Let's Grab This Thing By The Balls While We Can
November 13, 2015
One week after the CMAs, and it's still the biggest story in our format - in some ways, beyond our format.
Chris Stapleton shocked the world and won three big awards on national TV. On a COUNTRY awards show. The CM-freakin'-As!
That - and his performance with Justin Timberlake, which absolutely destroyed CMA award attendees at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena and a national TV audience - spurred over 150,000 pure album sales for Stapleton's "Traveller" in mere hours. The sales week ended Thursday, November 5th at midnight; the CMAs wrapped at 11p (ET) on Wednesday, November 4th. Additionally, The CMAs on ABC-TV won the night in ratings and nearly 14 million watched.
For anybody who instantly asked "Who is Chris Stapleton?" - and we all know there were a ton of them - wouldn't some naturally find, then tune in a Country station the next day, expecting to actually HEAR Chris Stapleton?
Because: Country artist, Country awards, Country RADIO?
That seems like a great opportunity to me - to grasp the moment, and answer the important, fundamental question radio needs to be asking now more than ever in an era of competing information and entertainment sources: "Am I talking about what everyone else is talking about?"
Radio DID respond on Monday (11/9) with more than 60 adds for Stapleton's "Nobody To Blame." And the song has been climbing in Mediabase real time all week, moving 66-38 in the past four days, as of this writing, showing +443 spins - the greatest gainer during that time. Of those, 262 were between 10a-7p so it's getting exposure. But is it enough to take this moment by the balls and own it?
Why not take the single and play it at the very LEAST in medium, so it can be heard on a semi-regular basis - where anybody wondering who the hell Chris Stapleton is can find out more - at least in the short term? Play it for two weeks - BANG it for two weeks. One station I spoke with has Stapleton's "Nobody To Blame" and "Tennessee Whiskey" packeted in heavy for now, and I love that idea. And while we're at it, why not make it a special circumstances "One The Verge" song? The program has worked for virtual unknowns Cam and Michael Ray and is good enough for Granger Smith. Why not Stapleton? If you have callout, test it immediately; gauge reaction. If it doesn't work, yank it.
OK, I get Mscores and PPM and all that, but the rules are different in this situation. Right now, this isn't a marathon, it's a damned sprint, and a great explosion out of the blocks is everything when you're running a 100 meter dash. And, if you're a fundamentally solid station, a song from the most talked about artist in the news will NOT kill you, as you can strategically insulate it, if you feel the need. Hell, schedule all of those monster, mainstream hits sung by the big stars - that Stapleton WROTE for them. God knows there are plenty, right?
Because, after two weeks, all of this this, too, shall pass; the buzz will blow over. Sorry, but it will. That's just the reality of the red-hot, pop-culture news cycle. It has a short lifespan and a crappy memory. If the song craters, employ the greatest advice the late, great programming consultant Rusty Walker taught so many of us years ago: F.I.D.O. (Fuck It, Drive On!). But if it works, you have a hit song - AND you own it. You discovered it. You get all the credit. Listeners will know when something or someone is hot that they care about, or are at least curious about, you're the source they can rely on when it really matters.
You can dutifully add the song, put it in overnights or evenings and try to develop it - which is really hard, because it'll play eight times a week and familiarity will take until April - maybe - which, by then is most likely way past the window of huge interest. We need to cultivate, to develop stars, you argue. That's what Country does! Well, Stapleton's CMA performance and wins and the subsequent national media attention have already done that for you. Overnight. There is no "developing." There is right here, right now. You don't need to try and make waves here, you need to GET ON the wave and ride the hell out of it.
Nothing against the Tyler Farr, Lee Brice, and Dustin Lynch artists of the world - but those artists you burn IN. They need a long chart life, because THEY didn't just win three CMA awards. It does them more good in the long run to remain a part of a station playlist for 30-plus weeks. Their songs become familiar and keep testing in. They are also mainstream artists, who fit the current sonic landscape for this format.
Chris Stapleton? He's not, and his music doesn't. But that doesn't matter, because do you know what he IS right now? He's the shit. The CMAs said so, TV ratings said so, his ginormous album sales say so, and the critics said so. His music is uniquely brilliant and authentic. It's the greatest texture music we have available right now. You'll get points for style by playing it, and instant credibility on many levels, but you have to play Chris Stapleton like you're trying to burn it out, not in.
I'm willing to bet - and all you former Top 40 PDs, help me out here - that Top 40 would take this song the next day, bang it, and bang it HARD! Create instant familiarity, take CREDIT for being the ones who discovered him in the first place, burn that sucker OUT - and then move on to the next hot topic seeking 15 minutes of fame. Or, the next Chris Stapleton single, whichever comes first.
Yes - Country is a format that should, most times - most, but not here - should burn things IN. But not with this.
Who's Drinking The "Drink You Away" Kool Aide?
Hey, speaking of seizing the moment, looky here! Country radio got an edited, studio version of Justin Timberlake's "Drink You Away" this week, which immediately had (most) everyone in the consumer and trade press declaring "Justin Timberlake has gone Country!" Not so fast, my friends!
An email to RCA Nashville got a prompt reply, explaining that, plain and simple, they shipped Country radio a shorter (4:05) copy, so they'd have it, to do with what they may. The album version, from Timberlake's 2013 "The 20/20 Experience - Part 2 of 2" clocks in at five and a half minutes.
I don't know if you felt this way, but here's what went through my head watching Timberlake on the CMAs. When Rock or Pop stars announce they're making a Country album (Jessica Simpson, Steve Tyler), the first reaction is an eye roll and strong skepticism from the industry, which, generally speaking, is suspicious of trespassers who "ain't from around here."
But in Timberlake's case, as I watched that spectacle unfold on the CMAs, I thought to myself, "Damn - I WISH he'd make a Country album!" By the way, if the tune sounded vaguely familiar, Country radio has heard this song before, when David Fanning of Stoney Creek Records covered and released it last year. It peaked at #58 in June of '14.
I polled a bunch of Country programmers about playing JT's version of this song and a possible foray into Country. These reactions are a small sample and pretty consistent with the responses: "I think a move into Country by JT would be cool," said WKKT/Charlotte MD/midday personality Casey Carter. "I gotta believe that a lot of *NSYNC fans from back then have gravitated toward Country now and would be interested to hear it. BUT, if he's going to do it, I would like to see him do it with an actual Country project, not just a song that the label took off of a CD and threw at Country radio because of one performance."
WJVC/Nassau PD Phathead told me he'd be more likely to just play the entire live CMA performance of the song, but quickly added, "The guy (JT) could completely enter Country for real if he wanted to. I truly believe there is a spot for him on the charts in Nashville. He can do anything, and nobody is better at it. Give me a new Justin single, written by him and some great Nashville writers, recorded in the Ronnie Milsap studio at Black River, and I'm completely in! I would crush that thing til it hit #1. That's how much I love Justin. Serving me a studio version of an amazing 'live' moment doesn't move the needle."
Alpha Media EVP/Programming Scott Mahalick agrees that Timberlake and Stapleton's performance moved people on an emotional level, but cautions, "Let's let the listeners - a.k.a. Country fans - make the call. There is nothing wrong with a great crossover in song from a Pop star as long as they are genuine. JT transcends music, as he is in the full spectrum world of entertainment. Look at his acting, dancing, and singing ability for starters."
One PD who asked not to be identified wasn't so sure Country is ready for, or needs a project from JT: "Nashville already has more Country singers than radio has spots on the playlist. Remember quality is better than quantity; also, what are my listeners expecting to hear on my radio station?"
And another, anonymous programmer is not on board with playing an edited, studio version of "Drink You Away," telling me, "That actually hurt my head listening to it. I loved the 'in the moment' moment - it was just awesome, and they made the CMA show. But the constant thumping and repetitive crash-like sound in the production is horribly wearing on the ear; at least mine! I'd rather hear JT's vocals like on the show and not all that other crap!"
As always, I would love YOUR feedback and thoughts - reply in comments section below, or hit me direct here.