Crystal Ballin' In Twenty-15: Part I
January 9, 2015
Okay, so where was I?
Riiight! Looking back at 2014's best albums (ahem, according to me!) which, now in the early days of 2015 seems so … ya know, "last year."
Actually it feels much longer, because after the year's final chart, the music industry shuts down and by that, I mean Music Row is a virtual ghost town. Everybody checks out for two weeks, physically and mentally. My official return to the office Monday (1/5) was mainly spent clearing out the cobwebs (in my brain) while realizing I'd completely forgotten two rather important things: Exactly what my job is and how the hell to do it.
And apologies to my boss Joel Denver, but full disclosure: I was borderline righteously indignant over just being at work again. In a mere two weeks, I'd rapidly -- and tragically -- reinvented myself as a lazy, unproductive, overeating, oversleeping, bowl-game-watching, non-shaving/showering/brushing/flossing, pillow-haired, PJs-til-noon sloth.
Apparently, that's no way to support a family, so I rallied, bathed and spent the first few days of 2015 getting back in the game; wondering where Country is going and what the year-end headlines will be 11 months from now.
Since I'm no swami, I asked radio friends to share their crystal ball insights for the year ahead. A pair of observations surfaced immediately and consistently. In the first of two soothsaying columns discussing 2015, I'd like to focus on the most frequently mentioned prediction for the upcoming year: The sense of an approaching musical shift; sonically, lyrically and thematically.
"A return to more diverse subject matter in the music," foretells Hunt Media Pres. Phil Hunt. "Country has always been 'somewhere between raising hell and amazing grace,'" he continued. "That encompasses style, content, gender, feel. The Country format has always been about real life -- happy, sad, party, pensive. All of the emotions that encompass the human experience. That's the definition of true Country variety."
iHeartMedia RPM and WUSY/Chattanooga PD Gator Harrison foresees a return to more traditional lyrics, "But still with a modern lean. A perfect example is Tim McGraw's next single, 'Diamond Rings & Old Barstools.' A traditional-feeling song but still modernized production."
Look for a year of balance, says Cumulus KATM/Modesto-Stockton, CA PD Nikki Thomas. "Actually this is wishful thinking," she admitted. "We need it as a format. For instance, I believe Thomas Rhett when he comes at us with re-purposed Country. It's really genuine." On the flipside, continues Thomas, "When I hear older artists coming at us with that approach, it's like an audio midlife-crisis. I'm all for artistic experimentation and expression, but when they're alienating diehard fans, what's the point? All those years of well-laid groundwork get thrown out the window and it becomes an identity crisis of sorts."
Thomas then cranked up the way-back machine when she characterized 2014 as, "The 'Rockin' Sydney' phase of Country [Editor's note: Google "My Toot Toot"], echoing Hunt's premise. "It's so far to the left that it has to move back to the center. I don't think as a format that we can afford to forget that no matter how far out that we swing in embracing new twists on the music, the fulcrum point will always be songs that make us feel something and speak to our hearts. That's why we have a loyal fan base. That's why people love Country."
Exactly! Historically, Country always has periods of expansion and contraction. I've definitely felt things moving back to the center for a while now and by that, I mean at least six months. Additionally, when Country's music cycle starts to recede as some believe it has lately, the format returns to a more traditional sound, growing from the inside out, versus the outside in. As a result, we may not gain as many new listeners or as quickly -- which isn't as sexy -- but we build valuable, long-lasting and important equity with existing ones … many of whom just recently joined the party.
The question is, how fast will the pendulum swing? When the Bro-Country phenomenon arrived, it seemed to explode -- and quickly. It was really a two-year plus process, though, starting gradually before arcing rapidly. That sound may not be driving the format now but it's still an accepted part of it, albeit more with listeners than programmers.
Will a potential traditional music cycle act similarly? Well, if Country programmers buy into Mo Pitney, for example, the new Curb artist who sounds eerily familiar to Keith Whitley [Editor's Note: Google "I'm No Stranger To The Rain"], it will feel like somebody grabbed the steering wheel and jerked us over two or three lanes, musically, as opposed to a more controlled merge. On the other hand, maybe we need to be unexpectedly yanked in a new direction occasionally.
To that point -- and speaking of historical references -- who saw Randy Travis coming in1986? Where were Clint Black and Garth hiding before '89? As excitement over their class waned, did Shania Twain's first two singles -- which peaked in the mid-50s -- prognosticate 1995's groundbreaking, record-shattering, multi-million selling "The Woman In Me" album? And -- be honest -- how many of us in 1998, out of the gate, thought a bluegrass-leaning, all-girl trio whose name included the polarizing words "Dixie" and "Chicks" would change the direction of Country by pushing aside the format's then-biggest stars, Faith Hill and Shania? Those were all seismic, yet organic, genuine transitions for the format and really, the only kind that ever carve out a successful, long-term impact.
I talked to other programmers who, yeah, feel a movement, but are more cautious about how quickly the tide turns this year. "I think the pendulum you mention is swinging back a little in the direction of a more traditional sound," said CBS Radio KILT/Houston APD/MD Chris Huff. "But it doesn't feel like that big of a deal to me; this format always has a way of balancing itself, despite what some critics may believe."
Ditto, Lincoln Financial KSON/San Diego PD Kevin Callahan: "I do think we'll see some more traditional sounds accepted but I don't think this will be the year the cycle changes completely."
As always, I wonder what YOU think? Are you seeing what we're seeing? What are we missing, as far as music trends? Let me know in the comments section below, or hit me direct on email here.
Next week: 2015: The Year of the Female?