At Country Radio Seminar, Garth Brooks and Others Hope for No Fences Between Radio, Digital Worlds

While Brooks tried to sway programmers to get in bed with Alexa, Jason Aldean discussed a weighty recovery from tragedy.

Garth Brooks
Chris Willman

“Alexa, make the radio and streaming worlds play nice together.”

That may be a tall order, but at the 50th annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville this past week, breaking down the barriers of suspicion that separate traditional radio from digital services was the hottest topic. Garth “No Fences” Brooks made sure that was at the top of the agenda, again coming in to tout his exclusive deal with Amazon — which had a heavy footprint at the conference — while clearly being no less hungry than ever to renew his long string of terrestrial AM/FM hits.

Not on the agenda, officially, but also up for informal discussion: the famous dearth of women in the format. A proposed breakout session on the problem was tabled in favor of breaking out the topic in more substantial form between now and next year’s CRS, organizers say. But when the subject of contemporary country’s severe gender deficit came up in a town hall meeting, it became clear that programmers aren’t yet in agreement about whether a problem exists, much less how to solve it.

But with twin emphases on — as CRS executive director RJ Curtis puts it — “education and entertainment,” the plethora of the latter at the conference is always going to make for a celebratory mood. Among the performers dropping in for at least brief performances at the convention were Keith Urban, Eric Church, Hootie and the Blowfish, Chris Stapleton, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Little Big Town, Dan + Shay, Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts, Lanco and Brantley Gilbert. Brooks was indisputably the draw of the week, single-handedly creating a surge in registrations when a badgeholder-only nighttime solo show was announced in addition to his keynote Q&A on streaming.

“It’s very typical that you have this combination of excitement and optimism and joy over being in the format and meeting other radio people with an awareness of things we need to keep our eye on,” Curtis told Variety after the confab wrapped up. “Teens and how we engage them is going to be a challenge for country radio and any radio format. And then merging the digital platforms into our world and finding partnerships and ways to help each other out, and the challenge of having a productive discussion about the disparity between male and female airplay — those are the three things we need to keep our eye on.”

Brooks shared a stage with Amazon Music VP Steve Boom, announcing that they had renewed a deal that made headlines a few years ago. Boom pledged that the service is at “work on tools to help provide a level of transparency” some in the industry have called for, as far as putting numbers on Amazon’s music consumption, something he expects to happen “this year.” Boom was expectedly bullish on Alexa, saying “we made it so you don’t even need to know the name of the song, you just need to know some of the lyrics of the song,” and pointing out you can now program a dinner party playlist even as Alexa asks probing questions about how intimate it’ll be or whether kids will be in attendance.

“If we had Alexa when George Strait’s first album came out, I’d have worn that lady out,” Brooks said. But, mindful that much of the radio programmer audience would consider consorting with “that lady” as sleeping with the enemy, Brooks kept reiterating that “terrestrial radio is an 800-pound gorilla” that “ain’t going nowhere” along with his belief that it, not subscription services, will always be where country fans come for discovery. “I love the fact that this isn’t an either/or thing,” Brooks said. “I can hear it on terrestrial radio, and I can wear it out on streaming. To me that’s the true partnership here.”

Boom also pointed out that 40,000 radio stations can be streamed on the Echo. Said Curtis, “Last year Edison did a study for us that was focused on the growth of smart speakers in the home, and that has only increased in the last year. I think the opportunity to have these bring back a radio presence in the home is something everybody’s excited about. The numbers on how many people have a radio in the home as of last year were alarmingly low — maybe not shockingly, because you look at your own house and go, ‘Yeah, I don’t have a radio in my house, either.’ But now people have two, three and four Echoes in the household, and I think radio sees that as an opportunity.”

After the conference, Curtis said that, as Country Radio Seminar enters its sixth decade, there might be less exclusivity when it comes to the conference’s middle name. He pointed out that, among the current board members for the host Country Radio Broadcasters organization, three now come from the digital world, representing Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon. “They’re really being helpful to us to bridge that gap and make the two entities understand that they can be very helpful to each other,” said Curtis.

“We’re getting closer and closer to incorporating the digital world into our event and bridging those two worlds so they see that they can help each and not just compete against each other, where somebody has to emerge as a winner — just as in the past CRS was always bridging the gap between country and the labels. The brand Country Radio Seminar is very strong, and you won’t come to CRS 2020 and see a quick one-year pivot in changing our brand. It has to happen gradually, but we have to get there.”

Amazon’s desire to be the digital face of CRS was heightened by their sponsorship of the opening night showcase, this year headlined by the Zac Brown Band. For close to a decade, the opening night’s music had been promoted as a Grand Ole Opry event, but as of last year it was taken over by Amazon, eager to assert a sense of digital dominance in a genre whose movers and shakers haven’t always felt they were getting the full attention of pop-focused streaming services.

Right after the multi-artist Amazon showcase, conference attendees left the host Omni Hotel and headed down the street to the Bridgestone Arena, where Brooks had set up shop. “I hope it was the second greatest thing you go to tonight,” said the country superstar, who had set up a stage against one side of the arena’s loge section to play to about 2,000 badgeholders. It had been billed as an “intimate” performance by Brooks, and while obviously not quite as intimate as the bar show he did for about a hundred attendees at Layla’s last year at this time, he made the peculiarly partitioned space his own. “There’s something really cool about the sound of an arena before the people get here, and you’re gonna hear it tonight,” he explained. “This is what soundcheck is for every artist that’s lucky enough to play rooms like this.”

Brooks proceeded to play a much looser version of the one-man show he developed for a Las Vegas residency in the 2000s, albeit with a lot more Q&A between songs and a lot more recognition of the faces in the audience. The first third of the hour-and-a-half was largely taken up with the superstar doing dead-on impressions of the rock and country acts he said shaped him, from going low with a Keith Whitley impersonation to nailing the twang and accents of both Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias in a snippet of “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” with stops for Jim Croce and James Taylor as well as a contemporary nod to what he called the subtle doo-wop underpinnings of Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.”

Brooks wasn’t the only heavy hitter doing a lot of talking at CRS. Jason Aldean didn’t perform but did sit for the traditional conference-closing artist Q&A with Curtis and Beverly Brannigan, who got the sometimes recalcitrant singer to open up on two possibly touchy subjects: his role in the bro-country breakout a few years ago and the impact of the Las Vegas massacre 16 months ago.

“It was always weird talking about it with people who weren’t there,” Aldean acknowledged of the tragic Route 91 Harvest Festival in October 2017 festival, where 58 were killed and 851 injured as gunfire broke out during his headlining set.

“Some of the guys (in his band and crew) still have a tough time here and there with things. We all kind of do,” Aldean said. “But my band and I have been together for 20 years. It was a brotherhood before, and now it’s unbreakable for sure. I will say this, I think the ‘Saturday Night Live’ thing we did was one of the biggest things we could have done… The reactions we got from that show (six days later) really sort of changed the way we looked at a lot of that stuff and made us realize there are still way more good people out there in the world than there are bad. And this one guy that did this just insanely disgusting thing was not gonna scare us from doing the thing we wanted to do.”

Of the aftermath, Aldean said, “The hardest thing I’ve ever done was go to Vegas and get off the plane and go to the hospital and visit with a lot of the victims over there and sit with their families… It was tough to see people lying there that had been at our show just a few days before, went to have a great time and never asked for that. That they went there to see us and that’s how they wound up, it was gut-wrenching… I don’t know if guilt is the word, but there’s a little bit of that, to where I almost feel guilty that I got out of there without a scratch and these people are lying there paralyzed on a bed. It’s really hard to wrap your head around. When we got off the plane in Las Vegas, I didn’t know what I was about to walk into… but it was one of those eye-opening, life-changing things.”

On a less life-and-death note, Brannigan and Curtis led with the idea that while the “bro” label might make Aldean bristle (“True,” he said), they had “a theory: We think in retrospect that bro-country was a period in time that moved the format ahead… because it brought 18-34-year-old listeners into the format.”

Aldean seemed ready to embrace that theory — reluctantly, considering it was never coined as a compliment. “It was said in a way that was negative, so it kind of rubbed a lot of us the wrong way,” he said. “But the flip side of that… us and Luke (Bryan) and FGL (Florida Georgia Line) were the ones that got mentioned in that a lot, and my thing was, we’re singing songs about things we know — girls and trucks and parties. That’s what we all grew up doing. I also thought, man, if you listened to the rest of my records, you would see that there were a couple songs that had that subject matter, and the rest didn’t. … But having songs that brought in a younger demographic not only helped us but helped the whole format in general. I’ve never recorded a song that I thought was ‘Hey Jude’… I’ve never gone out and tried to change the world with my music. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here to have fun and entertain people.”

As much as the panels celebrated country skewing toward a younger audience than it has in decades prior, this year’s Edison panel, which focused on a study of teen attitudes toward the genre, left room for concern about whether that enthusiasm is passing over to the next generation.

Only 34 percent of teens surveyed consider terrestrial radio in general to be something that’s important to their generation, as opposed to 70 percent of their parents. For that parental group, across America, country is the No. 1 preferred format, while, not surprisingly, it’s No. 3 for teens, behind hip-hop and pop. (It could be a lot worse: it could be the considerably less popular rock format.) And a majority of teens would rather listen to music on a smartphone than on the radio — presumably on-demand.

As for the perennial gender inequity issue, talks of having a panel on the problem of women in country this year petered out in part, Curtis says, because the topic is too consequential for one 50-minute discussion.

“It’s going be a long process of balancing our format,” said Curtis, who was appointed to lead CRB and CRS in October. “But what we can do is create a dialogue and address the issue throughout the year. We’ve talked a lot about creating a series of webinars…  I think that’s something we’ll take a look at, and develop a series of conversations that happen soon. That will help us develop a plan for how we deal with it when Seminar comes around next year, and do it intelligently and effectively and not just put it on the agenda because it seems like a good optic.”