Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Programmers Welcome Country’s New Clearasil Brigade, But With Caution

This is Phyllis Stark's article she wrote for on 2/2/10. My comments in the article are highlighted.

by Phyllis Stark,

Less than two months after Taylor Swift aged out of her teen years, Nashville labels have a batch of new teenage acts lined up for release to country radio this year. These include “iCarly” TV star Jenette McCurdy (Capitol), Tyler Dickerson (Lyric Street), Jordyn Shellhart (Sony) and the band SHEL (Republic Nashville) comprising four sisters ages 16, 19, 20 and 21.

This sudden abundance of teen acts is reminiscent of exactly 10 years ago when—following the success of LeAnn Rimes and Lila McCann—there was a previous Clearasil brigade at country radio (all females that time around), including teens Jessica Andrews (DreamWorks), Alecia Elliott (MCA), and a trio of 11th graders known as 3 Of Hearts (RCA), as well as 20 year olds Rebecca Lynn Howard (MCA) and Jennifer Day (BNA).

Of the new batch of teen acts, Dickerson is the first out of the gate. His debut single, “Tell Your Sister I’m Single,” has just begun being worked to country radio and appears to be receiving a favorable response thus far. Dickerson has the distinction of being a teenage boy, something the format hasn’t seen since Blaine Larsen made his debut in 2004 at age 18.

While, of course, nearly everything will depend on the music these teens produce for the format, radio programmers are generally unconcerned about having a new batch of underage acts, even though virtually no country stations actively target teens, or even young adults. Swift’s proven ability to bring in younger demos may have helped pave the way for some younger stars.

“A hit is a hit,” says WBCT Grand Rapids, Mich., OM Doug Montgomery, who is excited about McCurdy’s upcoming debut in the format since he watches “iCarly” with his daughters. “If the song is a hit, it should be played. I don’t really care if is a kid or an extra-terrestrial singing it.”

WUSN Chicago APD/MD Marci Braun thinks this new crop of teen acts will be healthy for country radio. “Bring it on,” she says. “As a format, it can only be a good thing that Taylor brings younger, active listeners to our format. They’ll get to discover other artists, [and] hopefully buy some of their music as well. Plus, I hope they stick around and listen to us.”

Ryan Dokke, APD/MD at WKKT Charlotte, N.C., says if the music is right, younger artists “are great for the format. I don’t imagine we’ll see anything like we’ve seen with Taylor for a while, but if a young artist brings a few stellar songs to the table, it can’t hurt the format by converting a younger group of people to country P1s.”

“I’m for anything that will bring new cume to the format, although the chances of one of these new younger acts having the same success as Taylor Swift is pretty slim,” agrees John Paul, senior director of country programming for Dial Global and PD of the network’s Hot Country format. “I bet one of these new acts will have some success, the rest will probably eventually go away.

But, Paul cautions, “We need to make sure we aren’t afraid to be a country station. Having artists like Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser [and] Alan Jackson keep at least one of our feet firmly grounded in country. I think as long as there is balance in the music we are OK. It’s all about balancing the sound and not leaning too young/poppy or too traditional.”

“Country is the last ‘Big Tent’ format. Everyone’s invited in,” says KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas APD Smokey Rivers. “So it’s important that we not only cater to the center of the audience (35-44), but to also constantly work the edges of the audience demos as well. Mainstream artists that attract the center will always be in abundance. Plus, we can count on Reba, George and Alan to keep the 45+ folks interested. But maintaining a real presence with the 18-34 crowd has always been much harder to do. While younger artists have the potential to bring us much-needed new cume, you have to really pick your shots. But make no mistake; we must constantly be listening for acts that can bring young audiences into our tent now. Young P2s and P3s grow up to be solid P1s.”

But Rivers urges caution as well. “Taylor is fulfilling a need right now for the younger female side of the audience, but her success doesn’t signal a sudden shift in our core audience’s expectations,” he says. “The basic radio rules still apply. Over-delivering on new, younger acts will cause a station to become unfamiliar and that spells disaster. To work the younger fringes of the format adequately, you only need a couple of strong acts to break through. But you have to closely follow the audience’s lead to know who those artists are.”

Despite teen acts being well below the target age of most country stations, programmers say the audience is not as concerned with age as with content.

“I don’t think the younger demo cares about the age of the singer, but I’ve heard from many upper demo listeners (45+) that aren’t Taylor fans because they can’t relate with songs like ‘Fifteen,’” says Paul. “The older the audience, the more the age becomes a factor.”Montgomery agrees that “songs like ‘Fifteen,’ because of the narrow appeal, are going to be a concern, but no more so than songs about putting asses in sand like Zac Brown Band’s ‘Toes,’ because some listeners are upset by the word ‘ass.’”

“The core audience [instinctively] knows when an artist is too young for the station,” says Rivers. “Men especially notice it. They are also vocal about it if they sense they’re hearing too much of it. But I think the country audience also understands that you have to play newer and younger acts. The key is whether there truly is something compelling with the artist, their back-story or the song. That’s why Taylor’s music has worked so well for us. She’s so unique a talent that she immediately breaks through. The teen acts that are sure to come along will not have such luck. Taylor was first in that particular category, and first in wins.”

Braun is unconcerned about the age of the acts not matching radio’s target audience. “These teens and young adults will grow into our demo,” she says. “If we balance it correctly, we can both serve our demo while trying to bring in the younger audience. But balance is very important.”

Dokke is also among those who think the audience doesn’t care about how old the artist is. “We live in an age where a lot of the listening is controlled by ‘the kids.’ If the songs are great and relatable, whether targeted to the middle of the demo or younger, then I don’t think it matters the age of the audience,” he says.

Still, Dokke cautions, “I hope we don’t see every label trying to create a version of their own Taylor Swift. I don’t think I totally understand the rush to put these 14 and 15 and even 16 year olds out there so soon. Why can’t we let these kids finish school and have normal lives?”

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