Industry Woes Finally Hitting Country Music

Posted by: Jon Fine on January 9, 2008

Last summer, Glenn at coolfer.com called my attention to a very interesting music-biz stat: In 2007, country album sales were in steep decline. And they were. Around the time we talked, country’s album sales were down almost 30%.

So, you’re thinking, whatever, music sales have been falling for years, no big deal, right?

Not exactly.

Of all the top-selling music genres, country was the only one to hold its ground, sales-wise, over the past few years. There were lots of reasons people gave for country’s commercial persistence—a commercial (if not aesthetic renaissance); the way country as a radio format has resisted splintering, unlike rock; the way that digital sales of country music were a much smaller fraction of total sales than there were for other genres; the perceived loyalty of country fans to longtime artists.

2007 year was still kinda-young when I wrote this column about country's woes—which is to say that a big fourth quarter could have saved the year. But the implications were nonetheless kinda-grim . . .

. . . and the year-end music sales figures released last week by Nielsen SoundScan were almost as discouraging. Full-year country album sales were down 16.3%, and every measured genre took a sales tumble.

The full list (with the caveat that I’m just reporting the genre names, not inventing them):

Alternative: down 19.2%
Christian/Gospel: down 14.3%
Classical: down 7.2%
Country: down 16.3%
Jazz: down 10.6%
Latin: down 15.6% (another genre that had done well recently)
Metal: down 13.9%
New Age: down 5.9%
R&B: down 18.3%
Rap: down 30.0%
Rock: down 12.5%
Soundtracks: down 9.5%

Shouldn’t be a surprise that the music biz continues to tank. But one genre that’s long been something of a firewall is now clearly eroding, too.

Not good.

Reader Comments

Don

January 9, 2008 3:33 PM

The core group of music purchasers, college students, have very successfully deluded themselves into thinking that music will still be made without people buying it. I predict that this will not be the case by 2011.

Can the same be said for poetry, once the mainstay of coffeehouse culture in the 1950s? No, despite some brief revival slams, the ability for really good poets to make careers out of poetry is not possible, so poetry has ceased to matter culturally and the only poetry made is very much a niche market with minor sales.

Musicians, already under cultural attack by insipid club DJs getting paid for someone else's music, have been told by their core audience that their work isn't even worth paying for. College students have blamed the RIAA as the cause, with no shred of self-knowledge or understanding of the word "irony," when ripping off non-RIAA musicians. Now the current children's argument goes that music is merely a promotional tool for concert sales- certainly welcome information for any band that's broken up and somehow an acceptance of CLEAR CHANNEL's Madonna deal? When did CLEAR CHANNEL become cool? After it destroyed radio culture for teenagers or when it plastered casino and hard booze billboards across our countryside?

About 2 months ago a member of a critically important punk band told me he'd rather make CORPORATE music for films than allow his art to be ripped off by "idiot kids" who "think they're being a fan when they stab you in the back." That's one independent musician who is rejecting these kids and their arrogant demands.

I remember buying 2 or 3 lps a week in college, easily 100-200 lps a year. Those are the numbers required to pay for gas to travel to small club gigs.

Glenn

January 12, 2008 6:21 PM

Like classical, country is prone to swings whenever it gets big crossover hits. The Garth and Shania years showed that holds true. In 2006, Rascall Flats and Carrie Underwood boosted country's numbers. In 2007, Underwood's album was released late in the year (for the Christmas rush) and Rascall Flats did not have a new release.

In fact, if you take out The Eagles (who really shouldn't be in the country category if you ask me) then the genre was down something like 20% for the year.

That said, country is likely to see its album sales drop at a faster rate in the next few years. Country fans will migrate to new technologies and do what rock and pop fans have already done: Substitute an album for a few tracks.

But because country artists have very strong relationships with their fans (far better than other genres, I'd argue), I have to wonder how far country album sales will slide. One school of thought says that a stronger relationship will lead to high album sales. Another school of thought says a stronger relationship may still lead to an album-for-tracks substitution but will manifest itself in money spent on concerts, fan clubs and other products.

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