Alan Jackson politely downplays his insight into the current state of the music business, yet it’s always intriguing when superstar artists offer their observations about the industry.
In the second installment of a two-part interview with CMT.com, Jackson shares his thoughts about some of his musical decisions and the changes he’s witnessed in the country music industry since scoring his first Top 10 singles in 1990. He also talks about a conversation with Zac Brown that leads him to believe that some things never change at all.
Jackson’s 34 Number Ones, a two-CD compilation, is currently spending its third consecutive week in the Top 10 of Billboard’s country albums chart.
CMT.com: Through the years, you’ve commented on the state of country music by releasing “Gone Country,” “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song” and your duet with George Strait, “Murder on Music Row.” And there was that time in 1999 at the CMA Awards when you surprised everyone by singing a portion of George Jones’ “Choices” after the TV producers refused to let him perform the entire song on the show. It seems like you’ve never been reluctant to jab the music industry when you think it needs it. Do you take pleasure in being able to do that occasionally?
I don’t know that I take pleasure in it, but sometimes I just feel like something isn’t being handled right … such as the George Jones thing. Not just because I’m a big fan, but I just thought he’s a legend and nearly died in that wreck, and then he had that song that just came back and was just such a part of his story. And it was a hit, and he deserved to sing the thing. It made me mad.
But Bob McDill wrote the “Gone Country” song. When I first heard it, I just loved the chorus. In the chorus, you can’t pick up on that jabbing the industry, as you talk about, but the verses definitely do. I liked what it said at the time because it was true. That’s kind of the way I felt because at the time, in the early ’90s when country got so hot and we were selling a lot of albums, everybody started coming to country. And I guess that’s just natural. It could happen if it had been any kind of music. A lot of times, country seems to get the cold shoulder, and when the money started coming in, it didn’t. That’s what Bob tells me he felt when he wrote that. The fans didn’t care. They just liked the chorus, “Gone country.” (laughs)
How has the industry changed since you started?
I don’t know that I’m that schooled on it anymore. I don’t really stay plugged into it as much as I used to or should. I think, like anybody, the Internet has affected all the record sales. As far as the basic music part of it, I don’t know that it’s changed that much. There’s always different styles of songs you hear. There’s always been people down on Music Row, young kids coming to town and writing hard country stuff like I do. Then there’s a lot of them who come to write with a pop sound or a Southern rock sound. It’s always been that way even before I came here. There was more pop-sounding stuff on the radio in the early ’80s than there is now.
What’s the future of record labels?
I don’t know if I’m smart enough to really comment on the business part of it, but I think, just based on what little I’ve heard, record sales swing more toward the Internet and people are just picking off singles and not buying albums. I mean, I don’t know how they’re going to make enough money to stay in business. I’ve heard of some of them pretty much buying somebody’s career when they sign with them where they get part of your T-shirt sales and touring. If you can do all of that, that’s the only way I can see that they’re really going to be able to stay in business at the level they have been where they have these buildings and all the staff. They have been scaling down, but I don’t know.
Do younger artists try to talk to you about the business?
I don’t talk to a lot of them. But just recently, when Zac Brown and I were talking, he’s kind of the same way. I don’t really understand, but he’s on a label that’s two different companies and they’re trying to figure out how to do things on the Internet. I could hear things in his voice that I heard when I was a young artist, saying, “They’re not doing this.” Just the same frustrations that you have as an artist. I think a lot of labels are probably hurting for money. When I came along, they were a little more free with their money — promoting you and marketing you and spending on videos.
It seems like Zac Brown is doing things the right way by building a grassroots fan base, which is what has always worked in country music.
I think he’s definitely doing the right thing, and he’ll probably last longer than most.