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Morgan Wallen’s music sales are still soaring six weeks after he was ‘canceled.’ But the story is bigger than him.

Morgan Wallen performs at the 2020 CMA Awards. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMA)
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Six weeks after critics cried that country star Morgan Wallen was being “canceled,” his music sales are still soaring.

Wallen’s historic chart reign continued this week, as “Dangerous: The Double Album” spent its ninth consecutive week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — the first country album in history to do so. In the last five years, only Drake’s “Views” in 2016 has topped the chart for a longer amount of time, with a run of 13 weeks. “Dangerous” has sold 2.25 million equivalent album units overall, which includes streaming, and 201,000 pure album sales.

This comes after Wallen was caught on camera outside his home saying the n-word, in a video published by TMZ. It led to hundreds of radio stations dropping his songs, a rather shocking move considering country music’s tendency to sweep controversies under the rug. He was also let go from his talent agency, WME, and “suspended indefinitely” by his record label, Big Loud.

But there’s more to the story — on multiple levels.

Although Wallen is experiencing deserved consequences for his racial slur, it’s hard to argue he has been “canceled.” In addition to his unprecedented streaming figures and high sales numbers, country radio trade publication Country Insider reported last week that some stations are “slowly” adding Wallen’s music back to their playlists. “We never intended to leave it out forever,” one programmer explained, while another added, “You hate the sin, not the sinner.”

Plus, there’s still no clarity on what financial implications Big Loud’s suspension had for the singer. The head of Wallen’s label has been vocal in social media comments that he still very much supports him. And even Wallen’s critics have said that if he does the work to educate himself on why what he said was so harmful, they don’t want to see him lose his career.

Many of his fans also appear to be sticking by him. Hannah Karp, editorial director of Billboard, noted that it’s “very unusual” for a country album to stay No. 1 for so long, especially because the genre lags behind others in terms of streaming numbers. (The Billboard 200 chart measures sales and streaming from multiple platforms.) Wallen’s record, which has also remained at the top of the Spotify album chart for weeks, was already seeing daily streaming numbers in the mid-20 million range in the weeks after its release. That number shot up to 30 million the week of the TMZ video, then settled just under 20 million. According to the most recent data, the songs on “Dangerous” have generated between 13 million and 15.5 million daily on-demand streams in the United States.

“Based on the data, it looks like [the No. 1 streak] probably would have happened even without the racial slur getting caught on video and becoming a national controversy,” Karp said. “It seems like that core demand was there from the get-go.”

She also theorized that “Dangerous” stayed at the top because of the relative lack of competition. It’s a slow time of year for album releases in general, and the Grammy Awards being delayed from January to mid-March may have affected the market. Some have speculated that Wallen’s fans, outraged about his removal from radio, coordinated campaigns to boost his streams. While that certainly could account for some of the streaming, Karp said she would be surprised at that sort of organized effort, based on country music listening habits. Fans are probably seeking out his songs at a high rate, she said, “not to make a point, but because they like his music.”

The other piece of the story is that the consequences of Wallen’s racial slur go far beyond just him. Country music was already facing a long-overdue reckoning with its embarrassing lack of diversity. Wallen’s fallout highlighted this on a national level, leading to a more forceful reaction than usual in a genre that likes to stay quiet about negative stories.

“It’s really just the fact that there’s a reaction at all. So the reaction is where the hope lies,” said Shannon Sanders, executive director of performing rights organization BMI’s Nashville creative team. “Because people are open to having conversations and listening, where they may not have done so before.”

“It’s making people really look at Nashville as a whole, comprehensively,” he added. “And they’re saying: ‘You know what, how are we contributing to the manifestation and the continuance of what has been considered a systematic problem? And what are we doing to contribute to a systematic solution?’”

Sanders is also president of Nashville Music Equality, an organization formed last summer amid the national Black Lives Matter protests. With the mission to create an anti-racist environment among the Nashville music industry, the group regularly holds panel discussions on topics from moving the culture forward to the history of the Black Country Music Association. Sanders said he has heard that others are facilitating similar forums within their own organizations.

Multiple important conversations have taken place over the last six weeks, and not only behind the scenes. Last month, country stars Luke Combs and Maren Morris sat down for a candid discussion broadcast to the virtual Country Radio Seminar conference in which they talked about accountability. Combs apologized for appearing in a music video covered in Confederate flags (“There is no excuse for those images”), while Morris talked about realizing her own privilege, such as recording an R&B-style song with only White singers and songwriters.

That same week, singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer hosted a discussion with Morris, country singer Cam and journalist-activist Andrea Williams on her radio show “Color Me Country,” which focuses on the Black, Indigenous and Latino roots of country music. They talked about bringing in more people of color in the genre at every level (artists, backup musicians, label staffers) and the importance of being allies.

There’s also the underlying issue that country music is rooted in the contributions of Black artists, which were effectively erased decades ago when executives separated songs into “country and western” and “race records.” Ever since, the genre has been overwhelmingly White, but Sanders hopes that the format is headed to a place where country music “is not just the singular expression of Southern White people.”

“It’s more than that, it’s always been more than that. It’s really about music out of the Southern experience, life through a Southern lens,” he said. “It’s about everybody that lives life through that particular lens and writes songs and communicates musically from that perspective.”

He also feels optimistic about the next generation of country music’s leaders, who are not only open to candidly discussing difficult topics but are actively interested in moving the needle.

“They’re not afraid of this conversation or afraid of bringing about or ushering change and being a part of that,” he said. “The time is now. There’s a lot going on, so it would be a shame for us to miss an opportunity to grow.”

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