Is Country Ready To 'Ride That Donkey?'
May 8, 2014
If Country radio takes Jerrod Niemann's advice to "Ride that donkey," does it risk jumping the shark?
Man, that's a deep thought.
Conversely, lyrics to Niemann's latest joy-ride-of-a-single, "Donkey," aren't:
"Gonna ride that donkey, donkey/Down to the honky tonky/It's gonna get funky funky."
OK, so itâ€™s not steeped in philosophy. But â€œDonkeyâ€ is 3:14 of ridiculous, guilty pleasure, earworm escapism and above all else, fun. Itâ€™s an impact record, no doubt. So, just what the Hell do we do with it?
The song hasn't even impacted yet (Monday, May 19th is the day), but already it's generating discussion, debate and head-scratching among programmers. "I thought 'Drink To That All Night' was right on the line, but 'Donkey' is over it as far as being too rappy," says KJUG/Visalia, CA PD Adam Jeffries. "There are much better songs on the ['High Noon'] CD to come with than 'Donkey.'"
KYGO/Denver MD/afternoon personality Brian Hatfield pulled no punches when asked about it, saying, "I hate this song. I'm a ginormous Jerrod Fan, but not playing anytime soon."
"Donkey" is Niemann's second single off his "High Noon" album and follows "Drink To That All Night," which hit #1 a couple weeks ago. Armed with a gigantic, catchy hook, tempo and a club vibe, "Drink To That" had its own issues (for PDs) on the front end, due to some auto-tuning in the first verse. But the song became an undeniable hit, eventually winning over PDs while building positive callout and Mscores during its run, which culminated in Niemann scoring his second career chart-topper.
In case you haven't noticed, we're now in an era where boundaries for all music genres are being pushed farther and farther into one common gray area. Country's cheese has been moved many times before, but perhaps never more dramatically than now. The most recent envelope-pushing for our format is a confluence of many factors, including but not limited to a new generation of artists who grew up listening to, among other things, rock, rap and oh yes, some Country, too.
Ditto the production side, where a different breed of record producers are helping define Country's current sound, which includes those same rock, rap and other various influences that keep shifting the Country property line with each new project, These guys bring a completely different paradigm to the creative and music-making process, which is, seemingly, to throw every previous rule out the window.
Is this why the format's biggest recent growth has been among 18-34 year-olds? I don't know - that might be a chicken-or-the-egg conversation. The younger set seems to be driving the format for now, so much so that some programmers have told me their stations are literally designed for people up to 30 or 35 years of age at most. Will that focus drive away 35-54 females, the traditional engine for Country ratings? I don't know that either; it's probably a different column for a different day. Nashville has certainly seized on that young-end growth -- the ones who digitally download music one single at a time -- and is doing its part to feed the monster, giving us more youth-themed music and a steady diet of "Bro-Country" tunes for the past two years, now permeating the current and recurrent music categories of stations that have played along.
Is it any wonder then, as part of the Edison Media research project presented at CRS, when 12-34 year-olds were asked to describe Country music. "Fun," Upbeat, "Party," Good times," "Spring break" and "Happy" involuntarily spewed out of their mouths. That's a far cry from, say, even 10 years ago when I bet we'd hear, "Drinking," Divorce" and other more serious, dreaded and stereotypical themes mentioned. Like maybe dying or even worse, dogs dying.
And let's not for a minute discount the influence on the distribution side of all this: the new generation of programmers in Country, not so much new to radio but ones who have spent most of their careers in Top 40. Unafraid to play powers upwards of 70 to 90 times per week and fascinated by the latest shiny new object as it relates to music, they're breaking a lot of the rules too. Unlike Country, which has always maintained a group of about seven or so top-tier "Mount Rushmore" artists in a very organic, baton-passing system of artist development mostly unforgiving of one-hit wonders, the Top 40 guys come from a largely disposable music and content environment, predicated on discovering whatever will occupy the next 15 minutes of fame.
In short, if Top 40 has been about burning it out, Country has always preferred to burn it in.
I'm not sure that's totally the case anymore. And I, the long-term Country radio lifer, give the Top 40 guys a lot of credit for serving up the younger and more adventurous music fans a product they can keep drinking in mass quantities. If I'm being honest here, the Top 40 guys know how execute bigger-than-life better than some (not all) Country guys when it comes to imaging, staging and on-air personality presentation. And because -- at the outset anyway -- they don't belong to what I like to call, "The Church of Country Music," they're less emotionally attached to our sometimes parochial value system.
But these guys also seem completely adaptable. Part of that is because they quickly understand, accept, and then fall in love and in line with Country music ... in that order. They love the artists wanting to love them and their station. Live shows are really, really great in Country. They can probably stay in the format for most of the rest of their careers.
All of that said, can one more disposable, shiny new object from an already musically daring artist like Niemann, produced by a guy with a rock background (among others), about riding a donkey to the honky tonky be the final straw, knocking our Country world completely off its axis?
"There is a Ries and Trout axiom called 'Line Extension Trap' or, expanding your brand too far," says consultant Scott Huskey, Co-President of RWPC. "I think we are already at a tipping point regarding 'Bro Country' and this song doesn't help either way; it doesn't advance Country music. My fear is that as we have brought some new folks into the format lately with the appeal of the newer music, this song might just point out why those folks didn't listen to Country before. It will re-ignite the stereotype."
Offering further proof that opposites make the world go 'round, Cameron Broadcasting VP/Operations Craig Powers, who has programmed Country, Rock and Top 40 during his career sees it this way: "These types of Country tunes are great bait to fish for non-Country listeners, who in turn hear more songs that they like and then are drawn to the format full-time." As for "Donkey," Powers is ready to ride. "Hey, I'm all over it, just like I was with Billy Ray Cyrus' 'Achy Breaky Heart,' Trace Adkins' 'Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,' Confederate Railroad's 'Trashy Women' and Big & Rich's 'Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy!'"
One MD who asked not to be identified and who works for an aforementioned former Top 40 PD now running a major-market Country outlet, offered a glimpse into their music meeting dynamic, saying, "I kind of like the song, though I do admit it's corny as Hell. I will be interested in seeing how receptive Country radio is to it, particularly the more conservative PDs. My OM, on the other hand, whose background is primarily pop and has quite the disdain for anything even remotely twangy, feels 'this is the type of record that we need to be out front on.'"
KRTY/San Jose GM.MD Nate Deaton recognizes all sides of the equation. "Will we play it? Yes. Will we play it a lot? No. It's fun and has a novelty aspect to it that can be equated with Toby Keith's 'Red Solo Cup,' but really, what has Toby had since then? I think this record may drive sales for Jerrod, but I am not sure it is the way I would have gone."
The serious and dreaded themes mentioned earlier aside, novelty songs have always been a part of Country music's diverse personality. Deaton has seen this movie before, predicting, "We will get both hate and love and while that is always a good sign, I think the negative from listeners may outweigh the positive. But we have had huge testing songs that sold nothing and terrible testing songs that sold a lot. It is two different businesses."
Glasco Media Pres. Bob Glasco first offered sympathies to Colt Ford, famous for infusing rap elements with Country, saying, "He must be so pissed!" On a serious note though, Glasco agrees it's a novelty song, a smash in concert, "But not so much on the radio. It will be interesting to see this song in callout."
There's one more, important piece of this puzzle to consider and that's Niemann's enormous equity with Country PDs. This guy has a ton of friends in radio who are rooting heavily for him thanks to his years of visiting PDs and MDs and being a genuinely great guy. It's a nuance that matters to longtime programmers and resonates huge with the newer ones, who are used to dealing with the likes of Justin Bieber or Chris Brown. 'Nuff said.
Even WXBQ/Bristol, TN PD Bill Hagy, whose station is famously conservative, responded with "Can you say novelty?" when asked about "Donkey," but in the same breath committed to play it, saying "Jerrod has earned this." Another PD, originally from the Top 40 world told me, "I will support because it's him. It's not my favorite; It will be mixed and have polar reaction, but we like Jerrod a lot."
Finally, Scott Huskey sarcastically wondered, "Would this song be getting all this attention if it was put out by Ned Smith and the Skillet Lickers?"
Um, probably not.
As always, I am curious to hear your take. Is "Donkey" this year's "Red Solo Cup?" Will it sell? Will you play it? Or, should we all just take a breath, relax, enjoy the ride for a few weeks and watch our friend Jerrod Niemann sell a shit-ton of downloads?
Post your comment below, or reach out to me personally at: firstname.lastname@example.org