Anatomy Of a Hit: William Michael Morgan's 'I Met A Girl'
When weighing the odds, a traditional-sounding debut single by a brand-new "hat act" country artist might not appear to be an obvious candidate for big-time success. But the same record label that made that combination (minus the hat) work for Randy Travis in 1985 has just done it again for William Michael Morgan. Travis, of course, went on to become a superstar.
By the time Morgan's "I Met a Girl" peaked at No. 2 on the Country Airplay chart dated Oct. 3, the staff at Warner Music Nashville had been working the single for 58 weeks. (The first six just trying to get it on the chart.)
"Here we are with a young cowboy, so to speak, out at radio," recalls WMN senior vp radio and streaming Kristen Williams of the 23-year-old Mississippi native's introductory radio tour. "He's got the cowboy hat and the belt buckle and all of that, so we knew that it was different, but in our heart we felt like this was going to be big. From the very beginning we all jumped in and said, 'Let's go get this.'" But, she adds, "It was a traditional sound, and it didn't necessarily fit the mold" of what country radio is typically playing. "We knew that it might not be easy."
It turns out that wasn't perceived as a negative at radio, particularly with a few other traditional songs like Jon Pardi's "Head Over Boots" working equally well on the air at about the same time.
That sound, says CBS Radio/Pittsburgh operations manager Mark Anderson, gave Morgan's record "the sensation of feeling very fresh at a time when there wasn't a great deal of that in our format." Anderson's WDSY went on to become the top spin leader on the single, with well more than 2,000 plays by the time it peaked. KCYY San Antonio operations manager Jeff Garrison says the record's "sound and lyric connected to our listeners. We need hat [acts] for balance," he adds, because it "makes our format diverse in sound."
"What we're seeing right now at country radio is that there isn't one size fits all," agrees Williams. "There are so many different lanes at country radio and so many talented artists that fit in each one of those lanes. It's exciting to see that country radio is embracing all of it."
While the single eventually grew at a steady pace, it got off to a slow start. "The thing that was troubling at the beginning was just the lack of attention that radio was giving this song and this artist," recalls Williams. "Team WMN was absolutely tenacious in their desire to break this artist. The patience and persistence that this team showed was incredible. There were a couple of times when we [lost] the bullet when we were somewhere in the 30s. It's so easy to get lost at that part in the chart and for radio to start to pull the plug because they look at that and go, 'Single's over.'"
That didn't happen, thanks to believers both at broadcast and satellite radio. "If it wasn't for [senior vp/GM, music programming] Steve Blatter at SiriusXM calling the label and saying, 'Do not give up on this, you have a hit,' we might not be where we are today," says Williams. "And it wasn't just SiriusXM. There were research stories starting to pop up in many places, to the point where we knew if we kept going on this course we were going to be able to deliver this. That's exactly what ended up happening."
More than a year into the record's life, and with heavy spin counts in markets like Pittsburgh, San Antonio and Sacramento, Calif., says Williams, "The audience wasn't tiring of it. It just continued to research top five everywhere, and eventually, that's what helped us get this thing as far up the chart as we did. The audience never got fatigued. It's a song that will live in recurrent for quite some time.
"We have 30 stations right now that have over 1,000 spins on this single," notes Williams. "It's been a long time since I've seen those kinds of numbers."
Just as the record was nearing the home stretch in the top 10, WMN's promotion team underwent a significant restructuring in September that included eliminating the word "promotion" from all titles. Williams, who was promoted as part of the reorganization, now oversees all three of the label's former promotion (now radio and streaming) teams. She notes with a laugh that in the building, staffers are instructed to drop and do 10 push-ups if they accidentally use the word "promotion." (The company had a -similar policy after Clear Channel changed its name to iHeart Media in 2014.)
Williams says the restructuring followed an internal realization that the label had 20-some people dedicated to radio and only one to streaming. "That did not seem right with where the future was headed," given that streaming is a revenue generator. That's not to suggest there is any less emphasis on broadcast, as evidenced by the fact that the word "radio" is now in the job titles of all those former promotion staffers. Terrestrial radio, says Williams, "continues to be an enormous discovery tool of new music."
In the week the restructuring was announced, Morgan's single rose from No. 7 to No. 3 on the chart. "The one thing that could not happen during this transition was for any of our singles at radio to lose momentum," says Williams. "It is easy to take your eye off the ball when something like this happens." Instead, she says, "This team banded together like none I've ever seen."
Williams also says that Morgan has "worked his rear-end off." His debut album, Vinyl, arrived Sept. 30, and she doesn't think he has been home more than one night in nearly a month. "He's kept up that kind of pace the entire year. He was just truly delighted to do whatever it was that we asked of him, whether it was morning radio or going onstage at 11 p.m. followed by a 5 a.m. wake-up call to get on an airplane the next day."
Vinyl debuted at No. 5 on Top Country Albums. The label is now giving "I Met a Girl" (co-written by Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally and Trevor Rosen) a chance to breathe at radio before going for airplay on the follow-up, "Missing," on Nov. 14 for the benefit of stations that came onboard with the first single on the later side.
Looking back, says Williams, "of all the [top 5s] that team WMN has delivered over the last seven years, this, to me, has been the most rewarding." She cites the opportunity to bring a debut artist and a new song and sound that hasn't been around for quite some time to market and "see country radio literally wrap their arms around him" among the reasons. "It took some time to get there, but once it really started to kick in, they came to the table in a big way.
"While I hope that no single ever takes that long again," she adds, "it proves that we're willing to go the distance when we believe in something."