Last month, Craig Campbell was watching the highest-charting single of his career, "Keep Them Kisses Comin'," inch its way closer toward the coveted Top 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. It was Number 13 and rising.
Prior to releasing the compact, uptempo tune (a radio-ready two minutes, 39 seconds), the singer's best chart showing was his debut single, 2010's "Family Man," which peaked at Number 14. A Nashville journeyman by way of Georgia — a hotbed for today's country chart-toppers — Campbell, one of the few singers to still sport a cowboy hat, has found the sweet spot between good ol' boy and mature artist. Aside from the unfortunate "Fish," a too bawdy for its own good lark in 2011, his songs have stood out from today's homogenized country radio fare, especially the workingman's prayer "Family Man" and the haunted love dream "Outta My Head." The latter had a near record-breaking 54-week run on the charts.
With the strong showing of "Keep Them Kisses Comin'," off his second album Never Regret, Campbell was poised to enter rarified country air. But then his record label, Bigger Picture Group, abruptly closed. The Georgian and his song were in the wind.
A smaller Nashville label, Bigger Picture nonetheless had its share of success. The group collaborated on marketing and promotional efforts for Zac Brown Band early in the country jammers' career, and provided artist services for Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker. Its roster most recently included Chris Janson, Blackjack Billy and Rachel Bradshaw. Campbell says he was alerted to Bigger Picture's financial problems right when "Keep Them Kisses Comin'" was making its run.
"I was having a conversation with one of our partners at Bigger Picture, and he kind of alluded to the idea that we were broke," Campbell tells Rolling Stone Country. "I was thinking, 'What does that mean for me?' And sure enough, two days later I got a call from our president saying that we were closing. It was kind of a shock — especially the fact that we were on the heels of a Top 10 song. Even worse than that, it was the highest charting song I ever had. I was very deflated."
Bigger Picture's shuttering, however, didn't spell curtains for "Kisses." The song continued its ascent, breaking the Top 10.
Independent artists have had some moderate chart success in the past, but "Keep Them Kisses Comin'" is the rare instance of a song entering that tier without an active record label behind it. It's important to point out, though, that Bigger Picture is wholly responsibly for driving the train, promoting the single for the bulk of its chart life. The Top 10 breakthrough, however, was achieved after the label had ceased operations.
"When all this happened, I was at 13, and I went to Number Eight last week," says Campbell. "For me to be able to move five spots like that without the help of a record label, that's pretty cool."
The momentum is the result of a number of factors, from the song's pedigree (written by Number One songwriters Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip, it had a head start out of the gate) to fan support. But Campbell's relationship with promotion staff and radio program directors has proven to be the most beneficial… as well as the most surprising.
The country music singles game can be incredibly competitive, and despite all the "Kumbaya, brother" platitudes that are spouted throughout Nashville, every artist, label, manager and promotions guy wants to be Number One. If an artist from one label is losing steam on the charts, a rival label's promotion arm can pressure a radio PD to pull the single in favor of their artist's song.
"When you get to a certain spot on the chart, then it truly does become…
I don’t like using 'cutthroat,'" Campbell says with a pause, "but it's very competitive. If there's a song on the chart that appears to not be doing well, then they're going to hammer down on that song: 'Hey, go ahead and get that song out of here. You all know that isn't going to work.' It's more of a mind game, and picking on the weak link."
"Country music is more competitive than ever, and frequently when a record shows weakness, it goes away pretty quickly," says Justin Cole, director of country programming for Premiere Networks/Clear Channel Media + Entertainment. "But this song didn't show weakness in any of the normal metrics. Other than the label folding, there was no issue. Our listeners still wanted to hear the song, so we kept playing it and gave it the chance to grow."
Cole cites an email from his boss Clay Hunnicutt, executive VP and general manager of national programming platforms at Clear Channel, persuading the company's country programmers to spin Campbell's song.
"Just because there's not a label to promote it doesn't mean music shouldn't be heard," says Hunnicutt. "If it's a great song, it's a great song — period."
Campbell found himself humbled by the support, especially from staffers at other labels.
"I had other radio promo people from other record labels, saying, 'Hey, even though this is not my song, I'm going to try to help you out as much as I can,'" he reports.
"While it is a very competitive business, no one likes to see people displaced from their jobs when a company shuts its doors. I actually received several emails from other record labels praising our decision to continue playing Craig’s song after Bigger Picture folded," confirms Cole. "These guys all know what it takes to get as far as Craig had gotten, and to watch a good song fall apart because of an unfortunate business situation would be painful.
"I must be doing something right on the radio side, as far as the relationships," Campbell says. "If I was an asshole, I don't think I'd have the support. They would have backed off on the song a lot sooner."
Even so, Campbell admits he needs his own dedicated team to work "Kisses" and, ultimately, another label. He's currently in negotiations with Bigger Picture to purchase his contract, including a new album he already has completed, and is optimistic about where he'll land next. But for now, he's focused on keeping his most successful single yet on the charts, even if that means footing the bill himself.
"All this radio stuff I'm doing lately, I'm doing it on my own and having to pay for it out of my own pocket," says Campbell, who, like other artists, fosters radio good will by performing at station-sponsored concerts. "Whenever you commit to doing radio shows or acoustic guitar pulls, that's something that the record label pays for out of the promotion budget. But now that I don't have a record label, nor do I have a promotion budget, I'm having to pay for that out of my touring expenses."
Instead, he's traveling lean, guitar in hand. "I don't have any record reps with me, I'm just showing up myself and honoring my commitments."
He's also touring relentlessly, all while keeping an eye on where "Keep Them Kisses Comin'" resides on the Billboard charts.
"It was at Number Eight, and went to Number Nine this week, because we got jumped by Chris Young. But if the Miranda song and the Luke song fall fast enough, we should be Number Seven next week," Campbell says, working the various scenarios through in his head. "But I'd love to see it go Number One. Without a label, how crazy would that be?"