Garth Brooks may be the biggest-selling singer of 1991, but he can’t get a hit on pop radio.
In November, Brooks, who has three albums on Billboard‘s top 200 albums chart, released a straightforward cover of ”Shameless,” a Billy Joel ballad. Though only the whine of a steel guitar marked it as country, the single shot to No. 1 on the country chart. Some 30 of the nation’s 227 Top 40 stations monitored by the music-industry weekly also added it to their playlists. But even with Brooks’ new album, Ropin’ the Wind, lodged for weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, most pop stations shunned his song like a payola scandal.
Country artists don’t cross over readily to pop — their records have to be promoted like any other product vying for Top 40 airtime, overcoming objections from program directors who feel even country’s biggest hits don’t fit their formats. And therein lies the rub. Country labels don’t have the budgets or the relationships with pop radio to get their records on the air.
Of course, at a major label the pop division might take charge. But that rarely happens, because a label’s country and pop divisions are organized as separate companies with different bottom lines. Pop-radio promoters naturally don’t want to plug country songs, since any chart success they engineered would create competition for their own pop acts. ”As long as an artist is signed to the Nashville division,” says one Nashville label publicist, ”no pop office, with its Rolodexes full of Top 40 radio programmers, is going to lift a finger to make the Nashville executives rich.”
But then mainstream country artists may not even want Top 40 airplay. ”As soon as the country audience thinks an artist has abandoned them and gone ‘pop,”’ assesses Joe Mansfield, Capitol Nashville’s vice president for sales and marketing, ”they say, ‘To heck with you, pal. I helped make you and support you, and now you think you’re too good for me.’ Garth doesn’t care if he’s not on Z100 in New York.”
Besides, country radio has grown as big as Top 40 as many youthful radio listeners have crossed over to the Nashville side of the dial. (Last summer’s Arbitron ratings showed country nosing out the pop format for the first time.) ”Rap and contemporary hit radio are driving people out by the carloads,” says Brooks, ”and they’re coming to country. I may not be a purely traditional singer, but I do consider myself country, and I’m very proud to just stay where I am.”