Country uncool again in 2000

Saturday, December 30, 2000

— Sales continued to flag, Garth Brooks announced his retirement and The Nashville Network removed "Nashville" from its name during 2000, a desultory year for the country music industry.

Platinum sales for the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill were hopeful signs for Nashville, which has seen its market share drop steadily for five years after explosive growth in the early 1990s.

At the start of a new year, country music executives face a variety of problems, including a continuing inability to mold many new stars. Even the acts that sell well aren't selling as much.

Alan Jackson's 1998 album, "High Mileage," has sold about 1 million copies. His 1992 album, "A Lot About Livin' (and a Little 'Bout Love)," has sold six times that.

"My little girls are real young, but they love those little pop things going on now like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys," Jackson said. "Back when (Jackson's hit) 'Chattahoochee' was out, I had young kids who were jumping all over that country thing."

One new star is Brad Paisley.

"Brad Paisley is winning awards, and he's sold 500,000 or 600,000 records? I'm happy for him," said Scott Hendricks, who runs Virgin Records' Nashville office. "But we're used to bigger, better numbers. For all the exposure he's gotten, he should have sold more."

Too little, too late

Sales of country music albums were down nearly 2 percent at the end of the third quarter, according to SoundScan. Early reports for the fourth quarter, which includes the Christmas shopping season, indicate an off year for all music sales.

That could mean about a 10 percent drop in country music sales in 2000.

At its peak in 1993, country music accounted for nearly 19 percent of music sales. That figure likely will be down to 8 percent in 2000.

The slide comes during an artistic renaissance of sorts for the genre. In 2000, major labels released albums that ranged from respectable to tremendous, including those by Jackson, Allison Moorer, Craig Morgan, Chris Cagle, Johnny Cash, The Warren Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, Tyler England, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack.

Ricky Skaggs' return to bluegrass has reignited his career, and the influence of the raw "alternative country" scene continues to seep into the mainstream.

But the record companies embarrassed themselves by releasing albums by several young women resembling superstar Shania Twain, who took the year off. Nashville labels are cultivating several boy-band acts designed to take advantage of the Backstreet Boys trend � way too late.

Billy Gilman, a child novelty act, was one of Nashville's few success stories.

Relief in a few months?

Many blame radio. Industry deregulation has led to large companies owning many stations. Many programmers play bland love songs meant to appeal to women over 35, a reliable audience that keeps ratings steady, while ignoring other fans who may be more likely to buy CDs.

Jackson lampooned the situation on his new album, "When Somebody Loves You," with the track "Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song."

"Everybody wants positive stuff, they don't want no cheating or drinking things," Jackson said. "You can't say this, you can't say that. And it can't be too country. If it is, you can't get it played."

Hendricks said it's the "unsafe" songs that generate enthusiasm. "When you go against the grain, you can get the big score. Look at LeAnn Rimes. 'Blue' was a song that radio never embraced totally, but it was the song that broke LeAnn Rimes."

Deena Carter's "Strawberry Wine" and Tim McGraw's "Indian Outlaw" were unique songs that generated sales and made stars of the artists, he said.

Hendricks is trying to persuade stations to devote more shows to new records. He'd also like singles to have a shorter life so that more would have the opportunity for airplay.

Some radio stations play only 11 songs an hour, down from 14 a few years ago.

"Also, the life span of each single has gotten a lot longer," Hendricks said. "Not that many years ago, it was a 12-week cycle. Now, we're at 26-plus weeks. ... It means a lot less room for other records to be hits."

There is short-term relief ahead. Although he's announced his retirement, Brooks is working on a new album for release this summer. Twain likely will return with an album.

The Nashville Network is now The National Network, devoted to reruns and wrestling. But new owner Viacom is pumping money into CMT (Country Music Television).

The Dixie Chicks will take off most of the year, but their success serves as a beacon to others that country can still compete.

"The Dixie Chicks, I think, are showing us all that you can remain traditional, you can remain country, and still be cool and hip and accepted by the masses," Brooks said.