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Can Conservative Music Hit the Right Commercial Notes?

Aaron Lewis, Tom MacDonald and several "LGB" hits suggest there's money in being down with the GOP – but labels and radio have been reluctant to engage.

When he recorded “Progress,” a ballad with right-wing lyrics that tells liberals to “stick your progress where the sun don’t shine,” veteran country star John Rich knew most radio programmers wouldn’t go near it. So he found receptive listeners in other media: He released the track on former President Donald Trump’s online platform TruthSocial and the conservative social network Rumble, then spent a week promoting it on popular Fox News and Newsmax shows. In its first week, “Progress” sold 41,000 downloads, enough to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Digital Songs Sales chart. “I don’t need the industry anymore to be heard,” says Rich, who is also touring with his longtime duo Big & Rich. “I have a really strong audience out there and my voice still works.”

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Rich, a Trump supporter who rails on Twitter against COVID-19 vaccines, President Biden and the Green New Deal, and likened the FBI to the KGB after agents raided Trump’s Mar-A-Lago property, is one of many right-wing musicians who are figuring out how to make money with alternative marketing and distribution platforms at a time when their music doesn’t resonate with mainstream radio. “I don’t have to bend the knee to beat the machine,” says Rich, who self-releases and self-publishes his solo work.

Other conservative musicians are following a similar path. Without much radio airplay, Aaron Lewis’ “Am I the Only One” hit No. 14 on the Hot 100 last year, and No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. Conservative-leaning rapper Tom MacDonald’s “Fake Woke,” which laments how “cancel culture runs the world now,” has 41.1 million streams across all platforms, according to Luminate. And the most popular musical version of the anti-Biden slogan “Let’s Go Brandon,” by California rapper Loza Alexander, scored 9.9 million streams and hit No. 2 on Digital Song Sales.

MacDonald, 33, a California-based pro-wrestler-turned-rapper, has spent the last few years making DIY streaming hits that are popular among Fox News viewers and right-wing YouTube commenters. He writes and records the tracks, while his girlfriend, Nova, shoots and edits the videos. At a time when then-President Trump drew 74 million voters for his losing 2020 presidential run, the songs have a considerable potential audience, and “Fake Woke” brought in what Billboard estimates as $56,000 on YouTube and $68,000 on Spotify, not counting publishing revenue, plus sold 57,000 downloads at about a dollar a track. MacDonald, who runs his own career without a label or management, keeps all of that revenue.

MacDonald does so well on his own that he regularly turns down the services of outsiders. Ten months ago, a man he didn’t know pitched him a radio campaign to promote tracks like “Fake Woke” and “Bad News” for $30,000 to $40,000. “I was like, ‘Nah,'” MacDonald recalls. “If a radio station says, ‘This is great, let’s put this into rotation,’ and then they’re like, ‘’Let me do five seconds of research on this artist,’ they’re going to go, ‘Actually, whoa, f— that.’”

MacDonald doesn’t consider himself a “conservative musician” – “I like to consider myself as somewhat of a free thinker,” he says – but he benefits from many of the same media outlets as conservative politicians. He’s been featured in glowing Fox News profiles, and social media drives millions of people to his music — especially a YouTube channel that boasts tens of thousands of comments on his songs. (The $30 T-shirts he sells on his website read, “Over 1 million people offended.”)

“It’s an alternative promotion network that’s really powerful,” says Anthony Nadler, an Ursinus College associate media and communication studies professor who co-wrote the 2019 book News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures. “All sorts of conservative media – news programs, podcasts – can help songs and other conservative expressions.”

Usually, this kind of independent success would draw the attention of traditional labels and radio stations – but they tend to steer clear of conservative music. “The political songs just don’t work for us,” says Julie Stevens, program director for San Jose, Calif., country station 95.3 KRTY. “Even the ones that say ‘We all need to love each other and get along.’”

Lewis had a more traditional career as a country singer – and, before that, as frontman for hard-rock band Staind – so his radio track record suggested programmers might be receptive to adding a song like “Am I the Only One” to their playlists. But it stalled at No. 52 on the Country Airplay chart (which tracks radio success, as opposed to Hot Country Songs, which includes streaming, sales and radio activity). When tracks like that do get airplay, it’s often as part of talk-radio feature stories or “bumpers” between programs and commercials.

Most music stations haven’t touched any of the “Let’s Go Brandon” tracks that grew out of a phrase that became a right-wing rallying cry after an NBC reporter mistook a crowd jeering “F— Joe Biden” as a cheer for NASCAR driver Brandon Brown. Several unknown artists, including Bryson Gray and Topher, have made the right-wing slogan into songs they uploaded to Spotify, YouTube and other platforms.

Alexander, who wears a MAGA cap in the song’s video, drove his version to No. 38 on the Hot 100 earlier this year; it topped Rap Digital Song Sales and hit No. 2 on overall Digital Song Sales, likely meaning fans were buying the track even though it didn’t have enough radio play to cross over as a pop hit. Alexander didn’t respond to emails, but Rich says: “What’s a stronger vote of confidence for a song? To pay $9 to stream unlimited music, and my song is one of the songs you might be streaming? Or to hit a button and spend $1.29 and own the song?” As for radio, Rich criticizes the industry that helped turn Big & Rich into stars as “conglomerized” by just a few corporations. “There’s a gulf between who’s running country radio at the very top and who’s listening to country radio,” he says. “It’s never been wider.”

MacDonald sometimes encourages his fans to call radio stations to request his songs, but that hasn’t had much impact. After “Am I the Only One” came out, KRTY’s Stevens says, fans issued threats by phone: “If you don’t play this, I am never listening again.” Her response? “I don’t cotton to that very well. ‘Buh-bye,’” she says. “But if you sent me a super-woke song, I wouldn’t play that either.” Adds Bill Weston, program director for WMMR, a Philadelphia rock station that hasn’t played Lewis’ track, or left-leaning political anthems, for that matter: “It’s not like we’re going to do anything divisive.”

Even if there is a market for conservative music, major labels appear unlikely to dive in. MacDonald and Alexander self-release their music, and Lewis’ label, Nashville indie Big Machine, declined to comment for this story. “Are there record labels who would do it? Probably,” says Jordan Kurland, manager of Death Cab for Cutie and a progressive activist who has put out collections of protest songs to support Democratic presidential candidates. “But if Interscope Records signed the artist that wrote that song, there’s a whole lot of artists at Interscope who are not going to be happy. They’re not going to take that risk.”

Explicitly conservative hits, particularly politically motivated tracks like the various versions of “Let’s Go Brandon,” are part of a tradition of right-wing protest songs, according to Reece Peck, a College of Staten Island, CUNY, associate communications professor who wrote the 2019 book Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class. After an avalanche of counter-culture anthems in the ’60s, Merle Haggard‘s reactionary 1970 hit “Okie from Muskogee” showed Republican politicians that they might have allies in Nashville.

“Merle Haggard did something with music that [Nixon] couldn’t do with political speeches, ignite that emotional spark,” Peck says. “Richard Nixon consciously started courting the country-music industry — he was the first American president to visit the Grand Ole Opry.”

In the Trump era, right-wing anthems have spread to hip-hop and other popular genres. “Trump is from Queens, N.Y — everything about him is the flash and glamour of New York City,” Peck says. “He opens the doors to conservatives to identify with hip-hop.”

MacDonald, who has facial tattoos and was influenced by Eminem and classic rock, is content to spend nearly 100% of his time making and posting his music. He sells a wide range of merch, including “Fake Woke” and “No More Snowflakes” T-shirts and hoodies, and frequently records video messages to his fans on YouTube and other social media, encouraging them to call radio stations to request his music: “There’s a lot of us here, and our presence is pretty overwhelming.” But MacDonald enjoys touring and was disappointed when his run with rock bands Falling In Reverse and Crown the Empire canceled in late 2019 due to an illness in a band member’s family. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and he stayed home.

Like talk-show host Joe Rogan, MacDonald is able to reflect right-wing positions without being explicitly right-wing — he says, for example, he is not “some raging anti-vaxxer,” even though he is not vaccinated. These kinds of “attack the left” songs — bashing “woke” liberals as out of the mainstream for not supporting police officers and military troops — tend to be more popular for music-buying and streaming audiences than protest songs addressing specific issues. “The conservative media is really effective at creating a sense of meaning — making people feel as if leftists or progressives, who are challenging the way things are, are really driven by trying to shame and humiliate people like them,” Nadler says. “These songs, like ‘Fake Woke,’ hit you over the head: ‘The liberals out there think people like you are terrible, you’re just racist, your whole culture, way of life, everything’s condemned.’ And that’s the message.”

To that point, Rich cites polls suggesting Americans broadly believe the country is on the wrong track, and he believes “Progress” taps into this malaise. “This song is pointing out all the things those people don’t like: They don’t like being told what to do, they don’t like the price of gas, they don’t like that we left Afghanistan, they don’t like crime in their cities,” he says, listing talking points many conservative politicians use to criticize President Biden and Democrats. “These are things that are bigger than Democrat or Republican. These are American things. That’s why this song is so successful.”