Country music radio stations closing, but record sales strong
November 1, 2006
By Fred Shuster Los Angeles Daily News
As he prepared to release country music's first-ever box set of all-new music, Vince Gill pondered a climate in which three major cities had lost their top country stations and one of the world's largest music retail chains was shutting its doors.
"The number of stations are shrinking and so are the number of songs they play," Gill said. "So, I had to ask myself if this was really the best time to put out 43 new songs in one large package."
Gill wasn't the only one asking. Although country's record and ticket sales are holding steady, the audience isn't growing at the rate demanded by station owners, advertisers and those who gamble on talent.
That's the bottom line why country stations switched off in Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia in the past year even as loyal listeners rallied to their cause. At the same time, digital downloading, illegal piracy of music online and rock-bottom pricing at such volume sellers as Wal-Mart and Target prompted Tower Records to go out of business.
"It's a sad thing, and it deeply affects our supporters," said Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, country's hottest trio. "I'm hoping it doesn't end up turning young people off to the genre. The music's still good even if they can't find it so easily in these places anymore."
Other stations have either stepped in to fill the breach or are considering it — in Los Angeles, after longtime country radio KZLA-FM switched to a pop format, the low-signal 540-AM went straight into George Strait.
"Country isn't like other kinds of music, like hip-hop and alternative rock, where you can just add all this other stuff just to broaden the audience and make it skew younger," said Kix Brooks of the best-selling duo Brooks & Dunn, hosts of the 40th annual Country Music Association Awards gala in Nashville on Monday.
(Performers include Gill, Alan Jackson, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and George Strait.)
"Country's already sliced up into little pieces — anything else would be like adding salsa to classical music."
The attempt to lure viewers ages 18 to 49 is the primary reason why the CMA moved its three-hour telecast this year to younger-targeting ABC from CBS (which has a large 25-to-54 audience). The Nashville-based organization hopes to continue a run of luck that saw last year's CMA Awards beat the Grammys in the ratings for the first time.
"We specifically looked to widen the audience," said Tammy Genovese, the CMAA's chief operating officer.
"It's essential to have the chance to reach a different, younger demo."
Coincidentally, this year might end up being a banner year for the music's profile, even as broadcasters fret. Ten-gallon hits were delivered by Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Strait, Rascal Flatts, Oklahoma cowgirl and '05 "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, Josh Turner, Trace Adkins, Big & Rich, Tim McGraw (who also recently starred in Hollywood's big-screen remake of "Flicka"), Dixie Chicks, Toby Keith, Cash, the Wreckers — and Gill, whose ambitious four-CD box of new songs, "These Days," scotched his own fears when it debuted at No. 4 last week on Billboard's country albums chart. and at No. 17 on the all-genre Billboard 200.
And while overall domestic music sales (in every genre) slipped for the first six months of the year by 4.2 percent compared with last year, sales of country music spiked 17.7 percent (along with Christian music sales by 12.6 percent), said Nielsen SoundScan.
"The money is as big as it's ever been," Brooks said of the genre that regularly sells between 45 million and 50 million records a year. "And I have a feeling we're going to see another surge. "But in some places, it's still a battle against misconceptions people have about what a Nashville country song is. There's still a feeling that there's always some sort of hokey, corny hook to the song or that everyone dresses a certain way."
"I think it's a matter of exposure — which is where something like the CMA Awards is so useful."
On top of that, Vanity Fair's November issue just dedicated a 32-page photo spread to the music's stars, legends and hottest newcomers.
"Country will never go away," said Scott Lindy, who heads Sirius Satellite Radio's country music operations on Nashville's Music Row, doesn't see the genre disappearing, but the way it's presented needs to change.
"It's an important part of the world's music and an important part of the industry's economy.
But what we've seen is, the programming of country radio in L.A. and other citiesneeds to change. Something elseis called for. Whatever went wrong in trying to attract and maintain a growing listenership doesn't have anything to do with country music. It has to do with making teenagers and more people in their 20s feel it's cool."
Sirius, like rival pay-radio service XM Satellite Radio, has a handful of niche country channels broadcasting everything from the newest artists to the classics. Lindy says he has yet another country niche format, an "experimental hybrid — not Americana, not folk, not Nashville — but a blend that has a narrow, highly passionate audience," to be unveiled sometime next year.
Christian country reggaeton, anyone?
Don't rule it out.