When “Tim McGraw” slipped onto Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart at No. 60 on July 1, 2006, the single earned a thumbnail breakout synopsis, courtesy of now-deceased country chart manager Wade Jessen: “Singer gets first national chart ink exclusively in Billboard. Song title name-checks fellow artist.”
It was a rather quiet beginning for Taylor Swift, who in the ensuing decade managed to conquer country and, in an unprecedented move, transition fully into life as a pop artist with her latest album, 1989, without even a hiccup.
Swift, of course, was a mere 16 years old when she made that “Tim McGraw” debut, defying a few basic tenets in the process. She insisted on writing her own songs, mining real-life experiences and worming her way into a format that was historically viewed as a place where adults sang grown-up songs for other adults. She had her battles. Radio research — particularly in the early years — showed males in the upper demos were chilly. But teenage girls loved her. She became a bonding element for those girls and their mothers, and — boom! — a country star was born.
In fact, the country landscape is much different today, thanks in part to Swift and her insistence on following a game plan that many considered unorthodox.
“It was always really uncanny to me,” says Cassetty Entertainment president Todd Cassetty, who worked with Swift on videos, social media campaigns and at least one NBC TV special. “In the early days, she would make decisions that ‘adults’ would question, and she was always right. She’s just acutely aware of what her fan base wants.”
Country is viewed much more favorably in the current media landscape than it was when Swift debuted in 2006, and while she didn’t create that change alone, it’s safe to say that she played a role in that shift. Listed below are a handful of ways that Swift influenced the evolution of the genre, sometimes on her own, sometimes in tandem with other acts or in lockstep with the culture as a whole:
• The audience grew younger. While country radio has long embraced a wide 25-54 demographic as its target audience, it historically skewed toward the 35-plus segment. Music Row has wanted to lower the median age since at least the early 1980s, but it never has been more successful than during Swift’s rise. One could argue, in fact, that the bro-country fad — which temporarily brought in a ton of 25-34 listeners — might not have occurred if Swift hadn’t shown that younger listeners were open to country.
“She introduced a new age group to this format because of her sound and because of her writing,” says Nash Network director of programming John Shomby, who has been in Swift’s corner since meeting her on her first radio-promotion tour when he was WGH Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Va., PD. “She wrote for that specific age and was the first one to ever do that.”
• Online metrics became a meaningful way to influence radio. Swift established a MySpace page on Aug. 31, 2005 — the day before Big Machine officially launched as a label — and she subsequently amassed more than 45 million streams through that site. Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta used that data to prove to skeptical stations that an audience indeed existed for his artist. Employing social media and/or streaming service info to prove an act’s viability to radio is now standard operating procedure.
• Social media became a way to engage the audience. Swift figured out quickly that cat photos and personal messages could demonstrate to her audience that she is one of them. Instead of giving a story to media and praying that reporters would not only care, but convey her intended meaning, she went straight to fans, flipping the process along the way. It doesn’t work for every artist, but it does for many, who — like Swift — now put out their message on social media and let traditional reporters take the story to a wider audience after they have already left a trail.
• Young women felt they had a voice. The number of females on the country chart tailed off in recent years, an ironic development since Swift inspired so many younger women to put their inner world to music. Kelsea Ballerini is the most obvious success story, though some of the other contenders tried to duplicate Swift’s approach instead of using it as a guide.
“When we first started [the Song Suffragettes showcase] two years ago, we jokingly called it ‘Taylor Swift-itus,’ ” says Cassetty. “Everybody was trying to mimic her. That’s started to dissipate. I think a lot of young women are trying to find their own voice now, but a lot of them were definitely inspired to pick up a guitar because of Taylor Swift.”
• Staging is more elaborate at many arena shows. Such acts as Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Shania Twain and Reba McEntire had previously incorporated big production elements — like high-quality video, dancers and overhead conveyors — into the concert experience, but no one has made it as seamless and theatrical as Swift.
“She created an experience,” observes Shomby. “She definitely has had an influence on what a live show looks like.”
• The two-year album cycle became more of an industry standard. In 2006, the typical country act cranked out a new album every 12-18 months. Swift has followed a 24-month cycle like clockwork, putting out a new project in a late-October/early-November window every even-numbered year. Wait times still vary, but two years looks more like the industry norm than it did before.
• Country music now thinks globally. As a genre that’s native to the United States, it was natural to consider America’s borders as the limit for country. Some previous acts, such as Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, thought outside the box, but no one chased international territories more aggressively than Swift, who even started a world tour in Singapore — hardly a bastion of country heritage.
“They were thinking international very early on,” says Cassetty.
• Leaving the format no longer carries the stigma it once did. Strident country fans are angry about the direction of modern country, but recent Country Music Association research reaffirms what radio has known for a while: The genre’s listeners engage in multiple formats. Where country radio once turned its back on artists who “left the format” — Gary Morris took on an operatic part in Les Miserables, and Restless Heart dared to release a pop-only single; both saw their country careers dive — Swift was forthcoming about making a pop album with 1989. Radio is different now, too. In the pre-consolidation era, country programmers felt abandoned when a country artist targeted a different audience. Now, the PD for a radio cluster simply finds Swift moving from the country brand to another station in their portfolio. Swift hasn’t tried to return to country, though many expect she eventually will, and it appears to many that the door remains open to her.
“I don’t think anybody has faulted her for what she has done,” says Shomby. “It was a natural progression, and I don’t think anybody would fault her for coming back.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.