What’s The Impact Of Country Radio’s Express Lane?

If there’s something I’ve noticed on the Mediabase charts recently, it’s the line that seems to have be drawn across it. Songs in the top half of the chart have generally down well, but they seem to be doing even more well than usual. Conversely, songs at the bottom of the chart who used to seemingly get by are now fighting for scraps and spins dry up like a desert riverbed.

This would be a concerning development in itself, but something has happened as well: The concept of the splashy debut that we used to only see on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart is now bleeding over into airplay as well, as songs ride massive every-hour debuts to a strong opening placement on both the Mediabase and Billboard charts. The first few of these things would drop off precipitously in the second week as those debuts aged off the charts, but know songs seems to be not only roughly holding their place, but they’re gaining spots off big debut weeks as well. This means that well-resourced singles can either breeze through the bottom of the charts fairly quickly or potentially skip the line entirely and reach the top half in week 1.

Brett Eldredge’s “Gabrielle” is the latest song to earn a debut chart placement, but Thomas Rhett et al. earned the exact same position two weeks ago with “Be A Light,” Florida Georgia Line teleported to #34 with “I Love My Country” the week before that, and artists like Kenny Chesney, Sam Hunt, and Keith Urban have all seen their new songs slice through the charts like a knife, leaving those stuck in the bottom half in an inescapable quagmire as these songs zoom past.

On some level, this has always been the way country radio has done business: Established artists are known quantities with larger fan bases, so they’re a safer bet for your audience than an unproven new artist, and thus their songs tend to jump to medium and heavy rotations a lot quicker. To see this happening to this extreme degree now, especially when the artist involved is someone like Chesney or Urban who is defying the usual ageist rules that rule Nashville, seems a bit concerning. Even given the challenges introduced by COVID-19, newer artists appear to be getting squeezed tighter than ever.

The Pulse score of the chart is doing well, but much of the quality that’s drove this spring surge is collected in the bottom half of the chart, and it doesn’t seem be transferring to the top half very quickly (if at all). Acts like Runaway June, Dillon Carmichael, and Lauren Alaina are stuck outside the Top 40 months after their release, while other like Gone West, Ashley McBryde, and Midland are stuck suffering through painfully-long slogs just to reach a mediocre position like #35 or #30. Breakthrough debuts like Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” are still possible, but highly unlikely, and most folks are left looking at Ingrid Andress‘s long, momentum-draining climb as a best-case scenario (as good as Andress is, she’s being set up for a jarring sophomore slump).

So besides the trend towards longer careers for existing artists and smaller windows for success for newer ones, what are the implications of all this playlist gatekeeping and consolidation?

  • Trends that I pointed out in my coronavirus analysis are going to be more pronounced. In particular, look for a decrease in the amount of new artists that are launched over the next couple of monthsif the radio is going to be this hostile an environment even before we factor in COVID-19, what’s the point of placing what’s likely a losing bet? In addition, the “small boost” I expected for older and more established artists looks to quite large instead, and given how videoconferencing has taken over every other aspect of our lives, expect it to do the same thing to country music as well (the #DeepCutsChallenge was only the first wave).
  • Expect single release dates to move from Mondays to Fridays going forward. Rather than announce their upcoming release in Country Aircheck weeks ahead of time, labels are either opting for “coming this Friday” teasers or near-surprise drops, using the weekend boost to leapfrog their immediate (read: lesser known) competition. It’s proving to be a effective strategy, and there’s nothing country music loves more than copying an effective strategy.
  • Speaking of copying… If there’s one thing I got wrong in my last coronavirus post, it’s the prediction of a move towards somber subjects in the writing. Instead, we’re getting songs like Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita” and Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer,” and the party train continues rolling on unabated. (We’re stuck with either partying vicariously or partying because there’s nothing else to do…) Given that Bro-Country dominates the recurrent charts, my previous point about country’s love of copy-paste, and the fact that artists like Sam Hunt and FGL continue to linger, don’t be surprised if the Metro-Bro movement returns from the grave, especially if the lockdown stretches into the summer and people go even more stir-crazy.

So what’s a music fan to do in these crazy times? My proposal: Defy the radio and expand your horizons by digging deeper into the music. Don’t stop at an artist’s single; check out the entire EP or LP instead. Don’t stop at the Top 25; see what’s lurking in the Top 50. Heck, don’t stop your search at the genre boundary; see what else is out there! (I’ve admittedly been jamming some video game music tracks a lot during the last month or so.) The kingmakers of the airwaves may be playing it safe, but we as listeners don’t have to, and there’s no better time than now to take a risk.

Country music is in a strange place like the rest of us, but while it’s retreating to familiar artists and sounds, we don’t have to follow their lead. Take this moment to expand your horizonsyou might be surprised at what you find.


2 thoughts on “What’s The Impact Of Country Radio’s Express Lane?

  1. I feel like more and more people around are listening to entire albums and not necessarily just basing their listening library on radio. With all the online streaming services available now, there is no reason to. A lot of people around me in my age group (21) listen to Morgan Wallen or Luke Combs’ entire catalogue. I have seen a shift toward what you are talking about in this article.

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  2. I love this piece! Especially with your concluding marks about expanding your boundaries and listening to whole albums. I’m admittedly an album listener, so of course I like this haha. But also I would add I feel like “album artists” are going to navigate through the financial stresses of this virus better than “singles artists,” especially in country and hip hop. The reason I say this is because there’s a lot more built in loyalty in the fanbases of album artists and these fans are more likely to buy a CD/vinyl record/merch than a single artists’ fans, who are more casual in nature.

    I honestly think the music landscape could change forever from this virus in so many ways, some good and some bad, but I’m going to wait until summer before writing about my own predictions and theories on what will change, as I don’t want to be too hasty.

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