"It might start with your production, but a lot of production is similar," observes Chris Young. "So from there it goes to the sound of your voice, from your voice to what do you look like? Are you wearing a ballcap? Are you wearing a cowboy hat? What do you dress like?"
Using the mathematical concept of a ray, with the traditional country male (think George Strait and Alan Jackson) on the right and the progressive male (think Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard) on the left, the trick is to find a space within that range to occupy. Creating an identifiable brand in a tight position is difficult, though the nature of fitting into a format supports a certain amount of overlap.
"History has shown that a market can embrace a copycat, maybe even two copycats, but seldom does it go beyond that," says Dungan. "What we're always trying to do is look for things that are completely different. Look at the history – Dierks Bentley, there was nothing like him when he came out."
That's part of the challenge at UMG. When Dungan took the job in May 2012, he inherited a roster that had two pairs of artists who are sonically comparable: Easton Corbin, whose tone is notably similar to Strait; and Scotty McCreery, who won American Idol in 2011 with a rich voice that lent itself to Josh Turner songs.
Dungan initially pushed Corbin to dig into meatier songs, though the market's favorable reaction to "All Over The Road" lent some credence to Corbin staying the course with lighter, upbeat songs.
McCreery and Turner are finding more natural separation, in part because McCreery's age allows him to veer into more contemporary production and more youthful topics.
"They're both very Christian guys," Dungan says. "So there's a limit in some of the themes that they'll take, but Scotty's still younger. Josh isn't comfortable singing about picking up girls in bars."
Turner's place on that imaginary ray is informed not only by his lyrical values, but also by his musical choices. His taste has made his brand very identifiable, though it's also complicated his efforts to find suitable material when Nashville's songwriters are focused on supplying the recent demand for bro-country titles.
"I've always been in the mindset of trying to take traditional country music to a new place, and that's not always easy to do," he concedes. "You can only work with what you've got."
That doesn't mean compromise is out of the question for many artists. During the early part of his career, Keith Urban was asked to fit into country's existing framework, which in 2000 meant concentrating on love songs and middle-of-the-road material. "Your Everything" and "But For The Grace Of God" both went top 5, and when he went in to make his next album, he had more leeway to inject more of the bubbling ganjos and arena-rock guitars that proved to be key to his artistic identity.
Thomas Rhett is currently experiencing the same sort of process. His 2013 debut, It Goes Like This, garnered top 5 singles with two playful boy/girl come-ons, "Get Me Some Of That" and the title track. But the current disco-tinged single, "Make Me Wanna," and two edgier titles on the album – "Front-Porch Junkies" and "All-American Middle Class White Boy" – may be more a sign of where he takes the music on his follow-up.
"It's part of me being a big Eric Church fan," Rhett says. "It's hard to conform at all times."
Establishing, then expanding, the sound is the same tack that Young used over the course of three albums.
"The first two albums what we wanted to do was stay consistent with the sound and certainly the material, so for the first two records there's a lot more of a country flavor," says producer James Stroud. "That was the plan. With this record here, we wanted to stretch it."
Sound, of course, is the most significant part of the puzzle, but it's not the only one. With video, television and online opportunities increasingly providing more visual exposure for artists, guys have to be attuned as well to establishing a personal look. In the 1990s, when every label wanted an artist like Strait or Garth Brooks, there were so many hat acts that The Tennessean once ran head shots of eight mostly indistinguishable male artists, all of whom wore a black western hat.
The guys are increasingly finding ways to differentiate appearances – Zac Brown has his beanie, Church wears sunglasses and leather, Aldean combines the cowboy hat and chains.
Some males help establish their persona by changing their look. Blake Shelton made plenty of marketplace headway by shearing long locks circa 2005. Young similarly took a step forward by losing his hat when he went to the Grammy Awards in 2011. The initial plan was simply to make him less country on the red carpet, thus increasing the number of interviews he might do. He subsequently went hatless at a concert and found it strengthened his bond with ticket buyers.
"I could see the audience and they could see me," Young says. "I made more connection with them, and I just never went back to wearing a cowboy hat."
The mix of natural voice, sonic production, fashion and messaging gives an artist several components with which to maneuver in that crowded field of males. And the introduction of an extra sound, such as Brad Paisley's guitar, adds yet another variable.
"There's so many things to play with," says Young.
But the easiest piece of the puzzle still comes down to the voice. Aldean, Church, Bentley, Shelton and Darius Rucker all possess decidedly country tones, but every one of them is pretty much identifiable in the first line of a new song.
"That," says Dungan, "is worth its weight in gold."