The Future of Country Music Is on TikTok
“Radio made me,” once declared Fiddlin’ John Carson, one of the biggest stars in what was at the time called "hillbilly music" and widely considered the first person to ever record a country song.
In the near-century since Carson made his grand declaration, several eras of stars have played the country radio game and found mainstream success. But a new generation of country singers is forgoing the traditional route to stardom and connecting with fans using TikTok, rewriting the industry's unspoken rules around how a country star is supposed to look and sound in the process.
“I didn't have to do the playing-at-all-the-bars-on-Broadway circuit like a lot of artists have to do,” says Breland, whose ubiquitous country-trap hit “My Truck” is among the veritable smashes to emerge from the video-focused app. A songwriter by trade who didn’t even have a TikTok account when "My Truck" started to take off, Breland says that success gave him credibility when he came to Nashville.
“I didn’t have to play a bunch of writers’ rounds to get noticed,” he continues. “It gave me access to a lot of artists that I probably would not have had access to as quickly.”
Priscilla Block, one of a handful of rising country stars to be signed to a major label based on her success on TikTok, says that amassing an audience on the app gave her leverage when it came time to sign a record deal. “I went to the labels with fans, and a lot of times it doesn’t happen that way,” she notes.
“It’s kind of inevitable when they see that, wow, these are real people, these are people showing up to shows," adds Block, who signed with Mercury Nashville in September of 2020. "Why wouldn’t this make sense?”
Block first went viral in April of 2020 with an a cappella version of her then-unreleased song “PMS,” an irreverent and self-deprecating cut that’s of a piece with her body-positive anthem “Thick Thighs.” But it was “Just About Over You,” a ballad about running into an ex during a night out, that proved to be her big break.
"I got told time and time after again that I needed to lose weight to be in country music, but here I am," shares Block, who teased an unfinished version of "Just About Over You" on TikTok and Instagram's IGTV for weeks, inviting her followers to engage in a crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of recording a studio version of the song and encouraging them to pre-save the track once it had been recorded.
“Just About Over You” quickly went to No. 1 on the iTunes country and all-genre charts after its release. The song is currently sitting at No. 17 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, which makes Block the only solo woman in the Top 20.
For Robyn Ottolini, the Canadian singer-songwriter behind the viral hit “F-150,” finding country radio success as a woman means knowing which songs work for the format and which don’t. She sees herself as akin to Block, in the sense that both artists have songs geared toward the broader radio audience as well as songs that are more niche.
“Songs like "Just About Over You" and "F-150" are still our truth and are still very much us, but they hit a wider audience and they’re more palatable,” Ottolini explains, conceding that when it comes to the edgier songs, “the crowd that doesn’t like things usually is louder than the crowd that does like things.”
As for why “F-150” stalled at No. 59 at country radio, Ottolini sees it simply as a matter of not being able to properly promote the song, noting, “I think it was just timing.” She was living in her hometown of Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada, when “F-150” attracted the attention of label executives, and being Canadian meant clearing an extra hurdle (that is, securing a visa) before being able to go on radio tour — a longstanding tradition during which artists attempt to court program directors at stations across the country — in addition to logistical difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Terrestrial radio — a term that refers to a network of over 2,200 AM and FM country stations across the United States, the vast majority of which are owned by major media conglomerates (including Townsquare Media, which also owns The Boot) — remains a powerful form of discovery for country artists, despite the rise of satellite radio and an increasing pivot to streaming across all genres. However, a recent study from SongData found that only around 10 percent of the songs on country radio are sung by women, and the numbers are even bleaker for BIPOC and queer artists: Recent data suggest that artists of color account for fewer than 5 percent of the songs on country radio, while LGBTQ+ artists barely even register.
If you're not white, straight, male and backed by a major label, data — and artists' experiences — suggest that you'll struggle to get attention from country radio programmers. But Lily Rose, who signed to Big Loud Records in 2020 after her song “Villain” became a streaming hit, is reluctant to ascribe her song's lack of success at terrestrial radio to industry bias.
“I think "Villain" is just a little ahead of its time, sonically,” says Rose, who in January became one of only a handful of openly gay country artists signed to a major Nashville label. "I think it just has too many pop elements to pass market research, or whatever it may be."
Despite its pop-leaning sound, “Villain” — which topped SiriusXM channel The Highway's Hot 30 in August — is, in many ways, exactly the type of song that would theoretically do well at radio, as Rose herself points out. “It’s every element of country music: We tell an incredible story, it has a great hook, and it is very, very easy to learn the words and sing along to,” she explains. "And it's about heartbreak in a small town."
If the monstrous success of Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” — which is currently sitting at No. 2 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, having already topped the streaming-inclusive Hot Country Songs chart and peaked at No. 3 on the pop charts — is any indication, having a pop- or hip-hop-indebted sound isn’t necessarily a barrier to radio play. The question, then, becomes not whether artists can experiment with genre and still be considered "country enough" for radio, but which types of artists are allowed this freedom.
Breland, who refers to his unique blend of country, hip-hop and R&B elements by the clever moniker “cross country,” says that his success outside of radio has allowed him to be less reliant on genre gatekeeping. Like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” before it, “My Truck” became a viral sensation despite not being radio hits. (“The Git Up” is the only song of the three to actually chart at radio, peaking at No. 44.) And while Breland recognizes that he does things “a little differently” in terms of genre than many of his peers, it’s not lost on him that artists of color often receive criticism that white artists are able to avoid.
“I think that, sometimes, people like to say, ‘This isn't country,’ as a kind of racial dogwhistle,” he explains. “But I can usually tell the difference between someone saying, ‘I don't think this is country, but I do think it's a really dope song,’ and someone saying, ‘This isn't country, you're trash.’ You can kind of tell what they're trying to argue there.”
For Chapel Hart, the trio made up of sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle, TikTok is a way of skirting the “good ol' boy system." Though the group is relatively new to the social media platform, they recently went viral with a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” which as of publication has racked up nearly one million views on the app.
“I think that the powers that be in country music don't know if Black people have the same experiences as white people in country music or growing up in the country, and truly, it’s a lot of the same: There's horses, four-wheelers, a lot of imagination because you don't have a lot to do,” explains Danica Hart, who describes using paper plates and chip bags as baseball bases during her childhood in rural Mississippi.
Chapel Hart are members of the CMT Next Women of Country Class of 2021 — along with Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts and Sacha — but like other Black women in country, the group has found that diversity initiatives don’t necessarily translate to radio play. “It has definitely forced innovation more than anything,” says Swindle. “Nobody can beat you in a race if you're in your own lane.”
Traditionally, artists have had little control over which songs end up “breaking” at radio and becoming hits, but independent artist Spencer Crandall thinks that dynamic is subject to change. He sees TikTok and streaming as ways of knowing whether a song is a hit before it even gets to radio.
“The market research is done already,” he says. “We know that a song is a hit already because 4 million people are saying it’s a hit, or 20 million, or however many streams you have.”
Crandall, whose ultra-smooth blend of country and pop has allowed him to turn TikTok virality into streaming success, says he has turned down offers to sign a record deal, despite knowing that it is virtually impossible for an unsigned artist to get played on terrestrial radio. For Crandall, the benefits of owning his own business and retaining creative control outweigh the potential drawbacks; besides, he says, the internet has allowed artists like himself to succeed without relying on radio.
“[TikTok] is giving people like me a chance to not just compete with, but actually outperform, people who have record deals,” explains Crandall, who, like Rose, has been receiving airplay on The Highway. “I’d rather have country radio begging me to play the song rather than me begging country radio to play the song.”
But not every artist has the luxury of choosing to remain independent. For Chris Housman, as for almost every artist The Boot spoke to for this story, country radio remains the ultimate goal. Housman has been able to turn a profit from merch sales and streams of his song “Blueneck” — which he teased on TikTok as a “progressive AF country song about being a liberal redneck” — but he still dreams of being one of very few out gay artists on radio, which would mean exposure to a bigger audience and currency when it comes to booking live gigs.
With “Blueneck,” Housman is in the unique position of having made his name on a song that subverts industry norms. For him, the song has been something of a double-edged sword when it comes to securing a publishing deal or courting record labels.
“I definitely feel the need to follow "Blueneck" with a song that says, ‘Look, I can do middle-of-the-road country as well,’” he admits. “I can’t help but feel like a publisher might think, ‘Is he controversial or too progressive?’”
It’s a fair assumption, as the country music industry has a long history of censoring artists that challenge its conservative mores, with the Chicks and Kacey Musgraves being recent examples. Housman says that a few prominent industry types — including hitmaker Shane McAnally, who co-wrote Musgraves’ love-is-love anthem “Follow Your Arrow” and is also gay — have contacted him to voice their approval of the song, but whether this apparent groundswell of support for his envelope-pushing TikTok hit will translate to mainstream success remains to be seen.
"It’s just weird to be told, ‘Get ready for your door to be banged down,'" he says, "and I’m here just waiting for a knock."