Not so long ago, Kelsea Ballerini’s future in Nashville hardly looked bright. She withdrew from Lipscomb University after her sophomore year, hoping to make it as a singer, but had been rejected by every country label in town. Then, in early 2013, she scored what seemed like her last option for a big break: a publishing deal with independent company Black River Entertainment, where she started churning out a song or two a day and honing her craft. “I knew I wanted to be an artist,” she says, “but I also knew that everyone had already said no to me, so I had to be ready.”
When Black River decided to take a chance on her with a record deal later that year, she quickly proved herself: Her first three singles -- “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan” -- all went to No.1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, and this April, she became the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry. “I’ve been so lucky that Black River has always let me make music that comes from the heart,” says Ballerini the morning after her Opry induction.
While the three majors -- Sony Music Nashville, Universal Music Group Nashville and Warner Music Nashville -- have ruled the country radio charts for years, the airplay landscape is changing thanks to the success of independent mainstays such as Broken Bow Records Music Group, Big Machine Label Group and Curb Records, as well as relative upstarts like Black River, Triple Tigers, Big Loud, Reviver and Pearl. In 2018, indie labels were credited with 16 of the 33 No. 1 songs on the Country Airplay chart -- a sharp increase from 2010, when only six of the 24 songs that topped the list were from indies. (For this story, labels that are at least 50% independently owned are categorized as indie.)
Alongside Ballerini, Russell Dickerson (Triple Tigers) and Jimmie Allen (Stoney Creek/Broken Bow) have topped the charts with their debut singles, while Scotty McCreery (Triple Tigers) and Jake Owen (Big Loud), both previously signed to majors, saw career resurgences after switching to indies.
The shift has been a long time coming: Mike Curb launched what became Curb Records in 1963 with a versatile lineup that spanned rock, pop and country, scoring significant success in the latter during the 1990s with Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes, Wynonna Judd and, more recently, Lee Brice and Dylan Scott. The impact Curb made at radio spawned a new generation of indie labels that came on the scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s and quickly transformed country’s landscape: Benny Brown launched Broken Bow in 1999 and signed Jason Aldean in 2004, while Scott Borchetta opened Big Machine in 2005 after years of working at majors and soon after signed Taylor Swift.
Black River Entertainment CEO Gordon Kerr credits Broken Bow and Big Machine’s success with Aldean and Swift for allowing more indie labels to be taken seriously at radio. “When you’ve got Big Machine and Broken Bow in the same breath as [major] record labels that have been around for a long time, we do need to pay homage to the success they have had,” he says.
At the same time, the music industry’s struggles amid the digital revolution in the early 2000s also set the stage for the end of the majors’ radio dominance, says Big Loud partner Seth England. And as the industry has bounced back, the playing field for indies and majors has remained level. “When you look at today’s economy, there’s opportunity, and due to on-demand streaming, there are similar abilities to make revenue faster both for the label and the artist,” says England.
Many indie labels have benefited from their executives’ experience at bigger companies: Prior to Big Machine, Borchetta worked at Universal Music Nashville and DreamWorks Records as senior vp radio promotion, while Broken Bow executive vp Jon Loba did stints at Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records. But even as he leveraged his relationships, Borchetta says he knew he had a limited window to leave a mark.
“We were fortunate. Our second single was Jack Ingram’s [“Wherever You Are”], and it went to No. 1. Taylor Swift’s third single [“Our Song”] went to No. 1, and it was game on,” says Borchetta. “It’s a tough business to be in, but it’s great for the indies. It gives everybody hope that you don’t have to be with one of the big three to have a career in this business, whether you’re an artist or an executive.”
Says Loba of Broken Bow and Big Machine: “When both of our companies had so much critical mass, it gave others the confidence to hang in there. And, more importantly, radio’s perception at that time changed.” While Loba says that Broken Bow’s promotion team is “a little bit leaner than some of the majors,” that clearly hasn’t stopped it from making inroads at radio. In fact, many indie labels estimate that their promo staffs have only one or two fewer people than an imprint’s team at a major.
Still, the rise of streaming and the increased availability of data have also allowed indie labels with limited A&R resources to compete alongside larger companies with bigger staffs. Dickerson had been on the road for six years and amassed 20 million streams before he signed with Triple Tigers in 2016. Norbert Nix, partner/GM of the label, says the consumer data on Dickerson’s romantic breakout single, “Yours,” signaled that the label had a hit on its hands. “We didn’t care about the tempo vs. ballad thing. We just knew that the song was really special,” he says.
The first four singles that Triple Tigers released -- Dickerson’s “Yours” and “Blue Tacoma,” McCreery’s “Five More Minutes” and “This Is It” -- all went to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, an achievement Nix attributes to the strength of the music, but also to the label’s “less is more” approach to its roster size, common among indies that take pride in the hands-on attention they can provide to their artists.
“Our model is to develop what we have and create credibility with country radio programmers so when we come back with a song, they will hopefully give us consideration because of our track record,” says Nix.
If there’s one strategy indie labels have in common, it’s ultimately their willingness to take chances on artists -- like Ballerini, Broken Bow’s Jimmie Allen and Big Machine’s Carly Pearce -- that majors might not.
“Small labels are willing to take the biggest risk,” says Allen, a black singer-songwriter who moved to Nashville in 2007 and juggled three jobs before signing with Broken Bow, which BMG bought in 2017. “All these other big companies were telling me no because I looked different and sounded different. The indie companies told me yes and believed in what I had to offer.”