The COVID-19 quarantine for new country artists at radio appears to be over.
When the coronavirus led many Americans to self-isolate and change the way they work, the genre’s labels placed an informal moratorium on introducing brand-new acts to broadcasters. But the handcuffs are now off.
Three titles that debuted on Country Airplay in the last month are by artists being worked to AM/FM radio for the first time: Priscilla Block’s “Just About Over You” (No. 52 in its fourth chart week), Elvie Shane’s “My Boy” (No. 57, second week) and Larry Fleet’s “Where I Find God” (No. 58, second week). Additionally, Pryor & Lee’s “Y’allsome” occupies the No. 1 spot on the corresponding New & Active list.
Meanwhile, Warner Music Nashville artist Shy Carter has launched a socially distanced radio promotion tour, a marketing step that frequently precedes an artist’s debut on the airwaves.
It is, perhaps, a sign that record labels and their radio partners are finally feeling a sense of adjusted normalcy after a lengthy period of professional turmoil and national instability.
With fewer people commuting to work, in-car listening declined and radio stations adopted a safer posture. Labels, in turn, held back the release of numerous debut singles until conditions became more favorable.
“Most stations seemed to tighten up, play big hit records from the recent past and also uptempo, fun records that were current singles by superstars,” says Universal Music Group Nashville executive vp promotion Royce Risser. “The majority of programmers felt that radio’s best strategy was to be an escape for those who were stuck at home. If they jumped in the car, it was probably a good thing to listen to radio and just, for a moment, forget about what they were seeing on television in their homes. In that period of time, hearing big hit songs from your favorite artists was more important than ever. While it was tough on some of the newer artists in the format, it was also sort of understandable.”
But the audience was not the only issue. The shutdown created infrastructure problems — in both tools and manpower — and it was not an atmosphere in which new artists would be set up to succeed. Virtual platforms are perfect for a programmer and artist with an existing relationship to reconnect. But they are less than ideal for two strangers to bond over an acoustic guitar performance.
“Everybody was experimenting with everything from Zoom to Microsoft Teams to whatever,” says BBR Music Group senior vp promotion Carson James. “And it was just really hard to be able to translate the passion.”
Even if they could, radio staffs were under siege with layoffs, furloughs and empty office buildings.
“They couldn’t focus on the new artists,” notes James. “They were worried about still having a job or having to work out of their house, or how do we keep the transmitter on? Or can we keep these listeners listening when everybody’s at home and watching TV? They’ve got all these other things on their mind. Whereas my top priority is getting my record played, that wasn’t necessarily theirs during that time because they were trying to adapt.”
Starter acts that had already released their debut single or completed much of their radio promotion tours still got worked. Jameson Rodgers, Niko Moon, Parker McCollum and Robert Counts have made progress during the shutdown.
Meanwhile, the conditions have changed among both the audience and the business. In some cases, labels have developed new means of introducing their artists to broadcasters. Carter has undertaken his promotion tour via bus, brandishing face masks for safe personal contact. And BBR designed a virtual format that allowed Shane to perform with a full band from a Nashville studio, then chat with programmers in small groups online.
But as country listeners have spent more time streaming during the COVID-19 era, a handful of singles have demanded to be released to radio. Fleet’s “Where I Find God,” originally worked to digital partners in an Easter campaign, consistently outperformed Big Loud’s established internal metrics, convincing the label it was an unexpected hit. Fleet conducted an average of three Zoom visits with stations per day in September to support the song, which had enough of an audience story to create anticipation for both parties at that first artist/programmer meeting.
“If we walk into a radio station and we have to introduce you to the PD and they have no idea who you are, we’re losing,” says Big Loud CEO Seth England.
If country labels arise from the pandemic era with higher consumption thresholds for their singles, England believes it could transform the way that singles work their way up the chart by reducing the volume of underperforming titles.
“It’s possible for record labels to exhaust a young artist who might have a slightly fringy hit, maybe not a big hit — and obviously not a dud — but just something that could theoretically go 63 weeks,” says England. “We have to exhaust that artist to achieve that, versus waiting and following what the fans are asking for.”
Block, meanwhile, piled up huge audience numbers: 400,000 TikTok followers, who helped propel “Just About Over You” to the top of the iTunes all-genre chart in a scant 12 hours. Multiple labels competed to sign her, and none of them hesitated about pushing that debut single.
“The only reason I signed to a major label was to go to radio,” she says. “That was kind of the next thing that I really needed. And so all the conversations that we were having with every label, they were like, ‘We’ll take you to radio tomorrow.’”
Thus, while the battle against the coronavirus is not over, some new artists are beginning to find that their path to radio is no longer on hold.
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.