Popping Up 

Country, Twain cross the boundary

Country, Twain cross the boundary

Don’t be alarmed if you’ve heard Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One” lately on WRVW 107.5 FM. The Top 40 station hasn’t gone country—country music is just going pop again.

Twain’s single—along with LeAnn Rimes’ hit “How Will I Live”—may be the start of a developing trend, as country labels work their pop-sounding singles at Top 40 and adult contemporary radio. Of course, this isn’t a new trend—in previous years, Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, Restless Heart, and Crystal Gayle all found success in the pop world. But crossover country does appear to be on the upswing again.

“The big difference between now and the ’80s is that country was making records to cross over to pop, and now we’re just making great music that crosses over,” says Bill Macky, MCA Nashville’s director of national promotion. “I don’t think any record we make is made with the intention of crossing over. Our focus is country. If we find the audience or reception at [country] radio isn’t there, we owe it to the acts to find another opportunity to break them.”

True enough, MCA is looking to other formats to promote The Mavericks’ “Dance the Night Away,” as well as Olivia Newton John’s rerecording of “I Honestly Love You.” Arista, meanwhile, recently sent BR5-49 into the studio with producer Steve Albini, in hopes that Albini’s indie/alt-rock cred might help the group reach a younger, hipper audience.

But the pop market, obviously, remains the most lucrative, and right now country’s female singers seem to have the most potential for crossing over. Warner Bros. has taken Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” to pop radio, and Mercury will eventually pitch the Shania Twain-Bryan White duet “From This Moment On” to pop radio—sans White’s vocals.

“The pop game is the absolute pinnacle of promotion in the record business,” says Chris Stacey, Mercury Nashville’s director of alternative artist development/promotion. “It’s fiercely competitive; the stakes financially are very, very high because you have to roll the big dice. You have to bankroll a lot of money to spend [on] marketing and promotion.” The higher investment relates directly to the larger scale of activity at a record company’s main office: A country promotion staff may have a five-man team, but the promotion staff in the label’s New York office will have upwards of 15 people working at least six different formats.

Being on the margins of the pop world, country labels are obviously at a disadvantage when they make such a big financial gamble. But the payoff can be worth it, propelling an act’s career to another level—and bringing in tens of millions of dollars for the record company. As Stacey explains, Shania Twain’s pop success “had an absolutely huge impact on our sales. We’ve sold almost 5 million units on the new album. We were receiving 20,000 spins every single week. The number-one country single gets 5,000 to 6,000, so you can imagine the impact.”

In the most recent issue of Billboard, Twain’s Come on Over ranks No. 13 on the pop albums chart; the record peaked several weeks ago at No. 2. Garth Brooks, himself no stranger to pop crossover, is currently registering on the chart with The Limited Series, which sits at No. 31 and peaked at No. 1. Rimes’ Sittin’ on Top of the World, meanwhile, sits at No. 35 and peaked at No. 3.

Pop radio hasn’t been this receptive to country singles since the ’80s, says Curb Records vice president Claire Parr. “The climate at pop radio is back to really great songs again, and that’s going to lend itself to country music at times. It depends upon the sales of the artist, but more importantly, does this record sound right for pop radio? That will be the litmus test every time.

“We in the music business think in terms of formats and boundaries, but a lot of the listeners don’t,” she says, noting the success of non-mainstream acts like Lyle Lovett. “They buy artists because [the artists] motivate them emotionally. I don’t know if it will ever be the norm, but when it’s appropriate, it’s great for the artist.”

Record promoters all agree that the pop game isn’t easy to play because pop stations tend to be prejudiced against country acts. In addition, country labels are generally forced to turn over pop promotion to sister offices in New York or Los Angeles, which may or may not view the record as a priority. “Let’s face it—a lot of times very worthy records get lost in the shuffle of the New York or Los Angeles offices,” Stacey says.

Meanwhile, a foray into pop can bring about a cool reception at country radio as well, because some country programmers are offended when country songs are taken outside of their format. “Shania Twain first and foremost is a country artist,” Stacey says. “We have had 14 hits on that format, so we know, so to speak, where our bread is buttered. Country radio got Shania Twain to her superstar status—so sure, there is always going to be some protectiveness. Other formats have a lot of sharing of artists, particularly coming from urban and alternative, but country has been a one-format game for a long time.

“However, if she keeps writing and making music that transcends the boundaries that Nashville has so strictly entrenched in its mind, we’re not doing our job as a label if we don’t get it exposed to as many people as we possibly can.”

For his part, WSIX music director Dave Kelly doesn’t take offense when country labels try to court pop stations. As he points out, a country crossover hit only proves that country music has mass appeal. “When someone hears a Garth Brooks record,” he says, “I want them to think they are listening to a country station.”

Macky, meanwhile, believes that country’s pop flavor could have a detrimental long-term impact on country. “It hurts the core format,” he says, adding that his theory has yet to be proven. “A few records on the chart are very pop-leaning. Will that hurt the format as a whole? It’s too soon to tell.” Of course, this isn’t a new dilemma—ever since Chet Atkins tried to reach pop audiences in the early ’60s with the lush Nashville Sound, country has been grappling with questions of stylistic integrity.

Whatever the case, today’s record promoters agree that country artists courting the pop market will remain the exception, not the rule. What’s more, they say, this strategy only works once the act is firmly established in the country arena. “I don’t think it’s feasible,” Stacey says, “that you can sign an act to a country label, work it at country first, and then have as part of your original game plan to cross it to pop.”


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