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.)