Anatomy Of A Hit: Lauren Alaina's Literal 'Road Less Traveled'
For a record-label promotion executive, every chart-topper is a victory. But imagine working with an artist for six years, and through six singles, before finally achieving that elusive hit.
It’s a scenario Mercury Records Nashville vp national promotion Damon Moberly and his team are all too familiar with. So when Lauren Alaina finally hit the summit of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with the appropriately titled “Road Less Traveled” in April, Moberly says the win was “really sweet.”
At a time when new artists typically only get a turn or two at bat without connecting, Mercury parent Universal Music Group Nashville stuck it out with Alaina, now 22. Moberly says that’s partly because of her bubbly, likeable personality, and partly because they saw potential in her newfound maturity and her growing depth and skill as a songwriter. Mostly, however, it was Alaina’s work ethic that kept everyone committed. “She’s hardly ever said no to us when we’ve asked her to go do something for radio,” says Moberly.
Another factor is that Mercury has been partnered with 19/Interscope on Alaina ever since she took second place on American Idol in 2011, so the labels share both profits and expenses, helping mitigate the risks associated with the latter.
Still, early on in her career, Alaina almost became a casualty. “There was a moment on the first record when we had merged [with EMI], and Mike [Dungan] had taken over as the chairman/CEO of the label,” recalls Moberly. “We had worked a couple of singles and they had not succeeded. We had a meeting and talked about maybe moving on. I can remember several of us from promotion raising our hands and saying, ‘We really want to work “Eighteen Inches.” ’ We thought that could be a hit.”
“Eighteen Inches” wasn’t a big radio hit: It peaked at No. 34 in 2012. “But at that point, I knew we had some investment from everybody in the building,” says Moberly. “We just all had this unbelievable belief that something was going to happen and now, luckily, we’re seeing that come to fruition.”
The label swung and missed one more time with “Next Boyfriend,” the first single from Alaina’s sophomore album, which debuted at No. 3 on Top Country Albums in February. Although follow-up “Road Less Traveled” ascended relatively quickly once it charted — hitting No. 1 in its 34th week on the list — it took a while to get started on the front end. The label went for adds on July 11, 2016, but the single didn’t chart for another six weeks when spins from iHeart Media’s “On the Verge” program kicked it.
From there, it was pretty smooth sailing until the record reached the teens, where it hovered for several weeks as Moberly and his team waited for radio research to kick in. Once it began testing well, he says, “We got in gear and got up into the top 15. We had so many stations that weren’t yet in heavy [rotation] after we had already made the top 15. We thought, ‘If we can just continue to convert a decent percentage of these each week, we may have an opportunity,’ and obviously it worked out.” (Next single, “Doin’ Fine,” goes for adds in the third week of May.)
In February, Alaina got radio’s attention at the label’s Country Radio Seminar showcase at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium when she was given the opportunity to perform just one song. Instead of “Road Less Traveled,” she made the riskier choice of debuting “Three,” a poignant ballad about her struggles to achieve airplay success. (The title refers to the three-minute length of most radio hits.) It paid off, with Alaina receiving a standing ovation from an audience packed with key decision makers.
“Radio programmers could really appreciate what it was because she was really speaking to them, thanking them for her three minutes on the radio, and it really touched the nerve with lots of people in the room,” says Moberly, who thinks the performance gave “Road” added momentum.
By the time it peaked, he says, “We had 59 radio stations with over a thousand spins [each], more than a third of the [chart] panel.” Strong radio support for Alaina has come from such stations as KEEY Minneapolis; KFRG Riverside, Calif.; WEBG Chicago; WGTY York, Pa.; and WJVC Long Island, N.Y.
WGTY operations manager/PD Scott Donato says Alaina “has been a listener favorite for quite some time now.” He compares her to Taylor Swift in the sense that she “connects with people and genuinely seems to care about the people who support her. I’ve seen her stand in one spot and meet listeners for hour upon hour after each of her performances … She’s so sweet and accommodating, you almost forget that her pipes rival anyone in Nashville.”
Donato thinks “Road Less Traveled” became a national hit because “it jumped out of the radio unlike anything she had released prior. It also [has] a message that everyone can identify with, especially women. Toss in a killer hook and Lauren’s usual monster vocals, and you have a No. 1 song.”
As the single approached the summit, Moberly was reminded of a gift Alaina had given him. Last year, just before the staff began working “Next Boyfriend,” the singer had popped into his office and delivered a bottle of champagne with a note instructing him to save it until they could celebrate her first No. 1. In her note, she told Moberly, “I know we’ll get there.”
Alaina likely thought “Next Boyfriend” would be that No. 1. But, Moberly says, “we didn’t even crack the top 20 with that single. So I had to make the fifth of five really tough telephone calls to Lauren and her manager saying, ‘We’ve kind of reached the end of the road, and we need to come off this thing before we do damage by pressing it down.’
“She was really upset because she had taken a long time to make this new record, had written or co-written every song on the album and had a huge belief in everything on it,” he recalls. “When the lead single from this album failed, it was really tough for her, and us as well. I said to her at that point, ‘I’m just going to hang on to this bottle, because someday we’re going to have a chance to open it.’ ”
While he’s saving the actual bottle for the official No. 1 party, Moberly and Alaina did get to share some bubbly at a backyard celebration she threw for her team at her home (complete with a Slip ’N Slide and rented baby goats that were a surprise from her tour manager).
Once the No. 1 was locked in, Moberly called Alaina on the road to let her know and arranged to have both sides of the conversation shot on video. (Watch Alaina’s emotional reaction here.) A subsequent video, in which she tearfully shared the news with her fans, has 1.2 million views on Facebook.
“This one has been special,” says Moberly. “She’ll always have a No. 1 song, and she wrote it. It’s something that’ll never be taken away from her, so it’s really gratifying for us. We’ve all rooted for her and watched her grow up, so it’s almost like seeing your little sister win the game.”