In the introduction to their 2003 book Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren remind us that country music started out with all singles, and that albums have generally functioned as carriers for singles: “People produced and consumed country records one at a time, and for the most part, that’s still true today. Albums, whether they sell well or not, are usually what get covered by the music press, and certainly they’re what the industry wants us to buy. Albums are how record companies make their money.”
In 2010, that’s still more or less true, but with album sales in a perpetual decline, singles seem more important than ever. In country music the single is the thing, but it’s still mostly album sales that the singles are driving. A single will get your attention, but record companies and artists will make the most money when you follow up on that attention by buying something physical.
Every act does its best to mine each album for all its worth, spreading four or five singles across a time span of up to two years since the album was released. Each hit song represents a new segment of listeners that may wind up buying the album. Meanwhile, hit singles are coming from places that you wouldn’t have expected them to: as extra unreleased tracks on greatest hits albums or as bonus songs on re-released versions of previously released albums. The viability of this route was cemented, perhaps, by Trace Adkins’ hit ballad “You’re Gonna Miss This”, a #1 country hit off 2007’s American Man: Greatest Hits Volume 2, and reinforced last year by Kenny Chesney’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 track “Out Last Night”, also a #1 hit and still omnipresent on country radio. Each has fueled the notion that a song released in any way can be hit.
Into this climate steps Blake Shelton, whose two CD releases this year have been what he and his label, Warner Bros Nashville/Reprise, are calling six-packs: CDs priced at around $6 featuring six songs. He released one, Hillbilly Bone, in April, and another, All About Tonight, in August. Both were named after their lead-off singles, which each hit #1 on the Billboard country charts.
Aren’t these nothing new; just EPs, extended-play format releases? Yes, technically. They’re EPs with a more working-class name. It’s marketing. EP sounds like an academic term, an industry term, or something from the past. “Six pack” makes people think of beer, of plastic rings floating in the river after a float trip, of a tough-guy’s abs, or Six Pack, the 1982 race-car comedy starring Kenny Rogers. It says, “I’m a regular guy trying to make a living, just like you.” They’re spelling it “six pak” even; ‘cause regular folk don’t care about spelling correctly (presumably).
More often than not, an EP isn’t something that’s meant to sell, really—it’s more a stopgap between albums, a way of keeping the artist’s name out there, or to serve as a little “thank-you” gift to fans. These six-pack releases are meant to sell as a replacement for an album. Within the industry, they’re still being treated as albums, ranked in Billboard’s country albums chart. Shelton and his label are on the one hand talking up the experimental nature of this, and on the other still referring to these as “albums”. An 18 August post on Shelton’s website declared, “The All About Tonight SIX PAK is No. 1 this week! This is Blake’s highest debut album to date.” This six-pack approach is a way of splitting an album up into two, multiplying by two the opportunity to sell something to someone. If an artist always has something new to sell, they have more chances to make money.
In a 10 June interview with theBoot.com, Shelton described the format change as an act of desperation, an attempt to keep people buying albums in a time when singles and downloads dominate: “We’re looking for ways to remind people that we still make albums”. To do that takes making the album more of-the-moment: quicker, cheaper, and less of a commitment. In an 6 April Associated Press story, he sounded even more desperate: “Just to be honest with you, I was to the point where I just realized, ‘what have we got to lose?’”
In Shelton’s case, the music seems to match the format, giving an answer to the question of whether business-minded format changes have an effect on the music itself. Both CDs feel looser than his previous five LPs, less studied and mannered. If he has built his career on albums that were three-fourths tough-but-sensitive ballads and one fourth working-class, southern-rock and “outlaw country”-tinged anthems, these seem to switch the emphasis towards the latter.
The tone was set by “Hillbilly Bone”, a rowdy duet with Trace Adkins that certainly fits the “six pack” mentality. The song is a working-class party anthem with sexual overtones. The vocals are a talk/sing strut that reminds us that when country artists want to do a dumb-fun party song, they increasingly look towards hip-hop for, if not its musical rhythms, its vocal ones. The song’s opening lyrics, “I got a friend in New York City / he’s never heard of Conway Twitty,” are laid down like a rap. Later their yelled-out “with an F150 and a thirty-ought six” sounds like a familiar hip-hop boast; essentially, my gun and care are bigger than yours.
These slightly hip-hop leanings return on the next six-pack in “Gotta Little Country”, a hoedown with funk guitar, and “All About Tonight”, another party song that reminds me of both Black Eyed Peas (the overall tone makes it a kin to “I Gotta Feeling”) and LL Cool J ( Shelton’s phrasing of “pay my tab / climb in a cab” recalls LL circa Walking With a Panther). At the end of “All About Tonight”, Shelton declares, “we’re gonna get our swerve on”.
Other musical touchpoints for Hillbilly Bone and All About Tonight include Hank Williams, Jr (“Kiss My Country Ass” both references and emulates “A Country Boy Can Survive”), Southern gothic storytelling/ballads (the Miranda Lambert duet “Dragging the River”, for one), the let’s-go-to-the-beach sound of Kenny Chesney, et al (“Almost Alright”), and the sort of melodic, pop-leaning love songs that are all over country radio these days (“That Thing We Do”, “Can’t Afford to Love You”).
In a way, these six-packs present Shelton as a more varied artist than his albums have. They also sometimes seem more of the present, most notably on “Can’t Afford to Love You”, a love song for economic hard times. Then again, country music history is filled with songs about economic hard times. The trick to making a song feel timely is timing, often.
No doubt these CDs were as carefully prepared as his other albums, but they don’t feel like it. Musically they fit the six-pack story, which says, “I just want to keep getting my songs out there for people to hear”. “All About Tonight”, the current hit, embodies this idea of instant-gratification. It’s a don’t-worry-about-tomorrow party song, something done many times before, but as the lead-off for a CD that’s all about being quick-and-dirty, it seems a theme song for this whole endeavor. In a music industry that’s suffering, capitalizing on each moment is what matters.
Listening to the six-packs back-to-back, they feel like two sides of the same LP. Recently I picked up a used Bill Anderson LP from 1975 titled Every Time I Turn the Radio On/Talk to Me Ohio, after the first song on Side A and the first on Side B. Shelton’s pair of new CDs could just as well be one album with a name like that: Hillbilly Bone/All About Tonight. This move to the future could just as easily have been a move to the past, then. Yet that may be true of most future-looking shifts in country music. It’s a genre that even as it’s changing is always circling both forwards and backwards, always looking back at the music’s roots even when its sound is coming from outside the genre.
A contrast can be made between Shelton’s “album”, built to give the impression of fleetingness and modernity, and Jamey Johnson’s new 25 -song double album The Guitar Song, an approach that gives an opposite impression of solidity and classic-ness. In a way both are approaching the same question from different angles. Shelton’s keeping songs fresh and Johnson’s song overload both may be ways of having ample potential radio singles, and are definitely ways of making your CD stand out in a time of declining sales. The same could be said for some of the other most noteworthy 2010 country releases, like Laura Bell Bundy’s Achin’ and Shakin’, split into two thematic halves, and Jerrod Niemann’s Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury, a concept album of sorts with hip-hop-style skits linking the songs.
In a genre that looks backwards more than forwards, it will be interesting to see what, if any, new approaches to the album emerge. Is Shelton’s approach – making CDs seem less carved-in-stone – really just a step in the process of directing country fans away from full-album releases, with the next inevitable step being getting more of them to download music? If so, he might be helping the country music industry shoot itself in the foot. Then again, it’s clear this is all just reaching blindly in the dark, trying to figure out something that will work. As Blake Shelton said, what has he got to lose?
In an interview on The Boot.com published on 3 August, a week before All About Tonight was released, Shelton declared that he was done with the six-pack format. He was disappointed to find them treated more like EPs, where only the title song is released as a single, than as albums, where multiple singles are released. In the record industry, old habits die hard.