Country music seeks late-year sales surge

Star artists set to release albums

Saturday, August 16, 2003

— With country music sales down 6 percent from last year, Music Row executives are counting on a spate of late-year releases by blockbuster artists.

Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Martina McBride and Kenny Chesney all plan new albums in time for the holiday shopping season.

"Obviously, the year is not done," said Fletcher Foster, senior vice president of marketing at Capitol Records Nashville. "There are really good signs of the numbers hanging in there this year."

RCA Records Chairman Joe Galante added that so far, at least, "I don't think there's any cause for disappointment."

Last year, country was one of the few bright spots in a down year for music sales. Country sales grew 12.2 percent, while the recording industry overall was down 10.7 percent.

This year, country sales through last month were off about 6 percent from the same period a year ago, from 34.6 million units to 32.5 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The numbers could be worse. Spillover from 2002 releases by Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks, Chesney, Keith and Jackson helped buoy sales in the first part of the year.

Even with the slump, country continues to fare better than other genres. Overall album sales fell from 358 million units to 328 million units through last month, about 8.4 percent -- continuing a decline that the industry blames on file swapping and the soft economy.

"Music is one of those things you can put off buying if you're not sure about your job," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst for Billboard magazine.

Downloading is the industry's real concern. A survey published last month by the nonprofit Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated that 35 million American adults use file-sharing software, about 29 percent of Internet users. Those figures were generally consistent with other estimates of 60 million American users across all age groups.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major recording companies, said it would file several hundred lawsuits against individuals to discourage online music piracy.

Country music is considered more insulated from illegal downloading than pop and other genres, mainly because it caters to an older audience. But that might be changing.