The Theory of Everything
May 13, 2016
In recent weeks, we’ve learned more about Millennials – as in, there are more of them than ever before, and more than any other age segment, numbering somewhere between 75 and 78 million. That’s right, if you’re between 18-35 years-old, you and your peers share yet another participation trophy: the “largest living generation” crown. Millennials have passed up Baby Boomers overall; now they’re also the largest share of the U.S. workforce, too, with one-in-three American employees aged 18-35. And, it appears these young, smarty-pants whippersnappers are leaving everybody in their dust, as they’ve also passed up Gen-Xers (aged 35-50) in the workplace. But hey, Gen-Xers, don’t worry! You’re literally the X-factor here and won’t be the maligned middle child for long – your days as a tweener are numbered, because by 2028 – a mere 12 years from now – you’ll pass up the Boomers, too.
Bummer for Boomers, all good for X-ers, and totally-freakin-awesome for Millennials. Hey, 18-35s: apparently, it’s your world; the rest of us are simply renting space here.
If all that isn’t enough to make you realize it’s a new day and the rest of us are just old, as they say in infomercials, “But wait! There’s more!” There’s an important Country music connection here, because along with non-whites and Hispanics, Country’s fastest growth is occurring among Millennials. They’re kind of a big deal, according to the just-released CMA-commissioned study with a name so long you’ll need oxygen after saying it: “Understanding Today’s Shifting Consumer Landscape And Changing Country Music Audiences, Music Choices And Behaviors.” I swear to God I’m not making that title up; also, my brain hurts a little right now.
So maybe – just maybe – the sheer numbers, in lock-step with our brilliant programming, A&R genius, and studio wizardry better explain the surge in Country shares among younger – Millennial – listeners in recent years. Turns out, there’s just a helluva lot of ‘em – tens of millions! And, Country music being Country music, it always finds a way to adapt, adjust, and connect with people of all ages.
At the end of 2015, Country trailed only Top 40 with 18-34 year-old listening, but we also trailed Top 40 among 25-54s – traditionally our core, sure-fire money-making, go-to share-generating demo for Country. And while that’s still mostly true, it does appear there’s been a seismic shift taking place in the long term composition for Country as a genre. A shift which, according to a theory I have, goes deeper than just Millennial tonnage.
I think we’re in a rare transitional era with Country artists, in particular. We’re blessed with three generations of them, all active and bringing us hit music. First, we have the well-established, long-term artists, whom I would classify as the Influenced. Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, and Darius Rucker immediately come to mind. Artists in this group were heavily influenced by Country music and perhaps even raised in or around the lifestyle usually associated with it. Of course, they listened to other music, too, with Classic Rock appearing to be the main alternative to Country. But all of them were exposed to Country legends of previous eras, whose music had a huge impact on their decision to pursue their own musical path as well. Talk to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban sometime about pivotal eras of this format and prepare to be schooled. That sense of Country music history – homage, if you will – has shaped and defined their musical choices, and their success. In a perfect world, the Influenced carve out such meaningful careers that they graduate to become influencers of the next generation.
And that next group is what I call the iPod generation. Chris Young, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown, and Jake Owen are some of my examples in this group, although a guy like Church probably straddles this category and the Influenced. Ditto Zac Brown. These artists may be somewhat broader in musical influence thanks to the ability to quickly compile a vast collection of music digitally and at an earlier age, thanks to the iPod, which debuted in 2001. I think you hear many influences with these artists – with Country being the ultimate winner – as all of them absorbed what they heard growing up. Have you listened to Church’s “Record Year” or seen Zac Brown cover “Bohemian Rhapsody” in concert? What has come out the other side with the iPod generation’s music as they matured is their take on Country – and it’s not your Daddy’s.
The newest, youngest wave of Country stars are what I call the Playlist generation. They straddle the above iPod group to a degree, and there’s a mild gray area between the two, but there’s still a line of delineation. They’re the first ones who grew up with smartphones, computers, and digital devices in general on a ubiquitous level and who are voracious, first generation users of streaming services. That trained them to be hyper-aware at an advanced level. They are on-demand music consumers and serial discoverers. They’ll jump down a rabbit hole for hours, and when it’s all said and done, emerge with their own playlist uniquely designed for them, and only them. This list won’t have any defined borders, as I have discussed in previous columns, because to this generation, music has no clear perimeters. These playlists – and there are tons of them to fit any number of moods, situations, locations and Lord knows what else – are filled with only one category of music: Songs they like. That can be Country, Rock, Classic Rock, Hip Hop, Urban, Top 40, EDM, and some categories I have never heard of but are probably popular among young Millennials. The CMA study I mentioned earlier refers to what I’ve just described as the “big blend” era, which (survey says!), impacts how music and media is consumed. But I also believe it impacts how music is created by artists in the Playlist and iPod generations I’m theorizing about here. My theoretical Playlist artist roster may include – but is not limited to: Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Taylor Swift, Brothers Osborne, Kane Brown, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, Chris Lane, Drake White, Brandy Clark – and, hating borders, would all probably loathe that I’m even categorizing them as part of any specific group. I think these and the iPod group are reshaping the sonic presentation of Country music. They are a disruptive, insanely creative collection of musical talent. A lot of long term Country fans and so-called pundits are critical of this era, because it’s so wide open, and to them – the established old guard – it violates their usual definition of what to them is and isn’t “Country.” And boy are they possessive about their expectations.
Well, to the Playlist generation, this is what Country can be, is, and will be. I think it’s awesome that amid all those different musical influences they had access too – more music than any other previous generation – they felt a connection to Country music themes. The stories, the relatability. All of the things that all the legends also felt strongly about. Instead of shaking a fist at it, we should be proud and excited that in the minds of this 20-something group of crazy talented artists, Country was the winner; Country is the kind of music they decided to pursue.
A new generation of record producer has also been helping to drive this disruptive musical shift, just as the Millennials population has started to increase. Because, wasn’t it recently that every Country album was produced by Tony Brown or Buddy Cannon or Scott Hendricks – and by that I mean, every great Country album. Joey Moi, Jeff Bhasker, Dann Huff, Jay Joyce, Michael Knox, Nathan Chapman, Dave Cobb – and I know I’m leaving others out, so forgive me – but this newer breed, who arrived with multi-genre backgrounds, have pushed Country artists to make some daring albums. I think Little Big Town’s 2014 “Pain Killer,” produced by Joyce, is a great example of that. I picked it as my #1 album of that year, and still believe it’s one of the most daring, different, and incredible sounding albums in the last 10 years. The work these guys are doing and the sounds they’re producing are a great match for both younger Country fans and artists, who, as I said before, have had access to more music styles than any previous generation.
Another critical part of this perfect storm of product and population shift in the past five or six years has been with the programming gatekeepers for Country radio. Top 40 PDs always trickled into the format, but there’s been more like a major migration in recent years, and their influence cannot be understated. There are so many former Pop guys at the station level in Country right now, it’s almost impossible to list. Those with Pop pedigrees include: WNSH/New York John Foxx; WUSN/Chicago Jeff Kapugi; KKBQ/Houston Johnny Chiang; WSIX/Nashville Michael Bryan; WUBL/Atlanta Brian Michel; WKIS/MIAMI Rob Morris; KKWF/Seattle Mike Preston; KMNB/Minneapolis Lauren MacLeash; KSON/San Diego Kevin Callahan; WJVC/Nassau, NY Phathead; WPOC/Baltimore Tommy Chuck; WKKT/Charlotte Jeff Wyatt; KNCI/Sacramento Byron Kennedy; WRBT/Harrisburg, PA Jeff Hurley; WWQM/Madison, WI Fletcher Keyes; WMAD/Madison, WI Katie Kruz … and this is just a partial list. But you’ve also seen iHeartMedia’s Rod Phillips move into a corporate role in the last 12 months, spearheading its Country initiatives.
What we’ve all seen as a result, is rotations pushed harder and faster, with Powers routinely played 60 times per week – and in some cases, near 90 or higher. Rotations are adjusted more often, sometimes daily. Because of the strong access to artists – which is pretty rare in Pop music – these programmers are enthusiastic about forming friendships and station alliances with Country stars, both established and developing. There’s a bigger sense of the show biz aspect of promotions and on-air staging, and a constant pursuit of “the next big thing.” I believe this has widened Country’s content choices far beyond its traditional comfort zone, injecting broader pop culture into all dayparts, thus, more accurately capturing the zeitgeist of 2016 – and in turn, more accurately connecting with 18-34s.
Some naysayers would point out these newcomers don’t come equipped with a great respect for or knowledge of the history, tradition, and nuances of the format. That may be partially true, but if we’re being honest, some of the nuances they’ve discarded fall into the category of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” which is probably the worst possible answer you can give any programmer in any format when he first arrives at a radio station. But, like out-of-format jocks who go Country, the learning curve – and the passion curve – is not at all steep, and the traditions that need to stay usually do, because a great programmer can program any format and quickly learn its nooks and crannies.
Another influence from the Pop guys: Air talent in general – and morning shows, specifically – had been moving closer to a mass appeal, mainstream presentation, but we’ve seen the acceleration of Top 40 shows move (following the PDs?) on to Country signals. The biggest example of course, is Premiere’s syndicated “The Bobby Bones Show,” which many argued at its outset wasn’t the right fit for Country audiences. Bones – pardon the pun here – makes no bones about the fact that he is not only a Millennial, but the show is designed specifically for that demo, almost to the exclusion of anyone older than 35.
While listeners, artists, and producers are more and more part of the largest living generation of Millennials, Country’s former Pop programmers are more centered in the Gen-X area, perhaps a combination of having recently aged out of the 18-34 demo and/or having become newfound fans of a more contemporary Country sound, that love the music. And realistically, there’s this: with the downsizing of radio staffs, some just ended up with the Country station – but ended up loving it anyway.
Since we’re talking a lot about transition and hypotheticals today, let me throw another, final theory out there – and I think it’s key. Although we’ve focused on Millennials here, when it comes to radio programming in our format right now – as I said at the start – the Gen-X PDs are the real X-factor. They’re the ones who can skillfully guide the format through a disruptive but creatively important period. Generationally, they’re the middle child right now, and middle children are very often the peacemakers in the family. Gen-X PDs can bridge the ideals and belief systems of Millennials and Boomers, not only internally at the radio station, but externally, with their products and brands coming out of the speakers. But hey, Gen-Xers, no pressure.
It’s an amazing time, when you think about it – a demographic transformation. If you subscribe to it, my theory of three artist generations all active at the same time, game-changing production values, and massive programmer migration breathing new life into an already vibrant genre – it’s a perfect storm that possibly, when examined down the road, could be as historic in a positive sense as other key eras for our format. Those working in Country music right now should be excited, enthusiastic, and embrace these new dynamics.