In 2011, the duo Thompson Square earned one of the most prestigious honors in Nashville: Their breakout No. 1 single, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” was the most-played song on country radio that year. It was also nominated for two Grammy Awards — country song and country duo/group performance — but in country music, radio support can be even more important for mainstream success. If a country act can’t get a hit on the radio chart, a record label will often be reluctant to release a full album.
However, times are changing, as some labels will release a record on the strength of an artist’s fan base or streaming momentum. And Keifer and Shawna Thompson — who left their label last year and are releasing their first new album in five years, titled “Masterpiece,” independently on Friday — are hoping they can rely on other methods to drum up excitement without a radio promotion team.
“It’s not that we don’t want radio play. We definitely want that and would welcome that, you know?” Keifer Thompson said recently by phone from Nashville. “But without that machine behind you, spending big money to get songs up the charts, thank God for other outlets.”
First, they had to capture the attention of platforms such as Spotify and satellite radio Sirius XM, which doesn’t report its spins to the charts: “These are huge things for an independent artist,” Keifer said. And the duo got creative on social media, such as launching “WinoWednesdays” live streams on their Facebook page, where they play music and drink wine as comments from fans stream in.
“Our new stuff probably won’t be on terrestrial radio. That’s a little bit sad that it has to be that way,” Keifer Thompson said. “But we’re not playing the [radio] singles game … so it will be interesting to see different outlets gravitate toward different songs.” For example, “Masterpiece,” the title track, has already started playing on Sirius XM’s country station, The Highway. On Spotify, the duo’s new song “A Love Like This” has nearly a million streams.
The couple kicked off their career with a bang: First, there was the massive hit “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” which propelled the success of their self-titled debut album. They had several follow-up hits over the next few years, with “I Got You,” “Glass,” “If I Didn’t Have You” and “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About.”
Then, around 2014, a couple of singles from their sophomore album, “Just Feels Good,” stopped climbing the charts. They didn’t really know why and didn’t want to speculate too much. The couple went back to the studio and released two more songs, which stalled in the Top 40, putting their third album in limbo. Soon after, they asked if they could be released from their record contract with Broken Bow Records.
It was an extremely difficult decision, Keifer said, and their label tried to persuade them to stay. However, he said, they no longer felt like a priority at the label and wanted to see what it would be like as independent artists.
As it turns out, it is delightfully freeing to have complete control over their music — though also terrifying and twice as much work as before, given that they also started co-producing some songs. That includes “Masterpiece,” a solo write by Keifer about their toddler son, Cooper. Their catalogue is filled with songs about relationships at every stage, and this album continues the trend, from the beginning of a relationship (“Let’s Do Something Stupid”) to one that could be risky (“Up in Smoke.”)
“It’s really our first shot about being 110 percent Thompson Square. We had nobody telling us what to do on this,” Shawna Thompson said. “It’s a little extra weight on your shoulders … thrilling, and a little scary, and so exciting.”