Ultimate Pulse Takeaway: Only A Few Country Artists Embrace Streaming & They’re Dominating The Field

The Ultimate Pulse of Country Music has so far been my most favorite feature I’ve ever created. While I haven’t exactly received the same enthusiasm back from the few of you reading, I nevertheless approach this feature with passion and energy. It’s only been a few weeks and one immediate takeaway has emerged in my eyes. There’s only a handful of country artists truly embracing streaming and they’re dominating the competition on the chart as a result. The top three in the chart in particular are just putting up amazing streaming numbers with multiple songs: Florida Georgia Line, Luke Combs and Kane Brown.

Regardless of how you feel about their music, there’s no denying that these three artists have gotten their fans and listeners to embrace them in a big way on streaming platforms. These three are tightly close together in terms of streaming and have a healthy margin on the rest of the chart in this category. These three artists each sound different from the other in terms of sound. But the common thread is they’re all young and/or appeal to younger listeners with their music. Just a few years ago both Combs and Brown were independent artists largely nobody knew. Now they’re dominating all of the charts, most notably streaming. Meanwhile Florida Georgia Line have by far transitioned better out of bro country than any other act in that sub-genre. They’ve managed to hold onto a majority of the young audience they attracted from bro country and keep them as fans, while most other bro country acts have completely cratered.

While these three are the top of country streaming, there’s another group of artists in the genre that have gained solid traction in this arena too. That would be Jason Aldean, Dan + Shay and Brett Young. Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt both have huge hits still streaming well. Thomas Rhett and Kenny Chesney are putting up decent numbers. None of these artists are below 16th on the chart. These artists comprise nine of the top ten spots on the chart. The data is loud and clear. If you want to actually gain traction and relevancy in country music, you better embrace streaming.

The Toxic Masculinity of “Real Country Fans” is Rotting Country Music’s Core

Country music is a genre built on traditions. Unwittingly at an early age I learned about the tradition of toxic masculinity that plagues country music. I didn’t know at the time how poisonous this mindset was or how ingrained it is in the genre. I didn’t know how it undermines and destroys the credibility of women trying to make country music. But looking back I can remember one conversation amongst friends that sticks with me.

They were discussing who was better between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Right away of course the red flag of pitting women of country music against each other, something that fans still do to this day. Me being the one who’s always up for a little bit of music discussion, chimed in that I preferred Underwood’s music. I then heard laughter amongst my friends and one shoots back, “But Taylor Swift is much hotter.” I learned this was not about music quality, but a beauty contest to put it in polite terms. I didn’t like it, but when you’re young and fearful of peer pressure you’re kind of forced to go along with it. I don’t speak to these people anymore.

I bring this story up to highlight how from an early age that boys who listen to country music are seemingly taught that women aren’t to be taken seriously. They’re just there to look at and be judged. But the men who make country music are to be taken seriously. After all this goes back to the days of outlaw country, which has been glorified since it’s incarnation. Waylon, Willie, Merle, George. You know who they are because they’re never stopped being talked about to this day. It wasn’t these brilliant artist’s fault though, but rather the fans of these artists. But I don’t want to get ahead myself. Let’s first define outlaw country.

According to Wikipedia, it’s “a sub-genre of American country music, most popular during the 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes referred to as the outlaw movement or simply outlaw music. The music has its roots in earlier sub-genres like honky-tonk and rockabilly and is characterized by a blend of rock and folk rhythms, country instrumentation and introspective lyrics. The movement began as a reaction to the slick production and popular structures of the Nashville sound developed by record producers like Chet Atkins.”

Let it be known for the record that it was coined outlaw because it was simply a reaction to restrictive measurements placed on artists to sound a certain way, not the themes that many glorify. That leads us to the themes of the songs that these fans take away (never mind the fact this is very little of what the all-time greats of the genre covered in their songs): rough and rowdy men that run from the law, do drugs and alcohol and often lead a reckless lifestyle. It portrays an exciting, tough and ultra-masculine man who plays by his own rules and does what he wants. Cowboy hats and boots are the fashion of choice. It’s no surprise that many young men of the time period and many since gravitate towards this sort of image. Men are pressured since boys to learn how to be the “right man” and how to do “manly things.” These songs reinforce the stereotypes men are taught as normal from their own fathers to shows on television. It’s the right way to be a man and anything that contradicts it is obviously wrong because society says so.

From outlaw country onward this movement combined with traditional country music and Texas country/Red Dirt music have formed this hyper-masculine style and approach to country music that enraptured men. It continued with Hank Williams Jr. in the 80s with his brand of honky-tonk country. In the late 80s there was Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. In the 90s there was George Strait and Alan Jackson. You come to the 2000s onward where you have Eric Church, whose numerous fans have pounded their chest to the fact that Church is “real country.” Today you have Cody Jinks, Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours and mainstream artists like Jon Pardi, Luke Combs and William Michael Morgan who all have fans who seem to share the same message: This is real country music. This continuation of a brand of masculinity that traces its origins back to outlaw country music.

Again none of these artists I’ve mentioned perpetuate the brand of masculinity in their music that fans created and have kept alive and thriving through the years (except maybe Hank Jr.). It’s fueled by the media and labels, who know what a cash cow and marketing tools are with words like traditional, outlaw, real, authentic. These are words that resonate with people because they seem to hold authority and respect in the eyes of society. And of course if you’re paying attention, I mentioned no women throughout my timeline of “real country music.” That’s because they aren’t considered in these conversations usually. Notice the connection here? Oh sure you can find some people who will mention nowadays the likes of Margo Price or Nikki Lane. If we’re talking historically maybe Jessi Colter or Tanya Tucker will get a mention. But almost always it’s about men and the men being described in the songs. The women are secondary.

(I should note from here on out I will refer to outlaw, traditional and Texas country fans as “real country fans.”)

This is the beginning of the rabbit hole. There are many other aspects to consider. What is often the most derided period of country music by “real country fans”? The 90s, which happen to be one of the best eras for women in country music. There were lots of women country stars constantly played on the radio like Reba, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and many others. Yet you don’t hear these artists ever get glorified by these “real country fans.” The Dixie Chicks, a harbinger of traditional country in the late 90s and early 2000s, don’t get the same shine and respect of the likes of Strait and Jackson. But hey Toby Keith made himself a great career after the group was jettisoned from the genre for having the gall to call out a man.

Then we get to bro country, which you think that the “real country” crowd is on the same side as the people who want equality for women in country music. But you’re not looking close enough. You see the “real country music” crowd don’t hate bro country because it degrades women and treat them as props. It’s because the men aren’t being portrayed manly enough for them in the music. They don’t want to be associated with “pretty boys” in backward baseball caps who incorporate influences from hip-hop and R&B. This just isn’t manly enough for them and directly clashes with the idea of the ideal manly man. I won’t even mention the other conclusion that can be drawn from this and at minimum makes for bad optics for a genre that is pre-dominantly white.

Finally we get to the current state of country radio, where it’s a barren wasteland when it comes to finding the voices of women. Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are about the only consistent solo women voices you’ll hear. The rest either show up once or get a small feature on a solo guy’s song. Radio “experts” like Keith Hill love to cite data that says women don’t want to listen to women and men even less so. Data that of course was debunked by the late, great Dev Ghosh. But can’t you see why the numbers bear this conclusion for radio guys? Country music is a genre driven and dominated by a masculine brand of country music decade after decade. It’s music about men for men and made by men. It takes on new forms, but at the end of the day it’s all summed up as “real country music.”

It doesn’t have room for women or any man who isn’t willing to conform to the image and brand driven by “real country music.” It has media empires and major label dynasties that gleefully push this brand because it makes a lot of money and is the most proven brand ever in country music. The “real country music” crowd love to whine that they aren’t the center of attention and aren’t dominating the radio charts. But it’s ridiculous because they’ve been driving the culture, rules and image of country music for decades. No matter what trends come along, they all wither away and the genre has some sort of shift back to “real country music.” It’s all one vicious cycle that spins around and around and around.

Unfortunately in the process, the “real country crowd” is going to take down the entire ship with them. Just like jazz and rock music before them, old gatekeepers will drive country music into the irrelevancy graveyard alongside them. The “real country crowd” will cheer this on because they would rather crash the whole car than share it with someone who doesn’t wholly agree with them.

Right now nobody is really sure what the future of this genre holds. But I do know what I would like to see and that’s women leading the way into the future of the genre. Women will not only get their longly deserved equality, but will show the creativity and drive to keep this genre thriving for years to come. Because one thing I think all country fans can agree on is we want a bright future for the genre. We can hold onto the great traditions of the genre, but it’s time we shed some old ones.

Pop Country & Traditional Country: Two Sides of the Same Boring Coin

For years I’ve watched fans of pop country and fans of traditional country bicker and argue with each other. I was on both “sides” at some point or another. It’s a never-ending battle of whose sound is better and who deserves a fair shake on radio/in the mainstream. But then one day you see through all the bullshit and smokescreens. You realize like I have that the pop country and traditional country fans are all the same.

These two are simply different sides of the same coin. If you’re wondering where Americana and Texas country factor into this equation, they’re the candy wrappers blowing in the wind that nobody outside of their little niches give a shit about. So why are pop country and traditional country fans the same? Well for one both demand a certain sound to their country music. Traditional country fans demand pedal steel guitar, fiddles and a bunch of tear in my beer lyrics. That’s “real country” in their eyes. Pop country fans want something instantly catchy, sugary and fun. As long as they can sing along with it, it’s all good. So on one side you have a faux integrity and another who doesn’t care about integrity at all. As long as they get what they want, damn the consequences. And what they want is the problem. They don’t want enough. They don’t demand enough out of their favorites artists and music. They want a rigid set of rules that must be followed because it’s the “right way” of doing music.

Making music is not about doing things the right way. The best music comes out of breaking the rules and not following the straight line. All of the heroes and legends they love to praise from Hank to Willie to Garth became the icons they became because they pushed the limits and brought something new to the table. They did it their way, but for some reason they want all of these new artists to do it like they did. It’s quite a paradox. I mean look at outlaw country music. It was built on challenging the status quo and sound, but yet today’s “outlaw” artists are praised for just copying Waylon. How is this outlaw? It’s not. How is this helping the genre? It’s not. In fact both pop country and traditional country fans are simultaneously destroying it’s reputation. That’s right. It’s not the pop collaborators or the major labels or radio, but you the traditional country fan and you the pop country fan that are the problem.

You people accept whatever your favorite artist puts out. You don’t demand enough and quite frankly you’re not listening. I remember when I realized in the past year I had stopped listening to the music. In fact I conducted a little experiment earlier this year that brought this to my attention. I decided to unsubscribe from Spotify. I quit it for over a month. For one I was angry to find one day all of my downloaded music was erased. But more importantly I was dissatisfied with music and I couldn’t figure out why. So for that month plus period I solely listened to new music via YouTube. With all of the ads YouTube likes to shove in your face nowadays, listening to a new album will lead to a lot of ads playing. So I quickly realized I better listen closely unless I wanted to be subjected to more ads. If I truly enjoyed the album, I would purchase it in some form. In addition I also found myself listening to great albums I already had in my library that I had forgotten about.

The realization this led me to: I had become a passive listener as a result of the endless buffet of streaming and a slave to the never-ending music release cycle. In a brazen effort to keep up with the Joneses, I had lost sight of the music and why I listen. It was startling, but at the same time an epiphany. So now I approach all music with a refreshed, honest outlook. Hence why many may be confused why my new outlook clashes with the old one I expressed on my old blog. Trust me I was confused at first too. Artists who impressed me in the past were no longer impressing me with their new album releases this year. First Aid Kit, Wade Bowen, Blackberry Smoke, Brothers Osborne, Ashley Monroe: none of their new albums are good in my eyes. In the past I would have liked these albums because I’m supposed to and a lot of other people enjoy them, so I need to keep listening until it clicks. If you get through five listens of an album and it’s not clicking, you move on. You don’t like it. You don’t keep dogfooding it until you “get it.”

It may sound selfish, condescending and outright arrogant to demand more from artists. But you gotta put things in perspective. I don’t think artists today understand what they’re competing with in the marketplace of attention. In music alone they’re competing with all other current releases, all other artists in their genre and every artist who’s ever released music. An artist has to convince the listener to listen to them over another artist’s new release, their favorite artists’ past releases and all of the classics from Elvis to Tom Petty. So yes I do expect to be impressed. There’s a lot of music out there and if you don’t bring it, I am just going to listen to something else. There’s always another album and another artist.

Now let’s bring it back to country music and the current state of it. I not only don’t like its current standing, but it’s future too. Hip-Hop is becoming the dominant genre. Pop is fading and country is fading even faster. Other than Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt, nobody is capturing a lot of sales, streams and attention. Creativity is bankrupt across the genre. Everybody is just trying to maintain the status quo. This is a genre in survival mode. Why else do you think pop collaborations are popping up? It’s two genres teaming up in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. The truth is country has nothing for hip-hop. Millennials could not be further detached from country music. But they can’t get enough of hip-hop. Why? Because that genre is innovating and pushing the boundaries. New and interesting music is constant. Look at the charts: Drake, Cardi B, J Cole, Post Malone, Migos, Rae Stremmurd and the Black Panther soundtrack are everywhere. We’re not even to June yet when Drake and Kanye release new albums.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Right now pop country and traditional country fans are engaging in insanity by continuing to accept the level of quality of the music being produced in the genre. It’s not good enough and country music fans deserve more. But will they ever ask for more? Heads or tails it does not matter because the end result is the same if both sides refuse to change.