On March 7, 2015, an independent artist named Aaron Watson held the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Watson, the country veteran behind The Underdog, certainly deserved it, but he’s well aware that the odds were against him. “Mainstream music has never embraced me,” he told Saving Country Music in an interview. “It’s been a discouraging relationship, if you could even call it a relationship.” Watson sold 26,340 copies of The Underdog—all without the support of mainstream country music.
Mainstream country can be stubborn, and is a genre rooted in traditionalism and history. Even its more recent past is hard to let go; the Country Music Association wished Taylor Swift a happy birthday last December via Facebook. It was a kind gesture, sure, but was it necessary? Some commented with more good wishes, but others were frustrated. “She isn’t….even…country…” one commented. “But I forgot. The CMAs pay more attention to perceived power and influence rather than ACTUAL TALENT AND ARTISTRY.” That comment received fifty-seven likes, the second most out of any comments on the picture. One country fan’s anger represents a growing frustration with the mainstream and its power over what we listen to. Understandable, considering this six-song country mashup represents the kind of music that succeeds on country radio.
Funny enough, the now-decidedly pop Swift led country music’s Spotify takedown. Big Machine Records took down her entire discography, protesting the low royalty rates Spotify was paying her. Swift’s move created a ripple effect. Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, and Justin Moore pulled their most recent releases.
This is where I inject a personal opinion: music streaming is not comparable to music sales, but rather to radio play (yes, there are flaws in the streaming model, but that’s for another article). And in mainstream country music, radio play is not just a factor in an artist’s success. Radio play is another mainstream country tradition. It is where one proves themselves worthy of the masses. It is everything. So says Gary Overton, CEO of Sony Nashville. Of course Overton believes that “you don’t exist” without country radio. His artists—Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, and Jake Owen among others—are country radio monsters.
Aaron Watson alone cannot disprove Overton’s opinion. After all, Watson has been around for quite a while and may have developed a steady fan base over time. Was his #1 album a fluke?
Not so fast. Bring in Sturgill Simpson and Brandy Clark.
With no label backing his sophomore effort Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Simpson managed to chart no higher than #8 on the Top Country Albums chart and had no singles go to country radio. He did, however find success on NPR Music’s First Listen. The album got Simpson onto the Late Show with David Letterman, Conan, and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Not only that, but it caught the attention of the Recording Academy. Simpson garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album this year. This year alone, he’s playing Coachella, Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, Firefly, and more huge music festivals. Oh, and that little album has sold over 100,000 units now.
Clark had more backing from mainstream country as a songwriter on Music Row. She co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” by Miranda Lambert and “Better Dig Two” by the Band Perry before venturing out on her own as a solo artist. Her debut 12 Stories was released on the independent Slate Creek Records down in Dallas. The album wasn’t a commercial success, selling only 2,000 copies in its first week. Like Metamodern Sounds, though, 12 Stories was also nominated for a Grammy this year for Best Country Album. She’s even landed an opening gig with Alan Jackson this spring. Not bad.
Here’s where Simpson and Clark overlap: they both recently signed to major record labels, but neither of these labels are located in Nashville. Clark inked a deal with Warner Bros. Records in Los Angeles, while Simpson opted for Atlantic Records in New York. These locations are important because they are not the norm. Simpson and Clark are still outsiders to mainstream country, even with a major label backing them. Just because Overton (and maybe even Nashville) doesn’t think they exist doesn’t mean they aren’t grabbing the attention of others.
Country music, in its most corporate form, thrives in Nashville. Nashville labels are used to doing things the Nashville way. Even independent labels in Nashville play along. Big Machine Records boasts huge artists, like Florida Georgia Line, Rascal Flatts, and Tim McGraw. BBR Music Group is home to Jason Aldean, Parmalee, and Joe Nichols. Both Big Machine and BBR have huge distributors working on their behalf to push their music to the general public, to radio and onto Wal-Mart shelves. Simpson didn’t have that. Clark didn’t have that. Watson didn’t have that. Yet the buzz of those three is astounding. Even Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta doesn’t believe an artist has to “play in the mainstream country game” to be successful, recently citing Simpson as an example.
Unsigned outsiders and indie artists shook the core of the music industry in genres like rock, EDM, and hip-hop. They turned the radio- and sales-driven business model upside down. If Clark, Simpson, and Watson can tell us anything, it’s that history is repeating itself in Nashville. The country indie revolution has already begun, and it sure is fun to watch.