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NEAR TRUTHS: ROADS TO REDEMPTION

WITH AND WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES: If you’re looking for an indicator of how polarized and paralyzed we are by the question of race and how Black Lives Matter and other progressive movements have forced us to address it, look no further than the sorry saga of Morgan Wallen. The controversy swirling around the country phenom is highly instructive about how much—and how little—the culture has changed. The immediate response to his drunken use of a racial slur (during Black History Month, no less), caught on camera by neighbors, was swift and intense. He was yanked from playlists by broadcast congloms and DSPs, removed from eligibility for the ACMs and had his record deal with Big Loud “indefinitely suspended” (essentially a PR move that isn’t the same thing as being dropped, and has no real consequences). One org that has been fighting for change in the biz issued a statement reading, “The message was loud and clear: Racism will no longer go without consequences.”

Er, well, yes and no. As far as radio goes, the big congloms that brought the hammer down on Wallen weren’t instrumental to his success. What’s more, these same pious programmers in the Country format had previously resisted playing incredible artists of color like Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton for fear of discomfiting their core listenership. They are also part of media multinationals that have profited mightily from the dissemination of right-wing talk radio, a superspreader of racist, extremist propaganda via shows hosted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity.

Some DSPs took Wallen off their curated playlists, but his music was still there on their platforms for those who sought it out. And quite a few listeners did seek it out—which raises this troubling question, among others: Did the well-intentioned effort to create consequences for unacceptable behavior end up rewarding its perpetrator? Are certain avowedly racist supporters portraying him as a good ol' boy victimized by the libs and cancel culture? Meanwhile, how many apolitical people who typically ignore music saw his name in the news and decided to check him out, and then became fans?

As noted above, Wallen could be welcomed back by the very cultural mechanisms that shunned him if he makes good on the contrition and commitment he’s shown most recently. The kid’s talent is unquestionable; his judgment, thus far, not so much. But people change, and several of his contemporaries—including Black artists who’ve seen enough to find white hyperventilation over this mini-tempest a little overwrought—have indicated forgiveness is possible. The ball’s in Morgan’s court.

Overt instances of racist language, as in the Wallen case, are a lot easier to address than deeply ingrained systemic racism and inequality.

In any case, the whole episode is a reminder, if we need one, that we have a long, long way to go.

Wallen’s popularity and name recognition have, if anything, increased in the wake of the controversy. With Dangerous, he’s tied Garth Brooks’ 1998 record for a country release by holding the #1 chart position for his first five weeks of release and has already racked up 1.9m ATD for the new set, which is easily on its way to 3m and could well be a contender for 2021’s biggest release.

THE ROAD AHEAD: Big Loud boss and manager Seth England certainly faces a conundrum. His JV deal with Republic will yield eight-figure profits—and that’s before the expected windfall to be realized when Morgan mounts his first major headlining tour. We’re talking about life-changing money here. So the notion of dropping his breakout artist seems unlikely, to say the least, especially now that the artist—guided by his team and crisis-management specialists—has already kicked off his rehabilitation effort with a spate of sobriety, meetings with Black organizations and unvarnished mea culpas.

It’s more than possible that we’ll see Wallen not only recover from this scandal but emerge from it an even bigger star. The mainstream loves a bad boy who learns a lesson and makes amends. Will he become the next major superstar to emerge from the Nashville ecosystem and challenge the likes of Taylor Swift for that glittery crown? Is Wallen’s relationship with Seth like Tay’s former one with Scott Borchetta? Could Big Loud become the next Big Machine? Borchetta, a flashy Nashville outlier with his Ferraris and private jets, was never wholly accepted by Music City’s masters of the game, even as the success of the artist he’d inked when she was a coltish teen propelled him to the stratosphere. Where will Seth fit into the Nashville hierarchy as the Wallen story plays out over the next few years?

MASTERY: As for Taylor, she’s made headlines of late by fulfilling her promise to re-record her earlier works, thus creating new masters of beloved material that she controls. While this isn’t an unprecedented tactic, Tay’s done it in a uniquely public way, mobilizing her huge, rabid fanbase to support the move and oppose the current owners of the original masters. The just-released new "Love Story" and other planned re-recordings could potentially devalue the masters purchased by Shamrock, especially if they really went for $300m, as was widely reported.

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