More Than Words: Can Nashville Heed the Morgan Wallen Wakeup Call & Actually Diversify?

Brittney Spencer remembers exactly how she felt last week when she watched the video of a drunk Morgan Wallen using a racial slur on TMZ.

“I wasn’t surprised,” says the young Black country artist, whose cover of the Highwomen’s “Crowded Table” gained attention last summer and earned her an offer to play with the band after the pandemic.“It really had nothing to do with Morgan, [but] it’s challenging for people of color to think of country music and not consider the racial landscape of the genre and the country industry at large. So, when a popular country artist says a racial slur that’s arguably the most obvious indicator of racism, it further drives home that narrative many people of color already have in mind.”

After the video was released on Feb. 2, the country music industry mobilized quickly. The next day, Wallen — whose album Dangerous: The Double Album was spending its third week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — was dropped from virtually all country radio playlists; his record label and management company, Big Loud, posted on its Instagram account that it had decided to “suspend Morgan Wallen’s recording contract indefinitely”; WME had dropped him as a touring client, CMT had pulled all Wallen content from its platforms; and streaming services yanked him from editorial playlists. (On Wednesday, Wallen, who had been positioned as country next potential global star, issued a video apology, saying that he had begun meeting with Black leaders, had stopped drinking and, notably, asked his fans to stop defending his actions. Big Loud declined to comment on whether his contract was still suspended or what the suspension means).

It was a rapid reckoning unlike anything the country music industry had seen before. But was it enough? No, say many Black leaders and members of the country music community, who add Nashville needs to take this moment to reflect and act on impacting lasting change.

Though the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) praised the country music industry’s swift action dropping Wallen in a Feb. 5 statement, the advocacy organization formed last year to fight systemic racism in the music industry is among those saying Wallen’s actions are symptomatic of much bigger issues in Nashville that affect artist rosters, radio playlists and corporate offices.

“That was one tiny step in a very long journey that’s ahead,” BMAC board member Caron Veazey tells Billboard. “When we look at the ecosystem [in country music], Morgan says what he says [and then] he apologizes. But then we say, ‘Where’s the education around that?’… In order to change something so systemic, you have to have a huge pivot. You have to have people that are going to step out and say, ‘We’re not going to do this this way anymore.’”

More than a day of reckoning, the Wallen fallout was “a day of awakening,” said Shannon Sanders, BMI Nashville executive director, creative, on a panel Tuesday held by Nashville Music Equality (NME), an organization started last summer to address inequality in the Nashville music community. “As the [country music industry] awakens, it’s taking a look in the mirror… and is not liking what it sees.”

The quick condemnation of Wallen’s actions, says Sanders, who is Black, makes the statement that, “‘We realize this is wrong and detrimental to a whole group of people and let us stop and say we’re not in favor of that taking place.’” But, he says there is much work to be done.

Wallen’s comment comes at a time when bi-racial or Black artists Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Darius Rucker and Blanco Brown all have hits climbing the Country Airplay chart. But the genre remains — in artists, audience and executives—overwhelmingly white and male.

“I’m concerned about the future of the format,” says Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vp music strategy. “We’re playing the same 10 songs over and over again. I don’t feel there’s any diversity… Any format is healthier when it’s balanced.”

The change has to come from the executive suites, says Charlane Oliver, co-founder and co-executive director of The Equity Alliance. “The industry- executives, A&R, marketing, radio, etcetera- needs to create a culture within the ranks of their companies that this type of language and behavior is not tolerated and will lead to swift ramifications. Culture is modeled and must come from the top down…. We must address the hidden discrimination and double standards embedded in the industry that makes saying the N-word OK because artists like Morgan Wallen are surrounded [and] insulated by whiteness and enablers whose salaries are paid by the artists’ lucrative careers.”

Since the incendiary video’s release, despite the music industry’s response, Wallen’s sales increased 231%. “This shouldn’t be overlooked or rewarded,” says Oliver, noting Black artists are, meanwhile, “systematically shut out of the country music industry by the same people who excuse and enable Morgan Wallen’s behavior.

Whereas country music has long relied on terrestrial radio to break stars and build careers, over the past several years the genre and its audience have been catching up with other musical styles on streaming with growth that now outpaces the overall music industry. That offers country the potential to expand its fan base and Wallen has been a clear benefactor with record-breaking streaming success on his 30-track Dangerous, which looks to be headed for its fifth week atop the Billboard 200 chart.

But there is also the hard truth that country music’s lack of inclusivity and diversity is not only morally wrong, but could lead to major hits economically and to country music’s reputation.

“Morgan Wallen’s comments were devastating to country music’s reputation because they reinforced the stereotype that country music is the soundtrack of racism,” says Beverly Keel, dean of Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Media and Entertainment and a co-founder of NME. “The national media coverage immediately made the leap from it being an isolated event by one person to being reflective of the entire genre. For instance, Good Morning America noted, ‘for years, the industry has fought the perception that its songs are meant only for white audiences.’”

“One ignorant guy took the rest of us down with him as quickly as that drunken slur came from his mouth,” says a leading Nashville industry executive. “It makes us all look really, really bad. And now while he sits on the sideline, the pressure is on the rest of us to advance the genre and to remind the world that not all country music artists, creators [and] executives are this way.”

“A lot of people are tired of seeing country music and the word ‘racism’ back-to-back on national news,” adds Fram. “It’s a little bit of an embarrassment. It’s time for change.”

Fram has been one of country music’s most outspoken executives when it comes to fighting for both racial and gender equality in country music through such programs as CMT’s Equal Play initiative — which instituted 50/50 play for female artists across CMT and CMT Music channels in 2020 — and CMT’s Next Women of Country, which supports and highlights young female artists across its platforms. Four of the 10 acts selected for the 2021 class are women of color, including Spencer.

On Feb. 24, Keel and MTSU are launching a pilot series of free Zoom conversations open to all college students of color. The goal is to inform the students of the many facets of country music, but also to introduce industry executives to Black students interested in internships and jobs with the goal to create greater diversity across all facets of the country music industry, Keel says.

Failing to be as inclusive as possible is just bad for the bottom line. Actions like Wallen’s “feel like you’re telling me you don’t even want my business,” Sanders tells Billboard. “You don’t want [Black people’s] money? Is that what you’re telling us? If that’s not what you’re telling us, show us. We want to know. We want to be invited to the party.”

Education is key, but “the undercurrent to all this is economics,” agreed YMCA Nashville/Middle Tennessee president and CEO Sharon Roberson on the NME panel, adding that the country music power brokers have to adopt a zero tolerance policy toward racism even if it initially hurts their pocketbook.  She asks, “When someone is your money maker, are you as willing to hold them accountable as the low-hanging fruit?”

Following the industry’s rebuke of Wallen, his airplay fell precipitously and it appears no stations have added him back–though that may slowly change following his apology. Across his entire catalog, from Feb. 5 through Feb. 9, Wallen only received 25–30 plays daily on the over 140 stations that report to Billboard’s County Airplay chart, according to MRC Data. That’s down from around 1,500 daily before the TMZ video posted. Nate Deaton, GM at KRTY San Jose, California, says his station got minimal complaints after dropping Wallen’s music. “We got a couple of very negative emails, but I don’t think they’re local. I think it was a generic, ‘let me find a country station and complain.’”

However, in the four days immediately following the news, Wallen’s daily streams exceeded any individual day in the week leading to the news. By Feb. 7, the streams had dropped back to normal lower levels. Walllen’s sales also surged enabling him to remain atop the Billboard 200 for a fourth consecutive week with Dangerous. One full week after the TMZ video went public, Wallen’s total album and song sales had increased 231%, according to initial reports by MRC Data. Album sales increased from 12,000 to 62,000, while song sales rose from 33,500 to 89,000.

While the activity may indicate some fans’ ongoing support of Wallen or simply their desire to make sure they could access his music, Keel says it does not mean the industry moved too quickly to ban him. “I wouldn’t say that [the industry] got ahead of its audience. I would say the majority of people believe that the use of that word is wrong, period, and agree with the decisions. It was a minority of people who decided to make a point by buying his music. There are always going to be supporters of bad things, but, fortunately, they are in the minority.”

During Tuesday’s panel, The Equity Alliance’s Oliver suggested that  Big Loud, donate any money made on his music since the TMZ video surfaced to charity. The label hasn’t responded publicly, however, Jason Isbell, whose song, “Cover Me Up,” Wallen remakes  on Dangerous, tweeted  Wednesday that he will donate “everything I’ve made so far from this album” to the NAACP’s Nashville chapter.

Other artists are also figuring out ways to be part of the solution. Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton (the only Black woman country artist signed to a major label) and Kelsea Ballerini were some of the first artists to condemn Wallen’s actions on Twitter. Morris tells Billboard, “I have to start with my own camp of people, bringing more Black songwriters into the rooms with me, looking at the people I employ. We all have our blind spots we need to check out.”

More broadly, she adds, “You’ve really got to get to the root of why we’ve enabled this behavior to go on…. We’ve got to call each other out. We can’t protect our own anymore. We have so much room to grow.”

As Spencer begins her country music career, she agrees. “We have to recognize the industry’s part in cultivating a culture that can produce a Morgan Wallen…or country music artists [taking] pictures with the Confederate flag. In this time, it is invaluable that the country music industry shows not just artists like me but also shows other parts of the country that we’re not still stuck in 1960.”

In addition to Big Loud, heads of the other leading record companies in Nashville– Universal Music Group Nashville, Sony Nashville, Warner Music Nashville and Big Machine Label Group — declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment for this story.