Sara Evans is one artist facing those problems right now, and she's very aware of her situation.
"My first record ("Three Chords And The Truth") received critical acclaim, but hit a wall at radio. We went out to Los Angeles to cut it. It had that West Coast, Dwight Yoakam sound. (It was produced by Yoakam producer Pete Anderson.) We didn't use any Nashville musicians."
For her second RCA album, "No Place That Far," it was back to Nashville for the 27-year-old Missouri native.
"This time, all my friends were there. The best things were that I got to go home every night, and we got to use people like Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and George Jones."
While the album still has plenty of hard-country like "The Great Unknown," "Cryin' Game," "Cupid" and "Love, Don't Be A Stranger," the polished Nashville production is a clear contrast to the rougher California sound of the debut.
"The label was trying to get me to go way more pop. The job was finding songs that would work at radio, but still represent me and my country roots." (It's not always clear exactly what Evans means when she says "pop," since to her even The Dixie Chicks are pop.) It's like that with every label and every artist. Everybody's trying to figure out what radio wants."
"All the songs on the album were my choice. They're songs I really love. The search for songs was so intense. All the publishers bring in songs. My producers (Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon) were looking. The A & R people at RCA were looking. You make a tape of all the songs you're considering, take it home and listen to them some more. There has to be a sort of consensus. We felt this album was so critical. Ultimately, it's my call, but they had some strong opinions about a couple of songs. I'm not ashamed of this album at all."
Evans had another problem to overcome in hopes of making it at radio. "I love sad, sad songs where the one singing is the one that's hurt. I hate tough-woman songs, unless there's some poking fun." (Her example of the latter is "Fool, I'm A Woman," a song on the new album that Evans wrote with Matraca Berg.).
Country radio, of course, has little use for sad songs (whereas country music has always thrived on them).
"I had a lunch meeting with (label head) Joe Galante. He asked me to please write a positive love song. I said, 'I can do it.' I'm a tough woman in real life. I just play a victim on TV."
The resulting tune became not only the title of her new album, but her biggest radio hit so far. This piano-driven ballad with Vince Gill providing harmonies is the kind of uplifting song radio is looking for.
"It's up to every artist what they want to do. I can say no and be traditional and not very successful. Country radio won't touch you if you're considered Americana. A lot of labels won't even ship their product to Americana stations. If they (country radio) hear you on an Americana station, they'll say, 'That artist is not commercial enough.'"
"Americana is a place for all the rejects to go. I don't mean that critically. I love a lot of that music. If it were up to me, Kim Richey would be commercial. And Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou. Those are my first choices for things to buy. But those people don't have a format. That is not the audience we're trying to market ourselves to. We're trying to market to the teenage audience that goes to the store and buys Kenny Chesney and picks up Sheryl Crow at the same time."
Marketing to a younger audience means that the loyalty factor is a thing of the past. It used to be that once you had a couple of country hits, you had a career for life, but not anymore.
"For a lot of artists it's like starting over with every single. There are a few that are set, but the majority struggle with every single. That's just the way of the world. You're trying to sell a product. You've got to have what the public perceives as the best."
"The ultimate goal is to get on radio if you want to sell a lot of records and get on tour and have a thriving career. Labels don't want to work very long with artists who resist that. But you don't want to get too far into bubblegum. I could never do 'Guys Do It All The Time.' It works for Mindy McCready, but that's just not me. I think Patty Loveless or Lee Ann Womack could never cut a song like that. If the entire format became that way, I don't know what would happen to me."
Evans also has the problem of trying to establish her own identity. A lot of people say she sounds like Patty Loveless and Terri Clark.
"It's a compliment. They're both great singers. I love Patty Loveless and she's been an influence on me. We both have a bluegrass background, that 'attack the note' kind of thing. Some songs I sound like Patty Loveless, and some songs I don't, like "Imagine That" (from her first album). I can have that bluegrass sound, or I can sound real torchy and soft."
As for Clark though, Evans says "I don't think I sound like her."
Evans is hoping her career follows Loveless' in another way. Her first album was also critically acclaimed, but hitless. It wasn't until her sixth single that Loveless really broke through.
Asked whether the huge success of the Dixie Chicks might open country radio to more traditional sounds, Evans says. "I love The Dixie Chicks. If country music has to go pop, and traditional country is a thing of the past, The Dixie Chicks are the way to go. They've got fiddle and banjo, but I don't consider them to be traditional country. It's going more towards an alternative pop music. But The Dixie Chicks are cool. Lee Ann Womack is cool. Her songs aren't real traditional, but her voice is."
Evans says, "The people who are more traditional are usually the ones who survive the crashes" in country's cyclical popularity.
Interestingly, for someone so steeped in country, she also says. "I don't listen to country radio a lot. I love pop radio right now. Matchbox 20, Sheryl Crow. That's a format where you can be creative as an artist, and you don't make it unless you're different. In country, you can't be too different."
"All I can do is keep making music from my heart," says Evans. "I want to be successful. I want to have a format. I love country music, and I'm not going to give up on this format."