NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Taylor Swift’s Great Leap Forward

Is She Taking the Rest of Country Music With Her?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Taylor Swift’s enormous success throws a giant shadow over all of popular music, but especially so over country music. A media-savvy teenage artist suddenly dwarfing all acts? She has done it.

But she is not, as many experts are predicting, leading a massive shift in country music to very young audiences. She is her own massive shift.

People forget that Swift created her audience where none existed before: She invented the audience of teenage female country music fans. Why have they flocked to her in such numbers? Because she is one of them. She knows what they’re thinking, what they like and dislike, what they’re passionate about. She writes their songs for them. Hers is a story probably impossible to recreate.

She started knocking on Music Row doors when she was 12 and got a songwriting deal at 14. She also signed with a record label at 14 and then left because she didn’t feel it was right. To say she is single-minded about her music is an understatement. She attracted the attention of the indie label Big Machine’s president, Scott Borchetta, and he signed her to the label and released her debut album when she was 16.

She caught national attention with the song and video “Tim McGraw.” Momentum had been building, on radio and on cable TV, and Big Machine continued its strategy of saturating every possible media outlet.

Taylor largely built her teenage audience by going directly to those girls where they live. On the Internet. I think it’s as simple as that. And they responded. It’s a rare example of true peer-group artist-to-audience direct connection. Teenagers, especially, have a keen built-in bullshit detector. They saw in Swift a fellow spirit, one who is accessible to them. She is their BFF.

But I don’t think she’s indicative of a mass movement. In the wake of the CMA Awards show a few days ago, people started saying that everything is different now because of the new youth movement. One radio expert, Tim Riley, was widely quoted as saying that the country youth movement is here. Said Riley, in part, “I think the CMA finally made history tonight. We as an industry should realize that the 49-54-plus audience is gone. Thank God. … Country radio now belongs to a much younger audience.”

Well, it really doesn’t. Another expert, Sean Ross of Edison Media Research, cautioned that, in fact, that was not likely to happen overnight, and he reminded everyone that elder country statesman George Strait had in fact won two awards on that CMA show. Ross does argue credibly that there is a generational split underway in country music, one that sees radio aiming music more toward the 25-34 audience than the 45-54. In the past, he observes, the music — then leaning toward a more traditional sound — could be shared by a 45-year-old listener and a 27-year-old listener. Not necessarily so with modern country.

A trend by itself is not a revolution, but two trends merging can forecast a major, emerging shift in attitudes and behavior. People don’t change their tastes overnight. Those tastes evolve. And they don’t immediately destroy all that came before. I don’t think we’ll ever see, for example, a lot of families sitting down to a nice sushi Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s my experience that country fans embrace music that is part and parcel of their very way of life. A way that lives and thinks in the present, a bit in the future, and that at once reveres its past and its traditions. That audience is always changing and evolving.

That’s one reason why I am always wary of orators and futurists who blithely declare that a new era has suddenly begun. As in: “Shazam! The future just landed!” — all the while ignoring or dismissing the forces that have been slowly building for years. If something new works for an audience and if it appeals to them, then it will be embraced. That does not mean that that something new defines and also limits that audience. It just means that the audience will pick and choose what it needs and what it likes. How does the car of choice of a lot of people suddenly go from a Hummer to a Smart Car? Well, it wasn’t all that sudden, for one thing. It’s not some brilliant new marketing ploy. It’s a result of forces and events shaping the torrents of modern life and its attendant popular culture.

I’m not sure I see the big shift to youth in country music that others are forecasting. I think that’s a radio argument. The main reason is that young audiences — as well as many listeners across other age groups, from what I can tell — are increasingly ignoring traditional radio in favor of discovering music on the Internet. And buying it there, one hopes. Another reason is that there are not all that many young artists who have proved themselves to be viable to an audience. But I think that the eagerness by radio to claim Swift along with a supposed attendant younger following is because radio is always chasing the most desirable demographic. And advertising money, radio’s lifeblood, is always chasing a younger demographic.

I don’t think the country music audience thinks of itself as a monolithic entity with one central brain. I think, and I may be wrong, but I believe that it sees itself as one fairly cohesive audience in some ways — as in almost all of them liking George Strait and Dolly Parton, for example. But it’s an audience with many different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes wildly divergent musical and cultural tastes. Hank Williams III? Great for some. Keith Urban? Sure, for others. Many prefer Taylor Swift. But it’s one large audience with many different tastes.

If you want to be a musical genius, go out and find or manufacture the musical equivalent of Spam. Here’s a very telling trend for you, one which is more indicative of the economic future. Workers at Hormel’s main Spam producing plant in Minnesota have been working two shifts a day, seven days a week, since July because of the demand for Spam. It offers a low price and relative nutrition value in the face of the present recession. Find something equivalent in music that’s affordable and tasty and good. There’s your future. And then maybe it’s on to marketing Soylent Green.