DIY In Nashville: How New Business Demands Have Changed Modern Country and Its Artists

DIY In Nashville: How New Business Demands Have Changed Modern Country and Its Artists

A telling social media meme that juxtaposed two artists made an impact on Erv Woolsey Co. vp of new artist management and operations Allen Mitchell in recent months.

The left picture, captioned ” ’80s/’90s singer/songwriter,” featured a half-drunk country artist lazing with a guitar and a bottle of whiskey. The image on the right, labeled “Today’s singer/songwriter,” captured an artist working on a laptop in a coffee shop.

The photos were intentionally exaggerated, but they were also brutally true. Artists in the past relied on record companies and/or managers to finance their recordings and market the product to the masses. In the current atmosphere, where recordings can be made at home much more cheaply and marketed through social media, the music business is DIY-friendly, leading artists to do more on their own.

That makes it easier in the very beginning stages. But it also comes with a cost. The modern artist, particularly at the front end of a career, is expected not only to create the product, but also to market it and build demand before most organizations will look seriously at the act. The model puts a greater emphasis on artists who have innate sales and marketing skills, and that development raises two important questions: Do we ask too much of artists? And is it possible for a new artist who is seemingly uncomfortable with the act of self-promotion — someone in the vein of Joni Mitchell, George Strait or James Taylor — to succeed in an environment that requires constant selling?

Related

Chris Stapleton’s ongoing run of success suggests that it is indeed possible for someone who isn’t always at ease with self-marketing to emerge, though it’s probably not as likely. As country music executives increasingly focus on artists’ self-generated audience numbers, acts who are self-conscious about pushing themselves will have more difficulty catching Music Row’s attention. Or they may find their uneasiness about marketing spills over into the creative parts of their day, damaging their productivity. It’s a dilemma that catches many artists off guard.

“I don’t think people know sometimes when they jump into chasing the dream what it all really entails,” says Mitchell, who manages Ian Munsick and Texas indie Kylie Frey. “It’s a major change of life, and that’s true if you’re successful or not.”

Twenty years ago, Cyndi Thomson pulled back the curtain just a hair on the issue. Her debut Capitol Nashville single, “What I Really Meant To Say,” topped the Hot Country Songs chart on Sept. 22, 2001, and the RIAA certified her first album, My World, gold in June 2002. From the outside, she looked to be in an enviable position.

But just four months later, she backed out of her recording deal, telling fans in a public letter that she couldn’t commit to the obligations of the job.

Thomson actually enjoyed being an artist — she still misses it, she tells Billboard — but the process of recording, publicizing and touring behind the first album had worn her out. As she began setting songwriting appointments to craft her second project, she typically walked into those meetings too zapped to contribute.

“I was so exhausted,” she recalls. “I have had two babies, and I have never been so tired as being an artist.”

That, she adds, was before smartphones and social media existed. She’s convinced that those developments have made the life of the modern performer even more difficult.

“Artists are very accessible today, way more accessible than I ever was,” she says. “Everything is on social media, you know. There’s just a whole new world that’s out there that really causes you to be extra vulnerable. [But] it’s important to a career.”

Taryn Papa — who rode a strong voice through several rounds on NBC’s The Voice in 2020 — gets it. She’s on year nine in Nashville, which is widely referred to as a 10-year town. She plays bars in the Lower Broadway entertainment district four nights a week, typically rotating between Blake Shelton’s Ole Red and Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row, and sometimes appearing at John Rich’s Redneck Riviera. She also writes three days a week, meaning she’s singing every day. Papa spends parts of the afternoon pursuing concert bookings and has been scouring the internet of late for an ideal duet partner for one of her newer compositions.

Related

Then there’s the social media activity. Papa maintains Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, and she regularly researches TikTok to see what’s trending before creating content that fits her own artistry. Sometimes those TikTok videos turn her fans into an extension of her team at Red Light Management, reinforcing the point of all that work.

“I just posted one in my car, and I had a few people message me saying, ‘How is this not on country radio?’ And they’re tagging Kelly Clarkson’s show,” Papa says. “That’s kind of encouraging for fans to be like, ‘Wow, this is a new country artist. What can I do?’ That’s exciting, to watch others try to help.”

Many artists are reticent to speak about the volume of work required just to get noticed — “You don’t want to sound like you’re ungrateful to work hard,” says Thomson — but the pressure placed on 21st-century acts is familiar to many executives on Music Row. And the demands have grown more intense in recent years.

“It is more than they were asked to do before, but what has happened is that nothing else has fallen off the plate,” says underscore works founder Charly Salvatore, who represents Priscilla Block, Logan Mize and Warren Zeiders. “So do we ask too much of artists? Probably, and then it’s the if-you-don’t-do-it-someone-else-will mind frame that comes in.”

That mindset has long tentacles. After spending years working hard to capture every ear or every “like” available, tamping down on that competitive drive can be challenging. Many successful artists encounter a period when it’s possible to flip the script and dial back on the social media participation or say no to offers they would have lunged for just months or years earlier. But saying no, particularly for people who gauge their impact by applause, is not as easy as it sounds.

“It does become untenable, I think, if you don’t have some sort of restrictor plate on the amount of content that’s created and the amount of interaction that’s happening with socials,” says Fisher Entertainment Consulting founder Pete Fisher, the former Grand Ole Opry GM and Academy of Country Music CEO who now represents Jessica Willis Fisher. “It can be a tool or a weapon in many respects.”

New tools often impact the kinds of music or artists that connect with the public. The invention of the ribbon microphone made it possible for Bing Crosby to emerge on radio, singing intimately to the listener in a reversal from the vaudevillian era when stage performers had to project to the back row of a theater. The electric guitar, used first in country music by Ernest Tubb to cut through the crowd noise in honky-tonks, added a metallic bite to the genre. Electronic keyboards and synthesizers facilitated pop music’s new wave movement in the early 1980s, and laptop plugins have had an obvious impact on the tone of country over the last decade.

Related

One can similarly expect the emergence of social media and TikTok to impact the kind of artists who will break through over the next decade. Clever and/or controversial people with a knack for socializing have an advantage over more introspective souls who have messages that require more than 15 seconds to fully captivate the listener’s attention. What connects with the audience is, after all, often dictated by the parameters of the platform it uses.

“I kind of grew up with MTV, and if I really go back through my tastes, it completely aligns with MTV,” Salvatore says. “Like when MTV first hit, I remember I loved Ratt. Why did I love Ratt so much? Hair metal was [one of] the first thing[s] that jumped off the screen on MTV. And then, to fast forward, I loved rap in the ’90s. That’s Yo! MTV Raps. It was being fed to me visually. Even down to Nirvana, it was really MTV that put them on a whole ‘nother level. [TikTok] is a different version of that to me.”

The new artists who find footing in the coming years will mostly do so through music and a personality that fit the platforms they utilize. While there are multiple ways to connect with the world, there’s no rule that says one has to use them all — or that the artist has to compromise themselves to wedge their brand onto a platform they find awkward.

“There are those artists that are fine pushing their art to fans, and then there are other artists who feel more comfortable pulling their fans to their art,” says Fisher. “You can look at it as, ‘OK, do we succeed through abundance, or do we succeed through scarcity?’”

Even if the act is aligned with the plan, the pressures that artists face in running a business, balancing current revenue against future goals or dealing with the exhaustion from unusual work hours and heavy travel schedules will ultimately take its toll. Finding emotional equilibrium is a key to survival.

Thomson, reflecting on her rough experience 20 years ago, says neither the label nor her management was the issue — she simply overextended herself trying to please too many people. She’s contemplating a return to recording on top of a hand-made jewelry business she developed, Haybelle Co. This time around, she believes she will be better able to say no when her schedule gets too full and feel fine about doing it.

“I wish I had learned to work out of rest, as opposed to work to rest,” Thomson says.

Papa, meanwhile, finds rejuvenation on her difficult days when she encounters the enthusiastic audience she has worked to develop.

“I have people at Ole Red, they wait two hours on a Friday, and I’ll get emails while I’m onstage: ‘Can you help me get in? I’ve been here for an hour and 15 minutes; I’m dying to see you,’” she says. “I get so many regular fans from all over. I get there, and I’m like, ‘Man, this is not about me anymore.’ I meet so many people that bring new life to what I’m doing daily that it just totally changes the set.”

Prioritizing the music is, in most cases, the key because it’s the art — and the audience — that bring the most joy to the work. The marketing efforts are simply a way to connect the act with the fans, though it’s the business pieces of the puzzle that will most often wear out modern artists. But in a DIY atmosphere, fatigue is, unfortunately, inescapable.

“It’s still about the talent: you can’t just be good at social media and not be a great musician,” Mitchell says. “If you’re really good at social media, that gets people to pay attention and see how good of an artist you are, and that’s what it’s there for. But it’s a lot of work.”

Subscribe to Billboard Country Update, the industry’s must-have source for news, charts, analysis and features. Sign up for free delivery every Monday.

DIY In Nashville: How New Business Demands Have Changed Modern Country and Its Artists A telling social media meme that juxtaposed two artists made an impact on Erv Woolsey Co. vp of new artist management and operations Allen Mitchell in recent months. The left picture, captioned ” ’80s/’90s singer/songwriter,” featured a half-drunk country artist lazing with a guitar…