Taylor Swift's 'New Year's Day' Goes to Country Radio: Is Country Ready for It?
Fresh off a CMA award as the writer of Little Big Town's "Better Man," can Swift return to country airwaves with a hit of her own?
What's Taylor Swift's reputation at country radio?
Just after 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, Nov. 15, Big Machine Records serviced "New Year's Day" to the format (via a promotional email). On Nov. 13, Swift had performed the song on NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in a touching show of support for the host, whose mother recently passed.
The song stands out as the only ballad on Swift's second, and synth-heavy, pop album, Reputation, which is set to soar in at No. 1 on next week's Billboard 200 (dated Dec. 2). After only four days of availability, the album is already the top-selling set of 2017, according to Nielsen Music.
Swift owned country radio over the course of her first four studio albums, scoring seven Country Airplay chart No. 1s, among 18 top 10s, from 2006 through 2013. She segued fully to pop for her last LP, 2014's 1989, with none of the set's songs promoted to country radio. (Lead single "Shake It Off" dented Country Airplay for a week, reaching No. 58 on the 60-position list.)
Not that Swift hasn't provided new hit material to the format. Her self-written "Better Man," as recorded by Little Big Town, crowned Country Airplay for two weeks beginning March 4 and won song of the year honors at the 51st Country Music Association Awards Nov. 8. ("Taylor, wherever you are, thank you for this beautiful song, and for loving songs and loving Nashville," the band's Karen Fairchild said upon accepting the award.)
UPDATE AS OF 8:30 p.m. ET, Nov. 17: After first not receiving a traditional promotional push at country (beyond Wednesday's label email), "New Year's Day" is now officially being promoted to country radio; it goes for adds at the format Nov. 27.
Can it return Swift to prominent placement on country playlists?
Todd Cavanah, program director of Entercom's country station WUSN Chicago, tells Billboard that he has liked "New Year's Day" since first hearing it, along with all of Reputation, at an industry preview of the album, attended by Swift. "I told her we would add [it]. We still play many of her titles, and this song fits perfectly on country radio.
"We win by playing the best music available."
WUSN played "New Year's Day" 27 times through Thursday (Nov. 16), easily the most of the 10 Country Airplay reporters sampling the song so far; the panel consists of 148 stations. (Among Swift catalog songs, "Highway Don't Care," by Tim McGraw with Swift, received a leading 208 plays on reporters in the seven days ending Nov. 16. "Mean" ranked second with 168 plays, followed by "Our Song," "You Belong With Me" and "Love Story," with 151, 126 and 69 spins, respectively.)
Johnny Chiang, Cox Media Group Houston director of operations, and who oversees country KKBQ, lobbied Big Machine to try the song at country after Swift's Tonight Show performance. "We thought it would be a perfect KKBQ song," he says. "So, all day [Wednesday] I was pestering [Big Machine founder/CEO] Scott Borchetta and [vp promotion] Kris Lamb to send me a clean copy of the song. They asked why, and I told them KKBQ was going to put it into medium rotation, regardless of the fact that it was an unreleased cut from a pop album.
"By late [Wednesday] night, the label called me and said that, partly due to KKBQ's pending airplay, they had decided to [service it] to country." (KKBQ played "New Year's Day" seven times through Thursday.)
Still, others in the format are much more reserved about welcoming Swift back (even with many having previously programmed pop stations). "You know, I never say never, but I get serviced a lot of music that I don't play, and I won't be playing the Taylor right away," says Lance Houston, pd of iHeartMedia-owned WBWL Boston. "Essentially, I believe that Taylor has moved on from the country genre, and, you know what? That's fine. I like her new album a lot. But it's not country.
"As she has moved on, our core country listeners have moved on from Taylor, so I'll lay off of it for now," Houston says. "Also, playlist space is tight. I have a ton of music worth adding from artists in the format, and it's not fair to add a pop song when great artists are waiting their turn.
"With all of that said, if it starts doing well at country stations that are playing it, and I see solid research from our base, then I'll revisit it."
Adds another major-market programmer, wishing to remain anonymous, of "New Year's Day" in relation to Reputation's overall bevy of beats, "Just because it's not EDM doesn't make it country."