“Things Change” — But the Questions Keep Coming

“Things Change,” the battle cry against country music purists that Tim McGraw debuted on the recent CMA Awards Show (Oct. 4), continues to move up the charts despite the fact that it exists neither as a single nor an album cut. In this week’s trade paper Radio & Records, the song inches from No. 42 to No. 41; and in the corresponding issue of Billboard, it goes from No. 49 to No. 43, a jump that earns it the magazine’s “Greatest Gainer” tag.

Just as significant as the song’s message — at least in the short run — are the questions of how it got to country radio stations in the first place and what it signifies in McGraw’s increasingly rancorous dispute with his label, Curb Records. The singer has complained publicly that he wanted the new album he has recorded to be out this fall. Instead, Curb chose to release an album of his greatest hits, which will be in stores Tuesday (Nov. 21). Some wonder if McGraw isn’t using the song as leverage to get his new album out faster.

On Nov. 3, McGraw’s publicist, Jessie Schmidt, issued a press release at the behest of his management company that said “Things Change” charted after radio stations picked it up from the Napster music-dissemination web site. According to Schmidt, “unknown fans” had taped McGraw’s live television performance and placed it on Napster.

This story was quickly called into question by music industry insiders who pointed out that enterprising radio stations have always taped televised awards shows in the hope of getting a jump on new music from superstars. Radio & Records’ country editor, Lon Helton, noted that “hundreds of radio stations” simulcasted the recent CMA show and that “lots of stations played [the song] the next morning.”

While the Napster account may be true in part, there’s a good deal more to it. “Unknown fans” may well have posted their recordings of the live performance on Napster, but there are also studio recordings of the song floating about and being played on radio. Presumably, these copies could have come only from McGraw’s camp or his record label. Mike Moore, program director for Nashville radio station WSIX, says he’s playing the “studio version” of “Things Change.” And where did he get it? “It just sort of appeared here at the radio station,” he says coyly. Tim Murphy, program director for Nashville’s WSM-FM, who reports that his station is not playing the song much, says he got his copy from Napster, “like everybody else.”

Both McGraw’s management company and his record label deny they gave out copies of the studio recording. “If I could do that and know I was going to be the ’Greatest Gainer’ this week, I think I’d take credit for it,” says manager Scott Siman. “We’re pretty proud of ourselves, but I’m not that clever. … I guess somehow there is a [studio] version on Napster. I don’t know how it got on there. But there is something other than the live version out there. I don’t actually have a copy of it, but that is what I’m told. I’ve not been able to find it myself, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.”

Siman adds that the prospect of a premature release was one of the “dilemmas” of deciding to debut the song on the awards show. “Copies have been around, [what with] putting a musical track in, figuring out what’s going to be on the show and whatever. That’s the risk you take this day and age. It’s a growing problem that art work and pictures and tracks all of a sudden are out there, and you can’t always control how and when people get it, like you used to. You’re concerned about album art work being transferred over the Internet. All of a sudden you’ve got popping up on people’s home Web sites a copy of what’s going to be your next album cover. It’s a troublesome area, frankly.”

Dennis Hannon, executive vice president and general manager of the Curb Group, says he doesn’t know yet how the label will respond to “Things Change” charting. “At this point, I think it’s an anomaly on the charts,” he observes. “I would never say that Curb’s not going to do anything with it, but we certainly don’t have plans yet. I can’t even confirm that it is in fact going to be on Tim’s next album. I know he’s spoken about putting it on the album, but I don’t even have a time frame for the album or what that first single would be. It’s one of those things where we certainly love to have the additional exposure on Tim McGraw. We always like that. To determine exactly what’s going to happen when, I can’t comment on. … The album hasn’t even been officially delivered to us, and we don’t have a release date for it.”

Ann Callis, assistant to McGraw’s producer Byron Gallimore, says she understands that the new album will probably be out in February. “No decision has been made on what the first single will be,” she notes. “In fact, we might even cut more songs. . . . We have essentially finished [the album], but since they’re not going to release it until February, if something really good were to come in the door, then we would cut something else.” No title has been selected for the album, she says.

Siman downplays the dissension between McGraw and Curb, saying that it involves only the disagreement about when the album of new material should go on the market. “We really wanted to come with a studio album this fall and not the greatest hits,” he explains. “That’s really what we were pushing for, and Curb had the right to put out a greatest hits [album], and they elected to go that way. That was our big argument. Tim worked really hard to get the album done and was ready to go, and they decided to go in another direction.”

The fact that “Things Change” is on the radio at least months before fans can buy a copy of it does not alarm Siman, he says. “That doesn’t bother me at all. As [record promoter] Joe Casey once said, ’It’s not milk — it won’t spoil.’ I think it will only make Tim’s next studio album that much more interesting and attractive to consumers. Not only will they get the great new music that they won’t have had access to, they’ll also have the benefit of a hit. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having more hits on your record.”

Stephen Haynie, singles buyer for the Tower Records store near Music Row, says he’s not aware of any demand yet for “Things Change.” “I haven’t even heard of it, actually. I haven’t heard of anyone asking for it. That’s not to say they won’t.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.