NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Searching for the Heart of Country

Is It With Taylor Swift? Garth Brooks? George Strait? Zac Brown Band? Where?

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

Where is the heart and the soul and the core of country music these days? Is it in Taylor Swift's on-the-road-around-the-world-empire dressing room? Is it in Garth Brooks' come-back Las Vegas dressing room? Is it in Miranda Lambert's glitzy dressing room at the Bridgestone Arena the night of the CMA Awards show, where she has a record nine CMA nominations?

Or is it in Dale Watson's lonely tour bus on the road in a midnight parking lot of a dark, bare-bones honky-tonk out in the boonies? Or in the hazy back of Jamey Johnson's tour bus sitting somewhere in lower Alabama? Or in the ghost-riders-in-the-sky tour bus that Willie Nelson will forever preside over?

Or is it in Robert's Western Wear or in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Lower Broad in Nashville where the pickers will eternally play for the tip jar? Is it at the Station Inn, which increasingly resembles Fort Apache, as Gulch chic-ness surrounds and overruns it?

Is it in the ghost-laden Ryman Auditorium? Or at the Grand Ole Opry? Or maybe at Billy Bob's Texas? Or in Gruene Hall? Maybe on George Strait's ranch? Is it maybe hiding at the end of a dirt road in some small town?

Is it in mega-mogul-manager Irving Azoff's back pocket as he shuttles from venue to venue and from act to act and from new country acquisition to new country acquisition? Or is it in a small, intimate club where a flower like Caitlin Rose blooms? Or in a rowdy Texas honky-tonk where the sassy Sunny Sweeney shows off her sugarbritches? Is it inside Zac Brown's cap?

Is it in some country star's Tweets, for God's sake?

Maybe, to lift a line from the Gatlin Brothers' song "All the Gold in California," the heart of country is actually "in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else's name."

Just where the hell is it?

I don't really know. No one does. And no one has even really known at any given time. And what's scary is that, these days, no one I know who has any sense knows either. The heart used to be at the center of the major Nashville record labels. And at the major recording studios. No more, no more. They're long ago eroding.

Country music is a wildly erratic radar screen these days. Random, unexpected blips are popping up all over the place and with no consistent patterns. May as well study tornado paths. The music is all over the map. So are the artists. And so is the audience.

But, if you sit back and reflect and study the music's recent and even ancient history, there's really no reason for panic.

It is ultimately in the listeners' hands. It's the fans, the true believers, who will choose their music. Each person's country is in the heart.

But it's also in marketing departments' hands. The breakdown of the sales pattern for Taylor Swift's first-week sales of more than 1 million copies of Speak Now is very revealing about present-day music marketing strategy. Billboard breaks the sales down thusly: Target, 350,000 units; iTunes, 220,000 units; Walmart, about 190,000 units; Amazon and Costco, each at about 40,000; Best Buy at about 35,000; and Starbucks at about 28,000. Starbucks was one of several nontraditional retailers pushing the album. Radio Shack will be another to be added.

Hot Topic stores, which mainly skew toward rock, moved about 5,000 copies. It has also been sold in Justice clothing stores for girls and in Rite Aid.

A Scholastic promo event also generated preorders and sales through schools. iTunes and Amazon also had preorder campaigns.

Big Machine set the CD's list price at $18.98, flying in the face of conventional wisdom that albums should list at $10. But it cut deals to get the pricing it needed for the physical CD.

Digital also heavily discounted the album -- the media delivery company digital priced the Speak Now download at $4, and then Amazon lowered its download to $3.99. Amazon's price for the physical CD was $8. set the CD album price at $7.78. J&R Music World priced it in-store and online at $6.99.

To her credit, Swift also insisted that Speak Now also be released as a vinyl record album.

But these million-plus sales numbers come after the world had decided that CDs and long, multi-song albums were quant artifacts of the past. With Taylor Swift, it seems that all things are possible. Her fans voted with their wallets and purses. Heart and soul of country, though? The listeners will decide that.

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