Radio Still Rules the Country Mainstream

Airplay Remains the Prime Vehicle for Fans

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

Sony Music Nashville chairman and CEO Gary Overton ruffled a few feathers among the Americana crowd this week by telling The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”

The interview was an advance story on this week’s Country Radio Seminar, the annual gathering that allows radio programmers and personalities to strengthen their relationships with artists and their record labels. Of course, there are numerous panel discussions about the state of the country music and broadcasting industries, but the labels capitalize on CRS to court the favor of those who make the decisions about what gets played on mainstream country stations throughout the U.S.

As for a musical act not existing if they’re not on country radio, Overton is talking about those artists who strive to attain massive success and financial rewards.

Success can exist outside the mainstream, and it’s easy to point to numerous Americana, bluegrass and alt-country artists who have carved out impressive careers, including Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers and Del McCoury. Those are the kind of careers that will keep them financially afloat long after the shine tarnishes from most of the mainstream stars who burn hot and then eventually go away.

On the other hand, few of those working outside the mainstream are being awarded platinum albums, selling out major arenas or getting their photos plastered on the cover of People magazine. Which leads to Overton’s point.

“I can’t think of one star, much less superstar in country music, who wasn’t broken by country radio,” he told the newspaper. “It’s just a fact. That’s where the active audience is. That’s where they go to listen to it. People talk about, ‘It’s a media act. It’s a groundswell. We’re going to build it virally.’ That’s all nice, but I defy you to tell me one act that made it big without country radio.”

Whether you like his attitude or message, he’s speaking the truth. Although satellite radio and online music services may be gaining a share of country music listeners, gargantuan country music breakthrough stories have only occurred after certain songs and artists received frequent and consistent exposure via the radio — primarily car radio.

At CRS, record labels pull out all the stops to wine and dine the programmers. Aside from new artists hoping to get their shot on a station’s playlist, even established and superstar acts tend to show up to prime the pump.

Wednesday night (Feb. 25), Dierks Bentley and several of his friends — including Miranda Lambert, Randy Houser, Kip Moore and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley performed a club gig as the characters of Hot Country Knights, a band specializing in music from the ‘90s. Not far away, Garth Brooks performed a concert for radio programmers and a select group of fans who won tickets from a local radio station.

Even in the daytime, Universal Music Group’s Nashville division presented a Thursday concert at the Ryman Auditorium featuring Billy Currington, Brothers Osborne, Canaan Smith, Chris Stapleton, Darius Rucker, David Nail, Dierks Bentley, Easton Corbin, Eric Church, Josh Turner, Kacey Musgraves, Keith Urban, Kip Moore, Little Big Town, Mickey Guyton and Vince Gill. At midnight, Urban is scheduled to play another gig at the Ryman.

The relationship between record companies and radio stations is a complex one, but it generally comes down to one hand washing the other. The stations need the labels and artists to bolster their presence in the local market. And the labels need the stations to play their artists’ music.

It can occasionally get a little shallow, too, as I learned several years ago while sitting in the reception area at a major label.

Behind the closed doors of a conference room was the program director of a major radio station. A radio promotion rep for the label brought by one of the artists to say hello. The artist, whose career was going well at the time and has since virtually vanished, appeared to be slightly drunk or high and was acting like he thought he was Waylon Jennings in 1976. He seemed to be having trouble remembering the details about the programmer he was about to greet.

The exchange outside the conference room went something like this:

“OK, the guy inside is John Doe,” the label rep told him. “He’s the program director of the big station in Everytown.”

“OK,” the addled artist repeated. “John Doe … Everytown.”

“You played the state fair there last summer,” the rep reminded him. “John’s wife’s name is Jane. And after the show, we all went out to eat at a steak house. Got it?”

“John Doe … Everytown … state fair … Jane … steak house,” the artist said. “Yeah, I’ve got it.”

It was like watching a train wreck about to happen. Once the door to the conference room opened, however, the artist pulled everything together and gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award.

“John!” the artist exclaimed while shaking his hand. “How the hell are you doin’? How are things in Everytown? I know the station’s still doing great. And how’s Jane? You know, just the other day, I was thinking about the two of you and was telling somebody about how much fun we had there last year at the state fair when we all went out to that great steak house.”

This artist may not be on the charts these days, but at that moment in the label’s conference room, he knew exactly who his audience was.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.