My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Recording new lows

Much has been said lately about plummeting music sales.  Country Universe has you covered with the latest numbers. This is effecting every genre, and country is no exception.  Each week the Billboard 200 album chart posts a new record low for the top-selling album. Everyone is looking for the silver lining. Shutting down massive file-sharing sites is really little victory in the long-term because these music pirates are finding new avenues to infringe copyrights even as I write this. I won’t try to kid myself that low, low record sales are anything but primarily caused by illegal downloading, but I am of the persuasion that there are other fixes than injunctions against the major culprits. Country music has been in the valley before, only to rise to glory time and time again.

Historically, when sales and listenership began to dwindle, the powers on Music Row raised up and began working to solve the problem.  When the rock and roll invasion in the 1950s brought country music sales to a standstill at the end of the decade, and more and more radio stations stopped programming the music, executives and producers opted to polish the sound of the music they created.

Born to compete commercially with rock and roll, the Nashville Sound embodied the lush, string-filled sounds of pop music from a couple decades past.  Artists like Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell and Bobby Bare found as much success on the pop charts as the country charts during this time.  By the 1970s, when the public began to tire of the slicker side of country from the likes of Crystal Gale, Kenny Rogers and others, there came a group of renegades who decided to turn up their amplifiers and sing about gritty, real-life subject matter.  We called them outlaws.  Then came Urban Cowboy, practiced by most of the same artists from the pre- and post-outlaw time, was yet another incarnation of the Nashville Sound.  The antidote for that overstated Urban Cowboy era was of course the New Traditionalist movement of the 80s.  And then you all know the story of Garth Brooks and the 90s, when CDs were still on the shelves, and were flying off daily.  We watched as country music became the popular music of the day.

Today, the biggest-selling artists remain middle-of-the road starlets like Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, and Jason Aldean.  These artists have taken an adult contemporary approach, aiming their music squarely for the top 40. Lady Antebellum is the very definition of a MOR act, straddling the line between pop/rock and country, while posting impressive sales numbers.

Like Lady A, Sugarland’s sales remain strong – 4 straight platinum CDs – but they’ve done it with the same ratio of mostly influences not indigenous to Music City.  Sugarland started out a very promising act in the pop-country field.  Their music sparkled with life, their lyrics were smart and original, and Jennifer Nettles brought with her an attention-grabbing vocal.  Their sound has evolved outside the sparkling pop-country of their first releases into the bombastic and shouted antics of The Incredible Machine. Now, like the industry that gave them a foothold, the duo seems to be in a sort of identity crisis, with no decided musical direction these days.  Their lack of focus, aside from the production, is the biggest fault with their most recent album, yet consumers have rewarded their uncertainty with a million purchases.

But that’s not all there is.  Lee Ann Womack has never matched the sales of her crossover mega-hit ‘I Hope You Dance’ with her acclaimed traditional releases in the past couple of years, but continues to crank out quality, country music in the traditionalist sense.   Sure, there are others – Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are making some inroads – but I don’t see that either of them is doing much to change the tide.  Johnson can’t get on the radio with the singles from his latest album, no matter how good they are.  And Lambert is swimming in a sea of pseudo-twangy pop stars.  It’s still a wonder she’s made it as far as she has.  I certainly root, root, root for her continued success, but I wonder if her contributions to traditional country are enough.

After two decades of pop-country at the forefront, aren’t we overdue for a change of the tide once again?  I’d say we’re almost a decade behind the cycle.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

8 responses to “Recording new lows

  1. bob February 10, 2011 at 8:44 am

    If JJ could sing like Gene Watson or Ronnie Milsap, I might buy his music. You can have the greatest lyrics and all the steel guitars, fiddles, etc. but if I don’t like the vocal performance I’m not buying. TS gets a lot of criticism for her vocal deficiencies; she’s not alone.

  2. Razor X February 10, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I’ve been waiting for at least 15 years for the pendulum to swing back toward the traditionalist side. I thought it was happening when LeAnn Rimes came out with “Blue”, and again with the debuts of Sara Evans and Lee Ann Womack, but none of them was able to force a significant change in direction. One of the reasons I think it hasn’t happened is because most radio stations are owned by huge conglomerates, which means everyone’s using more or less the same playlist, which makes it hard for new acts to break through. Also, there are fewer labels in Nashville now thanks to mergers and consolidations, and declining sales have made them more wary of taking risks — so we keep getting the same old, same old.

  3. Ken Johnson February 10, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Do not confuse content with technology. The reason that mass quantities of music is no longer being purchased in ANY genre is because you don’t have to. The proliferation of free file sharing has eliminated the need to buy CD’s or pay for music downloads. The genie is out of the bottle. Ask any college-age or younger person how much music they buy. In most cases NONE. They are of the opinion that all music is “free” and should be shared without restrictions. Music ownership is a completely foreign concept to them. More and more older music consumers have come to share that opinion too. Unless the music industry discovers a new way to prevent music from being copied don’t expect anything to change and sales will continue to plummet

    The music industry shares the blame for a portion of this phenomenon. They overpriced albums for too many years. In their battle to acquire top acts to their labels they paid acts obscene money and passed those costs directly along to the consumer via ridiculously high CD prices. Older music that had been on the market for many years was priced the same as their brand new releases. Fans who purchased music on 78’s, 45’s, LP’s, 8-Tracks and cassettes were gouged with ridiculously high prices to re-purchase music in the new CD configuration. When music fans had the chance to acquire music for FREE via the internet they jumped at the opportunity. They have no sympathy for the greedy record labels who abused them for so many years.

    As for the actual content of music, as I have pointed out in other posts the country music industry in Nashville and most of country radio is controlled by people who have no passion for REAL country music. They are pop/rock/rap fans at heart and only view “country” music as a commodity. The less “hillbilly” it sounds the better they like it. The real country music fans were driven out of the Nashville music industry long ago or are now dead.

    For a while there was a continuum in the sound of country music with artists like Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson carrying the banner forward. But today if Hank Williams came back to life and heard Taylor Swift, Keith Urban & Rascal Flatts he’d probably ask “what in the hell kind of music is that?“ As for me, a fan of REAL country music, there is precious little music on the market today that I would be willing to pay for. Judging by the sales numbers perhaps more than just a few country fans also share my opinion.

  4. Rick February 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Razor X said: “One of the reasons I think it hasn’t happened is because most radio stations are owned by huge conglomerates, which means everyone’s using more or less the same playlist, which makes it hard for new acts to break through. ”

    Ken Johnson said: “As for the actual content of music, as I have pointed out in other posts the country music industry in Nashville and most of country radio is controlled by people who have no passion for REAL country music. They are pop/rock/rap fans at heart and only view “country” music as a commodity. The less “hillbilly” it sounds the better they like it. The real country music fans were driven out of the Nashville music industry long ago or are now dead. ”

    Talk about hitting the nail on the head! Both these comments spring somewhat from the same well. When radio station ownership restrictions were lifted during the mid-1990’s under Clinton certain media corporations like Clear Channel swooped in and bought up as many stations as they could. Radio stations that were independently owned, or parts of small holding companies, suddenly became small cogs in large corporate wheels and their independence was lost. The corporate marketing types geared music selection towards targeted demographic groups with musical integrity becoming a non-issue. These sanitized approved play lists were sent out to all of the corporate country format affiliates and Top 40 country radio has become progressively more boring ever since.

    It didn’t help matters that at the time corporations were scooping up country radio stations that Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were two of the dominant acts. Many of the corporate suits were hostile towards hillbilly country to begin with and this just allowed them to move more quickly away from traditional country and into the pop-rock realm. Big label Nashville lives and dies by Top 40 airplay, and therefore had to create music that “fit the format” and pleased the corporate programmers. That cycle became ingrained in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and has been fossilizing ever since, leading to the ever increasing mediocrity of the music they feature.

    The emergence of American Idol and especially Carrie Underwood was a corporate marketing / wide audience reaching match-making bonanza. This moved Top 40 country radio even more into the pop-rock mainstream and opened the door for the emergence of subsequent dominant artists like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum.

    The above factors are so entrenched at this point I don’t foresee any appreciable changes coming in the future. If anything desperation will move Top 40 country radio even further into the pop-rock and adult contemporary music realms to attract a larger audience. I would love to see a swing back towards twangy, traditional country styles but the embedded hostility in the radio establishment against such “hayseed music” makes that extremely unlikely.

    I still buy CD’s and download songs on a regular basis, but almost none of it is current. There is an undiscovered ton of great country music out there waiting for me to find it, but very little of it is being created these days by current artists. Oh well…

  5. pwdennis February 11, 2011 at 6:18 am

    There was another factor in play as well. During the 1980s many stations switched to an all digital format and would only play music that was available on compact disc. If you would call a request into a radio station (any format) they would honor the request if they had it availble on CD.

    Unfortunately, country music was the last genre to have its back catalogue available on CD. Even into the mid 1990s such major artists as Charley Pride, Sonny James, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard had little of their pre-1985 material avaialble on CD so that listeners had little opportunity to develop an appreciation for the classic country of the pre-digital era.

    Even today , much of the classic country can only be found on expensive foreign labels or as downloads by people who have ripped their vinyl albums into digital downloads for fellow enthusiasts.

    The major labels have only themselves to blame for this situation – by making obtaining of classic country into a stealth endeavor, they got a generation or more of classic country fans out of the habit of purchasing the music as most of it wasn’t there to purchase at all, at any price

    Like Rick, I still buy CD’s on a regular basis, but little of it is current unless from labels such as Heart of Texas or Rounder .

  6. Razor X February 11, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I think yet another factor is what’s going on outside of country music. There doesn’t seem to be any pop music for adults anymore; everything is marketed to teenagers and pre-teens. That has resulted in a lot of adult listeners switching to country by default (the “soccer mom” phenomenon). And these aren’t, by and large, fans of traditional country music.

  7. Ken Johnson February 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    To expand on Rick’s comments regarding the government deregulation of radio in 1996 which essentially lifted the limits on how many radio stations any one entity could own or control. The “consolidation” of the radio industry followed quickly with massive numbers of formerly independent and smaller radio station groups becoming controlled by giant corporate owners. As a cost cutting measure the greedy new corporate owners eliminated as many jobs in individual cities (also referred to as broadcast markets) as possible. Rather than having ONE program director for each radio station they appointed ONE program director for ALL stations in that market. In most markets the country program director was the first to go. He was replaced by a new “cluster” program director that often had no background, love, knowledge or respect for country music, its roots or its audience. The new cluster PD split his time overseeing 5, 6 or more radio stations. Country was not a priority in many cases and as Rick correctly pointed out musical decisions were now deferred to the corporate level. There was no longer a pair of willing & educated ears in the local market to customize the playlist to that particular region.

    Exacerbating the problem was new technology spawned by the internet. “Voice tracking” allowed announcers in studios many miles away to record just the announcer talk breaks between the songs then send the audio files via internet to the individual radio stations where a computer placed them into the program log between the digital song files. A four hour on-air shift could now be completed in half an hour or less. It was very cost effective for the greedy corporate owners because they could pay the voice track announcer a fraction of what a full time announcer would cost them. Unfortunately it took another live body out of the radio station control room that could interact with listeners via telephone or internet and get valuable feedback. Corporately originated live syndicated programs were also distributed to numerous radio stations further reducing the local staff and their ability to respond to local tastes. Many smaller local radio stations became nothing more than a computer and a transmitter with no live human bodies inside the building.

    For record labels it was easier than ever to manipulate playlists. A smaller number of decision makers were now determining the playlist adds for a massive number of radio stations. One corporate person controlled dozens of playlists. And with cheaper, less experienced program directors at individual stations more “consultants” were hired who themselves also controlled playlists at large blocks of stations. Suddenly there were exponentially fewer ears listening for new and different country music sounds or acts and more hacks wanting to play more of the formulaic same old vanilla stuff. Creativity is not a quality you’ll find in most radio consultants. They find something that already worked for another radio station and then apply it to all of their clients in cookie-cutter fashion.

    And if all of that wasn’t enough, consolidation also brought a major decrease in competition in some markets. Suddenly the country station wasn’t fully competing with other radio formats for audience share. Multiple stations controlled by a common owner no longer fought for additional audience share as they were part of a “cluster” and didn’t want to cannibalize listeners from commonly owned “sister” radio stations. Radio marketing dollars were massively cut resulting in fewer brand new ears being encouraged to try the country station. Even more reasons for country radio to play it safe and bland to avoid potentially disrupting their audience.

    Worse yet the greedy corporate owners shook down record labels to pay for country radio station promotional trips, prizes and giveaway cash in return for getting songs added to playlists. What amounts to payola or plugola became standard practice. Not exactly fertile ground for musical innovation or experimentation is it? The highest bidder wins.

  8. Ben Foster February 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    We’re definitely overdue for a change in tide. I could live with it if the stations didn’t switch entirely from pop-country to traditional, but I wish they would stop dismissing songs just for being “too country.”

    I’m no purist – I can appreciate a good pop-country tune, but I will always have a special fondness for traditional country music. I wish pop-country could just coexist with traditional country instead of completely crowding it out.

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