(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
So, they tell us that the record business is in terrible shape, again. Although country music is again doing well, which it usually does in bad times. Overall, let’s think about the big picture. Why don’t we discuss how I would fix the record business:
Quit charging so much for CDs. $18.98 or $19.98 is too steep. You can buy a DVD movie or a video game for that. It doesn’t cost all that much to make a music CD, so the profit margins (and the overspending) have become bloated.
Quit discounting only the superstars. Shania Twain ‘s new double CD sold for under $10 at most big-box stores — Target, Wal-Mart and the like. But those big-box stores stock only the best-selling CDs and don’t lure customers in who are looking for other music. Record companies are punishing record buyers who will seek out a Tower Records or Borders because of the wide and deep selection they offer of a large array of artists. Tower and Borders can’t feature loss-leader prices of $9.98 for Shania because of their lack of volume and lack of deals by the record companies. On the other hand, you can find CDs by people like Walt Wilkins or Anthony Smith or Neko Case or Cory Morrow or Kathleen Edwards at a Tower or a Borders or at an Ernest Tubb Record Shop, and you won’t find them in the big-box stores. Keep up this superstar-discount mentality and, before you know it, that’s all you have left. Cheap superstars.
Quit blaming the customers. No one can say that downloading music is not somewhat of a problem, but I also sense that it’s a convenient scapegoat for mediocre record label executives who’re trying to explain away their own incompetence. These are the same executives who claimed in the 1970s that taping records would kill the industry and fought to get royalties on sales of blank cassette tapes. Country music buyers today, in the main, are just that: country music buyers. These are not teenage hackers. They don’t sit up late at night plotting and scheming to somehow steal music. They buy what they want. Quit insulting them with these grandiose Plans of the Week to somehow punish everyone who uses the Internet to check out new music.
Quit — while we’re at it — demonizing the Internet as the Great Satan of music. By and large, the Internet serves to promote country music by presenting previews and streaming audios and videos of the music. If you can’t sell records, mister, look in the mirror — there’s your Great Satan. A minor case in point: when the alt-country group Wilco reached an impasse with its conglomerate record label and left, it posted the entirety of its new album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on the Internet, completely downloadable, for three months while getting another record label. After the album finally came out, it became Wilco’s best-selling album ever — with total sales at 340,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
Quit using the music side of the entertainment conglomerates to prop up other, weaker sides of those empires. The Nashville branches of the multinational record companies have quotas to pump out a certain amount of profit every year — by any means necessary. Music quality becomes totally secondary to instant profits. Panic starts to set in. The concept of building an artist over the years — like a Willie Nelson or a Reba McEntire or an Alan Jackson or a Toby Keith or a Kenny Chesney or a Sara Evans or a Pinmonkey — becomes impossible in a profits-up-front business model. Tell me why artists in Nashville should suffer or be denied careers because a power-hungry executive in Paris didn’t know how to run his huge new empire — based on a French water company — that ended up owning Nashville record labels.
Quit — this is addressed at certain country radio chains — squeezing blood money out of record companies in the guise of trying to make hit singles. We all know it’s still going on, in many forms, this modern version of payola. In the process, country radio is losing credibility and ratings. Keep it up, and this house of cards will collapse.
Quit recording music that you’re unsure about, just because you think it might be commercial. Make good music. Sounds easy and sometimes it is. Sometimes it just means signing good people, getting out of the way and letting it happen. When the consumers are allowed a choice, they vote with their wallets, and their votes are usually right.
Listen to the music. Say what you will about recently deposed Sony Music head Tommy Mottola, the man has a set of ears. He can hear music. We’ll see how his non-music-guy replacement — TV executive Andy Lack — does, but you have to be dubious. Bean counters do not have ears. Twice, the bean counters at giant record companies have thrown Clive Davis out the door. But Davis keeps popping up and keeps on succeeding in running a record company. Why? The man has a great set of ears. He can hear the music.