Moanin' the Blues in Nashville

Why country music sales are in such a funk

For the steel guitars no longer cry

And the fiddles barely play

But drums and rock 'n' roll guitars

Are mixed up in your face

Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance

On today's radio

Since they committed murder

Down on Music Row

--Murder On Music Row

Country singers George Strait and Alan Jackson first teamed up to perform that song last year, and its message rings true as ever. Nashville may have a brand new Country Music Hall of Fame, complete with windows that look like piano keys and a replica of a radio tower, but country music, which commanded nearly 19% of all record sales in 1993, is going down faster than a bottle of Jack Daniels at a hoedown.

Like all music genres, country has had its ups and downs, beginning when Elvis Presley first gyrated onto the pop scene in the early '50s. But this dip looks like more than a cyclical downturn. Since the mid-1990s, country music sales have been plunging, by as much as 23% last year, to $1.5 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Radio audiences have shrunk over five years by 75% in some unlikely markets, including Birmingham, Ala., and San Antonio. Some big country stations, such as New York's WYNY, are struggling. Record companies Atlantic and Virgin have closed their country labels in just the past six months. And country music revenue is off 30% in the past year at the major labels, say record executives and artists' agents. Worries 75-year-old legendary country guitarist Harold Bradley: "This is the worse I've seen in a long time--maybe ever."

TRADING UP. So what's happening to the music once defined by the twang and heartache of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline? Experts say the falloff can largely be blamed on the blurring of the lines between country and pop music, with overtly sexy acts like Faith Hill and Shania Twain moving in on more traditional artists like Tammy Wynette and Emmylou Harris. This shift from bolo ties to bellybutton rings has cost country music legions of fans, who yearn for new roots-based music without all the production and glitz.

To make matters worse, more and more of country's traditional core listeners--rural, blue-collar, white, and largely female--have traded up for the suburbs during the recent economic boom. William Wade, a Tennessee-based economist who studies demographic trends, says new suburbanites, fearing they'll be stereotyped as "hayseeds," often switch to pop. Then there's a decline, by 5% during the 1990s, in the population that spends the most on music--whites from ages 25 to 34. Meanwhile, Hispanics of the same age group surged 21%; these days Ricky Martin outsells any single country artist, including the pop crossover act Dixie Chicks.

Country music has also been hurt by the consolidation of radio stations into a handful of conglomerates over the past five years. The 2,000-plus country music stations still outnumber any other genre, but their owners are programming more commercials and mainstream fare. Many longtimers doubt that today's young radio programmers--or label execs for that matter--know how to reach the country faithful. There are few country specialists, with most radio execs programming several genres at the same time. They're "converts from Top 40 radio," laments Danny Davis, a producer and musician who introduced horns to country in the 1960s. Stations that are part of media chains are more likely to play it safe, airing superstars such as Hill. "It's harder to break new acts," says Denise Nichols, director of radio promotion at Nashville talent agency TBA Entertainment.

"HAT CLONES." But some of the decline in country music can be blamed on the industry itself. During the last peak, it piled on "hat clones" of Garth Brooks. When Brooks introduced the pyrotechnics of rock `n' roll music, he won millions of new fans, including 250,000 at a landmark concert in New York's Central Park in 1997. "The labels thought all they had to do was find new Garths," says Ed Shane, owner of consultancy Shane Media in Houston. And they did, with a vengeance. As the stars drew wider audiences, they left for the bigger playing field of pop radio. Many new listeners went with them.

Swept up by its own successes, country fell victim to overexpansion. By 1995 there were 26 country labels and 50 recording studios in Nashville--far more than the industry could ever hope to support long term. Yet with all these new properties, the industry's greatest sin has been a failure to be innovative. Insiders say five songwriters are producing most of the music, 80% of which is put out by four producers. That clique has produced a homogenous, more pop-like sound, increasingly garnering the scorn of fans, who are showing up at concerts with signs saying "Nashville Sucks."

The sales decline has hit Nashville hard. Five studios have closed in the past two years, and scores of top-flight studio musicians are out of work. "I haven't done a country recording in nine months," says Carl Tatz, who runs the independent studio Recording Acts. Tatz once booked the likes of Alan Jackson and Randy Travis for a month at a time. Now he feels he's lucky to book a little-known Christian band for four days. For artists like Mandy Barnett, a 25-year-old newcomer who considers Patsy Cline a major inspiration, it's a struggle to get her music played. She's sticking it out with "gritted teeth," Barnett says, but how soon till she's just another casualty on Music Row?

By Charles Haddad in Nashville

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