Musgraves, Carlile and The Vast Niche
Think pieces galore have hit the web today after the triumphant Grammys night for both Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile. Two artists born of stylized country roots with just enough off-kilter, rough edge to not fit the traditional molds. Artists that are thriving in the niches and moving the mass needle to them instead of bending to it. No radio support, the big machine doesn’t fire on all cylinders for artists such as this. Gender issues at country radio are as well documented as the tomato crop reports in California. Musgraves created a modern masterpiece that evoked country music while pushing it in new directions. Carlile delivered a Dave Cobb-produced wonder work that highlights her beautifully soaring voice both in pen and vocals. These are artists with something to say and a unique way to say it. They have responded to the world around them by turning to lyric books. Their viewpoint is nontraditional and fights against what most of the gatekeepers hold dear.
Their work has resonated online and in nontraditional mediums like the blogosphere, Howard Stern and YouTube. It doesn’t matter a hill of beans to their longtime fans and champions, but there’s still something very cool about the music you hold most dear gaining validation. It’s like a kid from your hometown getting called up to the Yankees. Sure, it’s been fun watching him crush it in the backyard all these years, but going up to bat on the YES Network is a bit different. Not better, just grander. The Grammys don’t mean what they used to, and they’ve been losing relevancy for decades. Same for corporate country radio. There’s a charade and game to be played to get airplay and more artists are finding out it’s not worth it for them to play that game. They have changed the rules, by not playing by them. Musgraves in particular has cornered the market and conquered the game by refusing to traipse around kissing the brass ring of radio. This pattern obviously excludes stations such as The Ranch, KNBT, KOKE etc who play what they want; games, rules, traditions and expectations be damned. As the slogan from our good friend Mattson Rainer says, “contrary to ordinary.” An apt description for radio done right that can be applied to the larger discussion. These two acts are contrary to ordinary and by doing that they’ve made their particular brand of music a pillar from which to build.
Last night’s triumph by Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile provides hope that maybe the future isn’t as bleak as we had all predicted for the music industry. Play to the niches and if the mainstream finds you, great…if not, that’s great too. Either way, you’ll still be here speaking your artistic truth and the audiences (and avenues) that are honestly seeking truth, fulfillment and depth in song will find you too. To echo Drake’s acceptance speech, that’s the biggest reward one can have. If you have fans and people who love your music, even if it isn’t an astronomical figure…that’s all the trophy you need. Musgraves and Carlile figured this out a long time ago, it just took the Grammys until 2019 to join them.