Big-City Woes Hit Country

Album sales for country artists have held nearly steady. Until now

The signal stat for the music industry right now is not the one you've already heard. That one shows total album sales down about 15% this year. (You may recall the music biz was not exactly going gangbusters last year, either. Or the year before.) The signal stat shows country music album sales down almost 30% so far this year.

Because, until now, of all the major pop music genres, country has held steadiest amid the ongoing digitization of the music biz. As a percentage of total sales, country artists sell fewer downloads than all other top genres, which suggests that their fans are more apt to buy CDs than steal downloads. Country partisans point out that the last few months of this year bulge with big upcoming releases—new CDs from chart-toppers Rascal Flatts and Wynonna Judd, among many others—and that means '07 can't be counted out yet. A lot of people must be hoping that's so, because if country falters, the biz has lost the one genre of popular music still showing some signs of commercial health.

There is a danger in letting coastal-city assumptions skew the analysis, which is why this column will now make its first and final reference to pickup trucks. One music executive who is based south of the Mason-Dixon line couldn't resist pulling the leg of a Yankee reporter asking questions about the country biz from his desk in Manhattan. This gent's deadpan explanation for country's staying power: "The South is still suffering the effects of a Civil War that destroyed its infrastructure and left it economically 100 years behind the industrialized North. Therefore, fewer people living in Tennessee can afford computers and iPods."

SERIOUSLY, THOUGH, COUNTRY MUSIC continues to be buttressed by the traditional pillars of the music biz. Country album sales in 2005 and '06 eroded far less than other top genres. In 2006 total sales were off just 0.5%, while R&B sales sank 18.4%, and alternative rock sales fell almost 10%. (All sales data provided by Nielsen SoundScan.) Many executives I contacted cited country fans' "loyalty" to favored artists, and while this doesn't mean the tonnage shifted by long-running acts stays absolutely equal from album to album, it does describe how country devotées are less fickle than most pop music fans. The country radio format remains the most popular in the nation. Perhaps more important, fewer fissures affect it. The radio genre that ate the FM dial in the 1970s and '80s—album-oriented rock—ended up splintering into so many formats that three of them begin with the letter "A." (Active rock, alternative, and adult album alternative, for those keeping track at home.)

"The country-music community has always been determined not to fragment," says Sean Ross, a vice-president at Edison Media Research. Commercially, this has exasperated less traditional performers, as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt would attest. (If Van Zandt were still alive, that is.) But it also has ensured that the schism that struck rock radio in the early 1990s—when stations were faced with the binary choice of not playing the likes of Nirvana and alienating younger listeners or playing Nirvana and losing their traditional constituency—hasn't hit the country mainstream yet.

And country fans are not rushing toward digital. A study conducted by Edison Media Research and Arbitron (ARB ) in January found that respondents who cite country as their favorite radio format are significantly less likely than the average consumer to listen to online radio. This is reflected in digital album sales for the first half of '07. Country sold under 5% of its albums that way. Rock-related genres sold nearly twice that percentage; even iPod-unfriendly classical did better with downloads. It may well end up country fans were only waiting for late-year hits to open their wallets. Or it may end up that country, like other genres that have undergone commercial renaissances, has a bum year and then recovers. But if neither scenario occurs, the outlook for the music industry just got grimmer. If such a thing is still possible.

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By Jon Fine

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