(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Great news this week for fans of progressive country in all its forms: Sugarland finally debuted at No. 1 on the country albums chart. To be sure, sales are nothing like they were in the heyday of sales glory, which unbelievably is only about a year gone now.
Sugarland's new Love on the Inside sold about 314,000 CDs this week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, to perch atop the country album chart. That marks the first time they've done so, their previous two albums debuting at No. 3 and No. 2. Love on the Inside sold better than either of their earlier albums and is the biggest country seller this year and the biggest since the Eagles' Long Road Out of Eden, which tallied 359,000 in first-week sales in late 2007. Sugarland lost the all-genre Billboard 200 album top spot to Miley Cyrus, whose Breakout sold 371,000 copies.
Sugarland might have had a closer duel with Cyrus this week in their race to top the 200 chart if their CDs had been similarly priced. The Sugarland release is the "deluxe edition," with five additional cuts, which retails for $19.98, although it, like most CDs, is widely discounted. Cyrus' list price is $18.98. The regular version of Sugarland's CD hit stores on Tuesday (July 29) and retails at $13.98, so those sales will be scrutinized. What's impressive about Sugarland's sales numbers is that, even in the face of an industry-wide decline, their numbers climb for each album release. Their second album, Enjoy the Ride, sits at No. 5 on the album chart this week, 90 weeks after its debut at No. 2. (Keith Urban debuted at No. 1 that week with Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing.) Sugarland's popularity has probably not yet peaked.
This proves that music fans will still pay for music on CDs. If, that is, it is really the music they want. And Sugarland graphically show that they have the heady, eclectic, personal mix of music that country fans like.
But across the board, that's less and less the case. Looking at this week's Nielsen SoundScan country album chart, only the Top 10 country albums sold in numbers of at least five figures. Nothing from the No. 61 album on down on this week's chart sold more than three figures. That's less than a thousand copies apiece. There are 50 older country albums on the top catalog country album chart selling more copies than that every week. On that catalog chart, Carrie Underwood's Some Hearts continues to sell consistently and is closing in on total sales of 7 million. Rascal Flatts' Me and My Gang is nearing the 5 million mark and Kenny Chesney is closing in on 4 million with his Greatest Hits.
Interestingly, the all-genre 200 chart shows the breadth of drops in sales across the board for all genres. The first three albums on the 200 sold in the six figures this week, then the number drops to five-figure sales, and that in turn drops to sales in the four figures with the album at No. 59.
Even as recently as 2007, Flatts' album Still Feels Good sold 547,000 copies in its first sales week and Chesney's Poets & Pirates moved 387,00 copies. Those days may be forever gone. Both Flatts and Chesney have new releases coming this fall. The music industry will be watching those releases very, very carefully.
The disturbing thing for the country music industry is that digital downloads, although increasing, have not kept pace with the drop-off in physical sales. So what's going on? There are any number of theories, dealing with the economy, downloading, piracy, CDs vs. MP3s, listening in cars and trucks vs. listening at home, etc., etc. All of the theories eventually go back around to the primary one: People will buy music they really want. If, that is, they know it exists. The physical format in which it exists is obviously becoming immaterial.