Most people would be surprised to discover that Rock and Roll and Country music trace their respective origins to the same place. Then, some would be astonished to learn that Country Music played a highly significant role in the birth of Rock and Roll. In fact, for a time, early Rock and Roll artists were the first to cross over genres. The music they played was even given a name: Rockabilly. Most people do not realize that the country genre had been in existence for about two decades prior to Elvis Presley exploding on to the scene, creating what would become an industry rivaled by none and respected by all. Bearing that thought in mind, Country Music has not celebrated the same amount of success as the industry it has been instrumental in helping to create. The explanation is simple. Rock and Roll was allowed to grow. Over the last 60 years the genre has evolved to the point where one can no longer truly define it. There are innumerable styles and sounds that play through a listener’s radio, with an equal amount of radio stations that play the music. Country Music did not follow this path, with what has appeared to be with a blatant intent to do the opposite of what the Rock and Roll industry chose to explore. Unfortunately for the industry, its artists, and listeners, that decision came with a heavy cost. Country Music’s avoidance of Rock & Roll’s model for expansion has: stunted industry growth, alienated its fan base, and shortened the careers of its artists.
Rock and Roll has cultivated a multi-billion dollar industry in which the profits are distributed to the record labels and the artists. Think for just a moment and count the number of different stations on your radio dial. Now, think of how many of those stations are playing the same music, competing with other stations for listeners. The higher the population, the more options would be available from which to choose. Assuming for just a moment that a listener lives in a market that only offers one station for each sub-genre of Rock and Roll and Country music, here is what would most likely be available to choose from: Classic Rock, Pop, Alternative, Heavy Metal, 80s, 90s, Punk, Southern Rock, Modern Country, and Classic Country & Western. (Depending on the region where a listener resides, the choice of Classic Country may not be available except for off peak hours, or an occasional play on a station that chooses to do so.) The ratio of Rock and Roll stations to Country stations would average about 5:1. There is no reason for this ratio to exist. Country music has long held to a “one sound” approach to what is offered to its listeners. While it is true that some Country artists have a more traditional country sound than others, all Country artists are lumped together. The one genre approach of airplay that Nashville has created has potentially cost its industry billions of dollars in revenue. It is important to note that each time a song is played, money is made. Having more than one choice of Country radio genre to listen to increases the amount of money the industry can collect. Thus, had industry executives allowed the artists themselves to explore and expand the country sound, more sub-genres could have been created, leading to more radio stations, more record labels, more engineers and producers, more jobs for musicians, and most important, more variety for the listeners.
It should be said that the sound of Country music has evolved; the executives who run the industry have not. It is an industry that is run more from the aspect of tradition than one that recognizes the advantages that come with expanding its business model. That tradition is that Country music is one singular sound. Allowing new sub-genres and corresponding radio stations the opportunity to explore and seek out success benefits the industry. There are many artists of Country music legend, such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Randy Travis still making new music and playing concerts to their fan bases. They are respected by their peers both in and out of the industry, while being heroes to many more contemporary artists. Their praises are sung by industry executives when those executives are required to do so, but are virtually ignored when the subject of airplay is introduced into the conversation. With how the Country sound has evolved over the last 80 years, it is confounding that each new sound created was not given the opportunity to succeed.
Also heavily affecting the way the industry is managed is the contradictory focus on putting “cookie cutter” artists in the public’s view, relying almost entirely on the attractive physical appearance of the performer rather than his or her ability to produce quality music. Music is, and always has been something experienced through the mind and heart. Music allows its listeners to feel all emotions, and the simple fact of the matter is, no one can see a music note as it floats toward them in the air. Why should it matter that the person delivering the lyric be beautiful? More important, how many truly gifted artists were never afforded an opportunity to share their gifts with the world simply because an executive in the offices of a record label deemed their physical appearances as not worthy? These short-sighted factors result in the loss of revenue for the entire Country music industry and frustrate a loyal fan base.
Nashville has always given the impression of holding tradition as sacred. In the beginning, the sound was indeed unifying. Over the decades, and despite the natural evolution of that once singular sound, Nashville continues to sell itself as staying true to its roots. Rather than accepting that each new variation of Country created by its artists is worth, at the very least, exploring its viability to create revenue for the industry on its own merit, the industry simply chooses to amend what the Country sound is. Listeners are not offered a choice. Instead, they listen to what they are provided, not fully realizing their power in how the industry is managed. Simply put, if Merle Haggard’s latest album went platinum, the executives would be forced to play his new music on the radio, as the choice not to would cost them substantial income. One practice that is denied and illegal is payola. This is an act performed by record labels that pay monies to radio broadcast corporations to play certain artists’ songs more than any other. Several years ago, a mediocre Reba McEntire song rose from the bottom of the charts to attain number one status nearly overnight. This spurred investigation into the practice shedding light on the corrupt side of the business. Many current listeners have called for a return to the tradition that Nashville prides itself on. While many enjoy the new sounds they hear, they also desire to hear new music with the old sounds, from artists new and old. Each time the choice is made to re-define what the country sound is, the animosity that has grown between the listeners and the industry grows. Many listeners have chosen to stop listening to the new music and to the stations that play it. Also lost in this process are the artists dropped when the music they play doesn’t fit the sound dictated by industry executives.
Too many fantastically talented artists have become undeserving casualties to the system in place in Nashville. Having not been offered anything but the door and, possibly, gratitude for their previous accomplishments, these men and women were left behind as though they had nothing left to offer their industry. This could not be farther from the truth, especially if Rock and Roll’s business model was in practice in Tennessee. The longevity of artists would perhaps be greater in the Country industry than in Rock and Roll, as most listeners of the genre are extremely loyal, lifelong fans to their favorites. While some artists were provided an opportunity to adapt to the changing times of their industry, an expansion of the business model would eliminate the need for any artist to conform. This provides that an artist’s success or failure is earned on their own merit, not the decision made based largely by an antiquated system.
Billions of dollars have not been actualized over the course of nearly a century of Country Music. Aside from rhinestone suits and big fancy cars, what do those billions offer? Opportunity. The opportunity for a form of music that is viewed as way of life by a wide margin of its fan base to expand itself exponentially. Those dollars would offer opportunities to take a chance on a new direction discovered through the brilliance of an artist who calls it home. There is room for all forms of Country music in Country music. There shouldn’t be room for closed minds and bottom lines. What was good for Rock and Roll should be good for Nashville as well. Not every exploration will be successful, but should be undertaken none-the-less. Throughout history, advancements for the good of a society were undertaken by those strong enough, smart enough, and courageous enough to make the attempt. Rock and Roll showed how it can be done, the executives in Nashville, Tennessee need to absolve themselves from the responsibilities of an antiquated system, and strive to build an industry that is as loyal to the artists that drive it, as the listeners are who continue to fund it.