“I think the CMA finally made history tonight. We as an industry should realize that the 49-54-plus audience is gone. Thank God. The music industry and the charts should stop accepting radio’s excuses and out-of-date research, and [realize that] the audience that radio seems to cater to most no longer reflects the reality of the music and the artists that are making the format interesting again. Country radio now belongs to a much younger audience.”
That was Tim Riley of Syndication Services, Inc., as quoted last Thursday in R&R Country Daily’s wrap-up of the previous night’s CMA Awards Show: the one that accommodated everybody from George Strait to Kid Rock & Lil Wayne but could certainly be viewed as a passing of the generational torch, despite Strait’s two wins. And having been part of a lot of very up-to-date research on the topic recently, I’m going to surprise some people here and agree . . . up to a point.
The generational split is hard to deny. During the early ’90s Country boom, there was traditional leaning but freshly-packaged music that a 44-year-old and a 27-year-old could agree on. In the late ’90s doldrums, nobody cared if there was music for listeners under 35. Now, there’s a lot more music for 25-to-34s, but it doesn’t all work for a 45-year-old. The split is exacerbated by the greater likelihood of a 27-year-old listener to be female and the 45-year-old to male, a legacy of the very different pre-Randy Travis lean of the format. And some of the once-enduring songs a 45-year-old male likes have finally reached the point where they mean nothing to younger listeners.
So why not just write off those older listeners and move on? Because the older audience is not gone. They’re less satisfied. They’re willing to head off to Oldies or Classic Rock if they hear too much music they can’t relate to. But the available 45-to-54 audience is still larger than the 25-to-34 audience that will consider listening to Country in most places. It would undoubtedly be fine with many on the label side if Country focused exclusively on the audience they perceive as buying music. But walking away from a third of the target – often the largest target – isn’t a realistic proposition, particularly in markets where there is only one Country station.
But, perhaps, after nearly 20 years of false starts, it is time for a true, younger-skewing Country format to take shape in any market where there are two Country stations. Over the years, Country radio has been very good at coming up with Country stations that have a younger, more energetic presentation. It has been eager to embrace the “young country” or “new country” handle. (Cox is using the latter on stations in Louisville and Birmingham, Ala.) But it has been hard pressed to create anything truly different. In a format that has always seen strength in unity, Mainstream Country stations were willing to become just contemporary enough to block off any opportunity for something younger.
In the early ’90s, there was no need to force the issue. If a second Country station popped up playing roughly the same music, it would still grow the existing audience for the format, rather than merely cutting it in half. That happens less often now, and if a second station is going to expand Country’s listener base, it’s going to have to happen by offering something truly different.
On a truly younger Country station:
* Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Sugarland would already be core artists (alongside Rascal Flatts), instead of the tier behind Kenny, Toby, Tim, etc.
* The core artists of the ’90s would have to earn their way on with tremendous, relevant records that tested at the young-end, or maybe they just wouldn’t be there at all.
* The early ’90s gold that carried the format for many years when the currents weren’t as good would finally be retired; so would the late ’90s music that caused Country’s doldrums and forced radio to burn out the early ’90s in the first place.
* Songs would become hits (or not) in far less than 40 weeks.
* The format’s goal would be recruiting 18-to-34-year-old Country fans on their own terms, without compromise; helping them to learn to use the format and creating excitement about the artists.
Until now, the industry has assumed that the younger leaning Country station would be edgier and more rock-leaning. Certainly, we have seen that the growing handful of Country records with Hip-Hop elements work better for younger listeners. But we are also dealing with a more female audience at the younger end. It might be the older-leaning mainstream Country format – the one where “A Country Boy Can Survive” remains valid – that takes on the more Classic Rock flavor.
Are Country PDs the hold-up here? I don’t think so. This format would likely be the personal preference of many of them. They already make most veteran artists fight for every hit now. The real question is whether Music Row is ready, since so many facets of a truly young-end Country format would represent a radical change in the current way of doing business.
So you have to ask:
Is Music Row ready to work more than one Country format? For 20 years, any whisper of fragmentation has been rapidly shouted down by an industry that finds nothing scarier than trying to go for No. 1 without having every Country reporter in lockstep.
Is Music Row ready to drop “one-size-fits-all” A&R and let more Taylor Swifts emerge? Some new Country acts appear on the scene with songs that could easily be sung by a 45-year-old artist. Others make their initial statement by being just edgier than the competition, and then go in search of that more adult-leaning, female-friendly “career song” that dilutes their identity. When there are two real choices, fewer hits will have to super-serve a 39-year-old woman to the point of patronization. But how long will it take for the labels to adjust their current notion of what a hit sounds like?
Is Music Row ready to let programmers pore over a new album and find their own hits again (assuming there are still stations willing to do what Houston’s KKBQ did 15 years ago)? Are labels willing to let a great song that wasn’t right for every station go to No. 9 at Country radio instead of No. 1? And even if labels were willing to accept a No.9 record that sells more albums than a No. 1 chart hit, are artist managers? For the younger leaning Country station to have enough music to truly differentiate itself, the industry will have to surrender some of the symmetry it has gotten used to.
There have always been a few Country broadcasters game for a new variant of the format. There have been fewer with the tenacity to perfect it; it’s usually easier to default back to mainstream Country when there’s not immediate traction. But if there’s an opportunity to build a younger-leaning format, it’s now when there are the burgeoning superstars to define it. It’s the best way to recruit 18-to-34-listeners without deliberately alienating the existing audience, and the best way to ensure that when 45-to-54s age out of the format once-and-for-all, there’s an equal number of listeners waiting to replace them. Forcing existing Country stations to become more current might be more satisfying for the music industry; building two strong formats would be the greater achievement.