“I’m not in the prediction business,” says Jaron Lowenstein, aka Jaron And The Long Road To Love. “I don’t care what I think. I can listen to a song and go ‘That’s really good,’ but I would never put a dollar behind that gut feeling. A business that operates on the one-out-of-ten rule is not a good model, but that’s the artist development traditional philosophy that Nashville record companies use most. In Nashville, we still just find an artist and sign them and spend upwards of a million dollars tweaking the music and sending them on a radio tour. And all this happens before the audience, who the music industry works for, has decided if they like the product. That’s pretty ego driven, with everything riding on someone’s opinion.
“A guy like Universal Republic Records head Monte Lipman, approaches the task with a seed of honesty saying, ‘I know what I like, but I’m a 45-year old man. I don’t know what a 16-year old kid wants. So I’m not going to sit up here in an ivory tower and try to tell them what to like.’ He works backwards. They’ll find something that is already working and then expand it.”
Lowenstein continues, “You simply can’t break acts by trying to jam them up the radio charts. Oh wait, I’m sorry. In Nashville you actually can do that because the talent pool simply doesn’t match up with the pop world. It’s night and day and I include myself in that. As far as showmanship and well rounded talents you can’t put someone from Nashville up against say Pink for example. Pink, is a rock star. Pink, Beyonce and others, these are mega, world stars for a reason. They are visionaries who continually push the envelope. Pop music says, ‘I don’t give a crap who you are, what you look like, the color of your skin, or what your name is, nothing. All I want is to find the best 3 minute musical experience.’ Take Nashville’s biggest star, Taylor Swift who really is a pop star. She is better than anyone else in this town as far as star quality, and a great writer, but the competition and the level of the pop playing field is incredible. And country radio is the opposite of pop. It’s all about ‘Who’s your buddy?’ Play the game and then you are in. The top 15 or 20 slots on country radio are always reserved for the same people, always. And that’s why country music is ten years behind pop music.
“How do I know that country music is ten years behind? Because everyone gives me credit for coming to Nashville and reinventing myself. However, if you listen to my record ‘Pray For You’ you’ll see it’s identical to the pop music I was making in 2000. I didn’t do anything different. And by the way, there are a lot of pop songwriters in Nashville now and some of the songs on the radio are really their sound, only performed by guys who are willing to shake hands and play the game and be someone’s buddy. Program directors don’t pick the best songs, they pick the songs from their friends. That’s just how it is. Once in a while something will break through. Like me, I was an exception to the rule. I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. “Pray For You” became the fifth best selling song of the year, but never went Top 10. They were reluctant to play it, but had to because it was a novelty song.
“And incidentally, that song was one of several that I experimented with online. I did my research. I didn’t go ask executives on Music Row, because frankly I don’t care what they think. They don’t know anything. I’m not knocking Music Row, I’m saying me too. I’m not the consumer, I’m 37 years old, outside the 18-34 coveted demo zone. Opinions, including my own, mean nothing to me. What business puts out $500k-$1 million to buy someone’s opinion? Some executive sitting in an office on the Row says, ‘Yeah that kid’s great lets go.’ And that’s it? To me that’s insane.”
Lowenstein says that in Nashville relationships can drive success and offers Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta who he worked with on his recent Universal Republic hit as an example. “I have a great relationship with Big Machine,” he says. “I love those guys. I’m using them as an example, but really talking about the whole industry. I’m just saying what everyone already knows. Scott is great at what he does. He’s a charismatic guy, a winner and a hard worker. He has very good taste, but that doesn’t mean that, like the rest of us, he is never wrong. He’s also very efficient and can jam a bad act up the charts better than anybody. He wields so much power now that no one wants to tell him, ‘No.’”
“Do you think that anyone in this town would ever write a disparaging review on Taylor Swift or another of their big acts? No. Everything in Nashville is all buddy buddy, friend friend, love you love you. Save the shit for behind closed doors. And that is great, but it doesn’t help everybody. There is nothing provocative in Nashville. No one has an opinion. And nobody picks a wall. Everyone plays it right down the middle. Because if you do step outside that zone, who’s going to buy the ads? And that’s what happened to me. I took myself out of play because I didn’t want to paint the same picture twice. I didn’t want to have to go to dinner and make buddy buddy with someone I didn’t want to spend time with. Whether you can make me the biggest star or not, I don’t give a shit.”
Part Two–The Beautiful Prison
Conventional wisdom in Nashville says that country artists have the most loyal fans on the planet. But Lowenstein, says that simply isn’t true, they are loyal to the genre, the artists are expendable. “This is a mind blowing realization, I just came to a few weeks ago,” he says. “Country music is the only genre in which the fans don’t care about the artist. They are loyal to the genre. It is very weird. Yes, that seems to fly in the face of what everyone in this town says, but it’s true. Artists get up at the awards and say, “I’d like to thank country music…and I’m country.” Nobody ever gets up at any awards and says I love alternative music, I love pop music. Kids don’t say, ‘I like pop music,’ for example. They may say ‘I love a band, or a local radio station,’ but they don’t love the genre. Country music did a brilliant job of branding itself, unlike any other genre and has held onto the monopoly. So people say, ‘I love Country.’ If country radio doesn’t accept you, then who else doesn’t? The country fans. Once an act is out of radio’s good graces they are done and the country fans are on to the next one.
“How do I know people love country music, but don’t care who’s up there, because Vince Gill has over 36 CMA, ACM and Grammy awards. How come he’s not selling the same numbers a George Strait? How come he’s not playing arenas? Probably because he’s not in country radio’s good graces. Whether he chose to take himself out or not, I don’t know. But, for example, even successful artists like Brad Paisley, if they stop having country radio hits, then 3-5 years later they’ll be back to playing small clubs. Even Jewel, can’t get arrested here. The country fans won’t buy her records, but she still goes out and does big ticket sales because of her pop following. And there’s lots of examples. In fact, the only exception I’ve found is Garth Brooks.”
But doesn’t this same thing happen to pop music stars who have faded out of the airplay spotlight?
“No it doesn’t,” Lowenstein responds. “Look at James Taylor. When is the last time he had a damn hit? Springsteen, Buffett, the Avett Brothers and many others, all still have large followings.
“Everyone at country radio is interchangeable and therein lies the reason I call it the beautiful prison. Talented artists, that make the same record every time out. Do you think they really want to? No, they’re in the beautiful prison. They’re afforded this great life, but somewhere that artistic soul inside has to be miserable. Or it’s asleep. Picasso never painted the same picture twice. Henry Ford said something to the effect of, ‘If I had listened to my customers I would have given them more horses.’ True visionaries don’t do the same thing twice. It’s our job to see things other people don’t see and push.
At any given time on country radio, there are probably no more than 5 good current songs. The rest was paid for one way or another. That is the reality. You can black ball me all you want, I’m still going to tell the truth.”
• • •
About Jaron Lowenstein: His sarcastic single “Pray For You” (Jaron And The Long Road To Love) which he co-wrote, went Top 20 on country radio last year and sold over one million downloads. The album sold about 150,000 units. Lowenstein was also one half of Evan and Jaron a duo with his identical twin that had the multi-platinum selling song “Crazy For This Girl” in the late ‘90s. He is an active student of social media and fan engagement. On Facebook JATLRTL has over 160,000 likes. His Twitter feed has over 9,000 followers. His YouTube channel, Jaronwoodvideo has close to 13 million views. He has recently been touring as part of the Cordovas. (http://jaronatlrtl.com/)