You know the music, but do you know what goes on behind the scenes? The country music industry is a notoriously difficult business to navigate, especially for new artists. From pre-planned trends to backroom deals, here are 10 things you might not have known about the business of country music.
Few major artists write their biggest hits, and even fewer have a hand in writing all of the songs on their albums. Most country music songs are written by dedicated songwriters. An artist’s team will make an announcement on a “pitch list,” which means that artist is looking for songs. Songwriters (or their publishing companies) will pay hundreds of dollars to create professional demos to submit to an artist’s team. The top songwriters in Nashville usually get first preference. There are a few exceptions to the rule: Sugarland wrote or co-wrote all of their songs. Zac Brown and Eric Church are also hitmakers who write almost all of their stuff.
Open mic nights are inexplicably huge in Nashville. Aspiring writers line up and call ahead hours in advance just for a shot to play one or two original tunes. The story is that Taylor Swift was “discovered” by Big Machine label head Scott Borchetta at the Bluebird Cafe. The truth is, Swift had already been signed to development and publishing deals, and Borchetta was already well aware of her. He even had her to his office to play songs for him before her Bluebird Showcase — which is much different than an open mic. Put simply, if a manager or label is interested in an artist, they’ll know about them way before an open mic or showcase. Sorry to put the kibosh on that fairy tale.
If your song doesn’t follow a formula, you’ll have a hard time getting anybody to listen. The idea is that you have to prove you can follow rules before you get to break them. Is the song longer than three minutes and 30 seconds? Good luck. Does it take longer than one minute to get to the chorus? Fat chance. Do the rhyme schemes not match? No dice. Originality takes a backseat to radio playability. Only a few established artists have the liberty of putting lengthy, quirky album cuts on their records.
Getting tired of hearing the same buzz words on radio hits? You know, tan lines, tailgates, corn fields, whiskey, tattoos playing peek-a-boo and all that nonsense? Well those songs exist because market research at some point or another said those songs play well with listeners. And if music row is good at anything in particular, it’s beating a fad into submission.
The term “payola” refers to labels paying radio programmers to play their songs. It is very illegal, and it is still very real. In fact, a major payola case was settled in 2006, when Universal Records allegedly payed an undisclosed amount of money to several major radio conglomerates to play their artists across all genres. Even today, if a label doesn’t outright pay stations to play songs, radio promoters will engage in questionable practices, like having artists take programmers to expensive dinners.
Labels used to take a chance on potential, because they had the budget to take risks. After the collapse of the music industry, it became more about which artists were the least risky. In some cases, artists brought money to the table. Taylor Swift’s dad put $120,000 into Big Machine. It costs just under $2 million to break a new artist — that includes over $1 million for radio promotion. A label won’t bring on a new artist unless he or she (but most likely he) has a good chance of recouping that — quickly.
Labels have very experienced teams to make sure artists are presented just right. That includes everything from music selection to producers to packaging to promotion. Once an artist shows success, it’s a different story, but until then — listen to the pros.
Before file sharing and iTunes, record deals mostly consisted of labels making money off an artist’s music sales and publishing. Now that the actual music hardly makes a dime, labels get a piece of the whole pie — merchandise, touring and a lot of other things. They’re called “360 deals”, and they’re generally thought of as terrible for artists. But the young and hungry artists usually don’t have a lot of bargaining power when one comes along. So they take what they can get.
You know that first opener you may or may not heard of before the headlining act? There’s a good chance their label paid to get them on that tour. Their only hope for not losing money is selling enough merchandise and making enough fans to make up for it.
The industry can make trends happen. They’re not as organic as it seems. Jason Aldean’s version of “Dirt Road Anthem” started the whole trend, and a whole stack of artists and songs were lined up to follow up on it. As much as bro country has been lambasted by fans and critics alike, it was a perfectly orchestrated trend that made millions. The next trend may very well be music that revolts against it. Brilliant. Dastardly, but brilliant.