CRS Affirms Urban Legend
March 2, 2015
I spent the weekend unpacking CRS 2015 and by that I mean mentally, not physically.
Everybody's CRS experience is different; the track I was on may never have crossed yours. In typical CRS fashion, there were people I saw frequently -- others not at all.
But I attended at least nine panels from start to finish, saw a ton of music, and got to hang with God-only-knows how many radio friends (new AND old) in two-and-a-half days.
For me, CRS never gets old; it never fails to inspire, excite and reignite my love for this format and the people associated with it. I was absolutely stoked to get to work today and cannot wait to see what the rest of 2015 brings for Country music, Country radio, Country record labels, and all my friends working in this crazy racket.
Here are a few of my #CRS2015 takeaways - but I'd love to hear yours, too. Share in the reply section below, or e-mail me direct if you want. I always love your feedback and want to know how your CRS experience compares to mine.
#1. "Keith Urban Won CRS."
Note the quotation marks around this declaration. It's because they aren't my words - I heard this statement unsolicited and repeatedly, sometime before Friday evening's pre-New Faces cocktail party and the end of the night (for me, anyway).
But I can't really argue with this assessment. Urban's impact on #CRS2015 was huge, for sure, via two high-profile and vastly different appearances. First, his acoustic midnight show Thursday night/Friday morning at the Ryman generated every bit the morning-after buzz Garth's Wednesday show did. Plugged in or not - watching Urban play a guitar is always entertaining and a treat; he's a great musician, completely engaging, and a good sport, too. When an audience member hijacked his piano, Urban playfully rolled with it.
Friday afternoon, Urban was the sole subject of the seminar's final session, one in which he never picked up a guitar, but did sit down for an intimate Q&A to share his philosophy of "Being Present," something he applies to his show, his fans, radio and - last but not least - his family.
Full disclosure: I'm probably biased in jumping on the "Keith Urban Won CRS" bandwagon. I had the privilege of sharing moderating duties with Journal Broadcast Group/Wichita Market Manager Beverlee Brannigan for the Friday sit-down with Keith. In the course of his thoughtful explanation of why "Being Present" drives his approach to ... well, everything, Urban voluntarily -- and spontaneously -- revealed more of himself than anyone in a fully packed room of CRS attendees was likely expecting. And I must say: Neither Brannigan nor I had a strategy or agenda for trying to peel away a layer or two of the onion, so to speak, or maneuver Keith into opening up as he did.
Nope, he graciously allowed us and everyone in that room to get a closer look at who he is and what his core values are -- as a human being more so than a musician. In short, Keith Urban has never been more present with this industry than he was during his hour-long "Being Present" discussion. As a result, we all walked away liking and admiring Keith Urban even more than previously, as if that were even possible. It was a warm and fuzzy, feel-good finish; the perfect exclamation point to a week of CRS highlights.
#2. I Still Wanna Know: Where are the Ballads?
I asked this question near the end of the "State Of Country: When A Style Becomes a Movement." Earlier evaluations of the format and some comments by panelists lead me to wonder about where slower, story songs now fit in the picture for this format.
WXTU/Philadelphia's Shelly Easton said as a result of Country's shift from niche to mass appeal in the past three years, "Nobody can touch what we've done; we should feel great about our format." She also mentioned later, when talking about coding music styles and specifically "Bro-Country" titles, "The ballad has driven this format."
Albright & O'Malley & Brenner's Becky Brenner later commented that many of the new breed of Country programmers who have migrated from the pop and Top 40 worlds are not historians of the format and may not, in fact, be huge Country fans at the end of the day.
Though we can deconstruct the significance of "Bro-Country" as a real movement while enthusing on the female artist potential as the next possible one, another movement was only glossed over during this panel -- because of a time factor more than anything -- and that is the seemingly un-quenchable thirst for tempo and energy during the recent turn toward mass-appeal domination.
That need for speed, if you will, has lessened the opportunities for what has historically been a powerful and important -- albeit somewhat seasonal -- musical movement for Country music: the ballad.
I'm not laying this devaluation of slow, story songs at the feet of Pop and Top 40 PDs now in Country, but I do think long term, some of what Brenner says about them is true and contributes to changes in programming and thus, product nuances for us. That said, it should be added that many other nuances imported by these guys have been influential in helping us become the mass appeal, overall top format in radio that Country enjoys today.
I asked the question as a general one, but pointed specifically to the Jake Owen "What We Ain't Got" and Eric Paslay's "She Don't Love You," which among programmers we talk to each week, elicited feedback such as "career song," "powerful" and "his best-ever performance," among other similar comments.
Alas, as the weeks have gone on, many of the same Owen and Paslay enthusiasts have followed up with, "I can't play it; it's a tempo killer." Owens' "What We Ain't Got" was steady at #16 on this week's Mediabase Country singles chart, and no longer has a bullet after 29 weeks. Paslay, whose "She Don't Love You" went 23-20 in its 18th week, received a standing ovation after his take-your-breath-away performance of it at Friday's New Faces Show, which had audience members Facebooking and Tweeting in real time about how Paslay had just notched a memorable "CRS moment" for the ages.
In fairness, Randy Houser's "Like A Cowboy" is at # 3 right now and poised for a #1 finish next week, after 39 weeks on the chart.
Really? 39 weeks?
Well, yeah. Ballads usually take a minute to become familiar and then get strong test scores. But when they hit on both cylinders, they're big, durable songs that stick around a long time as recurrents, then gold titles.
The same is happening to Brett Eldredge's "Mean To Me," which sits at #5 after 31 weeks. Ditto Tyler Farr, who's at #15 after 28 weeks, with "A Guy Walks Into A Bar."
But the format doesn't seem to have that kind of patience on a consistent basis to wait for a song to develop into a long-lasting tune Country radio might be able to play two years from now.
As I mentioned earlier, it was deep into the panel when I asked my question - in fact, it was the last question of the session. And Both Easton at WXTU and fellow panelist Nate Deaton of KRTY/San Jose have supported the Jake Owen song, so neither could really address how it's been praised, but not played on a national level. Deaton has 906 spins on it after playing it in heavy for weeks; Easton has logged a respectable 303 plays. Both have Owen in medium right now.
So, because there's no time limit here and you are an important part of my vast and unpaid research department: What do YOU think about ballads and whether they still have a seat at the table for this format?
#3. If Country Radio's target, 25-54 demo is still a "family reunion," its tighter 18-34, "Millennial" segment is a high school reunion.
During the "Gen-Setters 18-34 listening trends" session, of which four of the five panelists were actual Millennials (and proud to mention it), I learned that we'd better not broad-stroke this group if we want to effectively reach them. The edges of the 18-34 demo are drastically different in terms of taste and lifestyle, so we need to treat each of them accordingly.
Understand the younger end is not yet brand loyal, said Ellen Sutton of Flo/Thinkery. Build a relationship, suggested Blink Marketing's Daniel Gardner, who also said "Then, BE that relationship."
We've learned over the past seven years or so that Millennials are the entitled generation, and these panelists -- all of them brilliant -- also appear have an entitlement as to how they want the rest of us to reach them. That's not them being bratty or pretentious; rather, I interpret that as one generation helping another communicate with them better.
It's almost as though the groups ahead of Millennials didn't identify, or think too much about how they should be marketed to, effectively. We just responded to ad campaigns ... or didn't. This generation does both and is happy to communicate that to us.
In fact, Millennials love to communicate, say KPLX/Dallas PD JR Schumann, who added, "But they don't like to actually talk," preferring text messaging, the Twitterverse, and images via Instagram to make what they consider to be personal contact.
But it is interesting to compare the 18-34 programming challenge to reaching 25-54-year-olds. My takeaway from this panel is that we can probably broad-brush 35-54s because as we all get older, everything moves closer together. When we were 21, that 32-year-old acquaintance seemed much older; culturally and generationally far away from you. But now that you're 43, isn't it amazing how much in common you have with that 54-year-old buddy next door?
Not so much 18-34, I guess. So now, that younger subset of our overall audience needs to be thin-sliced at least two times. That means a few more plates in the air when trying to make an audience connection, but at least that group is willing to tell us what's working and what isn't. If I were in radio, I'd listen to them. The fact that they're telling us HOW they want to be connected indicates a desire to BE connected.
Here are some other, random takeaways from #CRS2015, in no particular order:
- If Keith Urban won CRS, Garth was a close second, with an inspired, exciting live show in a rare club setting. He's got a blue-collar onstage work ethic and a special, rare quality that connects with fans. That room was electric, and the event felt special.
- On the one hand, Cheap Trick was an awesome show-ending, surprise guest on the Sony boat. On the other hand, with the exception of Brad Paisley's bluesy accompaniment to a crotch-grabbing Lon Helton (something I can never un-see!), Cheap Trick were the ONLY take away from the boat, from a musical standpoint. They kind of sucked the air out of standout performances by Sony newcomers Cam, Josh Dorr and Tyler Farr.
- The slightly shorter (by half a day) CRS agenda worked brilliantly. The energy level was steady during the entire week and CRS 2015 definitely left 'em wanting more, but not feeling cheated.
- I shook hands with a billionaire: Todd Wagner, Wednesday's featured speaker.
- I met Lloyd Sherr, the voice of "Modern Marvels," one of my favorite shows
- The quality of performances and production value for all New Faces Show performers was better than ever. If I'm being honest, in years past (but not in recent years) there was always one act who didn't step up their game enough. All of Friday's acts did, in a huge way.
- I saw Tim Closson of Cumulus Media at least three times every day.
- I never saw Damon Moberly, Shane Allen, Bill Macky or Jimmy Rector. Not once.
- When we move to the Omni Hotel in 2016, I will NOT miss the Shitty WiFi at the Nashville Convention Center.
- How come one lucky CRS attendee was not chosen as winner of that badass, kickass Aston Martin parked on the pedway all week?
- I don't care how much of a big shot you are (or THINK you are); you should attend the Mentoring Breakfast next year. What an underrated panel!
- If I ever hope to win a CRS/Country Aircheck Award, apparently, I need to get a job at WUSY/Chattanooga.