In Luke Bryan’s 2014 smash “Play It Again,” magic happens when a girl’s favorite hit of the day drifts across the airwaves and out of pickup truck speakers on a breathless Georgia summer night. Bryan’s been waiting all evening to make his move, and his tan-legged crush has been waiting just as long to hear this one song until — here it is. She lights up, takes Bryan’s hand and the pair dance and kiss through the fade-out. “Play it again,” she says on repeat, and Bryan would if he could. “I’d give that DJ my last dime,” he croons. But all he can do is keep “scannin’ AM, FM, XM,” desperately hoping for an encore.
The premise doesn’t seem so ridiculous to Scott Borchetta. “[Fans’ and artists’] relationship with country radio, it’s still the Number One source of discovery in country music,” the Big Machine Label Group CEO tells Rolling Stone Country. All Access Music Group country editor and veteran radio programmer R.J. Curtis echoes Borchetta. “From every piece of research that I’ve seen and reported on, it’s still the most important methodology for an artist to get mass appeal,” he says. “Country fans rely on radio to discover new music.”
The numbers back up those claims. According to a 2014 study conducted by market research and media polling firm Edison Research, 75 percent of listeners discover new music on terrestrial radio, trumping SiriusXM (20 percent) and Spotify (18 percent). That’s certainly true for country music. Per Nielsen, it is the “top national format among Millennials and Generation X’ers.”
According to an April 2014 story in The New York Times: “Country has been one of radio’s biggest success stories over the last decade. While the number of country stations has remained relatively stable over that time, at about 2,100, country’s share of the audience has been gradually increasing, with about a 15 percent share among people 12 and up, according to Nielsen.” In short, more people are listening to country radio stations.
“We dedicated all of 2014 to radio,” Scotty McCreery tells Rolling Stone Country. “This is a relationship business; it’s all about folks being friends.” Cultivating and maintaining those relationships paid off for McCreery; the 21-year-old 2011 American Idol winner’s 2014 single “Feelin’ It” cracked Billboard’s Country Airplay chart’s Top 10.
“Radio is truly the reason I am allowed to do what I do,” Chase Bryant, a new act on Red Bow Records, tells Rolling Stone Country. “They are the gatekeepers. Without country radio, you’re not going anywhere. It’s all kind of up to them sometimes.”
Though Swift identifies as a pop singer now, it’s country radio that made her a superstar. While reaching her stratosphere of success might seem ambitious for country hopefuls like Rhett or Bryant, becoming bona fide arena headliners isn’t such a lofty goal. Each spent the last couple years working their way up bills topped by the likes of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert. Even in these, the music industry’s darkest economic days, Nashville is producing dozens of relatively young arena headliners, including Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Jake Owen, Lady Antebellum and Florida Georgia Line, who headline a sold-out show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden this week.
“Live Nation recently reported that audiences for its country concerts grew 50 percent last year to seven million,” The New York Times noted in April 2014, “and the company said that it now views country as one of its two fastest-growing genres, along with electronic dance, the hot youth trend of the moment.”
One thing country’s stadium- and coliseum-filling stars — from recent graduates Bryan and Aldean to veterans like Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney — have in common is they all arrived at that point by way of radio airplay. And most wouldn’t have gotten that airplay were they not on a major label. In that sense, country radio and the Music Row machine are the last stronghold of the old music business, where major labels and terrestrial radio can launch superstars who go platinum with first-week sales, and fresh faced-singers can work up from clubs to arenas in a matter of a few record cycles.
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In 2012, the duo scored a Number One with their wistful country-rocker “Angel Eyes.” Three years later, after three subsequent singles stalled before cracking the Top 30, the band was dropped from Sony. Now, by Overton’s metric, they don’t exist. Or rather, by country radio’s rubric, they don’t exist. At least not to radio listeners.
But part of the programmers’ job as gatekeepers is to be ahead of trends, when they’re rising and when they’re falling. And if country radio’s hive-mind is growing as cynical of bro country as its critics, the way the tea leaves are reading doesn’t bode well for the still-stadium-packing sub-genre. “As we look at 2015, I think we’re entering into a period where we’re not going to see a lot of that [bro country] stuff anymore,” Curtis says. “I think everybody is trying to be aware of that [paradigm shift] — they’re trying to see what else is coming down [the pike] and what else could be successful for them.”
Musik and Film sees a shift back to Country Rock, Southern Rock and Original Country. A shift where a Indie artist can get airplay and get heard. MAF’s division Musik Radio Promotions gets airplay in 180 countries for its artists