If We Make It Through December: 2020 Hindsight Starts With COVID-19

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We find ourselves at the end, according to some pundits, of the worst year ever.

Thanks to an erratic government response, COVID-19 has killed nearly 300,000 Americans, unemployment remains high, major cities are beset by lengthy food lines, and one-third of citizens are likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. Add in racial tensions, a soaring national debt and the increasing toll of climate change, and… well… can we just get to 2021?

This year has naturally been a challenge in country music, too. COVID-19 decimated the concert sector in particular, with cancellations causing some venues to permanently close, leaving road crews and musicians without an income and frustrating a large amount of artists unable to pursue part of their dream at the peak point in their career. To add insult to injury, three artists of significance — Songwriters Hall of Fame member John Prine, modern honky-tonk singer Joe Diffie and Country Music Hall of Fame member Charley Pride — died from COVID-19-related complications.

It. Has. Been. Bad.

But 2021 is another year, and there is reason for optimism. For starters, the rollout of the first vaccines brings a hazy promise of future tours.

Plus, country music is establishing its next wave of stars, and some areas of the business are demonstrating their adaptability, a necessary trait for survival.

Leading that new-artist class are Luke Combs, Gabby Barrett and Morgan Wallen. Combs, who topped eight of Billboard’s year-end country charts for the second year in a row, has now spent 35 weeks at No. 1 on Top Country Albums with his sophomore LP, What You See Is What You Get, and is the only country act to rule for at least that long with each of his first two albums. His “Forever After All” likewise became the first track by a solo country male to debut at No. 2 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100.

Barrett’s inaugural single, “I Hope,” has now spent a cool 20 weeks atop Hot Country Songs, appropriate since the anger in its lyrics mirrors the level of revenge many would like to exact on 2020. The song’s life was extended by a Charlie Puth collaboration, and it ultimately became only the fourth track to hit the summit on both Country Airplay and the all-genre Radio Songs chart.

Wallen, fresh off his best new artist victory at the Country Music Association Awards, became the first act to debut two separate titles (“Somebody’s Problem” and “Still Goin Down”) within the top 10 on Hot Country Songs in the same week.

The genre’s ability to adjust — albeit sluggishly, in some regards — taps into the creativity inherent in music. The most obvious adaptation came with the widespread use of Zoom, a program that many (likely most) had never heard of at the start of the year. Executives have essentially mastered the art of working from home via video hookup, even if it does create a level of fatigue. Live online platforms have also proved valuable for concerts, for benefits, for writing songs and even for recording sessions, providing a new avenue of connection when isolation is a necessary part of most lifestyles.

On-demand streaming in country is up more than 6% over 2019, and TikTok has emerged as a new vehicle for artist development in the genre. Trey Lewis, Priscilla Block, Andrew Jannakos and SarahBeth Taite all made Hot Country Songs chart debuts with TikTok breakouts, while several acts — including Sony Music Nashville’s Jaden Hamilton and Warner Music Nashville’s Robyn Ottolini — parlayed exposure on the platform into major-label deals.

After years of gross underrepresentation, women made strides at country radio, though the results were mixed. The current Country Airplay chart, for example, boasts one or more females on six of the top 20 singles, a major gain from two years ago when the corresponding chart (dated Dec. 15, 2018) did not feature any women in that same range. Not that the issue is resolved: The year-end Top Country Airplay Artists list is solidly male in its first 15 spots, with Maddie & Tae finally offering femme harmonies at No. 16.

Similarly, advances could be felt in minority representation. Following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, country’s awareness of its lack of Black representation in both the creative and executive ranks was heightened. A segment of the business became more vocal about the disparity, and the Country Music Association’s awards show offered a notably larger Black presence on-screen, with Maren Morris using her final acceptance speech for a shoutout specifically to female artists of color, including Yola, Brittany Spencer and Rissi Palmer. Weeks later, Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” an emotional recount of her own experiences with discrimination, broke a barrier in the Grammy Awards as the first nomination for a Black solo female in a country category.

While 2020 was tough, 2021 should be better, and there are signs that country is addressing some of its deficiencies. But don’t count on next year to be a walk in the park, either. Futurist David Houle, a keynote speaker at the 2012 Country Radio Seminar, has for several years characterized the 2020s as the most disruptive decade in history. And the new year will likely not mark some return to a prior status quo.

“The only normal this decade,” he wrote here, “is abnormality.”

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