Why Don’t Idolists Make Hits Anymore?, Pt. 2

In my last post about why recent Idolists have failed to find success, I left you on a cliffhanger promising to reveal a couple of Idolists who have and why.

Gabby Barrett: Be a Country Artist Because Radio Still Rules (but hurry)

The Country Music Association (CMA) has identified two issues in promoting their artists: getting their fans to consume music from the streaming services of Spotify, Amazon, and Apple; and getting those services to include more country songs on their influential and taste-making playlists that are crucial for music discovery. It’s something of a circular problem, of course. The streaming services won’t give up valuable spots on their playlists for country music if their fans aren’t using their service.

What this means for country artists is that radio still rules. An artist’s popularity and discoverability are still determined by what’s playing on the radio and that matters more to the success of country music artists than those in other genres.

Enter Gabby Barrett who may be the hottest Idolist on the planet right now.

Gabby finished 3rd on Idol in Season 16 (2018)[1] and then wrote a song I Hope. It was released independently to the streaming platforms and took off which led to her signing with Warner Music Nashville. Behind their promotional muscle, the song hit #1 on Country radio. And a remix with Charlie Puth was released that crossed over to the pop charts and got streamed like crazy such that I Hope reached #3 on Billboard.

As a result, she started collecting awards and nominations from Country Music Television, The CMA, The Academy of Country Music and iHeart Radio.

And her new single The Good Ones also hit #1 on Country radio, making her the first female artist since 2015 (Kelsea Ballerini) to reach #1 on her first two singles.

Gabby’s success shows several things. First after her run on Idol, she basically had to start from scratch by joining all the other wanna-bes in Nashville striving for a record deal. There, it was her talent as a singer-songwriter rather than time on Idol that landed her a deal.

The second is how critical radio is to country music. The Country music business (and by the business I mean the industry) still heavily depends on radio to break new songs and artists.

Third, however, is the influence of streaming. I Hope began its life on the streaming services and got a huge second life when re-recorded with pop star Charlie Puth.

Gabby has made her mark using Country music’s traditional technology of radio and the streaming technology that the industry is wanting its fans to embrace, the latter so much so that Gabby is being referred to as Gen Z’s first country music star. She is standing at the forefront of where the CMA wants its fans to go. Whether Gabby’s success is a singular phenomenon or a repeatable path forward for other Idolists (and other young country artists) remains to be seen but it is certainly something worth watching.  

Jax: Being Visible for Months Is Out. Being Viral a Few Seconds at a Time Is In.

With 80 million users in the US between 18 and 34 years of age, TikTok has become one of the leading platforms used by the music business for artist discovery. Recall from my previous post that the streaming services are targeting this age group which means that the record labels are targeting them, too. One of these newly discovered artists is Jax who finished third in Season 14 (2015)[2]. She remains one of my favorite and most creative Idolists ever and it is that creativity that is currently serving her quite well.

Over her Post-Idol years, Jax released ten singles including La La Land, a diss of her time on Idol. The video includes many of her Idol-mates during her season.

She also was a featured vocalist on a dance track Castle which I really like.

But it was a TikTok video that went viral and her subsequent gathering of over a million followers that got the attention of Atlantic Records who posted the news on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?ref=external&v=240775800822304

Jax’s situation could not be more different than Idol’s glory days. Rather than perform glorified karaoke in front of a nation week after week, one 30 second viral moment followed by a series of 30 second moments built a million-person Gen Z fanbase to launch her career to the next big step. This is the world Idolists are in today. Virality matters more than visibility.

So Can Idolists Still Make Hits?

The theme of my last two posts was the question of why Idolists haven’t done more with their success on the show. And more than the fact that most of them haven’t been very good, my opinion is that the show is no longer a platform for stardom. The best way to think about Idol is that it’s more like a pop artist trade school where you learn your craft and then go out into the world, hoping that your talent and timing are good enough to give you a chance.

In truth, it’s always been that way but we didn’t see it because our attention was drawn to Idol’s instant stars. We don’t think about Tori Kelly and Lauren Daigle and Maren Morris and Bebe Rexha and many other popular music stars who failed to progress on Idol but learned something going through the process.

The implication for us as viewers is that we should no longer watch Idol for the instant gratification of finding the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood or Adam Lambert. That’s hard to let go of but that is the reality. It’s more about finding the next Jax or Gabby Barrett.

Last year a friend of mine that is a songwriter in Nashville texted me about Gabby as someone I should keep my eye on. It was exciting for me to be able to say that I remember seeing her on American Idol a couple of years ago. I think that’s where the show is at now: twice-weekly entertainment that we hope will produce someone who will find success a few years later such that we can say we remember them back when they were trying to survive Hollywood Week and figuring out what kind of artist they wanted to be.


[1] Won by Maddie Poppe with Caleb Hutchinson as runner-up.

[2] Won by Nick Fradiani with Clark Beckham as runner-up.

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