There’s no denying that country radio is the lifeline of success for most country artists’ careers, especially given the fact that 75 percent of listeners discover new music on the radio. New artists spend weeks on radio tours fostering their relationships with stations across the country for this very reason. Radio adds lead to farther reach, farther reach leads to more album sales. According to Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”
But does that ring true for every artist, or is it possible to be successful without the backing of country radio? Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Label Group’s CEO and President, was recently asked if he agreed with Overton’s statement to which he responded,
“It depends on which lane you want to be in. That is a very broad statement, and you could shoot holes in it all day long. You can look at an artist like Sturgill [Simpson] who has a fantastic career that he has built from the ground up. You can look at several different artists that are just a little bit to the left of center, that have built great careers. If you want to play in the mainstream country game, you’re not going to win it if you’re not winning it at mainstream country [radio]. I look at that as a very specific thing.”
Although Sturgill Simpson signed with Atlantic Records in January, he released his last two albums independently. The most recent, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” was recorded with a $4000 budget in less than a week. Even without radio play, Simpson took home the “Emerging Artist of the Year” award at the 2014 Americana Awards and was nominated for “Best Americana Album” at this year’s Grammys.
The list of artists who have made it without radio play is definitely shorter than the list of those who can attribute their success to it (would the names “Luke Bryan” or “Blake Shelton” still mean anything to us without country radio?) but it’s not impossible. It’s been done before, and I’m willing to bet it will be done again.