NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A Quiet Music Revolution

Country Sales Lead Music Industry and Are on Course for a Record Year

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

Not too long ago at a party, I was talking music business with David Ross of Music Row magazine when he said something I hadn’t been thinking about at all. Mainly, he said that projecting from current sales numbers, the country CD sales total might reach an all-time high this year. And that’s in a year with relatively few superstar releases.

It’s by no means a gold rush boom, but country shows a sales increase of almost 18 percent over last year. Meanwhile, sales across the music industry have dropped more than 4 percent in the first half of this year.

Two things become very apparent in looking at the numbers. One, country is no longer dependent only on five or six A-list superstars to deliver the bulk of country sales. Secondly, country fans are not abandoning CDs in favor of rushing to the accepted trend of downloading music

In previous years, a handful of multi-platinum A-listers carried the heavy freight. Now the weight is being distributed across a wider range of artists, including newcomers who are selling well right out of the box. Back when Garth and Shania were selling 10 million-plus on a CD, they dominated sales. This year, the multiplatinum albums are smaller in sales, but there are more of them.

When the industry’s health depended every year on new releases from, say, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, there was usually a huge falloff in sales numbers between them and other country artists. That’s not so much the case any more.

When you look at current country sales on the Nielsen SoundScan chart (as of July 16), you see that Carrie Underwood’s debut album (at 3.2 million) and Rascal Flatts’ new Me and My Gang (2.1 million) will be far and away the sales leaders for the year.

But the wealth is distributed elsewhere, as well. Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn and George Strait continue to sell steady. Sugarland is double platinum.

Johnny Cash sells better dead than most country artists do alive. He has four albums in the Billboard Top Current Country Albums chart with total sales well over 2 million, not counting the Walk the Line soundtrack, which is closing in on 1 million.

And, in an encouraging trend, young and debuting artists are selling strongly. Dierks Bentley has gone platinum. Josh Turner is at three-quarters of a million, Jason Aldean is at 625,000. Miranda Lambert is at more than three-quarters of a million. Billy Currington is at 640,000. And the Wreckers are approaching 200,000 after only eight weeks — and little was expected of them.

The Dixie Chicks’ sales of their Taking the Long Way are slowing at a current total of 1.4 million. That would be spectacular for some artists — but disappointing for them.

Country fans are less likely to lean toward musical downloads, although country digital downloads are also up this year. But most of the fans want physical CDs to put their favorite music in their trucks and SUVs and convertibles and off-roaders. The demographic is a little older and they rely on Wal-Mart and other big-box stores for their music, rather than the Internet. That’s why country sales are up something like 22 percent while most musical genres are well down.

In a niche market, vinyl sales are also doing well. My turntable is still alive and well, and I buy vinyl for two reasons. To me, vinyl sounds warmer and more immediate than CDs. It’s the difference between analog and digital. And secondly, I like the feel and heft of actual LPs, with their large cover art and liner notes and occasional bonus inserts. In Nashville, you will see country fans buying vinyl at such stores as the amazing Lawrence Record Store on lower Broadway, which has a sweeping array of country vinyl. There, I recently found a Johnny Cash gospel double album I had been looking for quite a while. There’s Great Escape, with two stores in Nashville and others in Louisville and Bowling Green, Ky. It currently lists 11 Johnny Cash LPs and scads of others by country artists and artists of all genres. And there’s the beloved Grimey’s on 8th Avenue South, home to music of all stripes.

So what does all this country sales growth mean? It means that certain values continue to endure. It means that country music is healthier than ever. And that seems to indicate that the record labels are investing again in artist development, which seemed in danger of withering on the vine not too long ago. And it means other artists continue the pilgrimage to Nashville to try to share the audience. The latest is longtime rocker Bob Seger, whose first album of new material in some 11 years, Face the Promise, will also see its first single “Wait for Me” being serviced to country radio. Why not? Country fans have missed that old time rock and roll for years. There’ll be a big welcome sign waiting for Seger in Nashville.