NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Sales Slide in 2003

CMA Report Looks at the Year in Country and Sees Brighter Days Ahead

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

The CMA has an interesting new report out on country music in 2003, which includes the news that country CD sales for last year were down by almost 10 percent. That part of the news was splashed all over the news wires this week and was picked up by newspapers and broadcast outlets across the country. And, while it is legitimate news, it’s not the total story, by any means. Sales are down but — citing Les McCann’s great recording — “Compared to what?”

Total country album sales for 2003 dropped by 9.8 percent, from 76.9 million albums in 2002 to 69.3 million last year. The Top 10 country albums for 2003 provided mostly lackluster sales. Toby Keith’s Shock’n Y’all hit 2.3 million copies sold, and Alan Jackson’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 was at 2.1 million. The Dixie Chicks’ Home was right at 2 million. Shania Twain’s Up! hit at 1.8 million. Keith’s 2002 album Unleashed continued to sell well, clocking sales of 1.7 million in 2003. Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems was at 1.1 million, and Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors was just below that at 1 million, followed by Rascal Flatts’ Melt, with sales of 950,000. Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around and Lonestar’s Greatest Hits both sold well over 800,000 copies.

So. What does that tell us? First, that some of country’s superstars were MIA on the new CD front last year. As a result, seven of these 10 best-selling country albums of 2003 were actually released in 2002. (Only Keith’s Shock’n Y’all, Jackson’s Greatest and Lonestar’s Greatest were 2003 releases.). Shock’n Y’all may well be the biggest news story. It has sold its 2.3 million copies since its release just last November, meaning that Keith has tapped into a very live vein with music buyers.

But, by any standard, country music released very few successful albums last year. That increasingly happens because artists are scheduling albums farther and farther apart as the country radio rotation of playing hits changes the schedule. CMA’s report notes that albums now have an 18-24 month shelf life, as opposed to the previous 12-month sales period between new releases. Radio’s slower rotation of hit singles means that a hit album may yield only four single releases in a two-year cycle.

Secondly, we see that superstars still sell well but not in the stratosphere, as they used to do.

Thirdly, it’s painfully obvious there were no big breakout artists for country. And there have not been in a long time. The major new artists debuting in 2003 were Jeff Bates, Dierks Bentley, Billy Currington, Buddy Jewell, Jennifer Hanson, Josh Turner and Jimmy Wayne. Of those, only Turner has made a major impact, with his debut album Long Black Train now certified as having gone gold (500,000 copies).

The CMA report is overall very optimistic about country music, as it should be, because most indicators point to a very healthy and growing industry. The report cites many factors that reflect growth: TV shows, movie soundtracks, movie appearances, mainstream media coverage, touring figures and the like, and all of those indicate an industry on the uptick. Annual sales figures can and do fluctuate from year to year, and that’s not a major cause for concern. The CMA report adds that Internet and digital sales aren’t included in the Nielsen SoundScan figures of actual, physical sales of CDs in stores. And legal downloading is finally becoming a major factor in music sales.

Things are likely to get very weird and visceral in the record industry in 2004, though. More so than usual, I mean. The mergers keep coming, and the bottom line gets bigger and bigger and leaner and meaner. Just this week, the past savior of Arista Records, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, was sacked because his level of hits had dropped. He scored big with Avril Lavigne and OutKast but then faltered with and frittered millions away on Whitney Houston’s non-productivity and other smaller ventures. The industry tune continues to be: What have you done for me lately?

When and if the merger of Sony and BMG becomes final, its fallout will be crucial in Nashville. Music City used to be immune from such scrutiny because country music was such a small factor in the overall equation. No more. This is not a sleepy, niche economy town and business anymore, where sales of a million copies were huge news, as with the platinum-breakthrough album Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976. The change to multi-platinum expectations can always be blamed on Garth Brooks, of course, but once country music became a major sales force, the absentee landlords who own the Nashville record labels want more and more millions squeezed out of country music every year.

How do you tell the plantation owner that the cotton crop was down a little this year?