The most significant thing about Cumulus’ announcement this morning of a second national country radio brand, the gold-based “Nash Icons,” was the intent to “provide a new distribution platform for country music’s most iconic artists including future recordings through a new record label.” By partnering with Big Machine Label Group, Cumulus has planted the seed for country radio to do something it has resisted for years: fragment into two different formats that both expose current music.
The presence of currents by heritage acts sets “Nash Icons” apart from the classic country format, albeit by a degree yet to be seen. Classic country has grown haltingly on FM over the last 15 years, including a brief early-’00s period where Cumulus launched several smaller market classic country stations. Classic country does respectably where offered, but has been hampered by the reluctance of radio station sales departments to sell older demos. And since the country fans of the ’70s and ’80s were typically well into adulthood already, the demos for the format were almost always older.
But classic country now means the early ’90s — a period of superstar acts and mass-appeal records that were more widely heard at the time, and heard by a younger audience. Country radio pounded those oldies during its late-’90s/early-’00s format doldrums, but Garth Brooks and his contemporaries have become scarcer in recent years. It’s not that you can’t draw a line from the “hey, this kinda rocks” country of the early ’90s boom to today’s “hey, this really rocks” country, but radio has plenty of the latter to play at this moment.
There’s not much riding on whether country continues to play “Dust On The Bottle” by David Lee Murphy as an oldie. But the superstar acts of that era who continue to release current product are a different issue. In a format where Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts have gone from cutting edge to established format mainstays in short order, it’s harder to find a place for Alan Jackson or other ’90s superstars who aren’t ready to give up on making new records yet.
So each new George Strait record is heralded as his best in years (just as every new Elton John or Bob Dylan album for years was their “return-to-form,” at least until the next album). Strait can still push a song into the top 10, buoyed by the excitement about his farewell tour and his immense goodwill in the format, and only sometimes by the song itself. But he is an increasingly incongrous presence.
Garth Brooks, the defining superstar of the early ’90s, returns to consumer press prominence every few years, but he has reached the point where his gold is no longer a regular presence at the format, much less his recent duet with Trisha Yearwood, “The Call,” which got only to No. 49.
Toby Keith did a lot to buoy country radio during that late ’90s/early ’00s dry spell, taking on the reaction record mantle almost single-handedly for a while. Keith still releases reliably good singles, but hasn’t cracked the top 10 for two years.
Then there’s Kix Brooks, host of the Cumulus-syndicated “American Country Countdown.” Last year, Brooks’ “Moonshine Road” made it to No. 42 on the Country chart, getting even that far because of prominent Cumulus airplay (including the then just-launched WNSH New York, the flagship of its new original mainstream country Nash-FM format).
Big Machine president/CEO Scott Borchetta has fought the veteran artist battle as well. In 2004, when Reba McEntire was already grappling for a place at the format, “Somebody” returned her to No. 1, but not without the use of (above-board) paid spins. McEntire followed Borchetta to the Big Machine labels and managed another string of hits in 2009-10, including a Carrie Underwood sound-alike in “Turn On The Radio.” BMLG’s Tim McGraw has had two recent No. 1s at radio — one of them with Taylor Swift as a guest — and a No. 2 hit, but peaked at No. 15 with the lead single from his newest project.
The rift among the country audience was visible as far back as 2008. The 25-year-old females liked Taylor Swift. 45-year-old guys, indoctrinated during previous format booms, wanted to hear “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams, Jr., not songs about who liked who in high school. Today’s male “ballcap acts” pay regular homage to Hank, Jr., but “one-size-fits-all” country radio still has its issues. When Nash-FM came to New York, the comments from co-workers included both “why are they playing so much George Strait?” and “why aren’t they playing enough George Strait?”
A second, more gold-based country format would give acts like Jackson, Garth Brooks, and McEntire somewhere to have hits, and take the onus off having to play the chart game with every new release. The adult R&B format isn’t just the place where a new Toni Braxton & Babyface duet can still go to No. 1. It also allows retro-flavored acts such as John Legend and Robin Thicke to be steady hitmakers somewhere, then show up at R&B/hip-hop radio (or even top 40) when they have something appropriate.
Having two country charts wouldn’t just be good for heritage acts. It would also be a likely starting place for those acts deemed too traditional by some mainstream country stations. It would also speed up the mainstream country chart, where the chart climb for anybody other than a top-tier act can be a grueling 40-week process. And it might allow those acts that initially strike some program directors as too young or too edgy to establish a story faster.
Until now, the country label community has preferred to have country radio moving in lockstep. Last year, I suggested to friends on the Country Radio Seminar agenda committee that the possibility of two charts would make a good panel topic. Without disclosing too much, they gave me the impression that the idea was quickly dispatched. “We already have five country charts” was one of the reported responses. But that’s because there are multiple country trade publications charting a single format.
A number of things would have to happen for a second gold-based country format to truly emerge. The new format would have to differ in a significant way from classic country. The new format would have to emerge as a true “yesterday-and-today” (or, as some country stations say, “hits-and-legends”) approach with a significant number of currents, not all of them by veterans. The occasional token spin that goes to a new Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen song at classic rock won’t be enough to provide a viable career alternative for heritage country acts.
There also have to be enough stations willing to make the switch. Cumulus has only one remaining Classic Country FM. It has a only a few significant markets (Dallas; Nashville; Des Moines, Iowa; Boise, Idaho) where it has two country FMs and could easily change one station. An older skewing country station would be a viable option in a number of other markets where two stations are fighting to be the Eric Church/Luke Bryan outlet. But for the last few years, several heritage stations have rebranded, rather than hand the “younger/hotter” franchise to a rival.
But Cumulus and Big Machine are significant stakeholders in the country music community at the moment. When Cumulus unveiled the original “Nash FM,” it launched New York’s first full-signal country FM in nearly 20 years to take the sting off its increasingly nationalized music policy. Now, it’s doing the same for veteran acts. If Cumulus is ready to support gold-based country, and Big Machine is ready to promote its heritage artists somewhere other than mainstream country radio, that’s further than the prospect of fragmentation has gotten thus far.