Back when I discussed the nostalgia for 1990s country music, I made the following statement:
“I’d posit that the airwaves both now and then fit roughly the same bell curve: Some really good songs, some really bad ones, and a lot in the middle that could go either way depending on your taste.”
As we’ve gone through 2021, however, I’ve admittedly started to waver on that statement. While there have been some decent releases in the closing months of 2021, country music this year has felt objectively worse than in years past, and I’ve been struggling to put my finger on why I feel that way.
After thinking about it, I’ve come up with two reasons I’m unsatisfied with the genre:
- For lack of a better word, there’s been a lack of maturity in modern country music—everything artists champion today feels so shallow and ephemeral. Jody Rosen put it best in his defining piece on Bro-Country:
“If rock strives to ‘hold onto 16 as long as you can,’ as [John] Mellencamp once put it, country aims for the opposite. Young country singers have learned to project gravitas beyond their years, singing songs about home and hearth and other grown-up stuff.
Bro-country breaks with that tradition. [Tyler] Hubbard, 26, and [Brian] Kelley, 27, pay lip service to ‘little farm towns’ and pickup trucks and such. But what they care about is getting drunk and laid…For Florida Georgia Line, it’s always Saturday night—here’s to the good times, all the time.”
To me, the defining attribute of country music is experience, with singers talking about what they’ve seen, what they’ve learned, and how it makes them feel (even when it’s just a love or heartbreak song). In contrast, country music these days is dominated by inexperience (witness how often we talk about hookups, aimless drinking, and generic nostalgic trips), and increasingly tries to get people to not feel anything.
- Of course, “shallow and ephemeral” songs have always been a part of the country music catalog to some degree. The problem is that it feels like it’s the entire country music catalog these days. It’s as if country songs are legally required to include certain words in them (“beer,” “truck,” “dirt road,” etc.), and every writer in town is playing a game of Mad Libs trying to fit them all in.
The result is a homogeneous wall of noise on the airwaves, with every artist singing the same darn song over and over with no one to change the subject. (This homogeneity extends to the sound as well—just look at how many times I’ve used the phrase “guitar-and-drum mix” in my reviews—but for this post, we’re going to focus only on the writing.) So what’s going on? Why have we switched from an ocean’s worth of subject matter to drawing from a kiddie pool?
It turns out that some of the trends we’ve been tracking in our Pulse posts played a role in this shift, as well as some larger trends that have been lurking in the background:
- For one thing, there just aren’t as many writers as there used to be. It’s no secret that Nashville’s writer pool has been shrinking for decades: The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) stated that the number of songwriters in town had “dropped from 4,000 in the ’90s to approximately 1,000” in 2020. A smaller talent pool is going to lead to fewer perspectives and a less diverse set of ideas (especially if the songwriters that are left get used over and over), and thus we’re going to be hearing the same things from the same people.
The first question I have here is: Why? The music industry has certainly suffered through some hard times over the last two decades, but were they drastic enough to cut out 75% of Nashville’s writers?
The short answer is “Yes.” The paradigm shift from selling physical/digital copies of a song to simply streaming it meant that songwriters took a massive hit to their bottom line. Where a writer would get 9.1 cents for each song they had on a album when it was purchased, streaming has cut that fee to a paltry .0005 per listen. As bad as even 9.1 cents might sound, it was enough back in the day to earn a “healthy five or low six figure income” if you could get a few songs on an album. In contrast, it takes 2,000 streams of a track for a writer to earn a single cent, and 18,200 to match the value of a single purchased track.
But 18,200 streams must be easy to get for a hit song, right? Perhaps, but here is where larger radio trends start to rear their ugly head:
- Radio consolidation means that stations are “playing a narrow variety of artists, fewer songs and relying on cookie-cutter programming,” which means that there are fewer openings for songs to jump on the chart escalator and get their shot. In our Pulse posts, we’ve talked about the impact playlist-shortening has on performers, but songwriters are subject to the same pressures, as there are fewer opportunities for scoring that hit song that allows them to be self-sustainable.
- Back in the day, the radio featured a lot more turnover, with more-frequent single releases giving writers more chances for radio success. Today, on the other hand, songs are spending for-freaking-ever on the charts these days (remember when Dylan Scott took sixteen months just to be a Mediabase-only #1?), limiting the amount of chances an album cut has to become a radio smash. (Even when album cycles get extended into six or seven singles, it often means that an artist is dropping a deluxe version of the disc, bringing in new material for singles instead of using what they’ve already got.)
- The number of people in the room when a song is written has grown as well: As Forbes notes, “in the ’90s it was normal to see only one or two names listed on country song credits,” but “today, writing sessions can amass four or five writers including a producer or ‘track guy’ who often sits in the room and helps build the song from start to finish.” We’ve occasionally poked fun at the sheer number of writers listed on rudimentary-sounding tracks, but the truth is that adding more cooks to the kitchen means that everybody’s share of the eventual pie is smaller.
In other words, writers today are in a system that pays them less for their work, gives them fewer opportunities for exposure and success, and forces them to share the spoils of whatever they get with more people. This doesn’t exactly scream “sustainable business model” to me (at least from the writer’s perspective), which is why we’ve lost so many writers over the years, and thus we’re stuck hearing from the remaining subset over and over.
- There’s been a silent-but-strong push towards singer-songwriters in the industry. Remember when it was rare to have an artist like Clint Black that wrote most of their own material? Today he would be the rule rather than the exception, as current artists are being encouraged (and even required) to have a hand in writing their own songs.
Let’s consider the same questions here: Why? If a song is good, listeners have never cared whether or not an artist actually wrote it, so why do artists and labels put so much stock in this distinction?
From a label perspective, my guess is that it’s all about the money: Labels have to pay mechanical royalties to publishing companies whenever they sell their song, so having their artist (who is likely a member of the label’s own publishing company) involved in the process likely reduces the amount of cash they have to lay out for a song. (This would also explain why cover songs have pretty much disappeared from the radio: Why record someone else’s song when you could make an artist write a soundalike one themselves? At worst you’ll just have to cut the original writers in on the deal.)
What I didn’t realize is how much sense this makes from the artist’s perspective, as the changing financial landscape is squeezing them as well:
“These days, the artists not only feel like they want to be a part of the song, but also monetarily, with the lack of album sales, they have to make it up somehow.”—Blair Daly, as told to Annie Reuter, May 2020
Artists have realized that they hold a lot of leverage in the songwriting partnership, because their sign-off is required for them to actually put the song on their album. Songwriters have little choice but to cut the artist in on the deal, but they may be then faced with another problem: What if the artist isn’t good at or interested in writing?
Researchers (and yes, I was just as surprised as you are to find out people did research on this stuff) have found that songwriters have developed some sneaky tactics to dealing with artists that are poor writers:
- “Bespoke facilitation”: The writers will simply try to build something off of the artist’s backstory and/or brand. I had theorized that part of the reason songs had become less mature was because they were leaning on the limited experience of a younger artist, but I didn’t consider how much the other writers in the room might be facilitating this.
- “The manipulation dance”: Basically a writer comes up with an idea and then tries to fool the artist into thinking it was actually their own idea. The article explicitly mentions that this is effective in pushing songs with “more artistic merit.”
Basically, it appears that forcibly injecting the artist into the song creation process had led to more-formulaic and less-interesting material overall. While there are certainly artists that defy this characterization, the fact that we’re getting so many songs featuring artists praising their raising and shoving their country cred in our faces tells me that this tactic is causing more problems than it’s solving.
When I declared that “I don’t think we can discount the money angle” in my 90s country article, I have to admit that I didn’t realize just how deep this thread might run. It’s not just about having the cash to bring in the musicians and marketers to put your best foot forward—it’s about having a business that’s thriving enough to support the talented people behind the scenes and not forcing them to cut corners, fight over scraps, and eventually walk away from the scene entirely. Unless we can do something to make songwriting a more stable and sustainable profession, we’ll be stuck in our current buzzword Mad Libs situation for the foreseeable future.