(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I, for one, am looking forward to the next 10 years and to seeing what they bring. Speaking only for myself, I think the past decade has been a low point in history for just about every genre of music. In the rush for short-term profits by every arm of the music industry, the audience has been shortchanged in terms of music quality (in both the sound and the content) in terms of music variety and value. Artists have been largely denied an opportunity for creativity, and concertgoers have been gouged to pay previously unheard-of ticket prices.
On the other hand, I think a major point that has been overlooked is that, by and large, music survives commercially because music audiences have remained remarkably stable in their choices, and they remain loyal to their music in spite of all the commercial onslaughts and buffering they must endure. Overall music sales actually increased last year — but only just over 2 percent. But people will still buy what they like and what they want. How else do you explain Susan Boyle setting a Nielsen SoundScan chart record by selling at least 500,000 copies of her debut album every week for its first five release weeks?
The Beatles had the best-selling album of the last decade with their Beatles 1. Veteran country artist Tim McGraw was the most listened-to artist in any genre over the last 10 years — and eight of the top 10 most listened-to artists were country acts, according to Nielsen BDS. (Green Day and Nickelback were the other two artists.)
Country singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, who celebrated her 20th birthday last month, had the biggest-selling record in any genre last year because she created a new audience of her own. And she has now sold almost 10 million copies of her two CDs. The No. 1 country song as the new decade started belonged to a 55-year-old [source: the Encyclopedia of Country Music] woman who first came to Nashville decades ago.
It’s all about songs and has much to do with lyrics. And it has a whole lot to do with loyalty.
A recent New York Times article called the long career span of some country artists an “enduring pension plan for its cherished acts.” As if that were some kind of conspiracy by Music Row. But that’s a tradition that is many, many decades old. And that’s not something that you can just easily make happen. (If it were, Music Row would have been doing it with as many artists as possible.) You don’t direct people to buy records by certain artists and to vote for their songs on radio or TV. These are fans voting with their wallets and pocketbooks. Listeners are choosing what they want.
Country fans and artists have enjoyed a close relationship since the early days when the first best-selling artists were common people who, as a country song says, never got above their raising.
Country fans grow attached to their favorite artists and often become devoted followers for life. They love Reba because of what she has brought to them in memorable songs and for the attention she pays to her loyal fans. George Strait can sell tickets and records (or downloads or brain chips or whatever music delivery systems evolve into) until he is 100. And he can sell out stadium shows without moving a single body part onstage except his smile muscle. Why? Because people admire him and love the music he has produced, and they respect him for who he is and what he stands for.
You can see that kind of fan-artist bonding in contemporary artists like Dierks Bentley or Miranda Lambert. Carrie Underwood has earned that. Taylor is a phenomenon unto her own with the devoted army that has flocked to her. You can see it in a young artist like Jamey Johnson, whose messages of truth burn right to the core.
This is not about just quickie song hits and ephemeral downloads and turn-and-burn singles download artists. You can see that same fan devotion in the recent surge for the Beatles’ music. This is a band, after all, that broke up in 1969, long before many of its new fans were even born. But their music and their songs and their lyrics still speak to people across the years and across class lines and economic divides and ethnic boundaries because the music is universal and speaks to the human soul.
I’m not talking about quick, fabricated country radio hits that may be nothing more than shopping lists of what-I-like-about-the-South or about small towns or about “why I’m country.” Those songs have their place, bless their hearts, and that’s all well and good. But I’m talking about a song that engages the heart and the mind and the soul.
That’s what the best country music has always done. That’s why Hank Williams’ songs will live forever. That’s why a flatland farmer named Johnny Cash earned lasting loyalty from legions of fans. That’s why Reba McEntire, at age 55, can still get a No. 1 hit and still draw audiences.