(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
How interesting and strange that at the same time that retail music purveyors are hurtling pell-mell toward a future of free downloadable music -- a true point of no return -- that some of today's more interesting artists are marching steadfastly into the past.
Recently there have been heavily discounted music downloads available, such as Lady Gaga's album Born This Way being sold by Amazon for 99 cents.
But this past week, Google and then Amazon offered select album downloads for 25 cents each. A quarter! A quarter won't even pay for a call on a pay phone -- if you can even find a pay phone these days. You probably don't remember when a quarter was called two bits. And even years ago, to refer to something or someone as a "no-account two-bit piece of crap" was a pretty accurate and graphic putdown.
So if music is worth only two bits, then it should at least be dignified by offering it for free.
How does this opening of the cheap floodgates affect the SoundScan/Billboard charts? So far, Billboard has remained silent on any restrictions as to how these heavily-discounted downloads would register on the charts. It's easy, after all, to get bragging rights for high chart positions when you're practically giving away the music. Officially, Billboard's position is that albums priced at less than $3.49 during their first four weeks of release will not be eligible to chart. The 25-cent albums were offered for discount sale for only one day each.
Apparently, Google started this price war in an attempt to get its Google Music download feature off the ground, and then Amazon followed suit. Obviously, these are loss-leaders to lure customers into the store, where they then will likely make other buys. But it sets a precedent. Once people get it for free, they want more of that. Why buy the cow when the milk is free?
As a result of these album dumps, here are two examples: Lady Antebellum's Own the Night saw its sales jump from 20,000 copies the previous week to 108,000 this past week. Similarly, Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto's numbers went from 18,000 to 99,000. Both albums were thus catapulted into the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart.
A great many people who have studied this matter more than I have concluded there will soon come a point when consumers decide that everything on the Internet should be downloadable for free. Then what do you do?
Interestingly, what is loosely termed as Americana artists are attracting more audiences, even as they increasingly are artistically marching into the past.
As one recent example, The 1861 Project arrives with much advance praise, comprising new songs about the ordinary people who were involved in the Civil War, both from the North and the South. It is, as you would expect, pretty earnest and sober and rough-hewn music. The artists are a diverse group of songwriters and singers who are devoted to traditional music. To be honest, I personally think it will have a limited audience. But it will be a very involved audience.
The duo Civil Wars were a brilliant concept and the idea is paying off well, thanks to some solid music and genuine performances by the duo. It's also a shrewd move that none of the Civil Wars' songs actually address any aspect of the actual Civil War.
The 1861 Project, on the other hand, directly tries to immerse the listener in the actual experiences of the Civil War period.
The new multi-artist package Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, is a diverse and rewarding collection of songs that are true outside-the-church hymns. Artists range from the Civil Wars to Emmylou Harris to Buddy Miller to Dan Tyminski to Shawn Mullins to the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the North Mississippi Allstars.
And former BR-549 founder and member Chuck Mead is back with an evocative package that recalls the glory days of Nashville's recording studio days at the old Quonset Hut on Music Row. Mead's Back at the Quonset Hut recreates 12 of the better-known cuts to come out of that historic old studio.
How quaint and charming. And laudable. This frantic future is churning all around the music industry. Except in a few Nashville studios, where the music is still being made and where time can truly stand still.
Is everything old new again? Can it ever be? Maybe it's true there really is nothing new under the sun. Maybe it will just be free. Instead of $16.95, as albums used to be.