By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
This isn’t the country radio crisis of the early ‘00s. Back then, Top 40 radio was at the height of its comeback. Consolidation, cluster strategy, and the departure of younger demos had led to country radio focusing on 35-plus. Country radio was largely midtempo-to-slow, and even the uptempo music wasn’t truly uptempo (think “Yes” by Chad Brock or any other passive record with tempo but no texture). And when Faith Hill and Shania Twain lost their crossover luster, few acts generated the all-ages genre-busting appeal of a Garth Brooks, and one of those was the Dixie Chicks.
But there’s genuine concern at country radio these days. The downturn in younger demos first seen around the time that Taylor Swift released her new album to pop radio, not country, seemed to subside for a while. But in Nielsen’s just-released PPM analysis, country radio is down both from previous months and previous year’s May ratings. Some markets aren’t participating in the downturn, but it’s not unusual to see some of the markets where two country stations once thrived now looking more like a war of attrition.
The decline is likely to hasten two trends that already existed at the format. One is a reduction in the amount of current music, something I’m already hearing about at certain key groups and stations. The other is an ongoing push away from the much-derided “bro country.” That movement kicked in two summers ago when Florida Georgia Line decided to show their maturity with “Dirt,” the sort of “core values” ballad that any artist in the format would have proudly offered. Not every artist, including Florida Georgia Line, has made the move on every song. But it’s more common for a Cole Swindell to step away from “Let Me See Ya Girl” in search of a potential career song like “You Should Be Here.”
The crisis I’m worried about here is more like Top 40’s near-death experience in the early-to-mid ’90s. That was when CHR PDs didn’t know how to react to the rise of country (and then alternative) as well as the rise of hip-hop and a glut of rhythmic pop. CHR programmers jerked their stations toward Hot AC, or out of the format altogether. In doing so, they actually hastened the rise of both hip-hop and country radio. CHR in its 1992-93 doldrums wasn’t hot enough for anybody who previously enjoyed the format, but it wasn’t convincingly adult enough to bring back any listeners who might have been alienated by Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” (which now seems more adorable than polarizing).
That sort of scenario isn’t impossible to imagine now at country radio. I prefer the term “tailgate country” to “bro country” —a derisive outsider’s appellation along the lines of “terrestrial radio.” But by either name, it’s as hard to eradicate all traces of the country music influenced by hip-hop as it was for top 40 to effectively veer away from hip-hop.
“Tailgate country” represents too much of the usable recent music of the format for programmers to truly steer clear of it. Tailgate country also created a familiar midtempo groove musically that artists can use in service of any lyric, not just the obvious ones. Segues such as Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” into Dustin Lynch’s “Mind Reader” are still easy to hear at country radio, and after that, it really doesn’t matter what the next song is.
Beyond that, for better or worse, the combination of hip-hop beats and the aggressive production of today’s country created a certain excitement at the format. And anything that plays next to those songs faces certain challenges. Records like “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” made what came before them, even early ‘00s attitude country of the “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” variety, sound old. Now, some of the newer, non-tailgate “quality” songs just sound flat by comparison.
Top 40 didn’t have much to replace “Poison” with, either. There were the holdover acts—Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart. There were AC acts — Michael Bolton, Amy Grant — who were mass-appeal stars for one or two projects but lethal when their hipness wore off. Then there were the echoes of the music that PDs were trying to escape from. PDs quickly discarded New Kids on the Block. But the music industry clones its hit acts for years, so there was always an All-4-One or Jeremy Jordan lurking on the charts.
When the format did start to find its way again in the mid-’90s, the songs it needed weren’t particularly flashy — Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do,” Hootie & the Blowfish’s “I Only Wanna Be With You.” As Sheryl and Hootie suggest, many of the hits of 1995-97 turned out to be country songs in spirit anyway. But they were nominally uptempo songs by cooler artists, many of whom had a similar appeal to Garth Brooks.
One more thing to consider. Country has been helped both by an all-ages coalition and “the power of now,” both phenomena that bolstered CHR recently as well. Serving multiple generations means appealing to multiple generations within a household, and thus multiple meter carriers of the sort that more narrowly appealing formats can’t count on.
The “power of now” has not only fueled Mainstream Top 40’s all-ages appeal, it has also pushed Hot AC and even Mainstream AC into more current-leaning places. Older titles mean little to recent format converts, but today’s music holds sway over some 50-year-old women who would have long bolted to Classic Hits in previous times.
The power of now is not necessarily driven by chart currents. Hot AC and Mainstream AC are built around an emphasis on music from the last few years, not the last few weeks. But in a format where a power current is already 40 weeks old, slowing down the currents has extra potential to lessen the excitement of “now.” And leaning more on recurrents and recent gold steers you further into the polarizing heart of the tailgate era.
The concerns of country PDs about the loyalty and sustainability of younger demos have been there since the beginning. The concerns that older demos might be unhappy with today’s music aren’t unfounded. The answers are harder. In top 40’s worst case scenario of 1993, the less edgy/more adult-friendly format pleased nobody. Adults jumped. Teens were pushed. Stations were left with the same young median age — just fewer listeners.
I feel pretty good about some of the country product that has surfaced in recent weeks. The best scenario is that the last generation of tailgate country is replaced by active, not passive, records that create equal excitement. The novelty/reaction country of the early ‘00s (“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo)” gave way to Big & Rich/Gretchen Wilson and then to both Taylor Swift and the Dierks Bentley/Luke Bryan/Eric Church generation of artists. Whatever happens next has to keep the excitement of “now” going.