How the Music Industry Took a Stand Against Morgan Wallen—and What Comes Next

Following a leaked video of Morgan Wallen uttering a racial slur, the country star was banned from the Billboard Music Awards—despite his six nominations. But will the industry hard line last?

By Billy Nilles May 22, 2021 1:00 AMTags

A six-time finalist at the upcoming 2021 Billboard Music Awards, Morgan Wallen is one of the most-nominated country stars of the night. He also isn't welcome inside the building.

The decision from dick clark productions to ban the singer from the event, which will broadcast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on May 23 on NBC, sent shockwaves through the music industry, as it quite possibly marked the first time in the show's 30 year history that it had so thoroughly distanced itself from one of its nominees.

"With our content reaching millions of viewers, dcp and MRC have the privilege and responsibility to effect change by creating a more inclusive dialogue in our productions and across the industry," a statement from the production company released in late April read. "Morgan Wallen is a finalist this year based on charting. As his recent conduct does not align with our core values, we will not be including him on the show in any capacity (performing, presenting, accepting). It is heartening and encouraging to hear that Morgan is taking steps in his anti-racist journey and starting to do some meaningful work. We plan to evaluate his progress and will consider his participation in future shows." 

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Made in response to a video leaked in February that featured Wallen using the N-word, the decision was but the latest reverberation in an industry's decisive reaction to behavior that it has deemed beyond the pale. 

In the days following the video leak, Wallen took accountability for his actions, telling E! News in a statement, "I'm embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better."

However, this was one situation where an apology, no matter how heartfelt, wasn't enough. 

Contemporaries in his genre like Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris were quick to condemn Wallen, with Morris tweeting that his behavior was indicative of a larger problem in Nashville and the country music scene. "This isn't his first 'scuffle' and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless," she wrote. "We all know it wasn't his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse."

Nick Zimmer/CMA

This time, though, there was recourse. 

CMT removed his appearances from their platforms, with a spokesperson telling E! News, "We do not tolerate or condone words and actions that are in direct opposition to our core values that celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion."

iHeartMedia followed suit, with Wendy Goldberg, iHeart Media's Executive Vice President and Chief Communications Officer, saying, "In light of Morgan Wallen's recent actions involving the use of a racial slur, we have made the decision to remove his music and content from our stations effective immediately."

Spotify and Apple Music removed his music from their curated playlists. Booking agent WME dropped him from their roster. His label Big Loud Records suspended his recording contract "indefinitely." And the Academy of Country Music deemed him ineligible for their 56th annual ACM Awards, which took place in April. 

The only thing Wallen didn't lose in the wake of the video? Fan support. 

Sales for his sophomore album, Dangerous: The Double Album (which was released in early January), surged amid industry condemnation. In the week after the incident, he sold an astonishing 102 percent more copies he had the week before, while his debut album entered the Billboard U.S. 200 chart top 10 for the first time since its 2018 release. Dangerous would go on to spend a total of 10 weeks at the top of the chart, nearly all of them post-incident.

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The support from his fans was so steadfast, in fact, that Wallen himself had to ask them to tone down their defense of his behavior. In an Instagram video shared in mid-February, wherein he revealed that he'd been sober for the nine days since the incriminating video was shot and that he'd met with leaders of Black organizations to gain "a clear understanding of the weight of my words," he concluded, "Lastly, I have one favor to ask: I appreciate those who still see something in me and have defended me, but for today, please don't. I was wrong. It's on me. I take ownership for this. And I fully accept any penalties I'm facing. The timing of my return is solely upon me and the work I put in."

Wallen wouldn't address the fans again until mid-April, when he shared a handwritten note on his Instagram feed. In the four page letter, he revealed that he planned to use the rest of 2021 to work on himself and would no longer be touring with Luke Bryan or making any previously scheduled festival appearances. 

"I will always strive to be better," he wrote. "Not only has this time revealed to me the ways in which I want to improve, but it's also reminded me that I am still very proud of who I am & the man I am becoming."

As Wallen has done his work outside of the spotlight, it appears the industry's resolve to punish him is beginning to soften. The website Digital Music News reported in mid-May that Pandora had ended its ban and added Wallen's music back onto its channels. Days later, Big Loud appeared to have quietly added him back onto their website's client list. And the fans? Well, they've gone so far as to use their own money to put up billboards in support of Wallen.

While it remains to be seen how Wallen's re-entry into the industry goes, you can be assured it will happen at some point. And likely soon, if his surprise two-song performance at Kid Rock's Nashville bar on May 19 is any indication. Stay tuned.

(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)