If you ever needed a sign that the times they are a-changin' on Music Row, look no further than the just-announced split between Alan Jackson and his label home of 22 years. The artist and Sony Nashville both released statements today saying that Jackson would be amicably exiting the Arista Nashville label that released his first single all the way back in 1989.
Arista's parent company released a surprisingly short two-sentence statement this morning. "Sony Music Nashville wishes to thank Alan Jackson for their long association and the many hit records achieved as a result of that association. In an amicable parting, Sony confirms that Alan has delivered his final recordings to the company and wishes him well." Jackson then released his own statement, saying, "It just seems to me like the time may be right to change things up a bit and see what comes next."
Inevitably, speculation immediately formed that Jackson might be on the verge of announcing a new deal, and that was why Sony rushed out its press release. But I spoke with Jackson's manager, Nancy Russell, today, and she assured me that's not the case.
"Alan asked to be let off the label in September," Russell told me. "We decided we would support the hits package"—34 Number Ones, a two-disc set that came out in late November. Negotiations with several other major labels are ongoing, Russell confirmed. "We're excited about some of these other folks we're talking to. There are some pretty cool people out there."
When I talked to Jackson last February, shortly before his last studio album, Freight Train, came out, he was talking even then as if leaving Sony were all but a done deal.
"I remember Keith [Steagall, his longtime producer] and I saying this could be my last album [for the company], so we ought to try to make it good. Not that we wouldn't anyway, but it just felt like we wanted to do the best we could on it, since it could be the last album for them. Somebody said that it's like a mixture of all the things I've done for 20 years on one album."
When I pressed Jackson about what might come next, in his typical laconic manner, he said, "I guess we'll be doing something. These labels are getting to where they don't have much money to push anything anymore, so I don't know. A lot of people seem to be doing it on their own and just getting the record out that way. But it really won't change anything as far as the fans as concerned, but just be a different angle business-wise. Touring, I'll just keep doing what I do, 40-50 shows, as long as we can sell some tickets. As long as radio still plays me, we'll still keep chugging along."
Although Jackson seemed interested at the time in possibly going the indie route, Russell suggested there is no doubt they're likely to go with a competing major label in the end.
Thus ends the second-longest run any current country superstar has had with one company. There won't be any beating the streak George Strait has had with MCA since 1981. After that, there aren't many competitors for the throne. Tim McGraw has been with Curb Records since 1993, though he's publicly indicated he wants out when his deal is up soon. Brooks & Dunn started out on Arista Nashville in 1991, but, of course, they just broke up. Kenny Chesney has been on BNA since 1995, making him the oldest keeper of the guard at the conglomerate that is now Sony Nashville.
There hasn't been such a momentous artist/label split in country music since Toby Keith got out of his Universal contract in the late '90s, or maybe even since Johnny Cash left Columbia in the late '80s after a legendary 26-year run. But this doesn't resemble either of those cases, really. Toby asked to be let go because of artistic differences and his own overweening ambition. It's highly unlikely the amiable Jackson did any such headbutting with the brass at Sony. Cash, meanwhile, was dropped because he was no longer a viable hitmaker. That's hardly the case with Jackson. It's true that Freight Train was one of the few albums he made that didn't produce any No. 1 singles, he did have three charttoppers in a row as recently as 2007-08, and he reached the pinnacle this past year as a duet partner on the Zac Brown Band's "As She's Walking Away."
So what does it come down to, then? The most likely culprit would seem to be money. The superstars of the business are no longer selling what they did, and in many or most cases they're no longer able to renegotiate contracts that offer the upfront advances to which they've become accustomed. Major labels that once would have kept prestige artists on their roster at any cost, as figureheads and talent magnets, are now just looking at the bottom line.
But manager Russell maintains that there have been no contract renegotiations, and that Jackson meant it when he told Sony Nashville he wanted off the label early last fall, with the news postponed till now to ease the greatest-hits package through the system.
In any case, Jackson is hardly the only established country star in transition. A lot of ex-Sony and ex-Universal artists are ending up with the powerhouse indie labels. Reba made a move to Scott Borchetta's Big Machine machinery, where the veteran artist just proved her viability with a No. 1 single. Martina McBride just left Sony for Big Machine and is hoping for the same results. Trace Adkins split from Capitol to join Toby Keith's Show Dog imprint.
It'd be interesting if Big Machine and Show Dog ended up with more veteran artists than the veteran labels, who'd rather spend a little money trying to come up with the next Lady Antebellum than a lot of money keeping established careers going. For Sony Nashville, which once had far more superstars than any other company, Kenny Chesney may soon be the last guy standing with more than three records to his name. For Nashville, which has long prided itself in loyalty, long careers, and a lack of fickleness, the fact that decades-long recording contracts are a quaint artifact of the past represents a true turning of the tide... or just another unfortunate example of country catching up with pop.