NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Garth Brooks: $5! Taylor Swift: $9.97

CDs Won't Go Away Without a Long Struggle

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

The CD may well be going the way of the dodo bird, but seemingly several pockets of consumers have not yet gotten the word.

Those pockets include a lot of country music fans and Susan Boyle fans. The British online phenomenon has sold 700,000 copies of her new album, I Dreamed a Dream, in its first week of release. Downloads of her album were 42,000, well below the usual industry ratio of CDs to digital. Boyle emphatically proved that the CD is not yet dead.

In second place, Andrea Bocelli’s Christmas album increased to 218,000 copies in its second week, edging out Adam Lambert’s debut, which sold 198,000. Remember, these are physical CDs. So there are still a lot of listeners who will buy them — if they are offered what they want. Obviously, there are many listeners who like holding their music in their hands, as well as in their ears and in their hearts.

In country music, some artists are selling very well. The usual suspects, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, both experienced sales jumps of well over 100,000 last week. Right now in the Top 20 of Billboard‘s country albums chart, there are two multi-platinum CDs belonging to the same artist (guess who) and another six with sales of 1 million or more. And there’s another dozen or so artists who are selling in the five figures. Then the numbers start to fall off drastically. (Bear in mind that these are sales of new releases. Catalog albums sell considerably less, but are fairly consistent in sales.)

It takes so few sales now to get onto the country chart itself that it might well be a good career investment — if you have deep pockets or a sugar daddy who does — to take a few thousand dollars and buy albums to raise your artist’s chart profile and build a favorable sales image. Sales of 1,800 copies or better will get your candidate out of the three-figure bottom feeders and into the Top 50. Raise the ante to just over 9,000 and you would hit No. 20 this week.

One of country’s enduring enigmas is the problem of converting short-term radio stardom into sales and career success. It’s apparent there is sometimes a serious disconnect between radio popularity and retail sales. There are artists having Top 10 radio success who are selling weekly in the low four figures and sometimes in the three figures. Obviously, it’s not a simple thing to convert song popularity into a successful musical career. Many times, it’s the song that briefly draws a radio audience. Unless it’s a distinctive singer (name the number of those on mainstream radio these days) or a well-known one, often the listener doesn’t give a damn about the singer.

Many country music fans still like CDs to put in their trucks and SUVs and Mustangs and Chargers. It is not always an easy task these days to find CDs now that most record stores have gone away and big box stores have drastically cut back or eliminated CD racking. I was talking with a music industry friend, Susan Levy, about the subject this week, and she suggested approaching a small box retailer such as Dollar General with an idea to put a CD kiosk or two in each store and stock it with affordable CDs — not the $18.99 stuff. Dollar General is based here in Tennessee, has 8,400 stores around the country and is known for value.

As she points out, listeners don’t necessarily know where to locate a particular CD, especially artists beyond the few country superstars. If they knew that one particular outlet had most current and some catalog country CDs, then sales would follow. As she argues, there is an inherent danger when large segments of the music industry contract “Taylor Swift fever” and chase only young artists and a young, non-CD demographic and fantasize that the music audience will change overnight. Meanwhile, a large part of the music audience is being ignored. Traditionally, country’s core audience is a bit older than the teen-to-25 audience that seems so desirable. That audience will not immediately change. Take a page out of the Susan Boyle playbook: Her album has been available in such non-traditional outlets as Walgreen drugstores.

How does the average country fan discover new artists and find new albums? It’s sometimes a better campaign to give an album away online. Depending on the artists and the nature of the fans, many of the listeners will still buy the physical product once they’ve heard it online. Years ago, the group Wilco pioneered that by streaming its Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album free online. Their fans went on to buy almost 600,000 copies of it. Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart after the band streamed it free online.

And you can sample and buy most country albums online and sometimes listen to the entire album free, as we have often offered here at CMT.com.

Sometimes, online retail prices are decent. If you still crave Garth Brooks‘ CDs, Wal-Mart is selling his The Entertainer set online for 5 bucks. That’s for five CDs and a DVD. Three of his original CDs are $5.50 each. Today, walmart.com has Taylor Swift’s Fearless for $9.97; Amazon’s is $12.99. Amazon’s price for Carrie Underwood’s Play On is $11.99; Wal-Mart’s is $13.88.

If you really want to know how to build a lasting music career, study the lives and works of artists such as Zac Brown and Jimmy Buffett. Both started as solo performers, added a band along the way and logged many thousands of miles and played countless thousands of shows for many years with virtually no radio airplay and low or nonexistent record sales. But they built a loyal following, and those hardcore fans will support them forever.

Meanwhile, music downloads continue to grow exponentially, but that’s a subject for another day. The download worker bees are undoubtedly toiling as fast as they can. Many so-called experts predict that the year 2012 will see downloads finally eclipse physical CDs in sales. Of course, 2012 also marks the end of the Mayan calendar and the supposed coming apocalypse. Good luck.