When Brandy Clark teamed up with Dwight Yoakam on the Feb. 7 Grammy Awards to perform her album track "Hold My Hand," it was a revelatory moment for many in country radio. Based on the chatter on social media that night, many programmers were discovering -- or came to appreciate -- Clark for the first time in that moment, even though her single "Stripes" got a bit of attention in 2013 when she was still signed to tiny indie label Slate Creek Records. (Last November she shifted to Warner Bros. Records, but was signed to the label's Burbank, California, division, not its Nashville branch.)
Some broadcasters posed telling questions on Facebook on Grammy night like this one from an assistant PD/music director: "Why does no one work Brandy Clark music?" That question raises another: Why should it matter?
With as much love as there appeared to be for Clark among country programmers in the wake of the Grammys, there was no corresponding spike in airplay for any of her songs in the week after the show, when "Hold My Hand" got just 11 spins on monitored country stations, six of those from one station (KRTY San Jose, Calif.).
Warner Bros. serviced "Hold My Hand" to radio via Play MPE the day after the show, but it's unclear what radio formats it was emailed to and whether country was among them. (Clark's Nashville team hadn't gotten an answer about that from Burbank by press time.) Unusually, the Play MPE notification -- which came with the subject line "Who is Brandy Clark?!" -- included no impact date and no label contact information, giving it what one radio industry insider called "the softest possible launch."
But the questions remain: If radio finds an act like Clark that it loves, why can't or won't they go off the menu and play something it's not being "worked" by Nashville record promoters? And how much, if any, musical discovery is still happening at terrestrial radio outside the normal channels?
The answers center on some of the things radio is most often criticized for: politics, centralized programming decisions and busy programmers' lack of time to devote to music discovery.
Veteran country radio consultant Joel Raab admits, "Sometimes music decisions are made for political reasons. So naturally songs that are 'worked' are often more likely to get airplay… About two years ago I was on a music call with a station, and the moment happened when we all realized that our adds, drops, etc. were being too political. We continued to do the call by making the adds we thought were only the best for the audience at that moment and tuning out other factors. Some people got upset."
"Realistically, you can't completely tune out the politics," Raab continues. "Radio and music companies have to work together but never lose sight of the notion that the best music is what needs to go on the air."
One country assistant PD/music director who works for one of the big three radio chains says, "For many of us, we don't have the approval to just play a record we love. It is the bane of corporate radio." She says that just a few years ago, her station would have easily added an artist like Clark following an attention-grabbing awards show performance. Now, however, "We can't do that anymore."
"We were much better [music] champions several years ago," she says. "Not so much today. But then... we had the freedom to add songs without corporate oversight. It is my hope that radio can get back to that and programmers can find artists that they believe are deserving of airplay. One of the best things in our profession is seeing a young artist you believe in go to the heights of the biz, and knowing that you had a small hand in exposing them."
Radio consultant Pam Shane, who works with many independently owned stations, says it's more a question of time constraints than corporate oversight for her clients. "I think the principal reason radio in general wants to be worked is that people involved in music decisions have so much else to do that they no longer can spend the time listening, making comparisons, and then choosing intelligently to find music that will interest their listeners," she says.
KPLX (The Wolf) Dallas assistant PD/music director Smokey Rivers also cites lack of time on the programmers' part for the shortage of musical discovery. "We just don't have the luxury of listening to loads of music like we used to have," he says. "So, it's nice to know that if we are going to give up a valuable portion of our playlist real estate that we're not alone. We want to know that there is some real substantial effort going on to give the artist and project some traction. Otherwise, we're just preaching to our own choir about a song. While you may want to champion a single once in a while, most times you just want to know that there is a plan going on behind it."
Edison Research vp, music and programming Sean Ross notes that programmers sticking to playing what's being "worked" is an issue in every format, not just country. "Even with the phenomenal, a label has to follow up and impact a record or nothing happens," he says. "Top 40 doesn't play organically developing YouTube oddities... but when there's a major [label] involved, and they ask for the order, it will play 'Gangnam Style.'"
Ross dates "the end of the enterprising PD or MD" back to the time of the Eliot Spitzer payola crackdown. "Even though the real problem was PDs and groups playing 'whatever it takes' label priorities, it was somehow made to look like the PD who went off the menu had gone rogue," he says of that time. "The irony was that these were songs that were being added for the right reasons -- because listeners wanted them, and not because there was label money.
"In country, it's probably worse because there are so many planes stacked up at any given time, waiting for half a year to even get out of lunar [rotation]," continues Ross. "Brandy Clark would be a 46-week-process under the easiest circumstances. If the label doesn't want to go through that, a PD doesn't want to get screamed at for taking a slot from the label that does want the add."
Shane thinks the rise of automation is another contributing factor for the dearth of musical discovery. "There is a lack of talking one-on-one with listeners in contemporary radio that leads to leaving them out of the equation," she says. "If every station still had live jocks who take phone calls, then radio would hear lots more about people like Brandy."
Rivers cites Nielsen's Portable People Meter as another component. "We're getting so much information now that reaffirms the old adage that 'what you don't play won't hurt you' that stations are sticking closer to home with familiar artists and themes," he says. "Programmers can't spend a lot of time waiting for an artist or song to catch on. You only have so many bullets in your gun. You have to aim wisely."
On a brighter note, Shane notes that "music discovery is greater at independent stations... PDs there generally are empowered, are listening to more music and to their listeners, and are ready to take a few risks. More often than not those risks pay off."