Apparently nothing can stop country singer Morgan Wallen. Last month, fans streamed his latest release, One thing at a time, over 130 million views, and it had the fifth biggest streaming release ever in the United States after its first six days of release. In just under a month of her debut, Wallen has sold the equivalent of over a million albums.
For March, Wallen comes in at number seven on the latest Bloomberg Pop Star Power Rankings.
The popularity of One thing at a time is further proof that music fans have largely moved on from a controversy that not so long ago threatened to derail Wallen’s career.
In February 2021, a video surfaced in which the Tennessean crooner returned home from a night out with friends and was filmed using the n-word. A reaction followed. His label, Big Loud Records, suspended his contract. The Country Music Association banned him from attending its awards show, as did the CMT Music Awards. Radio stations took his songs out of rotation while Spotify dropped them from its most popular country playlist, Hot Country. Black country artist Mickey Guyton expressed himself, saying “hate runs deep”. That summer, Wallen’s tour was canceled.
The situation culminated with the release of a video in which Wallen apologized, said he had had conversations with black people for education and that he had been sober for nine days.
“My words matter,” he said.
Then, fans rallied around the singer and his music. For seven weeks after the racist video was released, Dangerous: the double album remained at the top of the Billboard album chart. In the fall of 2021, Wallen resumed touring and has since been nominated for multiple CMA Awards and won Album of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards last year.
Wallen’s ability to maintain an audience, especially when radio stations removed his music, is another reminder of country artists’ newfound prowess on streaming platforms.
Brittany Schaffer, former head of artist and label partnerships at Spotify in Nashville and now the new dean of Belmont University’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business, said she attributes the country’s streaming growth, in part, to to artists like Wallen who “connect with the fans”. in a really personal and meaningful way and putting those fans first.
She points to her collaborations with Spotify as evidence of this fan-centric approach. In March, Wallen teamed up with the Swedish streaming service to host a hometown concert at his high school. Spotify has also returned its music to the platform’s Hot Country playlist, which currently has more than 7 million followers.
“I think radio is still important,” Schaffer said. “It’s just not the only thing that’s important anymore, and I think we now have a really healthy ecosystem of ways and places for country music fans to consume music.”
Earlier this month, the Digital Media Association, an organization representing digital music streamers like Amazon Music, Pandora, and YouTube Music, released a report on the growth of the country music streaming segment.
“Country music has the greatest opportunity to grow, with streaming opening doors for people of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexual orientations and geographic locations,” said Jay Liepis, who leads the business partnerships in Nashville at Apple Music. Over the past year, the service’s Today’s Country playlist has been the top genre-specific playlist globally on the platform, he said, and over the past two years, over a hundred country songs have charted in the Global Daily Top 100.
The genre’s growth on streaming platforms has coincided with a push towards a more diverse country music landscape. In March, executive producers Reese Witherspoon and Kacey Musgraves launched a new Apple TV+ music competition show, my kind of country, which provides an “extraordinary opportunity for diverse and innovative artists from around the world”. The judges include Guyton and Jimmie Allen, who are black, and Orville Peck, who is gay.
Still, the industry has to face the fact that Wallen remains its current biggest star, despite being filmed using a racial slur. Much of Wallen’s current album ignores past controversy without any sort of mea culpa or sustained awareness. Instead, he seems to make a vague reference to the events of recent years in the first track, Born with a beer in hand.
“I’m not the devil I acted out years ago,” he sings. “No, but I’ll be back someday, y’all, though.”