NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Brave New World of Country

Is Wal-Mart the Future?

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

You know, I have absolutely no idea what the country music industry will look — or sound — like a year from now. But I have little doubt that it will be radically different from what we see and hear today. It could be better, but I wonder. …

That’s assuming all the changes looming on the horizon actually come to pass. We’re looking at the possibilities of more record label consolidation, more legal downloading services — with the likelihood of Wal-Mart entering the downloading fray, more radio consolidation, legal live bootleg recordings being sold at concerts and indie labels increasingly stepping up as a solid alternative for artists — and for listeners.

Changes that are underway:

• A non-music consortium led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. is buying Warner Music, Word Entertainment and Warner Chappell Music Publishing. Impact on Nashville and country music: Bronfman, you will recall, was chairman of Seagram when it acquired Universal Music and diddled with it before selling it to the French water company Vivendi. Absentee ownership by non-music-savvy leadership is never inspiring to confidence. All absentee owners of Nashville music labels have imposed heavy bottom-line strictures on Nashville labels to squeeze out maximum profit. Will this be any different? Foreseeable fallout: the usual after a buyout — more Nashville layoffs, fewer artists on the roster, no risk taking, little or no new artist development, less music.

• Sony Music merges with BMG. This will have a huge impact on Nashville and country music. Sony Nashville is rebuilding with new leadership on a growth curve, and BMG Nashville has by far the strongest country roster. But the parent companies are two non-compatible cultures trying to fuse in what is delicately being termed a “joint venture.” As if Tokyo (home of Sony) and Berlin (home of BMG) can agree on what should be recorded and marketed in America. We whipped them both once, remember, back in WWII. Could happen again.

• Universal Music Group acquires DreamWorks. Nashville/country music impact: DreamWorks Nashville’s only big gun is Toby Keith. Keith has vowed to never again work for his former Mercury label boss Luke Lewis, now head of UMG, Nashville’s reliable rumor mill has been saying. And just this week comes word that DreamWorks Nashville — for at least the time being — will stand alone from Nashville UMG.

• EMI, having failed in its bid to acquire Warner, now appears to be in play and is a takeover target. Nashville/country music impact: EMI-owned Capitol Nashville may be in jeopardy since it’s had no superstars since Garth Brooks. Financial bottom line equals superstar. Or lack of one.

Overall, the American music industry might dwindle to four major companies: BMG/Sony, Universal, Warner and EMI, and that could easily shrink to three. In Nashville, Curb offers another major country label alternative.

I think it’s very safe and easy to predict that we will have even fewer music options. Fewer new artists will be developed, fewer kids will dream the Nashville dream. Fewer songwriters will be able to make a living; fewer budding songwriters will aspire to what’s becoming an improbable dream. Fewer jobs will exist in the music-support industries all down the line, from publishing to video producers to studio musicians to road bands to demo singers to caterers and beyond.

• Downloading: Napster came by my office the other day, just to chat about things. Napster — now legal — has its eye on Nashville and country music in a big way. The Napster rep said — perceptively, I think — that Napster is closely eyeing country and hip-hop because those are the only two pop music genres with a true story-telling function and therefore a stronger and lasting audience bond. Napster’s future, however, is very much in question. On another download front, Apple’s very attractive and pioneering download service iTunes is finally throwing a big party for the country music industry in Nashville next week, and I’ll be curious to see what they have to offer and to say. Despite all the music industry self-congratulation about “solving” the downloading/piracy issues, the music industry has done nothing constructive to solve the matter. All solutions thus far have come from outside the music industry and they’re all copying Apple’s model. There are other, major download models set to roll out in 2004 and – again — they’ll come from outside the industry (including giant Microsoft).

• Wal-Mart enters the downloading scene. Nashville/country impact: could be huge. Country music fans are not major downloaders because they’re older, they’re not hackers, they like having actual, physical CDs to put in their trucks and SUVs, and they have a staunch record-buying tradition. But they also buy most of their CDs at Wal-Mart and K-Mart and Target and if they download from anybody, it will be from Wal-Mart, which will discount downloads and will market heavily with country stars. But if Wal-Mart doesn’t offer an attractive and easy-to-use downloading device — like Apple’s iPod — it may be difficult for them. If it’s not easy to download and then transfer songs to a CD for the truck or SUV, the country fan may not be tempted.

• Live bootleg CDs. This is coming from the company that’s already built a radio station monopoly and is eyeing a stranglehold on live venues. Clear Channel is going to offer concertgoers a freshly burned CD of the performance they just witnessed — on their way out of the venue. Initial price? Likely to be $20 or so, which is steep. But if you’re juiced just after what seemed to be a great concert, hey, what’s another 20 bucks? Just another way to extend the entertainment experience. If Clear Channel next enters the record label business — as this seems to foreshadow — then what’s next?

• Indie label alternatives: I hope this will be country music’s and Nashville’s salvation. Radio is still a major hurdle to be overcome. There have been no major indie hits yet — and that’s what it will take to establish a true audience foothold. But consider country artists now on indie labels: Johnny Cash (releases still to come), Dwight Yoakam, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Universal South — although part of UMG — acts like a major indie and may be a driving factor and influence. Universal South is breaking Joe Nichols out and has other young artists in the pipeline.

Conclusion: So-called growth: used to be good. Now, growth — revealed to be actually shrinkage in the name of progress (the usual music industry stupidity and greed) — not so good. Message: Let a thousand indies bloom. Make downloading legal, cheap and easy. Think about the music and the listeners — for once.