NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Give the People What They Want

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

If there is one thing I have learned in years of writing about music and the music industry (which are two very different subjects, I discovered early on) it is this: there are no experts. Nobody knows anything. What I mean to say is that it’s all a huge crapshoot, and anybody who tells you otherwise is full of it.

That said, there is one constant that cannot be denied: give the people what they want and they will buy it. They will buy it, in spite of a stifling Great Depression or in spite of severe recessions or world wars or massive economic layoffs or terrorist strikes or any other such dire calamities. People want their sounds and they’ll, by God, go out and get them. And by and large they will buy their music and not try to steal it, unlike what the industry doomsayers are now preaching about the dangers of downloading. These lobbyists are painting computer downloading as being the biggest villain since the home tape recorder. Which was not a villain, in spite of the industry’s labeling it as such in the last such consumer witch hunt. Then, the record industry actually got a sales tax imposed on blank tapes because blank tapes supposedly equaled music piracy. The point being, people do buy the music that they like — even after they’ve previewed it on the Internet.

That’s being proven in this year’s crop of country music releases. The strongest group of country music albums in several years has flowered in 2002. As a result, country music has again muscled its way into the pop sales arena — as country always does when there’s a vacuum in pop or rock music. Thus far this year, country music sales are up by 10 percent, while overall sales of CDs are down 13 percent, as reported by SoundScan. Country album sales are already at over 36.7 million albums this year, compared to 34.8 million albums for all of last year. Country artists are capturing a big piece of the Billboard 200 chart, which tracks albums across all genres. So far this year, three country albums (Alan Jackson ’s Drive, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Dixie ChicksHome) are in the Top 10 album list. Last year, only O Brother was included. The year before, in 2000, no country albums made it into the top ten. Furthermore, before this year is out, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw will be pushing those top rungs on the 200 chart for the year. Their new albums again hold on to the 1-2 slots this week, limiting Mariah Carey’s comeback album to a No. 3 debut.

This year’s country crop is hands down the best in many a year. Jackson further solidified his role as the anchor of modern country music with his superb album Drive, which has sold over 2.8 million copies. The Dixie Chicks have sold almost 3 million copies of their splendid Home CD. Kenny Chesney finally made his career album with No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, which boasts sales of 1.75 million. Toby Keith graduated to superstardom and found his identity as both a leading man and a master of braggadocio with Unleashed (with sales at 1.65 million). Shania became even more Shania-ish with her perky Up! and she’s nearing 2 million copies in consumers’ hands after three weeks. Faith Hill ventured farther into pop-diva territory with Cry, which has inspired pitched battles between proponents and opponents of her pop landscape (and which sees her sales slowing at 1.5 million). Her husband recorded his strongest and most mature album to date with Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, and he’s at 852,000 copies and climbing fast after only two weeks. Finally, a long-dead Elvis is still a bigger draw than many living artists: his newest collection of No. 1 hits is closing in on 2 million in sales after 11 weeks of charting.

There are some very interesting blips on the radar screen. Last year’s darling, Lee Ann Womack , put out a tepid, sort-of-wanting-to-cross-over-like-Faith album (Something Worth Leaving Behind), which has sold only 226,000 copies — after her I Hope You Dance was critically acclaimed and sold 2.4 million copies. Adios, superstardom. Travis Tritt fans are slow to rally to his new, uneven CD Strong Enough, which is at 129,000 copies, and which has inspired no critical groundswell. The brash trio Trick Pony’s sophomore work On a Mission is at 62,000 copies, after their debut work sold over half a million copies. Montgomery Gentry ’s sales for My Town are a sluggish 184,000. Former teen sensation LeAnn Rimes ’ latest quasi-country concoction Twisted Angel is stalling at 241,000 copies. For all of his media exposure, Keith Urban ’s new Golden Road is only at 255,000 copies. By comparison, the gentle acoustic group Nickel Creek ’s newest work (This Side) has outsold all of the above, with 273,000 copies. And by further comparison, look at the most successful new group: Rascal Flatts has sold 496,000 of their sophomore album Melt in just six weeks.

What’s ominous is the looming vast gap between the few superstars and the rest of the country artists. The A-list stars are selling great and a few B-list stars sell OK. Below that, there’s trouble. Drain your cash cows and then what’s left? The mega-monster media companies that control Nashville’s few remaining major record labels demand constant cash flow. But next year, unlike this year, there likely won’t be new CDs from Faith, the Chicks, Tim and Shania. How to develop tomorrow’s superstars? One way is a development label such as Universal South Records, headed by Tony Brown and Tim DuBois. Brown formerly headed MCA Nashville; DuBois founded Arista Nashville. They’ve been able to expend considerable time and effort in developing new artists. As a result, their first signing, Joe Nichols, shows enormous promise and is selling fairly well (his debut Man With a Memory is at 120,000 copies). He sounds like a youngish version of what George Strait would be if he hit Music Row today. Which is not at all a bad thing to sound like.

Mainstream country music in the boom years sparked by Garth Brooks became hugely bloated and tilted heavily toward pop-sounding sludge. It’s gradually moving away from that. We’re seeing country music listeners today voting very decisively with their wallets and their purses and they are — by and large — saying: we are tired of crap. And we want some real music. Amen to that.