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What Country Did Right In Its Peak Year

 

What did Country radio do right in its last peak year?

Darius Rucker Wagon Wheel Country Radio 2013Recently, Country Aircheck spotlighted PPM figures from Jon Miller at Nielsen Audio showing that Country shares shot up in June 2013 (428 aggregate shares from 379 the June before). For two more years, they hovered above the 400-share mark. Last year, they rebounded slightly (391-396) before reaching their lowest point (372) this June.

Broadcasters have certainly been hyper-aware of Country’s issues over the last few years, but Miller’s numbers crystalized them. The concerns voiced by Country PDs about the state of their available music have become ongoing themes—too much pop-leaning music, not enough superstars. And that was among those programmers willing to respond to Miller’s numbers on the record.

So what was Country radio doing right in 2013? And what clues does that provide us for the format now? I went back to the top 100 most-played Country songs of the year, according to NielsenBDS Radio. Here are some things worth considering:

There were plenty of (relatively) anonymous male acts in 2013. The issue of consistent but non-superstar male hitmakers is a consistent one. In this strong year for the format, there are still hit songs from Tyler Farr, Randy Houser, Kip Moore, Justin Moore, Easton Corbin, Jake Owen, Chris Young, Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Brantley Gilbert, Parmalee, and David Nail. A few of those are the first of the “bro country” artists arriving on the scene; others had been living comfortably in the format’s second tier for a decade or longer. In good and bad years, that type of artist is among us always. In good years, it just rankles less, partially because….

There were also plenty of stars. The year’s top 10 songs also include Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, Miranda Lambert, and Lady Antebellum. Following close behind are Shelton, Tim McGraw (with Taylor Swift and solo), Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Zac Brown Band, and Jason Aldean. Besides the instant stardom of Florida-Georgia Line, 2013 also saw the continued ascent of Thomas Rhett.

“Cruise” Was Still Cruising. The Florida-Georgia Line smash peaked at Country in late 2012, but built at Top 40 through the following June. The despised “bro country” handle would be coined that August, but for those six months, “Cruise” was merely the continuation of what had begun at Country radio with “Dirt Road Anthem,” especially when Nelly got involved. The other hits of the genre that year were from acts both established (Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here”) and/or traditional (Lee Brice’s “Parking Lot Party”). Even by the end of the year, we hadn’t quite turned the corner from originators to imitators–as all stylistic gluts do. And whatever critics thought, there was no sign yet that the audience had a problem.

The No. 1 song of the year at Country radio, according to Nielsen BDS, was Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel,” as important a calling card for Country as “Cruise.” “Wagon Wheel” was what it sounded like when everything worked: an artist with multi-format appeal who was now committed to Country; a quality song that fit perfectly in Country, but had already built up a stealth following elsewhere. 

Taylor Swift was still part of the format, and so were her friends. PDs struggled with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” but Country radio still had “Begin Again” and “Red” over the course of the year. It was also the peak of Hunter Hayes’ stardom and the year of The Band Perry’s follow-ups to “If I Die Young.” Part of the phenomenon of Country in 2013 and the years preceding was watching the format’s young-end numbers explode, with unprecedented station showings in 18-24 and even 12-24. Not every PD was comfortable with that—2013 was also the year of the Country Radio Seminar panel where some programmers saw an all-ages format as one that lacked focus—but artists like Hayes were giving some stations a hook to do “Win a Concert for Your High School”-type promotions that helped establish the format as “the other CHR” for a while.

Kacey Musgraves was briefly part of the format. “Merry Go Round” finished in the lower reaches of the top 100. It wasn’t a power for most stations. But it was still a small victory for a gently subversive song that, like “Wagon Wheel,” allowed the format to step slightly outside the mainstream. Musgraves’ champion, Miranda Lambert, was already doing that. Among the frustrations of the last six years isn’t just that Musgraves didn’t find a way to do what she does in the format, it’s also that Lambert hasn’t unleashed another “Mama’s Broken Heart,” one of the year’s top five songs, and again, unclassifiable—you couldn’t deny it was Country, you couldn’t deny it rocked.

Passive and Active were balanced.“Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Cruise,” “Wagon Wheel,” “Two Black Cadillacs,” “Boys ‘Round Here,” “Crash My Party,” “Redneck Crazy,” “Better Dig Two,” “Parking Lot Party” and other hits of 2013 were active, not passive records. The year-end charts always tend toward passive titles, because they’re the ones that took 30-40 weeks to break and amassed a lot of spins on the way. But in between “Hey Pretty Girl” and “Running Outta Moonlight,” there was still plenty of room for listener engagement.

Pop vs. Traditional in Country is an ongoing argument, but it may not be the one we need to solve now, as much as balancing passive hits with active songs that can be calling cards for the format. The natural default in the format is often to records that are nominally more traditional but still neutral—but “I Met A Girl” by William Michael Morgan, considered a corrective at the time, didn’t boost the format either. (There’s no slight to Morgan intended here. He released a more truly traditional sounding follow-up and radio wouldn’t support it.)

If 2013 was a best of everything year, 2019 sometimes seems to be the worst (or at least most frustrating) of everything. Many Country broadcasters hew to the format infrastructure that was taking root 5-6 years ago: stations that grapple for the “new country” image, despite concerns about the quality of “new country,” and play tight CHR/Hot AC-sized libraries. In markets with multiple country stations, nobody is eager to surrender the “#1 for New Country” franchise and play the ‘90s and early ‘00s, although it seems like one of each would get us closer to “best of everything” again.

Radio hasn’t exactly learned how to hold on to the hits longer—songs take longer to develop, but most still plummet after they peak. A format that’s still very concerned about playing the hits still allows one or two songs to be power every week that don’t deserve it, merely because a label has placed a trade ad saying “increase spins for No. 1 this week.” Broadcasters get defensive when the “lack of female artists” issue comes up, but the format isn’t doing so well without them that PDs should dig in on that one. And, for what it’s worth, there were three female or female-led acts in 2013’s top-10 most played songs. 

What emerges from 2013 is a format in balance.  Country radio in many cases is more neutral now, but balance isn’t the same thing.

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