Several years ago I was a fresh college graduate with a degree in the cool kids’ Entertainment Industry Studies program. My education was fun and provided me plenty of opportunities to intern and volunteer in the Nashville music industry arena. But upon graduating, I realized that most jobs I qualified for were either set aside for free interns or still required “more experience” (also known as a contact already working for the company). Therefore, I was struggling financially and eating away at my savings to pay my rent so I could stay in the city and hopefully gain some opportunity qualifying me for a paying position.
My first glimpse at hope came from a man who for all intensive purposes will remain unnamed. He had his own production company with several compilation albums to his name, as well as a variety of other political agendas of which I would later become privy. What he needed was a freelancing research assistant – someone with good time management, an interest in country music, and reliable access to WiFi. Seeing as I fit the bill and had all the time in the world, I got the job! And it was actually quite interesting…basically I was composing in-depth fact sheets regarding 50 of the most popular current country artists, ranging from Reba and Brooks & Dunn to Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. My job was to find out all of the little details that contributed to their careers – where they went to school and what they studied; what their “big break” consisted of; who they worked with in regards to management, publishing and recording; what their brand was; how they dressed; how they sounded; what charities they worked with; which artists they collaborated with…the whole deal.
Some of it I honestly could explain better as a fan than as a researcher, and so the work was both interesting and perfectly fitting for me. But what struck me as weird about the whole thing was, after I got several artists deep and talked to my new boss about the intentions of the research, I learned what it was really for: developing a new artist based on the old models. Basically he wanted to know, if he had an artist who was kinda sorta like Jason Aldean, then what steps would need to be taken to create the “next” Aldean? And if he had a fledgling talent with Miranda Lambert vibes, then who should that artist work with to take the same successful trajectory as Miranda?
Technically, it all makes a lot of sense. If you begin to notice good patterns with a certain manager, or a label that tends to work with the same kinds of artists, then you can properly identify who/what might be the right fit for someone coming into Nashville with no knowledge or connections within the industry. But what he wanted to do – which is what most of Music Row seems to do these days already – was formulate the next big thing based on what has already been. He wasn’t trying to fill a void; he was trying to take a place. And what strikes me as odd is the fact that major artists – the ones you can recognize at the lick of a guitar or the sound of a voice or hat – are only that way because they are originals…not copycats. Anyone who wants to come to Nashville and make a true lasting impact shouldn’t be the next Someone, they should be the first Them.
But maybe he was really onto something, if only from a business standpoint. Because unfortunately, current trends in radio, streaming and sales would prove that copycats get that quick and easy success, which is all that really matters in such a fast-paced industry these days, no?
Nashville is most definitely suffering from a severe case of homogenization – and while there will always be the daredevils and the outlaws, most of what the casual fan hears will come straight off the radio and will consist of the basic components that make it “radio worthy”. For anyone who wants something a little different, the challenge becomes finding it – whether that’s through online blogs, independent radio stations, or music history lessons. There’s still hope for the country genre, and there always will be. But the longer we cling to proven copycat methods, the further away we’ll be getting from the core of what made the music great in the first place.
The issue is multi-tiered; ranging from popular influences outside of the genre, to listeners craving something already familiar, to labels not wanting to have to curate anything new when they think they know what already works. When one artist goes “pop,” the rest have to compete. So not only are we hearing the same sort of thing over and over, but it’s not even resembling country music anymore, which is continuously snowballing into an issue that has already been beaten to death.
So if you’re struggling and need somewhere to turn, here are a few of my go-to escapes:
(host Tom Moran laments the current state of the Top 20, admits he can’t tell Luke Combs from Aldean, and offers suggestions for new listening)
And for more inquisitive reading pleasure about the current dilemmas of country radio, check out this recent exposure from Billboard: Is ‘The Crazy Race to No. 1’ Damaging the Country Radio Format?
At the same time, we’ve got the inimitable Chris Stapleton sitting in the Top 2 slots of the Country Albums chart this week, so that’s pretty impressive, right? But radio’s another story. There’s always room for improvement…and I’ll leave ya at that.
cheers ~~ h ~~