It used to be a test of a record executive’s gut instincts. Now it’s a bit of a mathematical equation.
The art of picking the launch single for an artist’s career has experienced an overhaul in the digital age as streaming numbers and social posts are removing some of the mystery. It’s still something of a dice roll — just as it was when Gretchen Wilson debuted 15 years ago with lead single “Redneck Woman” and Florida Georgia Line swooped in during 2012 with “Cruise” — but maybe not quite as big of a gamble, since the ability to see early consumption numbers have made the process more predictive.
“It actually makes it easier,” says Big Loud vp A&R Patch Culbertson. “What you’re doing is looking for passion, and there’s so much data out there.”
It’s part of a big shift that has seen the debut single move, in many cases, from an all-or-nothing commitment to one song that went straight to radio to a real-world study of several songs before committing marketing teams to that calling-card introduction.
That doesn’t guarantee that radio will jump on a particular title — programmers may still question on occasion whether a commercial country audience or a different amalgam of fans generate the online figures — but it provides some assurance that a following exists for that song or artist.
“It definitely gives you earlier analytics and gives you analytics that we didn’t have five and 10 years ago,” notes Sony Music Nashville executive vp promotion and artist development Steve Hodges. “There has to be the gut part of it — that part of the equation has to be taken seriously — but now you have outlets where you can get a song exposed and get a read back as to whether the audience is going to accept that.”
Gut and numbers aren’t the only determinants. Informally polling music directors helps. So does the reaction of concertgoers as the song gains familiarity. That was the case with new singer-songwriter HARDY‘s “Rednecker,” a tune he and the label were already leaning toward when they saw affirmative in-show responses.
“You just got such a different reaction,” says Culbertson. “The phones go up, and people are laughing through the chorus, and that look just really sticks with you.”
“Rednecker,” which is No. 46 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 16, also fit the more esoteric goal of establishing HARDY’s sonic persona for the listener.
“It’s a good way to lead off and let people know who I am, what my lyrics are like, what my sound is,” he says. “It sounds like a cornerstone kind of career song if it takes off.”
That sort of artistic snapshot was in place for two recent successful launches — Maren Morris‘ “My Church” and Luke Combs‘ “Hurricane” — which both artists handpicked themselves. But it worked differently for LANCO, whose launch single, “Long Live Tonight,” used an energetic pop-country groove that’s representative of the band’s concert presentation. It stalled at No. 32 on Country Airplay, yet sophomore single “Greatest Love Story,” a less characteristic ballad, hit No. 1. But that doesn’t mean “Long Live Tonight” was a mistake.
“We had ‘Long Live Tonight’ to get them out and let them work for a full year,” says Hodges. “It helped them as a band. It put them into the marketplace and got them exposure.”
LANCO’s 2016 introduction occurred just before streaming became accepted as a measurement. Many in the industry were skeptical when Kane Brown concurrently racked up huge streaming numbers but took a year or so to break through at radio. It’s likely that his subsequent success made the country industry and terrestrial programmers more comfortable trusting that data.
“Even two years ago, I was being told they look at them, but they’re doing something else,” says LP Creative Management owner LeAnn Phelan. “Now I think it’s just out in the open: Tell us about the streaming story.”
Phelan is currently pitching singer-songwriter Jake Rose to labels and encountering a familiar dilemma. Rose’s first release to streaming platforms was a slightly left-of-center midtempo: the autobiographical “Sleeves.” On March 7, he followed with a more standard country track, “Like This Like That.” Some potential label partners seem to prefer the personal statement of “Sleeves” as the opening salvo at radio, while others gravitate toward the safer “Like This Like That.” Phelan is open to both options, but she prefers starting with “Sleeves,” which provides separation from the pack.
“Why sound like someone else when you have the ability to sound uniquely identifiable?” she asks rhetorically.
That said, a hit is a hit, and no individual track can tell an artist’s entire story. Thus, Matt Stell‘s debut single — “Prayed for You,” now at No. 54 on Country Airplay — was selected because of fan reaction on streaming platforms. It was overwhelmingly the most listened-to track from an EP that he had released independently, even though its wedding tilt is a far cry from the harder stuff that was his meat and potatoes in bars. One of those edgier titles — “Sex, Drugs and Country Music” — is, he freely admits, not suitable for country radio. But “Prayed for You” at least got his foot in the door, and it represents a piece of his personality, which gives him a place to begin revealing his full artistic pallet.
“I’m being authentic,” he says. “There’s enough of me in that character, and it’s not so saccharine that I have trouble saying it. I’m not trying to pander to anybody, nor am I trying to leverage any kind of religiosity. I’m just trying to tell the story of this person in this song who meets this [other] person.”
Ultimately, the new emphasis on analytics lets artists, managers and labels approach radio with ready-made feedback from fans. That career-launching single may or may not embrace the artist’s core talents, but it provides a foundation that’s more reliable than the old-school mix of gut instinct and a shot in the dark.
“We’ve got more information now than we’ve ever had, so those decisions to me are a little bit more academic,” says Stell. “I can’t release a pet single. There’s too many people who’ve put in their time and money.”