In his recent song “Livin’ the Dream,” a tellingly somber number that stands out amid his otherwise upbeat smash “Dangerous: The Double Album,” Morgan Wallen sings about how success is not all it’s cracked up to be, concluding that it’s at least a little bit lonely at the top even in the midst of being “a rock star, in and out of cop cars, livin’ out a suitcase, trashin’ hotel bars… Between alcohol and women and Adderall and adrenaline, I don’t ever get no rest.”
A rest may be the one thing Wallen can be assured is coming his way over the next few months.
The reaction to footage being released Monday night of Wallen using the N-word during a very loud and apparently drunken exchange among friends in front of his home in Nashville was virtually any company that is directly or indirectly involved with promoting or furthering his career publicly calling a complete cessation to that. His fan base hasn’t suspended ties with him — he is still racking up tens of millions of streams a day, even in disgrace, as devotees decry “cancel culture” — but the mass media, the music industry and even those who have profited most from his success have spoken with one voice to say Wallen needs a serious time-out, with no end date in sight.
Where do he and his career go from here? And what does it mean for country music, which has to deal with its biggest success story in years subjecting it to a collective black eye — caught between those who think Wallen finally exposed the genre’s racist underbelly once and for all and some conservative fans who think his “cancellation” is nothing but performative wokeness at the expense of a bad-boy hero?
Variety spoke with some of the top executives and managers in the country music industry to collect thoughts on Wallen’s future. Virtually all agreed that Wallen needs to retreat for six months to a year or longer to have any chance at being welcomed back into the business after, in their view, his apologies for previous misdeeds — like the seeming sorriness that got him invited back onto “Saturday Night Live” after being barred late last year — ended up looking hollow. But opinions were divided over whether Wallen is likely to take the mainstream public’s perception of country music down with him, to a degree, or whether what people will remember is how quickly and firmly Nashville clamped down to unilaterally declare that racist behavior would command a steep price, even for its reigning star.
(Nearly everyone we talked with for this piece asked to speak not for attribution, saying they weren’t authorized to speak on behalf of their companies.)
“I presume some substance abuse is a really strong factor in this,” says a top radio executive. “If he goes away and gets better and has a comeuppance , everybody can discover a new way of looking at life. A guy who can do what Morgan Wallen has done in theory could come back and be well positioned. [A top music journalist] gives him a new life story and explains how he got the position he got into… To me that’s not unthinkable. Today it is, but in a year it’s not.” The exec stretched the timeline out even further, suggesting that being received back into good graces might have to come on the next album cycle, not on the one that seemingly just started for “Dangerous.” “If he comes back with an undeniable song in a year and a half and he’s recalcitrant…”
But this same exec has questions about how strong the audience loyalty to Wallen is, because so much of his success has come in the last year, at a time when cementing a personal connection with the public has been strictly through airwaves, screens and streams. “If he had toured and played to serious crowds for the last couple of summers, where he did a sit-down set and related personally with people in arenas or stadiums, he might have a more guaranteed fan base. Right now, he’s just a disconnected voice on the radio. That’s not his fault. It’s the fault of COVID. But I worry that he doesn’t have any real connections with his audience yet beyond social.”
What about the fans that are inundating radio stations’ phone lines and Facebook pages demanding Wallen be put back on the air immediately? “That’ll be a short-lived phenomenon. It’s a cause célèbre for a week or two. Morgan Wallen is too new. If we’re talking about somebody whose career had been building on the road for five years and had a true card-carrying fan base had made a grievous error while intoxicated, that would be a different kind of vote. Remember, we’re living in a song-oriented world now. And five months ago, Morgan Wallen was Luke Combs — and Luke Combs is still Luke Combs, and could still be bigger than he’s ever been. But this audience is not as attached to the artist anymore as much as the song.”
Another top executive at a major country media company doesn’t take so lightly the flood of tens of thousands of comments that have been coming in from fans who are demanding Wallen’s immediate reinstatement.
“Every single thing that we post is flooded with ‘Bring Morgan back! Free Wallen’ comments,” says this exec. “I have people on my team who are monitoring comments. Those comments are hard for the mental health of our folks, to see that those are the fans of the genre they’re working in. And you can imagine how incredibly hard it is for the artists of color in this genre, to see those responses. In a lot of (controversies), you can say it’s the vocal minority speaking up. In this case, with Morgan, it doesn’t feel like the number of people (demanding his immediate return) is a minority,” she sighs. “But I think those voices will die down. It’s the news cycle. … We’re talking about the common fan, whereas the people in the rooms making the decisions have a lot more info at their disposal. They’re thinking about a lot of other things, while the fans are ‘Oh cancel culture.’ The disconnect is clear, and I do think that it is going to continue to happen for a while.”
What does the industry get that many fans don’t, or won’t? “What we’re all hoping for — the collective ‘we,’ the industry – is that we don’t want to be the backwards genre anymore. There are a lot of great artists and great people in this genre. So to take the stance that we did, collectively as an industry was important, because it was time to move that forward. If the fans understand that or don’t, I don’t think we can control that. People can write comments on Facebook like ‘Fuck [your organization]’ all day, but that doesn’t change our bottom line of what we have to do.”
This exec was surprised the industry acted so unilaterally so quickly. “Tuesday night, everyone started buzzing that ‘Cumulus (Media, the nation’s second biggest radio chain) is going to pull him. (Her boss) had texted me already saying, ‘I want to pull him.’ I said, ‘That’s a strong stance — and I agree.’ I knew we were going to do it. I thought that other people would, but I didn’t know it would go as far as it did. Big Loud, I was really surprised by that one. WME was an interesting one. There’s no tours right now, but I think it was still strong, I’m glad they did that, too, but Big Loud had the most to lose.”
Big Loud, Wallen’s label, announced that it was “suspending” his contract “indefinitely”; WME, his agency, said it was severing ties entirely. These decisions fell on the heels of all the major radio chains, including the No. 1 chain iHeartRadio as well as Cumulus, and the CMT network, pulling him off the air. SiriusXM and Pandora also removed him from their services for the time being, While his music remains available via on-demand streaming services, Spotify, Apple Music and others removed him from their in-house playlists and front-page spots. Never mind Wallen getting a performance slot on the spring Academy of Country Music Awards; the ACM barred him from even being on the ballots. The Country Music Association took him off its digital platforms, not boding well for how he might figure into that org’s fall awards season. Within 48 hours, there was almost no major country music platform or business associate of Wallen’s that hadn’t condemned and at least temporarily broken ties with the man with the biggest all-genre blockbuster of 2021 so far.
“I do think there’s a way back for him,” says this exec, “if he enters into rehab and blames this on the alcohol and whatever those pieces are; I don’t know if there’s a mental health thing. I do think there’s a way back with education and digging into the community and being a positive voice for change. But I don’t think that changes overnight, with the strikes he had against him to start with. That’s going to take time. Six months? A year? That would be sort of my guess, but that’s a complete shot in the dark without knowing what he’s going to say and how he’s going to approach it. He has those two options — the angel and the devil on his shoulder. He could go all in (deciding to try to keep riding his current wave of popularity), because those fans right now that are pushing him to the top of the iTunes charts, they’re there. He could go all in with them right now.”
What this executive is referring to is the fact — alarming to many — that many fans have responded to the N-word scandal by embracing Wallen even more tightly and taking a “We’ll show you, cancel culture” stand by consuming his music even more since his immediate future seemingly blew up Tuesday night. How much those devotees making that stand represents a real war cry remains up to debate, but there are some interesting stats to examine.
On Wednesday, the day after the scandal broke via TMZ’s webcasting of the video in question, radio airplay for Wallen fell 80% across the nation, according to Country Aircheck. That was to be expected, with all the top chains, including Entercom and Cox, joining iHeartRadio and Cumulus in ordering him off their stations entirely, and many independent stations following suit. But besides calling in angrily to those stations to demand Wallen, fans voted with their pocketbooks by purchasing or re-purchasing his music. On the iTunes charts following the mass exodus of broadcasters, Wallen had all three of the top spots on the album sales chart (for an EP as well as his two full albums) and seven out of the top 10 songs. Results were nearly the same on Amazon Music’s sales chart.
Variety looked at stats provided by Alpha Data for the last few days of sales and streaming. On Wednesday, Wallen’s digital song sales increased from Tuesday’s by 327%. When it came to album sales, the jump was even more staggering: 1221%. The fan base, without a doubt, was making a statement.
What can be lost in looking at those seemingly staggering figures, though, was how tiny a slice of the pie sales are in today’s music market, versus streams, where it’s harder for the most dedicated part of an energized fan base to affect a change. That huge increase in album sales from Tuesday and Wednesday amounted to going from 609 copies sold the day before the scandal broke to 8,044 the day after — not a huge amount on the overall scale of tens of millions of people becoming interested in the story.
Wallen’s pace was much more consistent from day to day this week when it came to streams, according to information provided by Alpha Data. On Tuesday, he had 21,562,03 on-demand audio streams, which increased to 22,826,114 on Wednesday — a 5.86% increase from the day his scandal broke late in the evening to the following day. You could view that as an only modest increase… or you could see it as very much bucking the odds, since the streaming services were almost uniformly removing him from specialized playlists and prominent front-page spots, which pretty much guaranteed that those seeking Wallen’s music out were doing it very purposefully.
Taken in all, the data does suggest that Wallen, if he were to choose to take a defiant stance, probably could try to keep going and engage his fan base directly without the assistance of his label, whoever his next agent will be, or any support to speak of from the mass media or country establishment. That’s highly unlikely, of course. But as the days pass without any additional statement from Wallen beyond the initial, highly unsatisfying apology, there’s more wondering to be done about whether the star is resisting what are surely calls from those closest to him to announce an entry into rehab and a voluntary recess from his professional career.
While he or his people tarry, they’re leaving country radio stations and networks twisting in the wind, being inundated by angry fans who might retreat if they heard it from the horse’s mouth that he, too, agrees he should go away for a while. The sooner he lets all those people and organization off the hook — at a time when the head of his label, Seth England, has reportedly been subjected to doxing by fan groups on social media — the sooner it may be that he’ll be re-embraced by gatekeepers and business associations in the future.
At the same time, anything penitent he might do now that reeks of insincerity could be yet another strike against him. He’s had plenty to apologize for just in the last year, including an arrest for being drunk and disorderly after an altercation at Kid Rock’s Nashville bar, and, most famously, disregarding COVID protocols to pose and make out with fans after an Alabama football game, days before he was to appear on “Saturday Night Live.” In interviews between the time he was kicked off “SNL” and allowed back on two months later, Wallen seemed ambivalent about his initial apology, suggesting that he didn’t like to be told what to do, and posting messages on Instagram that it was time for major tours to resume, coronavirus or no coronavirus. Unconvincing promises made under duress won’t make it this time.
“When you saw the ‘SNL’ apology, at first you thought it was really sincere,” says the exec whose org has had social media pages inundated by Wallen supporters. “This guy fucked up and he’s actually sorry. Then with everything else going on with this guy, you realize that’s just not the case. When it came to ‘SNL’, he couldn’t play, but then they put him right back on. There were no actual consequences. With all of this fallout, he may finally realize that there are real consequences to actions and words. He needs to do the work — the work that wasn’t done by the first apology with ‘SNL’ — and educate the fans. They look up to people like Morgan. If you want them to learn and get that message across, there have to be consequences at some point in time. And if fans love him and want him to be a superstar, they should want to hold him accountable.”
One sorry element of the controversy is that, once again, in a situation where racism has reared its head, the story becomes, to some of those on the far right, another tale of a white man martyred on the altar of political correctness, or, to some of those in the business, just a suspense story about whether a lunkhead can smarten up and find his redemption… as a white guy, re-entitled despite his best efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and being forgiven… in a genre with an estimated 95% white audience.
Does it sound like anyone might be being left out of any of those narratives?
There’s a lot of “what-about-ism” to go around, most overtly among Wallen’s most rabid online supporters, but also more subtly among some of those in lower rungs on the Nashville industry ladder who hint, in more hushed terms, that the current punishment might not fit the crime. Wallen was using the N-word for a presumably white friend, probably as a term of endearment, not an epithet — and when he’s used it in the past, as he did on Twitter in 2012, he was quoting hip-hop lyrics. So why have his career be killed for what rap lyrics get to say every day, supporters ask? And what about the celebrities who’ve skated for more clear-cut maliciousness or even violence?
“One thing that makes me think Morgan can come back,” says one exec, who’s not happy at the thought, “is thinking about other genres and other people — Michael Vick, Chris Brown, those types who have been given shots again. It pains me, as a dog lover, every time I see Michael Vick as a commentator on the field. It’s hard to equate these things, but the Chris Brown one… you could certainly think that was worse (than what Wallen has done). That was surprising to me, that anyone would listen to him again, much less being up for awards again. Chris Brown is much worse, but to see that there was some sort of comeback for me makes me think that there’s some sort of comeback available for Morgan as well.. and also how much, just like I’m still vocal about Brown, there may be those who never stop being vocal about (what Wallen did after he’s back.”
What magnifies Wallen’s transgression, if it needed any, is the racially charged discussion about country music that only needed an N-word-slinging superstar to come into to create a perfect storm. After years in which female artists were often portrayed as the slighted minority in country music, it’s not to say that there isn’t room for two of those, but the far greater hurdles that Black performers have faced in getting a foothold in the genre came to the fore in 2020. The sudden explosion of interest in the long-simmering subject of racial disparity had several triggers. Two artist in or formerly in the genre, Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks, abbreviated their names to disassociate from any slavery-era connotations, as Black consciousness became one of the major social themes of the year in the wake of killings by police and subsequent protests. That didn’t work out so well for the newly christened Lady A, which was quickly accused by a blues singer of the same name of making off with her identity. Throwing fuel on the fire were the number of white male stars in the genre who posted derisive remarks about the Black Lives Matter protests. Diversity groups began to be formed in Nashville to counter that insensitivity.
Charley Pride’s lifetime achievement honor at the November CMA Awards, shortly before his COVID-related death, was both a bitter reminder of how many decades it’d been since the show had a Black entertainer of the year nominee, let alone winner, and a beacon that it could or should happen again. There were signs that Black women artists, in particular, might be more consciously elevated, if more by the media and Music Row cognoscenti than labels, radio and greater public. Maren Morris used one of her CMA acceptance speeches to reel off a list of the Black artists who should be up for female vocalist of the year, too. CMT’s recently unveiled freshman slate in its Next Women of Country franchise included the rising Black artists Brittany Spencer, Sacha, Chapel Heart and Reyna Roberts. And, without need of white saviors — though allies always help — powerful now-veterans like Mickey Guyton and Rissi Palmer made it clear that sisters are doing it for themselves.
And then Morgan Wallen got plastered, and for many, the narrative flipped back not to “that racist” but “those racists.” Short of the industry suddenly anointing Guyton queen for life — or even if it did — Is there a danger Wallen’s bender could make the tag stick for good?
“With the audience that we’ve bred or naturally attracted over time, we have not left them with a longing for experimentation or expansion of their worldview,” laments one radio exec. “It’s not what people listen to country music for. All of these committees and roundtables and conversations and pledges are not going to just up and change the nature of the audience, or the potential audience. They’re not going to bring in the additional audience we need. New, urban, 18-34s and people of color are not going to just hear about (diversity efforts) and go, ‘You know what I found out? I really like country music, and it even turns out they’ve got a couple Black people who sing it!’ They just think, ‘Yeah, country music is that old-style music before America became woke.’
“We’ve been dumbing country down, and a bunch of people are superficially looking at the Morgan Wallen thing and going, ‘Those are Trumpers.’ And maybe it’s hard to blame them. You look at the people who attacked the Capitol or attended that rally, and it looks like a ‘90s revival country concert. It’s like, ‘Where’s Wade Hayes? Let’s bring him out!’”
The exec recounts a moment of reckoning, driving through Nashville recently. “I had a Luke Combs song on the radio, driving with window down. The radio was turned up loud, and I pulled up at a stoplight by Vanderbilt. and I got a look from the people in the car next to me. I turned my radio down and I realized they thought, ‘There’s a Williamson County redneck. Look at that guy, listening to Luke Combs singing at the top of his lungs.’ And I was self-conscious. And country shouldn’t make people feel that way. And whenever it does, it goes through a bad period, in my experience.”
Seeing the comments from Wallen supporters who think he did nothing worthy of punishment, the exec says, “That doesn’t surprise me. Think about who those people are in their hearts. Think about what statement they’re really making. They’ve seen the (TMZ) video. You want to put your money there? You want to make a point? Go ahead.” But in the end he’s not sure it’s racism driving the uptick in Wallen streams and sales since the controversy broke. “These aren’t Rhodes scholars who are thinking through their Morgan Wallen purchases today. It’s a natural youth reaction to something being taken off the radio. They aren’t really thinking that he gave country a black eye and they’re helping give it one too.”
Country radio had to make some tough choices in the last week. One was whether to pull Wallen — that may have been the easy one. The tougher choice? Whether to address the controversy on the air. An informal survey of programmers and DJs indicates that most did not, preferring to focus on positive vibes. Some think that was a lost opportunity.
“We were already in a lose-lose situation,” says a major exec in the radio industry. “The disconnect for me is, we just quietly pull all this guy’s music who’ve been playing the piss out of for months — the guy’s been on a historic rise— and you don’t say anything about it? It’s a national news story, and it’s in our format, so maybe you cover it on the air in your morning show. You say to your listeners, ‘This is really hard. This is a big artist. He’s got record breaking numbers. Till now you loved this song. Can we have a conversation about that?’ That is amazing content in my opinion. We have a tendency to avoid those tough conversations. But there’s the elephant in the room sometimes that can’t be avoided. In this situation, I feel like some stations didn’t include their listeners in that conversation.”
But asking the listeners to have that talk may have only created outrage if they wanted Wallen back and the decision had already been made. “There are four companies that have a majority of country stations. The ball was taken out of (local programmers’) hands. In a perfect world that’s great content and have a real dialogue about it. But we can’t go and ask the listeners what their opinion is because the boss already said to pull it.”
If Wallen were to personally pull the dogs off and tell his unrelenting fans that all the people who cut ties or banished him from the air were right, and that maybe he’ll see them in 2022, “he could help country radio in that sense, if he wants to, if he thinks about that,” says an exec. “I don’t know if he’s thoughtful that way.
“I hope there’s somebody in there jumping in with a strategy. I don’t think the immediate statement was strong. When he said, ‘I need to do better,’ I wasn’t impressed by that, after two other incidents. You got on Instagram (after the ‘SNL’ cancellation) saying,’ I need to take some time — well, I guess you really didn’t. That rings hollow. I think as a society, we give people a second chance. It takes us a little while but we do forgive. So maybe if he takes the right actions he can set himself up. But I think he can’t really get back into that club until probably after the fall.”
Can Wallen pull off the kind of turnaround that Nick Cannon did, when, after a brief moment of defending his right to his antisemitic statements — with many fans supporting him in that defiance — he won back the support of the entertainment industry by agreeing to meet with and learn from Jewish leaders… and even, to the extent that we can look into anyone’s heart, seemed sincere about it?
Two organizations, the Nashville chapter of the NAACP and the performing rights organization, BMI, have publicly reached out to Wallen with offers to talk with Black leaders.
“The comments made by Morgan Wallen are atrocious and wrong,” Sheryl Guinn, a lawyer who heads up the Nashville NAACP, tells Variety. “This term has an ugly history and Morgan Wallen should be aware of that and work to eradicate its use. I offered to educate him on this matter, but it does not exonerate accountability on his part. He must be held responsible for his egregious comments.” She did not say whether she’d gotten any response to her invitation.
BMI Nashville, noting that it could not legally refuse to keep collecting Wallen’s publishing, said that it was offering to have the beleaguered singer meet with BeBe Winans to explore how he went wrong on the path to publicly uttering that racial slur and what could be done going forward.
Winans tells Variety, “”You should know I have not yet had the chance to meet Morgan Wallen, and it’s not my job to declare anyone’s innocence or guilt. I do believe it’s important to sit down and listen to young people, and give everyone a second chance. As Dr. King said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.’”
How the country music industry addresses the scandal going forward is a separate question. But it will be addressed at the upcoming Country Radio Seminar, the biggest annual gathering of industry pros, which is happening virtually instead of at its usual Nashville Renaissance Hotel location Feb. 16-19. Although most of the program was set in stone and a few panels had even been pre-recorded before Wallen became a topic of national discussion and furor, at least one radio panel is being reconfigured to address how radio responded to the startling development.
Moreover, Maren Morris and Luke Combs. plan to address it in a joint interview they’re doing for Country Radio Seminar. Previously, they’d been slated to take on less provocative matters in their panel. Morris has been the more outspoken of the two stars — and has already made her feelings about Wallen letting country down public on her social media — but it was Combs who spoke up first to suggest they address a much bigger elephant in the room than their careers.
“We have been working with Luke and Maren to do a featured artist interview session,” says RJ Curtis, the executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters and the annual convention they host. “You’ve got these two different kind of artists, Luke steeped in mainstream country and Maren with one foot in pop, who’ve reached the top as the CMAs’ top male and female vocalists in the past year, and we were going to talk about, ‘How are you building your career?’ But this week Luke Combs woke up and saw that news and was very disturbed by it, and called Maren, who’s cutting an album, and together they said, ‘We want to change the topic of this conversation. We think this is more pressing’ — not just for a segment of those 50 minutes but the whole thing. They renamed it ‘Accountability, Responsibility and What the Future of Country Music Looks Like.” They want to take it on. Luke may have strong feelings about things, but we haven’t really seen him express that as much in print, yet he instigated it.
“CRS is a good place to have that conversation,” continues Curtis. “In the past as an organization we’ve kind of skirted the heavy stuff, but last year we finally had an entire session on female airplay. We didn’t solve anything, but we brought it to the floor. Since then the racism in country music thing has been bubbling under. These two artists took control of this and said they want to talk about it. They are the male and female leaders in the format right now, and they don’t want to avoid it; they want to step right in. I applaud that.”
So does Wallen’s bad night out create a Sisyphean task for country music in trying to make up some ground that seemingly had been regained with voices like Morris’ and Brothers Osbornes’ — and Guyton’s and her Black contemporaries — having established that there’s room for diverse and even progressive thought in the genre?
“It 100% is (a major setback),” says a radio exec. “It takes the (allegations of racism) thing that’s been bubbling under for past year and, rightly or wrongly, it gives it a promotion. And it’s
bigger than a 24-hour thing where radio has the decision whether to play him or not. It’s taking on a bigger perception problem of us as a format. And for some people, it’s a big ‘I told you so.’”
But, points out Curtis, the CRB’s director, “There were two big stories in country music Wednesday, and one of them was about Morgan, and the other was about T.J.” Almost lost in the shuffle, at least initially, was the breaking news that T.J. Osborne, the singer of Brothers Osborne, had come out as gay in a People magazine profile — the first time that’s ever happened with a male artist signed to and having hits on a major Nashville country label.
“Someone else said to me on Wednesday, ‘We’re gonna wake up tomorrow after these two stories and look around and see in the mainstream press what people think of this format and how we handle ourselves.’ I feel like the format responded the right way for both of them, because T.J. got a lot of support and a lot of love for his decision to make that public. I know there are people like Mickey and Maren who say, ‘This is who we are’ (in response to Wallen’s actions). But the support that T.J. got — I think that’s also who we are.”
With additional reporting by A.D. Amorosi.