In August 2013, I was in Santa Fe, NM for the first time with my recently reactivated Sirius satellite radio providing the soundtrack. It was almost six hours heading down from Denver, three days of driving around town, and then the return trip on a Sunday night. During that time, The Highway was previewing Luke Bryan’s newest album Crash My Party, and I heard tracks from the album multiple times. Full disclosure: up until this album I liked Luke, but felt like he was wildly inconsistent in the quality of his output. With Crash, it felt to me like he really gelled around what he does well, even if he’s not going to go down in country music history as a trailblazer. “Crash My Party” was already a hit, but one song stood out to me more than any other. I’ll let Luke pick it up from here:
“More than ever in my career have I let fan response on the road dictate a single than ‘Play It Again.’ From the day we put Crash My Party out, ‘Play It Again’ was getting downloaded more than any non-single, and when we play it live on the road, it goes over bigger than most of my prior No. 1s. It’s a fun little story. It’s a great song, because it does have a story about a relationship, but I think the reaction that the girl has – ‘Oh my God, this is my song’ – that’s such a real reaction and that’s what makes the song work.”
I actually pegged the song as one of my favorites of 2013 based on my obsessive play prior to it being released as a single, but by the time the label got around to releasing “Play It Again” as a single (number four behind “Crash,” “That’s My Kind of Night,” and “Drink a Beer”), radio was on board, launching the song all the way to number one in a quick 12 weeks. To put that into perspective, the current top three on Billboard’s country chart took 27, 29 and 14 weeks to get there. And what song is in its 14th week? Luke Bryan’s “Roller Coaster.”
All of this goes to show what I’ve believed as long as I’ve understood how radio and retail singles work: the fans know what they like. When you don’t give the fans what they want, they will eventually abandon you. In this day and age, it is so much easier for record companies to gauge interest in songs via streaming, video plays, downloads and social media mentions, but it doesn’t always happen. When Katy Perry was preparing to release her most recent album Prism, the label selected “Dark Horse” as a buzz cut to unleash prior to the full disc dropping.
Weeks after its release and well after most buzz cuts drop off the sales charts, “Dark Horse” kept selling. For reasons known only to Katy Perry and the label, they ignored this data and decided to release “Unconditionally,” a song that Perry cited as very personal. If Capitol is as focused on high charting activity for Perry as we saw in the number of remixes released for singles on Teenage Dream, you would think they would be more responsive to this. At the time, Capitol execs described the situation as an “embarrassment of riches,” but you got the feeling that they didn’t really appreciate radio and the marketplace upsetting their carefully laid plan which most likely included “Unconditionally” becoming her tenth consecutive top ten record.
Instead, radio quickly dropped “Unconditionally” due to middling sales and interest, riding away with “Dark Horse” and forcing Capitol’s hand to release it as the third official single. Two months later, the single hit number one in the US and stayed there for four weeks, selling over five million copies in the process. As someone who is not a huge Katy Perry fan, I had to eat a little bit of crow and admit the song’s pretty brilliant, and “Horse” remains one of the few number one songs this year that I never did grow tired of.
There’s a long line of hit records that have found an audience without a record label or commercial radio’s help, but the fans will find what they like in the end. If record companies want to be successful, maybe they should just give the fans what they want and not force good music to “wait its turn.”