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April 25, 2010 / Julia Hughan

From Skaggs to the Taylor Swift methodology of online marketing.

I have spent my recent weeks immersing myself in the works of Ricky Skaggs. This experience (and lack of motivation to interchange the artist selection on my iPod) has provided me with a further understanding of why it should be de rigueur to force country music’s hand occasionally, as seen in the movement away from the pop country that was diluting radio airwaves at the time towards the direction of the neotraditionalist movement.

Of course, the source of this minor personal revelation is the following article caught my attention:

Opinion: Is Taylor The New Garth; Does History Repeat?

November 16, 2009 | David M Ross

Country’s last popularity peak was spearheaded by Garth Brooks who attracted both countryphiles and musicphiles—fans with a wide variety of musical tastes. Today there are a great many similarities to those times with the media’s strong attraction toward Taylor Swift and her music which to date has sold over 10 million records.

When Garth was riding his wave of popularity he helped, (and was helped), by what we now call the class of ’89. Is there a new class of ’09? Hot acts were showcased on the CMA Awards such as Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band, Jamey Johnson and Billy Currington.Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Sugarland, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride and Reba proved themselves current and cutting edge. It was an amazing tour de force of new, developing and established talents. Favorites such as

Could country be on the verge of a strong expansion lead by the 19-year-old singer/songwriter and reinforced by a vigorous rising class of appealing artists ready to benefit from the format’s increased attention? Let’s examine some of the recent dots on our tastemaker radar and see if they connect.

A lot of high profile happenings have taken place in a short timespan. The CMA Awards show this week drew its highest ratings since 2005 with an estimated 35 million viewers watching at least some portion of the show. Swift performed twice and won four trophies. The precocious prodigy also brought Saturday Night Live its best ratings of the season when she appeared as host and musical guest on Nov. 7. Bundle Swift’s recent appearance/performance on Oprah, the VMA/Kanye West incident which brought worldwide coverage, plus her sold-out tour and it is easy to see why she is now the largest selling artist across all formats. And where is she from? What does she call herself? [Answers: Nashville; country.]

A grassroots indication that attention is turning toward country music, also happened the day following the Awards when MusicRow.com experienced its largest ever one-day traffic numbers—a staggering increase of 37% over its previous all-time best day. People were searching out information about Swift, the awards and the format in numbers we have never seen before.

Is Taylor the new Garth? Will her magnetic popularity reconnect country with a larger multi-format audience? Is there a class of ’09? Time will tell, but it appears that a new energy in country music is starting to rumble across America. Hopefully we’ll see it reflected on the holiday sales charts. If these dots are connecting, it will mean good things for everyone on Music Row in the coming year. Bring it on!

“A grassroots indication that attention is turning toward country music, also happened the day following the Awards when MusicRow.com experienced its largest ever one-day traffic numbers—a staggering increase of 37% over its previous all-time best day. People were searching out information about Swift, the awards and the format in numbers we have never seen before.”

For me, there is nothing more important than that statement.

It is my own opinion that television, radio, print and even internet media must be considered as marketing tools for the music itself because ultimately for many low to mid level artists who are not selling platinum albums, it is the live gig that is continuing to thrive. This logic is more or less reminiscent of the way that medicine and vaudeville shows were exposure vehicles for folk singers prior to the introduction of the radio broadcast – a means to an end when record sales were not a significant stream of revenue.

With playlist limitations or the lack of proverbial parking spaces for artists at radio (thank you Catherine Britt for that analogy), it is not exactly a secret that it is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to garner mainstream notoriety. If one compounds the spacial limitations of country radio with the fact that big up and coming names are becoming few and far between, then it would be feasible to contend that we are currently witnessing a dry spell. New media makes it easier for us to consume music but it does not make it easier to discover new music for the casual radio listener. In order to “Google” someone, you have to hear the chorus in the car, or the DJ announcing the track – there has to be a previous knowledge or the artist of the song that the audience then seeks out. If we are not hearing this new music on radio or seeing their videos on television then that means negative implications for new music.

Now, from a purely conjectural perspective, Taylor Swift has the capacity to spawn mass interest and a need for new music discovery in certain audience sectors in a similar manner to Garth Brooks over a decade and a half a go (on a smaller level of course). At some stage, I want to delve into a direct focus on Taylor’s Swift’s own rise to fame: her use of MySpace, video blogging, social networking and embracing of new media technologies as a means of connecting with an increasingly participatory audience who will go almost anywhere in search of the interaction and the new forms of entertainment experiences they want. Taylor Swift has seemingly appropriated and innovated a fresh formula for other artists to take on board beyond the traditional country radio tour pushing, state fair playing and talk show appearing (if they are lucky) media run that many artists follow.

Obviously we are seeing similar behaviour (webisodes, Ustream chats, social media and viral campaigns, etc), but given time it will be interesting to see the repercussions if more artists followed suit.

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