The Problem With Reality Shows?

Why do country music labels decide to sign and foster reality show contestants at the expense of nuturing and promoting talent organically? We come up with a couple reasons and a solution to the problem.

Written by Matt Bjorke

The old tried and true method of attaining success in country music was to move to town, hone your skills as a songwriter and then record an album. Other paths to country stardom in the past included being a local star and being sought out by labels. Nowadays, there is the a newer trend, that of contestant on the plethora of musical shows on TV. When it first started out on the USA Network, "Nashville Star" seemed like it was basically an extension of the old way of doing things. It just had the added bonus of being on TV where artists gained fans in addition to a record label. American Idol came out about the same time as Nashville Star and over the years it has churned out 8 artists who are now signed to Nashville labels, 6 of them on major labels.

With the success of Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Josh Gracin, Bucky Covington and now Phil Stacey, it seems that American Idol spotlights one country artist a season and that artist gets signed to a record deal. 2007's season of American Idol gave the country music world "Kristy Lee Cook, an artist who was signed to Arista Records back at the turn of the century as a Taylor Swift-like, Britney gone-country artist. When pop turned tides, Arista cut Kristy lee loose. Now, eight years later, the young female-oriented country/pop sound is back and so is Kristy with Arista, thanks to American Idol.

Is this good or bad? The answer to that question depends on who you ask but from a strictly commercial country music standpoint. It’s good. These TV artists have a built-in fan base that ensures their albums will open strong and stay strong as the rest of the country music audience, still primarily a radio-listening one, takes notice of them. Not all of these artists are going to turn out into Carrie Underwood-sized stars but if they show enough personality, like Kellie Pickler does, their careers will grow. From an artistic point-of-view or even a 'traditionalist' point of view, the signing of all the female country artists from American Idol and Nashville Star has the labels following trends, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle the way they did with Underwood and with non-reality TV (but media savvy) Taylor Swift.

History shows us that following trends in order to generate stars typically doesn't work. While artists in the boom time of the 1990's garnered gold and platinum records, where are those artists now? Remember Bryan White? He had lots of success being virtually the male equivalent of Taylor Swift, a young singer/songwriter taking a genre by storm. Other artists like James Bonamy and Jason Sellers followed suit and neither of them sustained much of a career beyond their two albums.

If country labels are looking to grow the next generation of genre leaders, they need to be fostering careers that follow paths like Kenny Chesney's. While he's no great traditionalist, Chesney started small, built a mid-level career and then exploded as a superstar. Keith Urban has taken virtually the same path to his own status as a top-drawer talent (although he still opens shows for Chesney's Stadium tours). Building careers organically is the way that country music can ensure continued success while following the hot flash in the (not to say that Taylor Swift is one, that remains to be seen) typically doesn't bode well for long-standing careers or country music.