Lately I’ve noticed that the worst songs seem to be picked for release as singles from a number of artists. Alongside that, labels seem to be increasingly confused about how best to promote albums, with songs being announced as the next single from a given artist, and then hurriedly replaced by something else. It all seems like a terrible muddle. What’s going wrong?
Our March spotlight artist Eric Church has released one of the poorest songs on his new album as its lead single. A particularly egregious example is Tim McGraw. His label, Curb, released a ridiculous number of singles – seven – from his last studio album, 2007’s Let It Go. How, then, have they managed to miss the one song on that set that’s really worth hearing, ‘Between The River And Me’? George Strait released the unimpressive ‘River Of Love’ as the third single from Troubadour when he could have released the memorably quirky ‘House With No Doors’ or the duet with Patty Loveless on ‘House Of Cash’. There are plenty more examples.
Trace Adkins and his label have taken something of a middle course with his current album, X. The two singles released so far, ‘Muddy Water’ and ‘Marry For Money’ are perfectly listenable, but they really aren’t the outstanding tracks, either. Will anyone who isn’t already a fan ever get the chance to hear great songs like ‘I Can’t Outrun You’, ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’, or ‘Sometimes A Man takes A Drink’? Warner Brothers seems to have abandoned Randy Travis’ Around The Bend in favor of his new hits collection, I Told You So – understandable enough, and to be fair the singles from Around The Bend made no radio impact, but that means they are apparently not even going to try with the stunning ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’.
Then last year we saw two of the most commercially successful of today’s artists – Keith Urban and Brad Paisley – release singles taken from older projects rather than either something from their then current album or a new song to herald an upcoming 2009 release.
We’ve also seen record labels second-guessing themselves at the last minute, by not only announcing one song as a single, but going to the trouble and not-inconsiderable expense of making a video for it, and then changing their minds and offering another song as the single instead. Sometimes they pretend there was never any intention of making the song they have made a video for the official single (as with Eric Church’s ‘Lightning’), but I’m not sure I’m convinced.
Last year Jamey Johnson made a video for ‘Mowin’ Down The Roses’, but the label then made the brave decision to try the excellent but potentially controversial ‘High Cost Of Living’. Joey + Rory made a video for ‘Freebird’ and announced it as their follow-up to ‘Cheater, Cheater’, but soon afterwards the label released ‘Play the Song’ instead; the jury is still out on whether that change was worth it. Sugarland did a video for ‘Love’, then sent ‘It Happens’ to radio. Now, these changes are not necessarily bad ideas – in particular, I hope ‘High Cost Of Living’ does well – but it seems strange, to say the least, that the label could not decide what it wanted to do earlier in the process. It was also understandable that John Rich’s label pulled the forgettable ‘Another You’ when he came up with the flawed but topical ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’, and that decision has paid off for them, at least in terms of radio play.
J.R. commented the other day on the way that Caitlin & Will’s debut single, the excellent ‘Even Now’, was explicitly rejected by radio in favor of the more heavily produced ‘Address In the Stars’. In this case, then, we can safely blame country radio. In other cases, it is less clear cut, although the obvious preference of today’s program directors for shallow, poppy songs over anything with any depth must have an effect on the labels. After all, I admit they do need to get exposure for their acts, and if some compromise is required in order to get the artist played at all, maybe it’s a necessary evil. But it really does feel as though the pendulum has swung too far.
I thought the basic reasoning underlying releasing singles to radio was to promote the album and persuade listeners to buy it. When the best songs are left unheard because they aren’t happy and simple enough for radio to be comfortable with, and the artist is represented by his or her lesser material, who actually benefits? I don’t see how it encourages record sales to put out the poorer songs on the album, and then have them overplayed until even the decent songs have outstayed their welcome. Do the labels and/or radio have such a low opinion of country fans’ critical capacity? And which of them is most to blame?