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SiriusXM’s J.R. Schumann on Embracing Country’s Sound Evolution: ‘Nothing Is What It Used to Be’

SiriusXM senior director of programming J.R. Schumann talks country music's opportunities, challenges and the advice he lives by from hockey's Wayne Gretzky.

“I don’t care what anybody says: It is an exciting time to be in radio right now.” That’s the heartfelt sentiment expressed by J.R. Schumann, seven months into his gig as senior director of programming at SiriusXM, where he oversees 13 channels.

After 10 years in terrestrial radio, the Texas native embarked on his new career adventure in satellite radio in late December 2015, arriving in Nashville directly from the operations manager/PD job at Cumulus’ country KSCS and KPLX Dallas. He already feels empowered by the freedom to break as many new acts as his audience will accept. “It’s a great feeling … being able to champion independent, unsigned artists, and then watch those songs start to take off,” he says.

Schumann, who was recently featured in Billboard’s Nashville Power Players list, chats about the current state of country music, challenges ahead and how things are going on the job so far.

What have the first few months on the job been like?

Starting any new job, the first six months or so are kind of like drinking from a fire hose and just learning new systems and things like that. You blink and the first six months are gone, which I think is a testament to how great things are going. We have a lot of fun. We’re off to a really great start.

What would you say the biggest issue facing the Nashville music community and/or the country music community is in this coming year? 

I believe that the consumers today would use and do use radio the exact same way that consumers used radio 30 years ago. They go to radio to discover new music. The only difference is there’s so much new music out there and so many different avenues to discover new music that if radio is going to be a player in that game, they have to get farther ahead. If you provide [fans] a product, they’re there. They want it. They’re asking for it. At SiriusXM we’re able to do that and champion these artists and new music. It’s exciting.

A lot has been said in the last several years about country artists incorporating elements of other formats — rock in particular, occasionally rap — into their music. There’s that age-old discussion of what is country, what isn’t country. Where do you weigh in on that, and, in your world, does it even matter? 

I think the bigger question is, in the world of the consumer, does it matter? My experience is, I don’t think it does. The audience is looking for good music and stuff that they like. It’s our job to find out what it is that they like and deliver on that.

Every 10 years there’s a new complaint about the sound of the format. Patsy Cline was pop and wasn’t a country artist. Waylon [Jennings] and Hank [Williams] Jr., those were rock acts. That’s not country. Then Garth [Brooks] came in, and then Shania Twain, and that wasn’t country. It seems like every time you turn around somebody’s complaining about the music not being what it used to. Nothing is what it used to [be]. I mean, if I was using the same phone I was using 15 years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation. 

Everything evolves, and through that evolution people’s tastes evolve and the audience changes and rolls over. It’s up to us to do our best to stay ahead. As Wayne Gretzky says, “Be there before the puck gets there.” I think historically — over the last 10, 15 years — radio has done a really poor job of that. We’re chasing the puck instead of trying to be ahead of it.

It’s another perennial topic, but a lot has been said and written during the last year, and well before that, about the lack of female artists in country music. You have championed a lot of women at SiriusXM. Has that been a deliberate strategy on your part? 

Honestly, I don’t look at a record and go, “Is this male or female?” It’s about music. Week to week when we go to evaluate music, if you’ve got the best record we’re going to play it.

To your point, there has been a lot of talk about women in country music especially. Personally, I don’t think it’s a huge problem. There’s plenty of it out there. Maggie Rose has a new single that’s great. We’ve got Kalie Shorr. We played Aubrie Sellers, Margo Price, Jennifer Fiedler [as] part of SmithField. We’re playing Brandy Clark. We still play Kasey Musgraves. She’s got a great song, “Late to the Party,” that’s in our On the Horizon show right now. Not to mention Kelsea Ballerini and Carrie Underwood. There’s a lot of great female music and female artists out there right now. 

Do you have a favorite country music icon?

I would definitely say Garth [because of] the way he revolutionized our format. One of my favorite icons that I think has done the most for our format was Taylor Swift [more] recently. She was in a league of her own and still is. I’m talking about somebody that really opened up country music to the younger generation, made it cool again.

How about the crop of new country artists. Do you have some favorites? 

It’s hard to name just one or even a few because there are so many great talents out there right now, both signed and independent. That’s one of the things I love about SiriusXM, and having a station like The Highway, is we have the ability to really champion these artists and discover and break artists like the good old days … It’s frustrating to see so many great artists not getting a shot [at radio overall], but we’re doing our best. 

This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.