The Automatic Add Club

Chris Neal | January 12th, 2011

“For the first time in my career I really feel like I have some real momentum going here,” Blake Shelton told me during an interview a couple of years back. “I’ve never had that. I’ve always been the guy that’s making a comeback every time.” What he meant was that at that time radio didn’t feel obliged to play his songs just because he was the one singing them. His debut single was a chart-topper (“Austin”), followed by two songs that stalled in the teens (“All Over Me” and “Ol’ Red”), then another No. 1 (“The Baby”), then three more that only reached the 20s or 30s (“Heavy Liftin,’” “Playboys of the Southwestern World” and “When Somebody Knows You That Well”), followed by another No. 1 (“Some Beach”), and so on. At the time we spoke, he’d just enjoyed two chart-toppers in a row (“Home” and “She Wouldn’t Be Gone”), and since then not one Shelton single has failed to reach the Top 10 (his current single, “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” is perched at No. 11 as of this writing and seems poised to keep rising). It took a while, but Blake Shelton finally convinced radio to play his new songs just because he was the one singing them.

That makes Shelton a relatively new and probationary member of a very exclusive group. Call it the Automatic Add Club—the domain of artists who can safely say that radio will at least give their new single a spin, no matter what it is or how it sounds (and only a few with the latitude to choose which songs will be released as singles, a sure sign that the balance of power in the artist-label relationship has shifted). The club includes George Strait, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts , Toby Keith, Brad Paisley and a few others. What an artist chooses to do with that kind of cart blanche can be very revealing about his (or her, or their) artistic instincts.

There are artists who repay the faith radio puts in them by giving programmers precisely what they want—songs that, as we’ve discussed in this space before, are pleasant and likeable but not so unusual that the average listener might change the station before the next commercial comes on. Rascal Flatts is the most obvious fit in that category, having released an unceasing torrent of interchangeable midtempo love songs for a full decade now. When a radio programmer pops the seal on Toby Keith’s new offering, he or she can be pretty sure the contents will be well within the bounds of the format. For three decades now Strait has demonstrated a knack for appearing to always honestly follow his muse while somehow fitting in perfectly with the radio moment.

More interesting to me is the handful of artists who use their power as proven hitmakers to force songs onto country radio that otherwise would never get a fair hearing. Most prominent in this group is probably Tim McGraw. By the turn of the millennium his star power was entrenched so deeply that his turn toward occasionally unorthodox material couldn’t stop his run of hits. He lifted “Angry All the Time,” Bruce Robison’s brutal portrait of a doomed couple, to No. 1. In his hands, the oddball lyric of “She’s My Kind of Rain” (“She sits quietly there, like the water in a jar”) didn’t impede its march to the top. Most remarkably, McGraw made a Top 5 hit of Ryan Adams’ “When the Stars Go Blue,” a song whose abstract impressionism sits squarely at odds with country radio’s commitment to lyrical literalism.

Just as daring is Keith Urban, who has been bringing unexpected single choices to the table since 2003’s “Raining On Sunday,” which equates sex and spirituality in a format known for its piety and prudishness. Rodney Crowell couldn’t have gotten “Making Memories of Us” on the radio in 2005 (mind you, 1988 would have been a different story), given its strikingly odd imagery—but Urban did. The eviscerating “Stupid Boy” and simmering “’Til Summer Comes Around” would be long shots for any new artist, but they were sure things for him. Urban’s “Start a Band” partner Brad Paisley is less adventurous, but when he does step outside the box—think “Whiskey Lullaby”—radio swallows hard and plays it anyway. Same for Chesney, whose most remarkable achievement just might be making a straight-up reggae song featuring Bob Marley’s old backup group (“Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”) a country smash.

For the rest of the contemporary country world, membership in the club is tenuous at best. Shelton’s fiancée Miranda Lambert flexed her muscle by making hits from ballsy material like “Gunpowder & Lead” and “White Liar,” but “Dead Flowers” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” were largely frozen out of playlists. Even country music royalty like Alan Jackson can’t be that certain that whatever he offers up to radio will be accepted: The cleverly meta-textual “Talkin’ Song Repair Blues” could only reach No. 18, and a similar fate befell the stately “Like Red On a Rose.” Acts as popular and established as Josh Turner, Joe Nichols and Craig Morgan periodically find their fortunes rising and falling from one single to the next. For every “She Won’t Be Lonely Long” or “Fall,” Clay Walker has a “She Likes It In the Morning” or “Jesus Was a Country Boy.” If Dierks Bentley gives radio a “Feel That Fire,” it’ll get spins; if he offers “Up On the Ridge” the response is more tepid.

Becoming a member of the Automatic Add Club is among country stardom’s most elusive achievements, especially as the rules of admission are murky at best. A toast, then, to those willing to take a few risks once they’re in.

  1. Fizz
    January 12, 2011 at 9:26 am

    “There are artists who repay the faith radio puts in them by giving programmers what they want.”

    <—-In which case, is the balance of power really in the artist's favor, when he or she does what the label and radio want without having to be told?

  2. Thomas
    January 12, 2011 at 9:42 am

    …in a simple world, one could actually just go back to the music that made those artists members of that exclusive club in the first place and would most likely find their best moments. but then, there are these artists who really make it tricky for you, because they keep coming up with great music, even though they have been having an armchair with their names on it in the clubhouse for the longest time. others find it so comfortable there that they are trying everything just to keep the membership by showing up the same way, at the same time with the same old story over and over. interestingly enough, this strategy also seems to work surprisingly well.

    however, life at its toughest is experienced by those, who receive guest invitations every time they have a hit. they are usually the most interesting ones because they have to take a certain amount of risk to make themselves heard at all and being considered a prospect-member after a while.

    the wheel of country radio fortune has been the same for a long time. only the spins varied in speed. but lately the internet has made life a little less comfy in the club room by offering a new game.

    those guys who had lost their memberships over time didn’t cease to exist. it became just a little trickier to find them in those scattered venues. a lesser guy than alan jackson would probably sing: “…thank good for the internet…” rather than radio, these days. and so would the newcomers.

    it’s a fascinating symbiosis at work here in the mainstream and i’m not sure that those involved have totally figured out, how it really works in all its details.

  3. Jon
    January 12, 2011 at 9:43 am

    <—-In which case, is the balance of power really in the artist's favor, when he or she does what the label and radio want without having to be told?

    The premise underlying that question is that a fundamental divergence of opinion and interest must always exist between artist, label and radio. And that’s a pretty dubious premise.

    The balance of power is really in the artist’s favor when he or she is consistently successful making the music he or she wants to make. Key sentence: “What an artist chooses to do with that kind of cart blanche can be very revealing about his (or her, or their) artistic instincts.” “Artistic instincts,” not “conformity to label and radio desires.” With a possible footnote or two aside, that’s the end of that piece of the story.

    It’s a good piece. My only regret is that Chris doesn’t lay out more clearly why he concludes by saying that folks like McGraw or Urban “take risks” by bringing unusual material to radio when he’s argued that they’re in the “automatic add” club – in other words, that at least to some extent, they’re not taking a risk by doing so. I feel like there’s a missing link there – maybe a look at how not only the rules of admission to that club are murky, but the rules governing tenure are, too. Are there instances where an artist’s had his or her membership in that club revoked for bringing too much “risky” stuff?

  4. Larry
    January 12, 2011 at 9:46 am

    This isn’t rocket science. Radio wants ratings. There are a handful (maybe up to a dozen) of staple artists at any given time that will always give radio strong ratings, no matter what they release. Staples can break and fade at any time so radio is constantly surveying to see if the staples are still working. George has been the longest staple, but if/when his staple starts to wear then radio will start to let go of even him, too.

  5. Fizz
    January 12, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Well put, THomas.

    All right, then here’s another question. Is this the “automatic add” club we’re talking about, or is it really the “automatic number-one” or “automatic play the crap out of it” club? Because hearing Blake Shelton moan about “finally” having some momentum because every last one of his singles didn’t make the top-five doesn’t really elicit a whole lot of sympathy from me.

  6. Barry Mazor
    January 12, 2011 at 10:13 am

    There are radio industry formulas and guidelines, for better or worse ( it’s literally their business), with a certain amount of, the art and business of label promotion involved, and a little bit of station gut instinct left still, in how “heavy in the rotation” given added records get, too, and for how long.

    It’s not something that can be detailed in a few lines (or is even nearly reducible to just “oh, payola”) –though Chris is doing a good job of explaining some basic concepts in a few paragraphs. Maybe he’ll get to that one, too!

  7. Fizz
    January 12, 2011 at 10:18 am

    But how much of all this “radio math,” these formulas is just mental masturbation and a means for programmers to look busy?

  8. Barry Mazor
    January 12, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Fizz, feel free to ask any masturbating programmer you happen to run into.

    But that was a thumbnail description how the decisions asked about get made, not how they’re trying to look like they get made for some higher ups benefit..

  9. Fizz
    January 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I did a little radio after college, in a medium-sized market, five stations in the group. Several of them would do these new-music shows, where they would spotlight artists not in the “automatic add” club (AA?) This wasn’t Clear Channel, so it wasn’t the similar showcase those guys had to agree to do as part of the FCC’s payola investigation. Anyway, what we would do, we’d record all the phone calls relating to that program and submit them to the PD, wou would then, presumably, decide what to do with those songs based partly on listener response. Except the decisions seemed to have little to do with listener response or anything else. The lines would go wild over this or that song, yet it wouldn’t make it out of the new-music hour. I asked about it once, adn the response was something along the lines of, “Well, that song didn’t test well in [insert name of another markets with similar demographics].” The secret geometry of radio programming.

  10. M.C.
    January 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Fizz–Your real-life experience contradicts your comment about mental masturbation and programmers “trying to look busy.” As your time at a station indicated, programmers look at a lot of different factors when deciding what to put on the air. The proven popularity of an artist is one of them. They take their work and their business seriously, whether the results seem to show it or not.

  11. Fizz
    January 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Or do they just like people to think there’s a bunch of diabolical science and numerology and alchemy involved, like an auditorium tst or telephone survey in Syracuse really means that much.

  12. Chris N.
    January 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    “My only regret is that Chris doesn’t lay out more clearly why he concludes by saying that folks like McGraw or Urban ‘take risks’ by bringing unusual material to radio when he’s argued that they’re in the ‘automatic add’ club – in other words, that at least to some extent, they’re not taking a risk by doing so.”

    These are relative degrees of risk. Releasing “When the Stars Go Blue” or “Red Rag Top” as a single is at least somewhat more likely to adversely affect McGraw’s relationship with radio (and many of his own fans) than, say, Rascal Flatts releasing “My Wish.”

    That said, the only surefire way to get kicked out of the club is to commit the grievous sin of aging. Radio didn’t dump Loretta Lynn when she released “The Pill” or “Rated X,” but once she turned 50 she was outta there.

  13. M.C.
    January 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Or you can always get Dixie Chicked by radio. That has to be the biggest instance of someone getting flushed wholly from the AA club in the last decade. They got away with more risky material than anyone, I think, and radio was better for it. But we all know what happened then.

    I do think there’s limited room in the club, so eventually as new people move in, those like Martina McBride or Vince Gill get ushered out. Age does seems to be main reason.

  14. Chris N.
    January 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Yep — the Chicks could get away with “Goodbye Earl,” but they couldn’t get away with being liberals. That’s changed a little since 2003, but not by much.

  15. WAYNOE
    January 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Quit whining over the Chicks. They did it to themselves. Motor-mouth Maines’ notwithstanding.

    Urban bringing unexpected singles choices? Everything he does we expect. Pure pop – no surprise.

  16. Jon
    January 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I love it when someone talks all tough and manly from behind a fake name.

  17. JoBeth
    January 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    If Blake is whining about his songs not getting played on the radio, he’s obviously not watching GAC or CMT. They’re making up for it and then some. All we see these days is Blake. I’ve wondered about his connections, and to be honest, that famous “P” word of the 50′s or 60′s had entered my mind.

    I’m an unabashed fan of Keith Urban, and as far as I’m concerned, “Getting Closer” is the best thing he’s done since “Being Here” (it may be better). Therefore, I’m very interested if it’s going to be acknowledged as such. If not, “there’s something rotten in Nashville”.

  18. Chris N.
    January 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Again, this was two years ago. And he wasn’t “whining” at all — read the original interview and you’ll see that he believed it helped him become a stronger artist.

  19. Jon
    January 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    If people actually followed links here, the comments sections would look a lot different than what they do.

  20. Troy
    January 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Another huge one this decade was to get blacklisted from clear channel for not using clear channel as a tour promoter.

    Being black listed doesn’t always kill the career and sometimes artist make it make back onto the automatic list after they are put off it.

  21. Rick
    January 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    I enjoy checking out the Mediabase “Most Added” listings each week to see what songs the reporting stations are adding to their playlists. The majority of most added songs are usually from well established “automatic add” types who have been hitting the Top 10 recently on a regular basis. Its the new and lesser known artists on those adds tallies that I find far more interesting.

    If a new, non-established artist has a radio single that hits the Top 10, that usually gives them one more “easy access” chance to try to do it again. If the follow up single fails to hit the Top 20, then many Top 40 radio programmers pull in the welcome mat and that is that while they move on to the next new artist.

    Since female artists typically make up less than 20% of those with songs in the Top 20, its far more difficult for them to join the “auto add” club. In the last few years its been Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, Taylor Swift, and now Miranda Lambert while the rest have fallen by the wayside. I would love to see Sunny Sweeney and Ashton Shepherd join this club, and for the Jane Dear Girls to disappear…

  22. Matt B
    January 12, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Waynoe,

    Just because you think Keith Urban’s “pure pop” doesn’t mean that everyone else in the world, least of all, Country Radio Programmers, does. After all, this is a column about Country Radio and a bit into how it ‘works,’ not whether something is country or not.

  23. luckyoldsun
    January 13, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    When I was listenining to country radio way back in the ’90s, the songs moved up the chart and out fairly quickly, so most artists would release four or five singles per year.
    I think most of the major artists were “automatic adds” then: Garth, Strait, Alabama, B&D, A.J., Reba, McGraw, of course–but also Vince Gill, Diffie, Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence. Travis Tritt was almost automatic, except when he’d release some screaming country rock song at the end of an album’s run. Even the slightly more esoteric artists like Trisha, Loveless, Mary Chapin and Pam Tillis could count on most of their singles being added.

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