It’s a Good Year for Country Music

New Artists, Superstar Releases Pushing Up Market Share

While country music is nowhere near the level of popularity it reached in the early 1990s
when Garth Brooks ruled the charts, 2004 is shaping up to be a good year for Nashville.

Indeed, sales for all kinds of recorded music are running ahead of those for the same period last year, and country’s own increase is higher than the average. More encouraging still is the fact that several albums by country superstars will be released near year’s end — just in time to capitalize on the Christmas buying season.

Last year, overall album sales were down 3.6 percent from what they were in 2002, according to statistics compiled by Nielsen SoundScan, a company that monitors retail record sales. Country album sales dipped from nearly 77 million in 2002 to just over 69 million in 2003.

During the first half of this year, however, overall album sales outpaced by 7 percent those for the same period in 2003 — and country sales were up a healthy 11.2 percent for the same period. By the end of June 2004, more than 31 million country albums had been sold — compared to a little over 28 million within the same period the year before. As of Aug. 8, the top 100 country albums alone had sold nearly 24 million copies.

“Without being flippant,” says Sony Music Nashville president John Grady, “I think we [Nashville labels] finally made some records somebody wanted to buy. It started for us early in the year just on a single we released by Montgomery Gentry called ’Hell Yeah.’ We sold close to 700,000 [albums] off of that single. Then there was a huge Kenny Chesney record that hit the audience right square in the mouth in February. Then Gretchen [Wilson] and Big & Rich and Jimmy Buffett all happened.”

Montgomery Gentry record for Sony’s Columbia imprint, while Wilson is signed to sister label Epic. The RCA Label Group’s roster includes Chesney (on BNA Records) and Buffett (on RCA). Big & Rich record for Warner Bros.

Wilson is almost certain to be country music’s success story for 2004. Hardly a rumor on Music Row when the year began, the Epic recording artist was dominating national headlines by midyear, primarily because of her infectious debut single, “Redneck Woman.” Her album, Here for the Party, was released May 11 and by Aug. 8 had sold more than 1.4 million copies.

But, as Grady points out, Wilson’s plucky offering hasn’t been the only bright light among albums that came out this year. Chesney’s When the Sun Goes Down (released Feb. 3) had racked up total sales of 2.3 million by Aug. 8. As of this same date, Alan Jackson’s Greatest Hits Volume II (March 23) had sold 790,000 copies; Big & Rich’s Horse of a Different Color (May 4) 690,000; and Jimmy Buffett’s multi-star blockbuster, License to Chill (July 13) 605,000.

Still selling briskly after all these years are Keith Urban’s Golden Road, Shania Twain’s Up!, Rascal Flatts’ Melt and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. This year alone, Golden Road (released Oct. 8, 2002) has moved 744,000 copies; Up! (Nov. 14, 2002) 440,000; Melt (Oct. 29, 2002) 396,000 copies; and O Brother (Dec. 5, 2000) 215,000.

“I think we delivered records to the audience [this year] that they absolutely had to own,” Grady continues. “I’m not comparing them to anything else, but I think they qualitatively different enough to make people want to buy them. … I do know that Wal-Mart’s music business is up 15 percent for the year, and country’s a huge part of that.”

Grady says the bloom has somewhat fallen from the free-downloading craze that has so perplexed the record industry for the past several years.

“Since [the Recording Industry Association of America] has started with the lawsuits [to curb illegal downloading], it’s been a huge educational process,” he says. “But it takes a long time. … There are millions and millions and millions of people who know that [unpaid] downloading is illegal that didn’t know that last year.”

This rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats, however. Many artists whose albums once routinely sold at gold (500,000) and platinum (1 million) levels are now struggling to ring the cash register. As of Aug. 8, Tracy Lawrence’s Strong (March 30) had sold only 296,000 units; Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose (April 27) 215,000; Reba McEntire’s Room to Breathe (Nov. 18, 2003) 183,000; John Michael Montgomery’s Letters From Home (April 20) 164,000; Clint Black’s Spend My Time (March 2) 140,000; Clay Walker’s A Few Questions (Sept. 9, 2003) 129,000; and Wynonna’s What the World Needs Now Is Love (Aug. 5, 2003) 128,000.

An impending deluge of superstar albums between now and early November augurs well for country’s coffers. These include Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying (just released); Jackson’s What I Do (Sept. 7); Keith Urban’s Be Here (Sept. 21); George Strait’s 50 Number Ones (Oct. 5); and a Toby Keith greatest hits package (Nov. 9).

In 1993, at the height of Garthmania, country albums represented 18.7 percent of all albums sold in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Last year, that market share had dropped to 10.4 percent. So, as rosy as the picture is now, country still has some catching up to do to reclaim its glory days.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to