The country trio Midland scored a major coup this week. With two 2018 Grammy nominations to their credit, the group appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." It was a rollicking performance, but instead of performing the song that has the chance to become a breakthrough hit — the twice Grammy-nominated “Drinkin’ Problem” — they inexplicably played “Make A Little,” their latest single.
For any artist, it’s a difficult balance. “I can’t wait to get out there and play the stuff from the new album,” Tom Petty told me on the eve of the release of his "Mojo" album in 2010. But Petty, who died last October and will no doubt be honored along with others greats we lost this year like Gregg Allman, understood all too well that the majority of the fans coming to see him and his band the Heartbreakers would be there to see them play classics like “Free Fallin’,” “Refugee” and “American Girl.” Petty knew that you had to dangle audiences a carrot before introducing something unfamiliar, but then really play to your strengths when you did give them something new. That’s why, by his tour last summer, songs from "Mojo" were slotted in seamlessly next to the most beloved songs in his catalog.
For Midland — virtually unknown to all but any diehard fans tuning in to Colbert’s show last week — the group’s appearance was a lost opportunity. They failed to capitalize on the national and social media exposure the performance could have given them, not to mention the cross-promotion that the Grammy awards will give “Drinkin’ Problem.” And to top it off, they played a new song that hardly anyone knows — a safe and frankly lackluster choice for such a prime opportunity.
Let’s hope other artists take note and don’t make the same mistake on Sunday night. Because in today’s streaming economy, the broadcast remains an incredibly important opportunity for artists both old and new.
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The Grammy broadcast this year will attract somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million viewers. For acts like Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars, it’s an opportunity to grab the attention of a huge and relatively diverse swath of the public, both reminding fans that they’re still out there, and enticing more casual listeners to check them out.
Inevitably, of course, my social media feed will be full of oldsters complaining that SZA and Khalid aren’t “music” and that "these artists don’t hold a candle to,” well, just fill in your favorite act from back in the day. Meanwhile the young people in my feed will likely wonder who Elton John or U2 are, and more importantly, why they should care.
But focusing on these easy, hyperbolic arguments is the lazy way to watch the Grammys. That’s because, for millions of people watching, it will be the first time they’ll hear tracks like “Despacito” or “Redbone” or “The Story of O.J.” or even “Melodrama,” no matter how ubiquitous they seem to more hardcore fans.
And while the days of music driving the culture in a meaningful way may seem in the past, that’s really just the result of the myriad things competing for our attention. More than 100 million fans now listen to music via services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal — it’s a formidable audience, if you can reach it. In fact, with music available to us at the touch of a button in nearly every moment of our day — certainly more than even when AM and FM radio dominated the culture — the Grammys remain a windfall to performers and winners alike, whether they’re well-known or simply chipping away at the fringes of the music business.
While the days of music driving the culture may seem in the past, that’s really just the result of the myriad things competing for our attention.
So performers like Lady Gaga and Pink — who have proven track records for delivering the goods at awards shows — as well as newer but popular acts like Lorde, Childish Gambino and Cardi B, have a chance to capitalize on a captive audience of millions who will be watching with their phones out, ready and willing to check out whatever catches their fancy. And, of course, warhorses like Elton John — who this year is paired up with Miley Cyrus in one of those “only at the Grammys” performances — and U2 will use the added attention to sell a boatload of tickets to their upcoming tours.
The trick, of course, is for these performers to avoid delivering fun but forgettable ear candy or songs they feel are “important.” Instead, they need to highlight songs that are special and memorable, or ballads that are truly epic, and play to their strengths. And, most especially, they’ve got to deliver performances that come across great on television, which is no mean feat.
Every awards show is full of clunkers, there’s no doubt about that. So let’s just hope that Kesha can shock us out of our Sunday evening stupor, and that U2 pull out all the stops, in a way that only the Irish band can. What Bono must not do, however, is simply give us the latest track from his band’s new album — which, by the way, isn’t nominated for any Grammys. U2 has a chance — like Patti LuPone, Sam Smith and all the rest — to remind us why we love them. And in the process, perhaps get a few Millennials to look them up on Spotify.
Will they make the most of the opportunity, or will they have a Midland moment? I know I’ll be watching.
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found at sites like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Quartz, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.