Can Country Artists Really Survive Without Radio Play?

In a recent interviewRonnie Dunn said, “If you’re gonna be heard, you have to get on the radio. The internet alone is not gonna do it.”

He added, “Unless you’re cool being a minstrel, hitchhiking from gig to gig. That’s fine too, nothing wrong with that.”

Dunn’s statement seems to be a direct result of his recent experiences as an independent artist, when his two singles from his last independent album, Peace, Love and Country Music, fizzled on national radio. He signed with Nash Icon Records in January.

But going without radio play isn’t all gloom and doom these days.

Aaron Watson‘s The Underdog topped Billboard’s country music chart upon its release, despite not getting much airplay outside of Texas.

“My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the #1 record in country music this week. I do exist,” he said the week of the album release.

Jason Isbell‘s Something More Than Free sold 45,800 copies in its first week— only 300 more than Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol, which came out the same week. Neither one have been making waves on mainstream radio.

Chris Stapleton‘s debut album Traveller sold 27,100 copies upon its arrival, and it’s now nominated for a CMA for Album of the Year.

While all those numbers aren’t astronomical by any means, they did sell more copies in their first week than the 18,700 copies Toby Keith‘s 35 MPH Town sold in its first week.

Keith, like Dunn, was wildly successful in the 90s and early 2000s, but his star is beginning to wane as newer artists rise. This isn’t a dig at either Dunn or Keith— just an acknowledgement that the metric for success might be changing in country music. Some artists may shun radio play, opting instead to do their own thing, like Sturgill Simpson or John Moreland.

Radio play doesn’t matter to some fans as much as seeing a great live show, and Dunn definitely has a devoted fan base. But so does every other artist listed in this article, and their live performances were how they got noticed in the first place.

So, with all due respect to Ronnie Dunn, country artists do get heard these days without radio play. They’re just heard in different ways.

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Can Country Artists Really Survive Without Radio Play?