The New York Times took a pretty big dig at country radio recently.
Author John Caramanica, when commenting on the success of Chris Stapleton and his attempt to promote “Nobody To Blame” to radio, called country radio “the place where difference goes to die.” He also noted that Stapleton is “if not circumspect, at least Zen” about what his recent mainstream attention may mean for his career. We also wrote about it not long ago.
So what to make of Caramanica’s jab at country radio killing anything different and his not-so-subtle hint that radio won’t support the industry’s current darling? It seems that unlike the songs on country radio, opinions vary greatly.
One the one hand, you’ve got hit songwriter Mark Sanders who calls current fare “blow-job country” that is “an emotionless wasteland.” On the other, you’ve got Bob Walker, a radio programming director who retorts, “You want art? Go to the museum.” And on the third hand, you alien, you’ve got a promotions VP who says, “Country radio is not about music. It’s about commerce. Once we all accept that, these arguments are moot.”
Here’s a recap of reactions from industry insiders gathered by Billboard.
Mark Sanders (hit songwriter for George Strait, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and more):
“That contains a good bit of truth. Hopefully country radio, which is always changing, albeit slowly, will find its way back to songs in which women are more [than] ‘shake your moneymaker’ sexual objects. The ‘blow-job country’ we’ve inherited from hip-hop is an emotionless wasteland.”
Bob Walker (Programming Director at WCTK in Providence, RI):
“We are not in the music business. We are in the business of connecting our audience with our clients. You want art? Go to the museum. Then on the way home, drive past the movie theater showing the biggest, mass-appeal hit movies. Which one is going to achieve a wider reach for our clients?”
Chuck Cannon (hit songwriter for Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Wade Bowen and more):
“The day Bill Anderson and I wrote the song ‘Too Country’ [cut by Brad Paisley], Bill remarked that back when he came along, the kiss of death was to sound like someone else. He said it seemed to him that sounding like everyone else was now the objective. He had a valid point. It ain’t only the milk that got homogenized. In the country format, you have to be way more than a casual listener to hear the differences in the artists.”
Rick Kelly (VP of Marco Promotions):
“Lots of music fans consider country radio to be a foreign thing that has nothing to say to them. So they go online or to their peers to find the music that they like. [Jason] Isbell had the best take on the state of country on Twitter when he said, ‘Hate to break it to y’all, but Nashville didn’t “ruin” country music. Lotta good burgers in this town; nobody forcing you to eat McDonald’s.’ 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.”
Krisha Brook (morning host WCYQ Knoxville, Tenn.):
“I don’t think it’s where difference goes to die. It’s currently where difference goes to fight —and win, in Stapleton’s case. It’s clearly becoming time for the bros to sublet their high rises.”
Benton Blount (singer-songwriter; Blount was 6 weeks into promoting his debut single “Carolina” when his label folded. Parmalee went on to record the song):
“Artists may not be expressing it enough, but there is indeed a fear that if they don’t make a record that sounds like what’s currently being played on the radio, no one will touch them. They are scared to be different. For me, this whole Stapleton thing is just hope that I don’t have to shave my beard, wear skinny jeans tucked into my boots and only sing about girls who like pumpkin spice lattes. There is a place for all types of country. I’m just personally happy to see the kind with Southern rock soul in a rough exterior getting a chance to compete with the kind that seems to require a flat-bill ball cap.”
Clay Hunnicutt (President of Big Loud Records, one arm of the folks responsible for Florida Georgia Line):
“Why drag country radio or the format down? All styles can coexist. For every Luke Bryan there’s a Stapleton; for every Carrie Underwood there’s an Alison Krauss. Great music will find its way no matter what, including getting by the haters.”
Brian Mansfield (Director of Content for Shore Fire Media)
“The differences in country music are less obvious from a distance than they are up close. The songs historically move more slowly on the charts, they don’t burn as quickly, and the core acts take longer to get established. Demographically, the differences aren’t as striking as they are at pop radio. It’s almost exclusively white, almost exclusively North American and almost exclusively male. If you’re not a person who spends a lot of time listening to the acts on country radio, you’re not likely to immediately hear the differences.”
Geoff Mayfield (Former senior chart analyst for Billboard):
“It’s an unfortunate oversimplification, but historically, there has always been a uniformity to country radio that is even more narrow than most other popular formats. This is the same format that caused that whole ‘tomato’ headache a few months back, and certainly the indictment then was a lack of variety. But how many times have you heard complaints about how it’s hard to get a new record started on country radio? That same tendency to keep those playlists tight holds hands with a narrower sound at country radio than country labels provide.”
Clint Higham (Morris Higham Management, which represents Kenny Chesney, among others):
“Country music and radio has historically had its sonic ebbs and flows. Go to Apple Music Radio and plug in ‘country hits 1968,’ and you will find Glen Campbell next to Jack Greene. And then go every year from ’68 forward and you will hear music just as diverse. Some good, some terrible, but it’s always had bookends of very diverse sounds and artists. I am happy, as I think most are, to see something unexpected or out of the norm like Chris Stapleton win and be accepted by the masses, especially when it’s this great.”
Randy Wilcox (Music Director for WEGX in Florence, SC):
“The country format, more than any other, grows and changes to meet the needs of its listeners. When the music gets too AC, you get a wave of artists that counters that. When it gets too bro, you have artists waiting in the wings to balance that out. The format is good at self-correction; perhaps a little slow about it in the eyes of those of us on the inside, but for consumers and fans the shifts seem to be at just the right pace — as evidenced by the health and stamina of the genre.”
Wes McShay (Operations Manager at WLWI in Montgomery, AL):
“Stapleton has sold 250,000 units in the past two weeks. That’s hardly ‘death.’ Luke and Florida Georgia Line sell pretty damn well, too. We’re the only ‘birth-to-death’ listenership format. There’s plenty of room for differences.”