Country Labels Revive Two Forgotten Arts: Artist Development—And Patience
Eric Paslay

There are still periodic examples of record companies going one and done with an artist—as in, dropping them from the roster after just one failed single. But country music labels notably appear to more often to be playing the long game of late, giving artists multiple chances to ultimately succeed.

Warner Music Nashville’s Brett Eldredge and Columbia’s Tyler Farr each scored big on their third singles, after previous attempts fell short. Ditto for Valory Music’s Thomas Rhett. He landed a three-week No. 1 with third single “It Goes Like This,” although he’d also had a modest hit with his first, the No. 15-peaking “Something To Do With My Hands.”

Eric Paslay’s first two singles on EMI weren't hits, but No. 3, “Friday Night,” is now No. 16 and climbing on the Country Airplay chart. And Capitol’s Jon Pardi appears to have much more momentum on his No. 22 (and climbing) current single “Up All Night” than he did with previous single “Missin’ You Crazy,” which peaked at No. 29 last year.

MCA Nashville’s Kip Moore’s first single, “Marry Was The Marrying Kind,” is barely remembered after it peaked at No. 45 in 2011, but he went on to score a subsequent string of hits. Curb’s Lee Brice made it to No. 3 with his fourth single in 2009, but didn’t hit No. 1 until his sixth, “A Woman Like You,” in 2011.

Bigger Picture is getting ready to ship Craig Campbell’s fifth single after working the fourth, “Outta My Head,” for more that a year. Two of Campbell’s four previous singles have made it into the teens on the chart.

And Columbia’s Casey James is in the studio recording new music for the label after the chart performance his three previous singles didn’t reflect the obvious promise James showed during his run on “American Idol.”

Bigger Picture president Michael Powers sees more emphasis on artist development as the reason many acts are getting multiple shots at radio. “If the artist is great and you know you’ve started with that, then it’s a combination of finding the right songs, the right performance [and] the right climate at radio,” he says. “Part of being a record executive is going out there and presenting talent to the world that you believe you made the right call [on], and then tweaking it until you get it right. Then everybody wins.”

Warner Music Nashville VP of promotion Kevin Herring notes that it’s not until a new artist is out at radio that labels can accurately take the temperature. “When you get an artist out there, you get a sense of whether there’s a there there,” he says. His label re-loaded with Eldredge after his first singles peaked at No. 23 and No. 46 because the reaction from radio was so positive toward the singer, if not his earlier songs. Herring says the feedback he was getting about Eldredge visiting stations was, “We know we have something here. We don’t have the right song, but we have an artist. Let’s find the right song and go from there.”

“It costs a lot of money to put these records out, to support an artist and bring them on the road,” says Columbia Records VP of promotion Norbert Nix. “It’s a high-risk business.” But sticking with Farr “showed our commitment as a label” to breaking the singer, he says. “We got behind the brand and said ‘Let’s do artist development.’ That’s what the future is. If there’s all these new artists rolling through [radio stations] and they’re [all] one-offs, there’s no credibility.”

“Labels that tend to think in terms of artists’ careers and not just hit singles tend to fare better and stay with their artists longer,” agrees veteran artist manager Dan Harrell, who reps Paslay through his firm, Fore Artists. “What that builds is true careers.”

Harrell says that lately, “Some labels are saying, ‘We’re going to stay with it and we’re going to make it happen.’ So when things don’t work right away, they don’t fold their tent and run.”

And Harrell says the potential payoff makes that worthwhile. “Once a label’s been through that process of starting with somebody that nobody knew about, and only your team believed in, and then you’re sitting backstage at a sold-out concert [with] No. 1 hits and all that stuff, if it took two or three or five tries to get there, it’s worth it.”