My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Are record labels stupid, or is it just radio?

radioLately 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?

11 responses to “Are record labels stupid, or is it just radio?

  1. Linda March 30, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    It is a very interesting topic but it is no wonder record labels are confused when fans don’t always even agree on what they like. I thought “You Didn’t Have a Good Time” was pretty but not stunning as this blogger indicates. But again, it is all in what a person likes.

    I loved “Dig Two Graves” personally and thought perhaps radio would latch on; they did play it here for awhile but not many stations did and it fell by the wayside. On the other hand, I loved “Everything I Own Has Got a Dent” as did several people i know; yet now they take another of my least favorites, “Turn It Around,” put it on the Ultimate Hits and are calling it the new single.

    I’m not sure who is truly to blame but the fact that radio won’t even often let the listeners hear some songs may be partly to blame. We are continuously often told how a station won’t play something until they see how it does on the charts. That is one of the most ridiculous cop-outs of radio I’ve heard; if they all take that approach, how then does it get to the charts.
    Anytime this has been asked by fans of radio and label personnel, the response seems to be ignored.
    You’ve got me on this one to be honest but I do blame radio for not giving things a try, especially when you know it was sent to radio and fans do request it.

  2. Razor X March 30, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    The labels are at least as culpable as radio for the current state of mainstream country. They’re afraid to do anything innovative, opting instead to play it safe and give radio what they think it wants. Once a upon a time, the best songs on an album were released as singles, to entice people who heard them on the radio to purchase the album. Nowadays, it is just the opposite. The more creative and innovative songs remain hidden gems on albums while the bland, middle-of-the-road stuff is released to radio.

    As for the last minute changes of heart after an upcoming single has been announced — that is often because radio programmers want a different choice, as was the case with Caitlin & Will. But one wonders why market research wasn’t done to determine what radio wanted, before any decisions were made about which singles to release.

    I can understand that the labels are hurting because of illegal downloading and because many of the people who are still willing to pay for music opt to just download a few individual tracks instead of entire albums. However, I think the labels have made some huge missteps by not being innovative with digital music sales. They blame the “death of the CD” for declining sales, but in years gone by, the death of the 8-track , LP, and cassette did not hurt music sales, because the labels got behind the latest technology. It’s just beyond me why they don’t offer digital albums on their own websites at competitive prices. They could probably come out ahead of the game by not having to bear the expense of producing as many physical CDs. And why they don’t make their back catalogs available digitally is equally puzzling. They are sitting on goldmines and don’t seem to realize it.

  3. Leeann Ward March 30, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    We all thought “I Can’t Outrun You” was going to be a single, with a video and all, but it was replaced by “Marry for Money”, which is baffling.

    I agree that both the labels and radio are culpable. Neither are off the hook with me. Neither expect excellence.

  4. Brady March 30, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I don’t think the video for “Mowin’ Down the Roses” ever really received any sort of official support or promotion. I thought I remembered reading that Jamey made the video with some buddies, but I can’t verify that. Although, it looks like the video was added to UMG’s YouTube channel last July, while “In Color” was still on the charts, so I’m pretty sure the song wasn’t ever really meant to be pushed as a single and that, if anything, the video was just a marketing experiment.

    To be fair to McGraw, “If You’re Reading This” was added to his album after playing it at the ACMs, but aside from that, I think nearly everything that hasn’t been released on that album is more interesting than the songs that were sent to radio. It is rather baffling.

  5. J.R. Journey March 30, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Radio baffles me most of the time too – and I’ve been working at a country radio station since 2004. You’d think I would understand how the playlists are made, but I don’t know any more than you guys do. The truth of the matter is that the D.J.’s you hear on the radio have no say in what they play – and even their program directors don’t have much say if the station is owned by a large corporation such as Clear Channel or Kindred Communications.

    With all the licensing issues, you just can’t stray from your playlist because then you have legal issues for the song being played without the publishers getting paid for it. So the playlists are usually made about a week in advance, and you just can’t play anything else.

    As far as why the PD’s pick some of the songs they do (as in the case of Caitlin & Will) will forever remain a mystery to me. (This only happens in the largest of markets too – where one station can actually affect the charts.) The only explanation I can come up with is what you touched on – the people who create the playlists are looking for safe, shallow, poppy songs rather than taking a risk with something the listeners might actually have to feel some emotions from. They just don’t want anything that’s different. Different means dangerous in radio: if your listeners aren’t happy with the song, they change stations. Less listeners means your commercials are worth less, therefore, your profits are down.

    It’s become a vicious cycle of watering down the content so to keep the ‘safe’ listenership of the soccer moms and still trying to target the younger demographic.

    • Chris March 31, 2009 at 5:37 am

      Weird. I hate how the radio system works- that’s for sure. For Joey + Rory, I love “Freebird” much more than “Play The Song”, but I see how the latter is a better single choice, IMO.

      I don’t know what it’ll take for the big corporations to wake up- I don’t know if they will any time soon, but if they did it would be really cool to have better music on the radio.

  6. Audra March 31, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Yes – as a DJ, I’d agree that we have no freedom in choosing what we play. Additionally, we cannot play *any* track from an album since there are legal issues — a song is released as a single for radio airplay.

    I think much of the problem stems from corporations mentioned already; they are national, and they have a what seems like a single playlist they forcefeed their stations; so you have a small minority (head of corporate programming) who makes playlists.

    I am sad that so much has been taken from the artist.

    • Razor X March 31, 2009 at 1:46 pm

      Occasionally non-single album tracks do hit the charts due to unsolicited airplay. How does this happen if there are legal issues preventing DJs from playing them? Just curious.

      • J.R. Journey March 31, 2009 at 5:05 pm

        If you look at album liner notes, there is a publishing rights organization for every song, usually BMI or ASCAP. Every album cut CAN be played, there’s just some kind of ‘clearance’ protocol you have to go through to make sure the publishers, songwriters, etc. are getting their cut of the ad revenue.

        That’s probably a gross oversimplification – but there ya go. That’s my best understanding of the process.

  7. Leeann Ward March 31, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Why is it that satelite radio plays so many non-single tracks as well? Do they have special licensing or something? I don’t listen to radio anymore, but back when I did, they often played unreleased songs. In fact, I remember that they would spotlight an album on its release date a lot and play all the tracks from it throughout the day. Satelite radio just seems to play unreleased songs whenever they feel like it.

  8. Sebastian January 12, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    I listen to my iPod and watch television at the same time and it’s just crazy.

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