part of what renders radio to eventually be a useless format. It’s sticking around for now. But with streaming on the rise, country music and all genres have to embrace it. It’s clearly the most popular way to consume music amongst fans, so labels and artists need to go where the fans are at. It will take time for this to have a full effect though.
Zack: I’ve always thought it was interesting that we live in an age where you can browse the Internet and discover and listen to artists on your own time through your own platforms, and yet radio is still the most popular way to discover music. I think eventually steaming and digital popularity will eventually overtake radio, but I’m not fully certain. Country radio hasn’t exactly always been one step ahead with these types of things.
Josh: Well one reason country music has stuck with radio is because it has always been the least dependent on technology. It’s a rural based genre, so it’s make sense to stick to radio for all these years. But now with every other genre embracing technology, they’re forced to do the same soon.

Derek: True, country has always been a step behind other genres in terms of music discovery. I think maybe the label execs on music row have been trying to hold onto some sort control on how their artists’ success is perceived. We’ve seen labels devote tons of time and money manipulating charts to manufacture a #1 or leaving a song on the chart for nearly a year before finally giving up on the song (Chase Rice, Chase Bryant). I wonder if streaming popularity could prevent that sort of control of the successful narrative. And, I agree, Josh. It’s funny how country will hold onto THAT tradition, but not a musical tradition.
Josh: I don’t see why it would. As Trigger pointed out at Saving Country Music, Kane Brown manipulated his streaming numbers via some well positioned connections. No different from country labels doing the same thing at country radio. And yes that is funny. They’re not good at picking the proper traditions to keep.
Zack: That’s why it makes me happy to see a label like EMI just pull a song like Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood” in favor of his new single, “Record Year.” It was obviously not going to do much more. There’s other artists like Chase Bryant as you said before that are still hanging around on the chart when their song should have died months ago (and at a lower peak position).
Josh: Well that demonstrates how much of a real star Eric Church is. He doesn’t need country radio. It really needs him though. Church sells tons of records and sells out venues. A top 15 peak does not hurt him at all. Whereas Chase Bryant is entirely dependent on radio because he’s irrelevant otherwise. Really Bryant is still irrelevant. I’ve never met a Chase Bryant fan.

Derek: That’s a good point on Kane Brown. His team definitely led a sketchy campaign to show his “popular appeal” to a major label. So, if radio does eventually fall into obscurity, what will be the advantage of getting on a big label? It seems to be that big label = radio exposure. Especially with streaming services having low payouts, what do you guys think the future looks like in this regard?

The only big advantage I see to that popularity is concert attendance. Eric Church, as you said
Josh, doesn’t need radio, and he can sell out almost any venue he’d choose to play in. Obviously streaming popularity could translate to higher attendance, but that’s not a guarantee.
Zack: True, and that’s the sad part. Young artists nowadays have to not only rely on the radio for support, but also have to often compromise their sound to get there. If the lead single fails, then forget it. I’m not saying that Chase Bryant is a good example of this, but think of someone like the Brothers Osborne, a band who has stated their disdain for the sameness of the genre multiple times. Their debut album, “Pawn Shop” however had songs in the same vein as the ones they criticized. Why? Because they need radio.
Josh: Well as independent and Americana artists have proven over the last couple years, you don’t need major labels to have success and therefore don’t need country radio either. Jason Isbell is perfectly happy on his own label doing his own thing. And he had the #1 album in country, Americana, folk and rock last year. Sturgill Simpson would have stayed independent for his entire career if Atlantic didn’t give him exactly what he wanted. They gave him what he wanted because they needed him a lot more. These independent artists make themselves. They do the hard work that the label doesn’t have to do and that is make them a star.
So I believe in the future major labels will not matter. And this scares the crap out of Music Row.
Derek: That’s a good point. Sturgill and Isbell are perfect examples of independent artists making their own success and will be more sustained as time progresses. People appreciate a trailblazer and a leader, and not a copy cat.
Maren Morris EPZack: Excellent point Josh. Heck, even mainstream outlets like The Boot and Taste Of Country are covering independent acts nowadays. With Texas and Americana acts gaining and more exposure (including some of them outselling major label acts), I don’t believe that major labels will matter in the future.
One has to remember that Kane Brown’s rise only continues to grow because people think it’s cool to like him. Maren Morris at least impressed people with her sound

Derek: People do think it’s cool to like Kane Brown, and that’s because of narrative painted by those outlets. Major publications will continue to publish PR fluff to create buzz. But if you don’t have a radio station playing a song 15 times a day, will people still think they have to like said song because radio plays it?
Josh: Well I don’t think Kane Brown is going to breakthrough at radio and the reactions I’ve seen online about his music from non-fans hasn’t been that positive. It’s going to a take a lot of PR spin I think. But then again all his label has to do is wave the On The Verge wand and he’ll be rising in no time.

Derek: What will On The Verge’s influence be if radio dissolves? Truly, if people only stream, how will success be judged? Sure, reports to Billboard and a streaming chart may exist, but will a chart like that influence plays on an Apple Radio station, or Spotify radio? For instance, if I choose to play Country Spotify Radio, am I likely to hear more songs than others based on these potential streaming charts?
Josh: If radio dissolves, On The Verge will still give artists a nice boost in sales I think. It clearly has influence amongst fans. If people only stream, I think sales will be a bigger determining factor of success. Specifically album sales will judge success. If you can sell albums in today’s environment, it’s a pretty big deal. Just look at Adele. Potential streaming charts could influence what songs you hear. But it wouldn’t matter because the listener ultimately has the power to choose what they want to hear. That’s one of the biggest pros of streaming. No more middle men like radio programmers.

Derek: I agree, streaming has allowed independent artists to have more exposure because it’s an open medium for listeners to choose from. I think you’re right that album sales will be the big indicator of success.
Zack touched on this earlier, but if viral discovery is the next avenue for getting signed, how sustainable will that be for a musical career?
Zack: I think it depends on the artists honestly. As I’ve noted before, Kane Brown only rose because of who he is, whereas Maren Morris rose because her sound resonated with fans. Kane Brown will probably have his 15 minutes sure, but overall I feel that if the music is what’s truly driving the viral popularity, then artists might be able to mold an actual career. It’ll be interesting to see.
Josh: It depends on the talent of the artist. Maren Morris has the talent to back up her huge viral success. Kane Brown does not. If you want to see a good comparison model for this, go look how winners and high finishers of American Idol and The Voice have fared after the show. Carrie Underwood went on to be a huge star. Fantasia and Reuben Studdard have faded into obscurity. The smoke and mirrors that is artificial pushes and PR fluff will let you be big for a short period of time. Talent will let you have a long and memorable career.

Derek: I’m in full agreement with you both.
Carrie Underwood is a star for a reason, and that same level of talent will dictate the longevity of the career for future potential stars.
Derek: Any final thoughts?
Zack: 2016 is definitely an exciting time for country music and with everything transpiring, I’m definitely excited to see what the future holds for the industry.
Josh: The future of country and Americana is quite bright. Talent will finally be the ultimate determining factor of success. In other words, what it should have always been in the first place. Really it’s always been like this, but now everyone is seeing it. And that bodes well for the quality of future music.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Austin Lucas‘ Between The Moon and the Midwest is due out tomorrow.
  • Lake Street Drive‘s Side Pony will also be released tomorrow.
  • A new album from the Waco Brothers called Going Down in History will be released on the 26th.
  • Loretta Lynn‘s new album, Full Circle, will be out March 4.
  • Billy Currington‘s new single will be “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To.”
  • Caleb Caudile‘s Carolina Ghost will be released on February 26th.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Fancy” by Reba McEntire: I heard this song on the radio the other day, and it’s been stuck in my head ever since, which isn’t a bad thing! Reba recorded this and released it as a single in 1991. The song is a cover of Bobbie Gentry, who wrote and recorded the song originally in 1969. The striking difference between the two is that Reba and producer Tony Brown took a darker approach to the song’s production, fitting in with the Southern Gothic lyrics.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


VINYL: Music From The HBO Original Series – Vol. 1: This first edition of HBO’s Vinyl soundtrack is an excellent collection of music. A great mix of classic rock songs, old covers, and new songs like Sturgill Simpson’s “Sugar Daddy.” Vinyl’s soundtrack is a great callback sound to 60s and 70s rock n’ roll!

Tweets of the Week: Grammy Edition

Instead of having one tweet followed by a random review, I’m going to post several of my favorite tweets from the Grammys.

On Luke Bryan singing Lionel Richie’s “Penny Lover.”

And Some Tweets From Sad Sam Hunt Fans.

No, don’t drag Kanye into this.

Because Chris Stapleton also didn’t release an album in 2015… Also, Montevallo was released in 2014.

Review – Keith Urban & Eric Church’s “Raise ‘Em Up”

Collaborations have been quite popular in the world of mainstream country music in the past couple of years. There have been a lot if you sit down and think about it. Among the collaborations you have Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan collaborating on “This Is How We Roll,” Brantley Gilbert, Thomas Rhett and Justin Moore coming together on “Small Town Throwdown” and Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood on “Somethin’ Bad” to name a few popular ones.

None of those collaborations impressed me because quite frankly they all sucked. The latter one really disappointed me, while the other two weren’t huge surprises. So when I heard Keith Urban and Eric Church collaborated on a new single, I was intrigued. Sure I’m not the biggest fan of either of these guys’ work, but I respect their talent and I felt there was potential with this pairing. So without further ado let’s look at “Raise ‘Em Up.”

The song begins with an acoustic guitar, which is omnipresent throughout the entirety of the song. This is combined with some typical modern country production to give the song a vibrant and upbeat attitude. The song can fly by if you don’t pay attention. While the instrumentation isn’t my exact cup of tea, I really don’t have any qualms with it. It’s solid, radio friendly and respects the roots of country sound for the most part. This is a pop country sound that works for me.

As for the song itself, it’s quite interesting. The phrase “raise ’em up” means a variety of things in the song, from raising a beer in celebration to raising your own kids. Regardless of whatever the meaning is at that moment in the song, they’re all going for the same feeling of down-to-earth, everyday life. It’s a sentimental, feel good song that is supposed to relate to the everyday man as they drive down the road on the way to work. I think for most listeners the song will be an accomplishment in this aspect.

For me personally, it appealed a little bit in the emotional aspect. For the most part though, I just can’t get into this song because it’s simply doesn’t go far enough. It would have been better if it was longer and told more of a story. Instead it just uses vague and at times clichéd themes, similar to most nostalgia/sentimental songs that have come out in recent memory. This is on the writers of “Raise ‘Em Up,” which are Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston and Jeffrey Steele. I have no problem if a song uses just a few clichés if it feels like it belongs instead of being forced. Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown” is a perfect example of this. Also the pandering lines towards the troops made me cringe a little and those definitely felt forced.

As for the decision of pairing Keith Urban and Eric Church, I think this was a great choice. I thought their voices went really well together and it sounded natural. This song really fits Church well because this type of song is right in his wheelhouse and most of his popular songs are similar to “Raise ‘Em Up” in terms of theme and tempo. Urban didn’t try to over sing in this song either, which in my opinion has ruined some of his songs. The only issue I had with the vocals in this song were at the end with the “Ohhhhhs” being echoed over and over. This space could have been better utilized improving the story and theme of the song. Other than that I thought the vocal performances of Church and Urban were solid.

I honestly don’t know how to feel about “Raise ‘Em Up.” It’s certainly not a bad song, but it’s not a great song either. I mean if it came on the radio I wouldn’t start singing along, but I would have no problem listening to it. I think most listeners’ perception of this song will be based on how big of a fan they are of Urban and Church. Their fans should like this song, while the rest of us are kind of confused on how to feel about it. The song has been nominated for the 2015 Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance, so hence the timing of this song being released as a single. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t have a lot of success on the charts. These two each have a dedicated fan base that will really rally a lot of support behind it. So it you’re a fan of one of these artists, check out “Raise ‘Em Up.” If you’re not, then you won’t miss anything.

Grade: 6.5/10

Sturgill Simpson Signing with Atlantic Records Could Make Huge Impact on Country Music

Sturgill Signs With Atlantic Records

As first reported by the always great Trigger at Saving Country Music, Sturgill Simpson has signed with Atlantic Records and is now a major label artist. Sturgill confirmed the news on his Facebook page with the cryptic photo above. According to Trigger, Simpson will be part of the Warner Music Group and that he was courted by several major labels before deciding to sign with Atlantic Records. And don’t worry Simpson fans: Trigger says that Simpson chose Atlantic because they’re allowing him to retain creative control. In fact Simpson is in the studio now making his third album with his producer Dave Cobb and it will be released through Atlantic Records.

So this is pretty exciting news. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw it. My first thought on the news is I’m very happy for Simpson and his family. This couldn’t happen to a better guy and he deserves to be heard by as many people as possible. Just look at the names up on that picture above. Simpson is now with the same label that gave Willie Nelson his big start in country music. He’s on the same label so many legendary artists across several genres made their name and forever made their mark in the history books. And if you’re wondering why Skrillex is included, Simpson is on record as a big fan of his work. I can imagine that he’s a big fan of all these artists that are listed on the photo.

What does this mean for Simpson’s music career moving forward? This means he now has a lot more push behind his music. He now has a much greater chance of getting on the radio, if the right song gets popular enough. Simpson released his first two records under the independent label Thirty Tigers and he is still above several mainstream artists in the country albums iTunes chart. He’s currently ahead of the most recent albums released by Cole Swindell, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum and Kenny Chesney. If he can do this as an independent artist, imagine now what he can do as a major label artist. The sky is truly the limit, but remember the further he climbs up the ladder the harder it is to continue to move up.

Simpson won’t be getting any Florida Georgia Line-sized push anytime soon I can imagine. He’s not that popular (yet). According to Windmills Country, he will be under the same branch at Atlantic as Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark and Dwight Yoakam. That’s pretty good company, huh?

I know I would pay money to see any of these artists in concert and as Windmills points out this is Atlantic’s four most country acts all under the same branch. Brandy Clark of course was nominated for the CMA’s New Artist of the Year award and is also nominated for multiple Grammy’s this year (Best New Artist and Best Country Album). So could we see Sturgill being nominated for these awards soon? It’s definitely possible now. Simpson is up for a Grammy this year too for Best Americana Album, but many were disappointed he wasn’t correctly put under country. I mean the word country is right in the album title! With a major label backing him, I think there’s a good possibility that he could be up for Grammys under the country umbrella and the CMA will have to take notice too.

Don’t be surprised if we see a new album from Sturgill within the next six months. He’s slated to play at several huge festivals across the country, which include Bonnaroo, Coachella, Stagecoach and the Governor’s Ball. It would make perfect sense to release an album right when playing at these huge events because he could gain a ton of new fans. Simpson said it himself that he has several people tell him that they hate country music, but they love his music. Those are the type of people who will be at these major music festivals, except for Stagecoach which is like a country version of Coachella.

Some fans out there are already worrying that Simpson is going to go “Hollywood” or the label is going to mess his music up. I’ll reiterate what Trigger reported again: Simpson still has creative control over his music. He would not sign with a major label if this wasn’t the case. Simpson was perfectly content to stay independent if no major label would give him control. This is the best of both worlds for Simpson, as he will continue to make the music he loves and will be compensated much more financially. Don’t be a selfish hipster and decry this move. Be happy your favorite artist is starting to get the recognition he deserves.

Many people across country music have already been talking about the genre turning the tides and making improvements before this news even dropped. Now it’s looking even better. With the return of Jamey Johnson, Zac Brown Band covering Jason Isbell on national television, Mickey Guyton getting a ton of attention and Simpson signing with a major label, traditional country fans have a lot to be thankful for already in 2015. We could all look back on this as a historical moment in time not just in 2015, but in all of country music history. This could be the beginning of a big change across the genre. Bro country is fading into obscurity and traditional country is on the rise. They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. Well the dawn might finally be here.

Country Perspective’s 2014 Album of the Year Winner

From the very first listen, I knew this album was something special. I remember listening to it over and over the day I got it. Critics everywhere have heaped praise upon it. You the readers overwhelmingly picked this album as the best of the year. Derek and myself agreed that this album was the best. The very first winner of Country Perspective’s Album of the Year award is Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

There were a lot of great country albums throughout 2014 and yet none of them could top Sturgill’s album. I knew this was the album to beat after listening to it. There were a couple I thought were close to Sturgill’s, but they just weren’t quite as great as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This album established itself as unique and different from the rest with its first song, “Turtles All The Way Down.” I don’t know of another country artist who sings about reptile aliens made of light and Buddah in the same song. This song challenges religions and pushes the boundaries in terms of subject matter in country songs, yet the whole theme of it is love. Really the whole album centers around the concept of love.

The album explores these variety of subjects and goes into a psychedelic journey at times, yet most of the songs on this album sound like something from outlaw days of country music. “Long White Line” and “Life of Sin” in particular cause some listeners to liken Sturgill to Waylon Jennings, a comparison Sturgill is getting tired of hearing about. I don’t hear it and I think Sturgill is simply Sturgill. One of the biggest surprises of the album is Simpson covering When In Rome’s new wave pop song, “The Promise.” Only a talented artist like Simpson could take a cheesy love song like this and make it sound like a moving love ballad.

 

Of course the most ear-catching moment in this album is at the end, when the song “Just Let Go” begins. It’s a song about letting go of your ego and other bad traits, living life to the fullest. It’s also the prelude to the psychedelic journey of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” This song absolutely pushed the envelope on the traditional sound of country music and really all of the music Simpson has released up to this point. This unique sound is just brilliant. Mainstream country music says they’re pushing the boundaries and evolving country music by including rap and auto-tune in their songs, but that’s bullshit of course. “It Ain’t All Flowers” is a real example of pushing the boundaries of country music and evolving it into a new, unique sound. This is the kind of stuff country music needs.

Over the course of 2014 people slowly, but steadily took notice of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The album peaked at #11 on Billboard Hot Country chart, despite no label or radio pushes. As I type this out the album is in the top ten of iTunes country albums chart, right next to Luke Bryan and Eric Church. That’s absolutely insane for an artist that was hardly known at this time last year. Yes he grabbed critics’ attentions and dedicated country music fans’ attentions with his debut album High Top Mountain (also a great album), but he wasn’t getting mainstream media attention. Now he’s done interviews with the likes of New York Times and Grantland. He’s played on Conan, Letterman and The Tonight Show. He went on Joe Rogan’s podcast and gained a lot of new fans. He won the Americana Award for New Artist of the Year. He’s been nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album of the Year. All the while just making the music he loves.

2014 was truly the year of Sturgill Simpson. The sky is the limit for him now. But I know all of this recognition doesn’t matter to him. He just wants to do what he loves and provide for his family. That’s pretty damn cool. I think the best thing I heard about Simpson and this album was this quote from Simpson in an interview with American Songwriter:

“The last year, every show all I heard from the fans is ‘Man, I don’t even really like country music, but I love what you guys are doing.’ To me, nothing tells me that we’re achieving our goal more than hearing somebody say that. There’s a lot of people out there who hate country, especially younger people, because they’ve never actually heard what I and many people call country.”

This quote has stuck with me. This quote sums up why Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is not only the best country album of 2014, but one of the best albums across all of music.

Review – Kacey Musgraves’ “The Trailer Song”

When I first came across Kacey Musgraves last year, I didn’t even bother paying attention. I thought she was just another pop country female artist that wasn’t worth my time. But I was an idiot for doing this. I later found out she was arguably the best artist in mainstream country music and certainly one of the best female artists across the entire genre. I bought Same Trailer, Different Park and enjoyed it thoroughly. While a lot of her songs have some polarizing political messages in them, I love her no-holds barred, sassy attitude. It’s needed when female country artists are so underrepresented on the radio today, something Musgraves is quite aware of. She’s had a whirlwind experience over the last year, as she’s burst onto the scene with Same Trailer, Different Park. It netted her four Grammy nominations and she won two for Best Country Song and Best Country Album. She also won the ACM Award for Album of the Year. Now she’s released her latest single, “The Trailer Song.”

Musgraves has been playing this song at her shows for a while and for some reason was kept off of Same Trailer, Different Park. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this decision, but maybe she wanted to save it for her new album coming out. She debuted it nationally last week on The Tonight Show and was met with positivity from country fans. Musgravess sassy attitude is front and center in “The Trailer Song.” It’s about living next to a nosy, judgmental neighbor and how she should basically just mind her own damn business. I think we can all relate to this. The attitude of this song is established right off the bat with the first line: “Say you’re watching the birds out the window/Well I got a bird you can watch.” Funny and poignant! This is like Musgrave’s “Follow Your Arrow” meeting Pistol Annies’ “Hush Hush” and throwing in even more attitude.

The song is very well-written, balancing the right amount of contempt and humor showed towards the judgmental neighbor. By the end of the song Musgraves just tells the neighbor right off with the line, “Go back to your trailer, you nosy bitch.” The instrumentation in the song is perfect. This is probably the most country song Musgraves had made yet in terms of the instruments used. Many were fearful pop would start to creep into her songs after it was announced she was touring with Katy Perry for select dates this summer. But this should dispel any thoughts of this. Keep in mind she’s also touring with Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss & Union Station. Musgraves has said Krauss is one of her career role models and she appears to be good friend with Katy Perry. So things are going pretty well for Musgraves.

Pretty good first single off what should be a great upcoming album. “The Trailer Song” is another great song from a female country artist. I hope Musgraves, Lee Ann Womack, Sunny Sweeney, Ashley Morgan, Brandy Clark and other great female artists continue making great music and try to bust up the bro country bonanza on country music radio.

Grade: 9/10