Digital Tools Help Country Acts Create DIY Success: 'We Don't Need a Major Label Deal for That'
When Thompson Square's new album Masterpiece goes on sale June 1, the duo will officially join a growing legion of country artists who are redrawing the lines in their business.
Keifer and Shawna Thompson are issuing the project on their own T2 label, expanding a list of artists who have self-released their projects. It's a free-wheeling concept that, just 10-15 years ago, was out of the question for the majority of acts. But with an increasing number of outside services and marketing information available, it has become more attractive for creators to don a business cap and risk capital on themselves. It's an approach fraught with financial danger, but it's also a huge opportunity to establish their own niche in terms of sound, look, marketing plan and business structure.
“Thrilling is the perfect word,” says Shawna of the endeavor. “It's a little bit scary, but super exciting at the same time.”
Artists are writing different scripts as the concept catches on. Such acts as Scotty McCreery, Maren Morris, Chris Janson, Luke Combs and Granger Smith self-released product on their own before a label picked them up. Others have started that journey without knowing if they'll land somewhere else or remain self-funded, including Jana Kramer, Cassadee Pope, Kalie Shorr and Harper Grae. Another layer of acts — including Garth Brooks, Big & Rich and Sara Evans — seems committed to a self-directed label. And one higher tier includes artists who are overseeing their own careers as well as signing other acts or individual projects, including Toby Keith, John Prine, Aaron Watson and Colt Ford.
Self-releasing “was less thinkable in country music, but it was very doable and has been done in every other genre for years,” says Tony Morreale, the head of Watson's BIG Label Records. “Back in the day, it was Kmart, Walmart, Target and national radio. You had that and Crook & Chase, and you were off to the races — that was your marketing plan. But in the other genres of music — punk, hip-hop, you name it — there's always been that self-releasing spirit. The country genre is really just kind of catching up.”
Indeed, country has traditionally lived and died by the single, particularly when the audience skewed older and was less apt to actively seek out new music, radio was by far the largest driver. It's still the most effective marketing tool, but streaming and other digital services have made it easier for artists to distribute their music and pinpoint where it has made a dent.
“I'm able to see my highest-streaming cities, and we're working on actually routing a tour around that,” says Pope. “It's really fun to have that proof and say, 'OK, clearly these places like the music, so let's just hit those places where we know people are going to come out.'”
This brave new world is made possible by the shift from physical product to digital. The costs for getting music into the hands of consumers is significantly reduced, and that lessens the control that the major labels have over the marketplace. They remain the big dogs, but the new model encourages acts to find their own artistic direction and develop their own audience before they sign a deal.
“I feel grateful that I got to do two years independently,” says Shorr, who has found her own rock-influenced sound beyond the filter — and pressure — that exists at a larger label. “I think it would have taken me longer to come around to this.”
Prine was way ahead of the curve. He established Oh Boy more than three decades ago, relying on direct-mail marketing long before the internet matured. His latest album, The Tree of Forgiveness, debuted at No. 2 on Top Country Albums, his best showing in a career that has lasted more than 40 years. Atlantic issued his self-titled debut, but his folk-tinged songs didn't attract much airplay, and he determined that his business wasn't well-suited for the big machine.
“Major labels do a great service, but John's not going to get on country radio in the first place, so we don't need a major label deal for that,” says Oh Boy director of operations Jody Whelan. “We've known who our fans are for 50 years, we've got a great mailing list, and John's shows have always done well. We figured out how to reach people, and now that's kind of become turbo-charged.”
The self-directed label is particularly popular in Texas, where such artists as Josh Abbott Band, Cody Johnson and Casey Donahew have parlayed busy touring schedules into album sales. JAB and Pat Green tried to nationalize their audiences by hooking up with major labels, only to retreat to their previous approaches. Watson is going at it differently by maintaining his own imprint, and so far it has worked — he earned his first top 10 single with “Outta Style,” and current single “Run Wild Horses” is at No. 54 on the Country Airplay chart dated May 19.
“Destiny picked this path in some ways more than we picked it,” says Watson's manager, CDA Entertainment president Gino Genaro. “It's certainly not the easiest path. But it's that old baseball analogy, you know: You're going to miss 100 percent of the balls you don't swing at.”
It is likely not a road for every artist. Crunching numbers and building strategies from raw data is a different pursuit than delivering an emotion through a microphone. But the right team of advisers can go a long way to bridge the gap between those two mind-sets if the artist is up to the challenge.
“I definitely have to make myself pay attention if I'm on a conference call with [digital-marketing firm] M Theory and my manager,” concedes Pope. “I know this is information that I should have, [even though] it's not why I started singing.”
The numbers, though, are a representation of a personal connection. A digital download or concert-ticket sale occurs because a consumer felt a need to own a song or an experience. That same personal connection exists on the business side, a leap in logic that Thompson Square was able to make early on.
“I kept a journal after we left every radio station of names, wives' names, kids' names, dog names,” says Keifer. “You have a bit of a background so you can get to know them a little bit because you have so little time. We had the presence of mind to do that.”
Self-releasing is more difficult than the old-school model of signing with a label and expecting it to carry the ball. But with so many tools available to modern artists, the ones who establish a sound, a fan base and relationships inside the business have an upper hand, whether they choose to carry on alone or team eventually with a major.
“I'm always down for artists who work harder and do more,” says Shorr. “Those are the people you work for the most.”