Why Do Record Labels Keep Recordings In The Vault?

It’s been said that you should always leave people wanting more, but what’s left out is that there’s a limit to how long people will wait for it.

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of Randy Travis’s iconic debut album Storms Of Life, Warner Bros. is releasing a deluxe version of the album next month, complete with remastered version of all ten tracks. Of course, a guy like me (who now has a CD and three cassette copies of this album) isn’t all that keen on re-buying the album, so the label is trying to sweeten the pot by including a deluxe-edition exclusive: Three never-before-released tracks that were recorded around the time Storms Of Life was being together. The first of these, “Ain’t No Use,” which actually appeared on Randy’s 1982 album Live At The Nashville Palace back when he being billed as Randy Ray, was recently released on YouTube as a teaser for the upcoming album.

“Ain’t No Use” has that classic Travis sound and is a solid song in its own right, but it’s not hard to see why it didn’t make the cut for Storms Of Life: Its faster tempo and reliance of louder electric instruments would have felt slightly out of place on the album. (“My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)” is probably its closest contemporary, but its sound is slicker and a bit more subdued than “Ain’t No Use.” Sonically, this track has more in common with “What’ll You Do About Me” from Always & Forever, or maybe High Lonesome‘s “Better Class Of Losers.”) Still, there’s nothing in the rules that says all the songs on an album have to have a common sonic thread: Travis’s cover of Brook Benton’s “It’s Just A Matter Of Time” sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of Travis’s entire discography with its prominent piano and string section, but it’s a darn good song that wound up as a #1 hit. “Ain’t No Use” could have been slotted darn near anywhere into the Storms Of Life track list, and no one would have said a word.

So this begs the question: Why wasn’t “Ain’t No Use” put on Storms Of Life, or some other album? Why did we have to wait 35 years for this track to see the light of day? And what about the rest of the “20 sides” that Kyle Lehning says he and Travis recorded but didn’t put on Storms Of Life? Even if the three new tracks are from those sessions, that’s still seven more that are buried somewhere in Warner Bros.’s archives (“Fool’s Love Affair” was a demo from the early 1980s that predated Storms Of Life). Where are they, and why haven’t we heard them?

Recording material and then just sitting on it is nothing new in the music industry, and we’ve run into the issue several times in past deep dives (Toby Keith having to buy back How Do You Like Me Now? from his label, The Band Perry having several albums shelved during the course of their career, etc.). But after already investing in the artists and the recordings, why would a label just sit on the finished product? There are a couple of reasons for doing so, and surprise surprise, it’s all about the money:

  • Depreciation: Labels think of artists as cannon fodder investments, and they’re loath to do anything that might devalue their holdings. For example, if a lead single falls flat after being sent to radio, the label may decide it’s not worth throwing good money after bad trying to push an EP or LP that a) the public will either ignore or reject, and b) will label their artist as ‘bad’ or ‘unsuccessful.’ This can happen at anytime in an artist’s career: The Band Perry’s Rick Rubin-produced follow-up album was deemed detrimental to their image/career, while Keith’s fifth album was initially rejected despite eventually becoming a multi-platinum disc.
  • Appreciation: However, just because a song isn’t useful to a label now doesn’t it mean it won’t be useful later. Artists change labels all the time, and if an artist that didn’t find success on your roster suddenly blows up in the service of someone else, you’ve got a cache of hits that you can toss out with minimal promotional effort (someone else is doing that work for you) and use to cash in on the artist’s newfound fame. A great example of this is Steve Wariner (a man who found success on four different labels, and thus a man for whom it’s notoriously hard to find a comprehensive compilation of his hits). After Wariner moved from RCA to MCA and hit his stride in the mid/late 1980s, RCA not only released a Greatest Hits package of their own recordings, they packaged up a bunch of unreleased songs and dropped them a year later as Down In Tennessee, trying to draft behind Wariner’s MCA offering Life’s Highway and wring a few more dollars from their ex-employee.
(Mental note: Put Steve Wariner on my deep dive list, on the off chance that I ever get back to writing those.)

From a business perspective, all of this makes sense: Your goal is to make money, and that means doing anything you think will maximize profits and minimize losses. From an artist’s perspective, however, it’s not just money that they’re wringing out of you—it’s the blood, sweat, and tears that you sacrificed in the name of the creative process to make a song the best that it can be. To put all that time and effort into something just to have some suit effectively toss the whole thing in the back of a storage closet is equal parts disheartening and infuriating.

“We spent so many hours, weeks, months on that [music]…You pour your heart and soul into it, and they don’t have any idea how much time or work [went into it]…they just shelve it.”

Eric Gunderson of Love and Theft, as told to Joseph Hudak, February 2015

Even if the music eventually does to come to light, it may miss its window of opportunity and wind up making a small fraction of the impact (and money) that it could have back in the day. That’s kind of where I fall on “Ain’t No Use”: I like the song, and the new cuts will help move a few deluxe copies of Storms Of Life, but the truth is that Randy Travis is an afterthought in today’s country music landscape, and most consumers will simply yawn and move on. Can you imagine what would happened if these cuts had appeared on an album like Always & Forever or Old 8×10, or perhaps even anchored a whole new disc back in the late 1980s? The ROI would have been a heck of a lot higher, and both Travis and Warner Bros. would have reaped the benefits.

In today’s digital age, I’d argue that there’s little reason to shelve a song or an album, unless you’re really sure it’s an absolute career-killer. Courting radio airplay remains a costly endeavor, but the consolidation of the industry means that there are fewer tastemakers that you need to convince (this also leads to problems such as playlist homogenization, but that’s a rant for another post), and the rise of streaming services means that getting a song exposure is just a matter of getting yourself on the right Spotify playlists (or possibly the right social media platforms). Why not throw a new single/EP/album out there and see what the people think? Sure, oversaturating the market is a risk, but there’s got to be a happy medium between an immediate release and waiting 35 years to do it.

I’m glad that “Ain’t No Use” is finally getting its moment in the sun, but in the future, let’s not make artists wait forever to get their music to the public. Let the people decide if something is a hit or not, and don’t let someone’s hard work sit around and go to waste.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round

2020 was many things (isolating, aggravating, a tragedy on a global scale), but it was also super busy for me, and it forced me to cut down my blog posting schedule from five days a week to three. The result of this is that the Mediabase charts started to outrun my schedule, forcing me to play catch-up and use preliminary grades for the weekly Pulse posts. Now, with time running out and the year-end lists approaching, it’s time to clear the queue and catch up on some tracks that I should have covered a while ago.

With so many songs to cover, I can’t go as in-depth as my usual reviews do, but honestly many of these songs don’t merit that deep a dive anyway. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the end of my 2020 review list…

Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5”

This thing was released back in September, but it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t really taken off after three months: It’s a run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track dedicated to drinking yourself into a stupor, released several months after the trend fizzled out. The mix is the usual guitar-and-drum mix, with the classic Bro instruments (clap track, token banjo) tossed in for seasoning. Janson’s performance is nothing to write home about (the dude really needs to stop talk-singing like he does on the bridge), and the writing checks all the usual Bro boxes (and that “waitin’ on five to start on six” is just groan-inducing). This trend has already been tossed into the dustbin of history, and this song belong right there next to it.

Score: 5/10. Nothing to see here, folks.

Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name”

Country music will give a debut #1 to just about anyone, so Rodgers decided to try and break the sophomore slump by recruiting Thanos himself for his follow-up single. Unfortunately, not only is this thing yet another  run-of-the-mill Cobronavirus track, it’s actually worse than Janson’s lame attempt. For one thing, the guitar-and-drum mix here is oddly dark and lethargicwhere Janson at least tried to establish a fun, lighthearted atmosphere, this lethargic death march isn’t fun at all. Rodgers’s turn behind the mic is utterly replaceable, and Combs adds nothing but star power to the song (he’s trapped mostly in his lower range, and he sounds both oddly restrained and a little uncomfortable). Once again, the writing aims to check all the Bro boxes, and includes a couple a cringey moments (“my baby puttin’ sugar on me”? Ick, just say she kissed you and leave it there). If you asked me to sum this track up in one word, I’d just start snoring.

Score: 5/10. *yawn* Quick, let’s move on before I fall asleep.

Teddy Robb, “Heaven On Dirt”

Robb is an Ohio native who signed with Monument Records in 2018, but he only dropped his debut EP back in April, and it’s already being dumped for a new song. It’s a generic nostalgia track, one that features none of the interesting details that Runaway June’s “We Were Rich” or Justin Moore’s “We Didn’t Have Much” brought to the table. The story is pretty boilerplate, and doesn’t do anything to convince the listener of the hallowedness of the ground (the place sounds more like purgatory than heaven to me). The “heaven on dirt” hook is even more groan-inducing than Janson’s drivel, and there’s nothing special about Robb’s vocal performance (there are hints of Brett Eldredge in his tone, but Robb has none of Eldredge’s power or charisma). The acoustic guitar/banjo foundation of the mix is the best of the songs we’ve looked at so far, but the electric guitar that gets tossed in on the bridge feels really out of place. The whole thing feels incredibly bland and boring, and doesn’t encourage repeat listens.

Score: 5/10. Don’t tell me we’re starting this streak again…

Easton Corbin, “Didn’t Miss A Beat”

Corbin still can’t seem to find an actual record label that will sign him, but he’s managed to cobble together a new EP and release a new single. Yes, it’s the same darn guitar-and-drum mix I’ve been ranting about for months (years?), but at least this thing’s got some tempo and a decent groove that helps it generate energy and build momentum over time. I like the framing of the the writing on this one: Instead of wasting time drinking themselves to death and pining over a lost partner, we explore the much-more-enjoyable scenario where said person actually comes back and picks up an old relationship where it left off. No, there’s nothing deep or poignant here (the narrator asks why their partner came back, but we never get an answer), and the overall relationship still feels kind of ephemeral, but Corbin’s still a likeable guy with charisma to burn, and he persuades the listener to forget about the future and get lost in the moment for a while. It’s a decent effort overall, and given the songs it’s rated above in this post alone, I’m still surprised that this guy hasn’t found a new permanent home in Nashville yet.

Score: 6/10. It’s a fun little spin that’s worth hearing again.

Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her”

Bandi is a Missouri native who, like Robb, dropped a debut EP and single earlier this year, but never found any traction on the airwaves. The production is one of those piano ballads I’m generally a sucker for, but the electric guitar and drum machine make the song feel a lot slicker than it should. There’s a very neutral feel to both the mix and Bandi’s raspy vocal performanceinstead of balancing the happiness of gaining a wife and baby daughter and the sadness of wondering how the narrator’s dead father would have felt (Bandi thinks he “would have loved her,” of course), it feels like neither emotion is really present here, and it’s really hard to tell who the focus of the story is: Is it the people the narrator is gushing about, or the ghost he’s gushing to? It’s mostly predictable and kind of sappy, but I’ll admit that the inclusion of the child’s birth was an unexpected and appreciated twist (otherwise it would felt like an awkward Boyfriend country song). Cole Swindell may run circles around this song with “You Should Be Here,” but at least it features some story progression and maturity, and no one’s encouraging you to drink the world’s problems off your mind.

Score: 6/10. Corbin’s song is better, but I guess this one is okay.

Randy Travis, “Fool’s Love Affair”

It killed me that this thing didn’t get more attention when it released back in July, because I consider Randy Travis the GOAT when it comes to country singers.The song was a demo that Travis had been recruited to sing back in the early 1980s, but it got pushed aside during the Urban Cowboy movement and mostly forgotten until recently, where it was touched up with 2020 production and released into the wild.

The production here is reminiscent of Randy’s most-recent work (no surprise, given that his longtime producer Kyle Lehning put it together), and it features the kind of arrangement diversity that modern country music lacks (it’s got fiddle, steel guitar, and piano, with the light-touch drums and understated electric guitar serving as complementary pieces rather than the main attraction). The overall feel is more polished than slick, and it does a really nice job capturing and accentuating the emptiness of the narrator’s feelings.

You can tell that early-career Randy in behind the mic here (the voice wouldn’t be out of place on Storms Of Life or Always & Forever), but the recording feels a little awkward with 2020 production values (Travis almost sounds auto-tuned at points). The subject matter is pretty standard as far as cheating songs go, but you never hear these sorts of songs anymore (Midland tried to push one and failed), and it provides enough detail to bring the listener into the story and let them imagine the scenes as they go alone. Overall, it’s a well-executed track with a legendary voice, and if any of the songs we’ve covered here really deserved a full review, it was this one.

Score: 8/10. Is it better than “Cheatin’ Songs”? I’d say they’re about equal in quality, though they approach the topic in different ways.

With that, I think I’m finally ready to tally up the scores and put together my year-end song rankings. Look for them to come out next week!

Exhuming Things That’s Better Left Alone: What Happened To Randy Travis?

Image from The Boot

When it comes to Randy Travis, it would be quicker to list what hasn’t happened to him than what has.

The roller coaster that is Travis’s life spent most of the 2010s on a downhill slope: Metaphorically-crippling financial trouble, literally-crippling strokes, divorce, drinking, family drama, and…well, the less said about 2012, the better. Both his early years and recent history have been marred by trouble, but in the eye of this storm sits a decade where Travis was arguably the king of country music (which contains a few years in the 1980s where Travis was inarguably the king of the genre). He doesn’t get the name-drops that George Strait or Alan Jackson get these days, but he’s commonly credited from pulling country music out of its post-Urban-Cowboy malaise and ushering in the neotraditional movement that dominated the airwaves for the rest of the millennium. For all the troubles that have befallen him, Travis remains a revered figure in Nashville, and Sam Wilson declared that his career deserved a closer look:

This request hits close to home for me, as I consider Randy Travis the greatest country singer of all time, and I’m not sure I can really do this topic justice without reading his recent biography (which my fellow Kyle over at SCM found to be incredibly frank and candid). A cursory look at Travis’s career, however, indicates that the craziness of the past decade was nothing more than a coda to Travis’s musical career: His last Billboard #1 came in 2002, and his only notable appearances since then were as a duet partner on Carrie Underwood’s 2009 “I Told You So” cover and as a silent participant in the 2016 “Forever Country” collab. His mainstream career was over long before all this you-know-what hit the fan, so what happened? How did Travis’s career collapse?

As I tried fitting the pieces back together, a strange narrative began to emerge: Country music didn’t put Randy Travis out to pasture as much as Travis struck out on his own looking for greener pastures. He treated country music the same way I treated Pokémon Sword: He conquered the story mode, played through the post-game content, and then set the game down and started looking for a new challenge. Ironically, the man who never seemed to wear a cowboy hat wore three hats over the course of his career, and was the rare artist who got to close the door on his career himself.

Act I: The Singer

When Travis signed with Warner Bros. in 1985, country music (to put it mildly) was not in a great place. After the movie “Urban Cowboy” spurred the genre to massive crossover success in the early 1980s, the industry crashed hard as the trend began to wear out its welcome. Record sales went into freefall, radio singles were lambasted for being formulaic and soundalike, and the industry’s target demographic was graying as a new generation of consumers turned to other genres for sustenance. (“Formulaic”? “Soundalike”? This sounds like every Boyfriend country review I’ve written in the past four months.) A “new traditionalist” movement had started to emerge, but despite the presence of artists like future king George Strait, the movement had yet to find a true leader that would lead it into the spotlight.

Travis’s major-label debut “On The Other Hand” famously flopped the first time it hit the radio and died in the high sixties on Billboard’s airplay, but after its follow-up “1982” made it to #6 in 1986, Warner Brothers made the bold, now-famous move to re-release “On The Other Hand”…which only went on to became Travis’s first #1, earn the ACM’s 1986 “Single Of The Year” award, power Travis’s debut disc Storms Of Life to triple-platinum status, and send Travis’s career into the stratosphere.

The next few years saw Travis dominate country music in a way that even Luke Combs could only dream of. The explosion of Storms Of Life onto the scene made a sophomore slump inevitable, but Travis had only four words in response:

Even today, over thirty years after the track hit the charts, I still hear “Forever And Ever, Amen” on mainstream radio from time to time. The song has become one of the cornerstone songs of country music, and it turned 1987 into the year of Randy:

  • The Song Won: CMA Single of the Year, ACM Single of the Year, ACM Song of the Year.
  • The Album (Always & Forever) won: ACM Album of the Year.
  • Randy won: CMA Top Male Vocalist, ACM Male Vocalist of the Year.

And then for good measure, the trio cleaned up at the 1988 AMA Awards (Favorite Country Male Artist, Album, Single, and Video) and capped it off with a freaking Grammy award for ‘Best Male Country Performance.’ Oh yeah, and did I mention the album sold five million copies?

Travis was now the face of the neotraditional movement in country music, and he spent the rest of the decade cleaning up: Two more double-platinum albums, a streak of seven consecutive number one hits, a constant nominee for prominent awards (though not that many wins), and praise and worship from the artists that would eventually knock him off the throne (most notably Garth Brooks).

By the time the musical consciousness of a certain blogger awoke in the early 90s, Travis was no longer the dominant force he had been in the last decade, but he still had a strong, consistent presence near the top of the charts. Wikipedia’s single discography table may not look terribly impressive on first glance, but that’s because Travis had the clout to start dabbling in risky projects like Heroes & Friends (an album of duets with everyone from Dolly Parton to B. B. King to Clint Eastwood) and Wind In The Wire (an album of cowboy songs for a TV movie that you can’t even find on YouTube). In terms of gambling with a thriving career, the only recent comparison I can think of is Brad Paisley’s release of his guitar-centered album Play in 2008, but Travis seemed to be playing with house money, and his mainstream releases (including This Is Me, the first album I ever purchased) still had staying power.

That staying power, however, disappeared with the release of Travis’s 1996 album Full Circle, with none of the radio singles even reaching the Top Twenty. Suddenly, the usual trouble signs started to appear: The noticeable sales dropoff, the switch from Warner Bros. to Dreamworks in 1997, the brief sugar rush of You And You Alone giving way to the crash and burn of A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, and so on. Outside of a miracle single in 2002 (don’t worry, we’ll get there), Travis was effectively done in country music.

So what happened? Well, we already concluded that the late-90s Shania Twain-fueled push back towards pop-country brought down everyone from Alabama to Lee Ann Womack, so that could be a likely candidate. In truth, by the time country music turned away from Travis, he already had one foot out the door.

Act II: The Actor

(Editor’s Note: Ha! I had no idea Rusty “The Logger” Dewees was in Black Dog.)

Randy’s discography started to tail off in the 1990s, but his filmography suddenly began in earnest, starting with some recurring roles on popular TV shows (Matlock, Touched By An Angel) and ending with Travis starring alongside the likes of Rob Lowe (Frank & Jesse, 1994), Patrick Swayze (Black Dog, 1998), and Matt Damon and Danny Devito (The Rainmaker). In all, IMDb lists lists twenty-seven acting credits for Travis from 1992 to 2000, and when compared to the twenty-three radio singles released over this same period, it means Travis was actually more prolific as an actor than as a musician!

I recall a prominent country music voice (I think it was Ralph Emery?) saying years ago that Travis’s career fell off when he started thinking “movie star” and making a push in Hollywood. The correlation isn’t a great one: This Is Me‘s April 1994 release date followed a year of Travis making cowboy movies yet produced four Top Ten singles, and You And You Alone performed well despite its 1998 release date (Fun Fact: The album has what I would call my favorite Randy Travis single “Out Of My Bones,” and I’m still personally offended that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” blocked it from becoming a Billboard #1.) Still, he made an ominous statement in 1994:

“I see myself always working on albums — as long as we can sell a few, as long as there’s a reason to keep making them.”

Full Circle wound up selling less than a few albums two years later. Was this the impetus that pushed Travis away from music and back towards acting? (Also, tossing a heavy movie schedule on top of a busy music/touring schedule seems like a tough assignment for anyone, and it’s fair to wonder if Travis’s attention was divided and his focus started to drift. I still think those albums were great, but I seem to be in the minority.)

Despite a few high-profile co-stars, Travis was never more than a bit player in Hollywood. The Rainmaker earned some notable plaudits, but no one was raving about Travis’s turn as Billy Porter, and ultimately…well, his star on the Walk of Fame is for music, not movies. Eventually, even he seemed to realize he was Michael Jordan playing baseball, and his filmography decreased dramatically after 2001. By now, country music had mostly moved on from Travis’s neotraditional sound, but there was another genre that was more than willing to catch a falling star.

Act III: The Farmer, The Teacher, The Hooker, And The Preacher

Starting with 2000’s Inspirational Journey, Travis become a full-time gospel act, singing gospel standards and releasing only faith-infused country tracks to country radio. It’s an oft-overlooked phase of his career, even if it produced the last major hit of his career.

From an award perspective, Travis’s impact in gospel actually looks pretty similar to his arrival in country music. Consider his haul of Dove Awards:

Song/Album Award
Inspirational Journey Best Bluegrass Album (?), 2001
“Baptism” Country Song Of The Year, 2001
Rise And Shine Country Album Of The Year, 2003
Worship & Faith Country Album Of The Year, 2004
Passing Through
Country Album Of The Year, 2005
Glory Train
Country Album Of The Year, 2006
Around The Bend
Country Album Of The Year, 2009

(Another Fun Fact: The Country Album Of The Year award was not given out in 2001 because there weren’t enough eligible nominees!)

You get the distinct feeling that gospel was not used to or ready for an artist of Travis’s stature to drop into their laps, and they lavished him with praise, even for albums like Passing Through and Around The Bend that were decidedly not gospel discs. There’s one award that’s missing from the table, however: The “miracle single” I mentioned earlier, and the 2004 Song Of The Year:

I’m not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but calling this track a “miracle single” might actually be underselling it. Not only was it a gospel hit, it unexpectedly caught fire on the mainstream country charts, reaching #1 on the country charts, cracking the Top 40 on the Hot 100, and earning a Song Of The Year award from the CMAs. (Putting my critic hat on for a second, this remains one of the great story songs of the new millennium, and the combination of warm, uplifting production and Travis’s exceptional baritone makes this a sheer joy to listen to.) The song catapulted Travis back into the country music conversation, and was likely the reason he tried to rejoin the genre with Passing Through soon afterwards. The sell-by date had passed on Travis’s mainstream career, however, and he wound up playing out the string on the gospel side of the fence for a few more years.

Conclusions

Looking back at Randy Travis’s career, its demise feels like an own goal more than anything the genre or musical climate did. After a long stint at the top of the mountain, Travis caught the acting bug and decided to start a second act in Tinseltown, and his career eventually caved in under both internal and external pressures. Given his 2000s-era success in gospel music, I feel like a dedicated Travis could have squeezed a bit more mileage out of mainstream tenure, even a distracted Travis produced some of my favorite songs of the era. Still, even with his voice stolen by the 2010s stroke (and thus his recording career being over period), it’s hard to quibble with his career choices. How many people in the world get to be a rock star and a movie star? Even if Travis’s second act wasn’t nearly as fruitful as his first, the totality of his impact is deep enough to gain entry in the select group of upper-tier country legends.

Personally, as a fan of everything from Storms Of Life to Under The Influence, Vol. 2, I’m sad for what appears to be a premature end to his musicmaking, but I wouldn’t have him change a thing about his career. Country, gospel, or film: To me, he will always (& forever) be the best.