Why Texas/Red Dirt Music Has an Exciting Future

Check out the podcast version here

In Part 1 of this piece, I discussed the growth of Texas/Red Dirt music; both in consumership and geography. While I’m very much excited to see its expansion, what thrills me more is what awaits the scene in the long run.

The music business landscape has changed dramatically since the dawning of the millennium:

1999 – Napster is launched

2001 – The iPod is launched

2001 – Napster shuts down

2003 – Apple launches the iTunes Store

2004 – The iPod starts to reach market acceptance

2004- Facebook is launched

2005 – Pandora is launched

2005 – YouTube is launched

2006 – MySpace surpass Google as the most visited website in the U.S.

2006 – Twitter is launched

2006 – Facebook opens to anyone above the age of 13 and launches news feed

2007 – Facebook launches pages for brands

2008 – Apple launches the iPhone

2008 – Facebook surpass MySpace in the number of unique worldwide visitors and Myspace begins to steadily decline

2010 – Instagram is launched

2011 – Spotify launches in the U.S.

2011 – SnapChat is launched

2014 – Streaming revenue eclipses CD sales for the first time

2014 – Amazon launched Amazon Echo (smart speaker)

2015 – Apple Music is launched

2015-2016 – Spotify launches Discover Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix playlists.

2016 – Smartphones become the most common device for music consumption

2016 – Instagram launches Stories

2016 – Music consumption is reported to be at an all time high

2017 – Spotify launches Spotify for Artists

2018 – On-demand streaming accounts for the majority of audio consumption

2018 – Twitter starts trending up, Instagram stays solid, and SnapChat and Facebook begin trending down

2018 – Facebook/Instagram and Spotify begin enhanced integration

2019 – Apple discontinues iTunes downloads

 

As the music industry’s landscape in the digital age continues to evolve, it’s going to provide more opportunities for our music and musicians.

For the last 50 or so years, a country artist’s popularity has been controlled largely by major labels through five components: mainstream-country terrestrial radio, distribution, marketing, large and reputable teams, and touring circuits.  If you had those things, you were good to go; and if you didn’t… Well, good luck. Because of this, it became a well-guarded, “gate-keeper” type of system. No one gets in without someone opening the gate which has severely limited opportunities for independent artists. While this has gone on for many decades, all of these facets (except one) seem to either be losing power or becoming almost impossible to have exclusive authority over.  This leads me to believe that eventually, the future of the industry will be more of a consumer-run free market rather than a tight-knit oligarchy. This will be to the benefit of independent musicians like the ones in our scene.

Here’s why:

Mainstream country terrestrial radio is obviously losing listenership as music streaming takes precedence. Radio demographics continue to skew older and older as the younger generation opts for Spotify, Apple Music, Sirius, YouTube and Pandora. While mainstream radio will be around for many years to come, its power as a deeply trenched channel of exposure will continue to dissipate.  For country music, radio has been the key holder; but if that’s not where the next generation of fans are going, then getting inside the gate won’t be completely necessary in the future. The mainstream country acts that have already established themselves are going to be fine, but what about the ones to come? Is mainstream country radio really breaking anybody these days? Not really; and the few artists they are breaking will continue to be less and less.  So how much power does it really have going forward? If mainstream radio only has interest in playing the same 40 artists, and ignoring any others regardless of grass-roots popularity and musical quality, then keep on keeping on. But I don’t think that’s going to work out for them. They don’t break new records, they ignore plenty of great artists that are killing it on tours and social media, and 3/4ths of what they play isn’t even actual country music…. While mainstream terrestrial radio used to have a monopoly over country music discovery and exposure, that’s no longer the case. So, can someone honestly tell me how much of a factor a mainstream country radio station will be for breaking new music in 10 years? If fans are not discovering artists on the platform, then what happens when all of the established acts are no longer in their prime? Yeah…. doesn’t look good.  The ship is slowly sinking, BUT, it does have a way to stay afloat a little longer: start playing independent artists that are out there killing it and making good music. Put business politics aside and give people something new, yet high quality and proven.  Take note of the people from all over the country tuning in over the internet to our stations playing Texas/Red Dirt music. It’s a win-win.  If they don’t, I honesty don’t see how it plans to compete with the digital services providing ever-increasing access to music with ever-increasing personalization. Either mainstream radio adapts, or continues to lose its power; either way it opens up more opportunities for our music. 

On top of the trouble ahead for mainstream country radio, the distribution barrier has been kicked down. With the revolution of music streaming services, people now have easy and high-quality access to anything and everything at a reasonable price. Only 10 years ago, if you weren’t in Walmart, Target, Hastings, and record shops nationwide, you had an enormous uphill battle to fight. Now, that’s all but gone. An independent artist making their debut can have just as much digital distribution as a major artist.  Granted physical sales are a big piece of it today, but for how much longer?

Where mainstream country still has a big advantage is marketing power.  Between the well-read publications, award shows, big budgets for ads, connections with influencers, curators, taste makers and more, artists on major labels are everywhere they need to be. However, the “places to be” seem to change quicker at every turn and are becoming more plentiful. How do you keep up with it all? How do you not spread yourself too thin?  How do you establish a guaranteed presence on an algorithm-based platform? You can’t. And where are the 18-24’s? It’s not Facebook anymore, where mainstream artists have spent tons and tons of money building a following. Right now, it’s Instagram and Snapchat; and those don’t have a third of the functionality and marketing ability Facebook has for musicians. How many people still find the award shows relevant? How many people are still watching CMT, checking out the billboard charts, or listening to the countdown? I think you see where I’m going with this. In order to become successful, you have to be able to market to the fans; and for the last 20 years the best ways to reach fans have been radio, TV, industry publications, physical retail, and Facebook. Does anyone have a bullish future outlook on any of these mediums?

Putting sizable teams in place to help steer the ship for artists used to be an advantage, but is now a disadvantage in my opinion.  In the fast-paced and ever-changing digital landscape, keeping a small team that can mobilize quickly is the way to go. If five different people all get a say on what an artist does before making a move, how effective is that going to be in an unpredictable oncoming era? Too many captains trying to steer the ship in uncharted waters is not a good thing. Plus, having control to do what the artist sees best and make the music they want obviously has its advantages in a coming era where there’s a place for anyone making good music— especially if it’s authentic.

The big advantage the “gatekeepers” have that’s not going to fade anytime soon is their ability to funnel artists into their touring pipelines.  They have the connections and established relationships with booking agents, management and talent buyers who have in’s with Live Nation, major festivals and everyone else. They can pair their newer artists up with established ones, get their foot in the door, and set up tours in great places.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a big advantage! However, the changes in the other four areas mentioned making it hard for newer artists to establish themselves could present some difficulty in long-term sustainability.  It doesn’t matter who you are if you’re not selling tickets.

So while mainstream country music has dominated radio, TV and physical retail, granted those entities are still powerful (especially combined), that’s not where music is headed. It’s all digital, and that world is too vast, too data-driven, and changes too quickly to really establish dominance and put up a gate. As soon as you figure out iTunes, Spotify is the place to be.  As soon as you’ve mastered Facebook, then Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat are the new popular social sites. As soon as you think it’s all visual, podcasts become the big thing. When the dust settles from the iPhone removing the headphone jack, things start to get shaken up with voice activated speakers. While we may have a clue to where and how consumers will listen to music going forward, does anyone know what will be the most effective way to market it in five years?  We’re due for something new. SnapChat is 7-years-old, but whatever the next trend is going to be, no one knows what it is right now; and that’s a problem shared throughout the entire industry. If newer artists backed by the majors are going to have a tougher time establishing themselves, then what will give them any sort of advantage on whatever the next big social media platform is going to be, compared to independents with a strong grassroots following?

If you’re looking to the future of music discovery, Spotify’s vast array of algorithm-based and editorial playlists are obviously the leading contender.  In an  interview with Variety.com , the Global Head of Creator Services at Spotify Troy Carter made the platform’s stance clear.  “It’s very much a meritocracy. It’s not like radio where whatever is being played is what you hear. We offer songs up, and from there it’s up to consumers to stream the music or not. That goes for big and small artists. If superstars come with [subpar] songs, you’re gonna see that in the number of streams they get; and when a new artist connects, their streams can go into nine figures.”

So, here’s the bottom line:  The heavily utilized mediums that have secured the gate for country artists backed by major labels will continue to fragment, and rising through the muck to reach fans will become tougher for all artists. Since everyone will find it tougher to establish control with each new turn, the future music scene in general will become more of a free marketplace, where organic word-of-mouth reigns supreme and the consumer decides who’s popular— not the industry and their well-guarded, deeply trenched channels.  Peer-to-peer referrals and algorithms will dominate compared to any form of industry-driven promotion.  There will still be power-entities, just not ones that will have exclusive control of the barriers to entry for other artists.

What does all of this mean for the Texas/Red Dirt scene?

I think it’s setting up Texas/Red Dirt musicians, as well as other independent country musicians, to thrive in the future. Why? Because the wild-west of the digital landscape is much more conducive to the model most of our artists already have plenty of experience with. In a future with few ways to establish dominance, and therefore a gate, the artists (and their teams) that know how to build organically will have the advantage— and guess what we’ve been doing since the inception of our scene!? Our artists know how to survive without major industry-driven promotion and thrive off of word-of-mouth. They don’t live and die by the success of their current single. They know how to build a fan base without national radio play. Our artists know how to go out and forge relationships with fans on their own. They know how to create and break new markets from scratch (and can live off of merch while doing it). Not only do they know how do this, but they’ve completely designed their business model around it. Our booking agents know how to pitch, not just receive. Our radio promoters know how to fight their way into new markets and get new, untested artists on the radio. Our management teams know how to keep it efficient and effective. But can the same be said for the mainstream country scene? I’m not saying those guys can’t do it, I’m just saying they’re not currently setup that way and it’s going to be tough to change it. And if they do, what’s to guarantee their newer artists more exposure and success than independent ones?

Our artists keep small and savvy teams.  They keep their ears to ground, adapt, and mobilize. They have the ability to go their own direction, and make the music they want.  Not only will that be more advantageous for the landscape, it’ll be better for the artist; which in turn is better for the music and keeps the fans coming back.

Rather than than giving Texas radio the same grim outlook as mainstream radio, I think it’s the opposite.  As cars continue to have more capabilities on the dashboard like TuneIN, and there being a growing demand for Texas/Red Dirt music, I think our radio stations will experience an uptick in internet users.  Competing mainstream radio stations around the country will also have to look for ways to differentiate, and therefore play different music than their competitors.  What better option than the growing genre of Texas/Red Dirt music (as well as other independents) that are quickly transcending regional boundaries? If I’m a top 40 country station, and I’m 2nd or 3rd in the ratings of an industry losing consumership, then what better way to compete with the other stations than by offering something different and on the upswing?  Radio promoters have confirmed with me they’re getting more interest/inquiries from places beyond our region every week. So while the ceiling seems to be falling for radio, there’s still plenty of room to grow from the level we’re on. Bottom line: those who have become reliant on mainstream country radio are going to lose ground, and this could in turn provide a pretty good opportunity for Texas/Red Dirt music to gain some all over the country. If I’m an up-and-coming Texas/Red Dirt artist, I’d be excited about the potential places my radio promoter might be able to play me in the future, but it would be the exact opposite if I’m an up-and-coming mainstream artist. 

I’m not predicting an imminent collapse for those artists backed by the majors, just a leveling of the playing field for newer artists going forward.  It may come in incremental baby steps, but we may look around in 10 years and not even recognize the music industry compared to today’s. With the growing demand for Texas/Red dirt music (and other independent country music), how can you not be excitedly optimistic for the opportunities that lie ahead? And honestly, some of these assertions aren’t that groundbreaking.  It’s happening in other genres already.  Just look at hip-hop.

Our scene is better suited for the future. I honestly believe that, and I think that’s been a big reason we’ve been experiencing such a big uptick in the last 18 months.  The product is there (it always has been), but now the distribution is there, the promotional aspects are leveling, and the gates are disappearing. I’m not saying that the new major-label artists won’t have an advantage going forward, but it’s crazy to believe the gap won’t continue to be narrowed in terms of breaking new artists.

More and more artists will thrive going the independent route, and guess which scene not only has the business model down, but an entire community and infrastructure built around it? Look at what Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson, Turnpike etc… are accomplishing! 10 years ago, I don’t think their level of success would’ve been possible in that particular climate.  Now not only is it possible, it looks to be a viable path in the future!

Cheers! We’re embarking on exciting times for Texas/Red Dirt and independent music!

 

Author: Chris Fox

Music addict, a sucker for heartbreak songs, and avid Houston sports fan! I'am also the Editor-in-Chief of Texas Music Pickers.

2 thoughts on “Why Texas/Red Dirt Music Has an Exciting Future

  1. Good article, Chris! There are, however, some caveats and loopholes in this new model that have begun to manifest themselves…being one from “the old model” (though certainly not advocating for it), I see the trends of this new music model mimicking the very paradigms it inveighs against…The coming years will be interesting, indeed. Red Dirt has changed the face of music, and is influencing the “taste” of the music listener.

  2. Thanks Tony!

    I’m not saying this new model is going to be completely different, or that there isn’t going to be some obvious carryover from the previous model, or that it’s going to happen quickly and in short time, but I do believe the streaming and digital era will be just too vast and volatile to put up a “gate” around what’s being toted as the most popular country music. Therefore, I believe there will more opportunities for independent artist and raise their ceiling. I know there are caveats and loopholes currently in this new model, but I’m not fully confident that there will measures in place to keep them there in the future. Obviously it’ll all follow the money, but do we really know where that’s going to be?

    It’s going to be an up-hill battle and take awhile, but a decade ago the idea of independent country musicians having a viable way to achieve national success would’ve been crazy, now, while it may be small, there is a glimmer of hope that it’s possible. Looking at what Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson, and Turnpike are currently doing,
    I can’t help but think a decade from now, it’ll be probable.

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