This week, many country fans were shocked when Jason Isbell landed atop the Billboard Country Album charts with his new release “Something More Than Free.” While almost universally acclaimed by critics, “Something More Than Free”, along with Isbell’s previous masterpiece “Southeastern”, have been almost completely ignored by country radio. Isbell isn’t even considered a country artist by most fans, who associate him more with country’s cooler cousin, Americana music. So how did a guy with virtually no support from the Nashville machine snag the #1 album in the nation? The answer lies in the changing landscape of American music.
Isbell is hardly the only surprise atop the album charts in the last two years. Legends like Tom Petty and James Taylor, and favorites like musical parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic have all notched the first #1 of their lengthy careers recently, despite their radio appeal resting almost completely on classic rock station with their back catalog. The thing that Isbell, Petty, Taylor, and even Yankovic have most in common is that they are artists who still care about the craft of full albums. In the current musical environment, that’s a difference that can make you #1.
Back in the days of vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs, singles were popular but the physical copies were still expensive enough that buying a pop artist’s 2-3 singles could more than pay for the album, so that’s what the majority of buyers did, letting radio hits drive album purchases and causing album charts to closely track with singles charts. Today, with the proliferation of Itunes, Spotify, and Amazon, you can buy “Uptown Funk” for $.99, or stream it for free if you want to listen to a commercial. It makes no financial sense to fork out $9.99 for an album when the one song you want can be had for 1/10th of that price. Commercial country has become as single-driven as pop music in the digital era, evidenced by the fact that Jason Isbell, in the same week he has the #1 album, isn’t present in the singles charts, where radio favorites like Brantley Gilbert and Luke Bryan live.
Much has been written in the past several years about the changing landscape of music and there are certainly valid debates left to be had about fair compensation for streaming and digital purchases, but the fact that artists like Jason Isbell, Tom Petty, and James Taylor get to have #1 albums can’t help but be good for those of us who still prefer to listen to their artists in long form. The radio-saturated flavor of the day artists can have the singles and airplay charts to eternity. Let the album charts reward what they should have been rewarding all along, artists who care as much about the 12th song on an album as they do about the 1st. Those are the artists who deserve the $9.99 instead of the $.99. Certainly Jason Isbell, who has released one of the best albums, top to bottom, of 2015, fits that bill and anyone who wants the album to thrive as an art form should be celebrating this week’s news.
You can read our full review of Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free” here.