Chart Success is Overrated
Why a fanbase is more important.
Back in the old days of country music, and music in general, a fanbase went hand in hand with chart success. While there were some small exceptions, the artists with the biggest fanbases often found the most success. Artists like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix carry massive fanbases to this day, and had massive chart-topping careers.
Back then, you had to sell physical copies of records to chart. People had to go out and buy their favorite singles on 45s, or if they really liked you, spend a little extra and buy a whole album. This is why having a fanbase was pretty much directly correlated to chart success.
There also just wasn’t much saturation, so if you liked an artist, you stuck with them. A new artist wasn’t accessible with the tap of your finger. Buying albums and liking an artist was much more of a commitment. If Mom gives you a crisp fiver to go down to the record store every month and buy yourself a new album, you’re probably not going to want to risk buying from a new artist.
Radio was also very helpful, as it exposed people to new artists without them having to make that monetary investment so quickly. Even then though, it was possible for chart success to not equal fans. There were plenty of one hit wonders in that time, albeit much much less frequently. A song would come on the radio and everyone would be writing and calling in to their local stations begging for it to be played again. Then that artist would release their album and fans just wouldn’t love it as much and they’d fade as quickly as they appeared.
This article isn’t about that period of time though, this is about present day.
I was browsing Instagram at one point, maybe a year or so ago, and saw a post on the country music singer Chris Young’s page. I don’t remember what the post was, but a comment caught my eye.
Someone was bashing Chris’ new music, and telling him his old stuff was much better, as he is one of the many artists who has shifted very far into the pop-country genre. The version of “country” music that Nashville is pushing super hard right now. I don’t condone bashing artists for shifting their sound at all, but Chris Young’s response to this was very intriguing to me. He responded with some form of “That type of music doesn’t chart high and what I’m making now does.”
I don’t want to talk too much about Young’s music because I am a massive fan of his older stuff, but his new stuff is easy to see as soulless chart grabs. I think this is reflected by his comment as well. Just look at the super creative phrasing, and interesting lyricism on “Voices” — the song that got me into Chris Young way back in 2010 and the great country sound of “The Man I Want To Be” which is the song that put him on the map in 2009. Now compare those to his newer song “Famous Friends” with Kane Brown. There’s just such a vast difference in the quality and uniqueness of these songs.
The thing I don’t understand is that his older songs were doing great on the charts. As a matter of fact starting with “Gettin’ You Home” in 2009 he never had a single outside of the top 5 on the US Country Airplay charts. Yes — his new stuff is still charting well, but his reasoning behind the move from country to pop country just doesn’t make sense because he never took a chart hit from putting out real country singles. His singles have also been on decline since the shift as well, “Famous Friends” did go number one but it received massive amounts of marketing and radio airplay, as well as having a feature from a new big name artist.
This isn’t a Chris Young article though so I’ll move on to the main point.
The point I wish I could get across to these new country artists, and honestly, every artist; is that their labels are lying to them. Their labels feed them the idea that chart position is the only thing that implies success and is the only way to make money. Nashville nowadays is all about charts, and that’s a damn crying shame. Nashville labels are actively harming country music and it’s future by pushing pop music out under the guise of country.
I have no issue with pop music or country artists making it. Hell, Kacey Musgraves is one of my favorite artists right now and her recent album was 100% pop. The thing I take issue with, is Nashville labels pushing out pop music for the sake of money and widespread appeal under the ruse that it’s country, and telling their artists that everyone loves them and they have so many fans.
Chart success does not equal fans. That’s the bottomline. If you think that’s the case I would urge you to look up Dustin Lynch tour venues and compare them to Tyler Childers tour venues. You can also do the same with their Wikipedia pages.
Tyler Childers has never had a song chart anywhere near top 25, yet he is widely regarded as one of the best artists in country today, and has a massive fanbase. Lynch has had plenty of chart success but I’ve never once heard someone say they’re a Dustin Lynch fan.
Luke Combs is evidence that charts do not equal fans, but fans can equal chart success. Luke Combs is arguably the biggest star in country music right now. He got his start by cutting his teeth in the bars of Boone, NC, and writing songs and posting them on social media. Combs gained a small fanbase before he ever released an album. He slowly built his following until he was finally ready to release an album and it immediately blew up.
The fans he had gained already were die hards and listened to the album, told their friends, and then it just gained from there until it was big enough for the country sphere to take notice. He maintained his neo-traditional sound and a humble relatability and gained even more fans from there. He gives special deals to his fan club which he has dubbed “Bootleggers” and always makes sure his fanbase is at the forefront of everything he does. This is what equals long-term success.
Luke Combs dominates the charts now because of his pre-built fanbase, and because he stayed true to the music they love.
A year before he released his breakout single “Hurricane” he played it in the second ever upload on his YouTube, on a balcony with some friends. The comments on this video are so fun to look at because it’s his fans genuinely wishing him success, that he ended up getting.
Fans are how you get remembered in music. Fans are the lifeblood. You might make money, you might hit the charts, but without fans, nobody is going to remember you. John Prine was one of the greatest writers of all time. He never had much chart success, but he will always be remembered because he made art that he and his fans loved. There are artists that ruled the charts in as recent as 2010 that we’ve already forgotten about because they were just chart hogs.
A fanbase is how you grow, a fanbase is how you make sure you don’t get lost in the ever-changing tides of music. Labels don’t give a damn about you. They want the money you make them. Of course they’re going to tell you charts are all that matters, because that is what makes money in the short term. They don’t care about the longevity of your career, they can always pick up a new schmuck off the streets of Nashville who can make the same exact cookie cutter pop music that you’re making.
Be unique, be irreplaceable, make sure your fans are the focus. If you have a dedicated fanbase, it doesn’t matter if you’re on Big Machine Records, or an independent label, you will find success.