NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is Country Music Dead?

Or Is It Only Sleeping?

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

The other day I stopped in the middle of a feeder road off Highway 100 west of Nashville to pick up a turtle. It was obviously paralyzed with fear and had withdrawn into its shell as cars whizzed right by it. It had likely been made homeless by the recent massive supermarket and strip mall development right there on 100 that had razed many acres of homes and former woodland.

This turtle measured almost a foot across and had obviously lived a good many years, but it isn’t likely to survive many more in this new concrete era. Stuck in the middle of this feeder road, it had an enormous asphalt parking lot behind it, another even larger one in front of it and highways and fences and more construction on all four sides. It was in turtle hell. Nowhere to go.

I took it out into the woods next to a creek and let it loose and wished it luck. I am not trying to praise myself. I just state this as a matter of fact, because I am bothered by the increasing violence against nature that goes on daily.

Then I reflected, turning off junk on the radio as I drove home, this turtle was in pretty much the same situation as country music finds itself today. Hit by sudden so-called progress that it is powerless to control, and frozen by fear, country music is stuck in the middle of the highway and afraid to move.

CDs have stopped selling well. Period. In pop, I think that’s because the market has drastically shifted to downloaded songs. That is not yet the case in country, where consumers are the last to still buy hard CDs. Another factor in country is the quality as well as the frequency of the releases. When the country music industry releases only one CD by a major A-list artist in the first quarter of 2007 — and that release comes in the final week of that first quarter — that tells me that things are not right. How can you sell CDs if you’re not putting any out?

That one major release, Tim McGraw’s Let It Go, came out on March 27 and sold 325,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That’s good but not great. McGraw’s previous studio album, 2004’s Live Like You Were Dying, sold 766,000 in its first week. A new CD by three country legends — Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price — sold just 12,000 copies in its first week. That’s alarming.

But the record industry finds itself in paralysis in this area. The labels have difficulty breaking new music because of the conservatism of radio and of retail. Country radio sells ads by keeping listeners, not by attracting new ones. And it does that by choosing a conservative selection of 20 or so songs and artists and playing them frequently. The failure of Tower Records proved that it’s now commercial folly to devote large space to racking a lot of new, unproven music, as well as racking catalog. The three biggest CD retailers — Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target — use new CDs as loss leaders to get premium customers into the store. But they’re not interested in carrying new, unknown acts and catalog titles.

It’s common knowledge on Music Row that Wal-Mart has come around recently to call on the major labels and to tell them that if Wal-Mart isn’t going to receive a dependable supply of salable artists’ CDs from the labels, well, Wal-Mart may drastically cut down on racking country CDs. That rack space is too valuable to waste on a genre that’s down 20 to 30 percent in sales. DVDs return a greater margin. Wal-Mart is the biggest retail outlet for country CD sales. Country music needs Wal-Mart to survive and flourish commercially.

But what does country music really have to offer these days? I think it offers more than the exploiters see on the surface. I think the many layers of talent in country have never been fully presented commercially, and, of course, if I knew how to do that, I would be a rich man today. And country has a steady stream of fresh new talent, most of whom will likely not ever get a chance to gain wide exposure because of the changing nature of the marketplace. Already, a number of new artists are having their debut releases postponed because of the market.

Country music needs new ideas. At the moment, it seems to have none. The last new ideas in country were Rascal Flatts, the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. All faced resistance but all proved to be massive commercial successes. Country needs that again.

To be sure, country music has had its obituary written more than once in the past. The closest the genre came to actual extinction came in the 1950s when the onset of rock ’n’ roll drained listeners and radio stations and talent away from country. It slowly came back. And over the years of its ebbing and flowing fortunes, the music has changed and its delivery systems have changed. It’s gone from vinyl to eight-track tape to cassette to CD and now DVD and MP3 and beyond. And, as the doomsayers tell us over and over and is now being proven out, the major labels will not figure out a solution to selling music downloads until it’s too late. EMI is the only one that’s now trying bold steps, in dropping DRM (digital rights management) from downloaded tunes.

And there’s a whole ’nother topic that needs exploring another time, and that’s the exodus of pop and rock artists to country, as they find their pop and rock support drying up. What will that mean to Nashville and to country music?

But for country right now, it’s apparent that CDs are dying. There must be a workable alternative. There is going to be radical change in the country music marketplace, regardless of what happens. Country’s past cycles of musical trends are going to look tame compared to the commercial upheavals ahead.

The country music talent is there. The country music audience has not gone away and is not going to go away. There must be a way to connect them. Perhaps an all-powerful music czar could take charge and impose order on what is becoming chaos. Steve Jobs? You’re needed in Nashville.

So, my verdict is this: country music is not dead. It’s only sleeping. But it sure better wake the hell up and get busy.