Perhaps there’s a more obvious reason country music sales are down: They cut off the long tail

BusinessWeek’s Jon Fine explores reasons why country music sales are down this year. In it, he includes this humorous quip:

“One music executive who is based south of the Mason-Dixon line couldn’t resist pulling the leg of a Yankee reporter asking questions about the country biz from his desk in Manhattan. This gent’s deadpan explanation for country’s staying power: “The South is still suffering the effects of a Civil War that destroyed its infrastructure and left it economically 100 years behind the industrialized North. Therefore, fewer people living in Tennessee can afford computers and iPods.”

Fortunately, Jon didn’t bite on that one.

Those who have read this blog for a long time know that, while I’m a fan of some wonderful music that is created in Nashville (and Austin, Tex. and all along the eastern seaboard), it’s rarely the music one hears on commercial country radio stations. If, as the commercial country music cartel* has, one creates a situation where a narrow playlist of music on owner-concentrated commercial radio stations is combined with a distribution channel that is being slowly constricted into one retail channel, Wal-Mart, you’ve created an industry that guarantees the light at the end of a tunnel is an approaching train.

Here’s another interesting tidbit from Fine’s report:

“A study conducted by Edison Media Research and Arbitron (ARB ) in January found that respondents who cite country as their favorite radio format are significantly less likely than the average consumer to listen to online radio. This is reflected in digital album sales for the first half of ’07. Country sold under 5% of its albums that way. Rock-related genres sold nearly twice that percentage; even iPod-unfriendly classical did better with downloads.

If someone has read Chris Anderson’s writings on long tail economics, the factors reflected in Fine’s article yell out: the country music industry is cutting off its long tail. By focusing its playlist and distribution strategy on that music that requires real shelf space and real trucks and real warehouses to distribute, the country music industry is perpetuating an anachronistic business model that is so dependent on “the blockbuster,” that the entire industry’s sales trends swing wildly based solely on the sales of a few blockbusters from a half-dozen mega-stars.

Or do they?

Perhaps there’s another way to view the country music industry, one that actually does account for a long tail. I’m guessing — and this is merely a guess — that the syndicated research reflected in Jon Fine’s trend story is focused entirely on the core-commercial country music numbers. If you extend the demand curve of country music so the line includes the long tail of bluegrass, Americana [a term that includes a broad range of “roots” music, including traditional country, the blues, etc.], folk, independent “alternative country,” gospel-country, old-time fiddle, etc., I wonder what the sales numbers will reveal?

However, “country music powers-that-be” seem hellbent on controlling what music should appear along the “country music demand curve.” Fine, through the quote of an analyst, displays how the “country-music community” (translation: cartel) tries to pretend the long tail doesn’t exist — at least, not in their world:

“‘The country-music community has always been determined not to fragment,’ says Sean Ross, a vice-president at Edison Media Research. Commercially, this has exasperated less traditional performers, as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt would attest. (If Van Zandt were still alive, that is.) But it also has ensured that the schism that struck rock radio in the early 1990s—when stations were faced with the binary choice of not playing the likes of Nirvana and alienating younger listeners or playing Nirvana and losing their traditional constituency—hasn’t hit the country mainstream yet.”

They may NOT have wanted to fragment, but consider that, in addition to a trade association called “The Country Music Association,” in Nashville you’ll also find trade associations called, The Americana Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association and dozens of other associations of “fragmented” country music niches.

In other words, the commercial country-music cartel defines country music in terms of a narrow demand curve, while, in reality, there’s probably a very large country music market if one is not blinded by how the “country-music community” defines it.

Later: To the couple of anonymous e-mails who suggested (to different degrees) that the “obvious reason country music sales are down” this year is that, “it sucks,” I’ll give you a statistical answer: That’s not a variable. It sucked last year, as well.

*It appears to me that in the “official” country music industry, a cartel exists that includes big-labels, big-radio, big-publishers, big-booking agencies, big-retailers, big-artists, big performance rights agencies and some others I’m no doubt leaving out. It does not include independent labels or artists, small live venues, or, for that matter, most anything “not Nashville.”

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  • You make me nervous when you start speaking truth to power like this. Don’t forget how close our office is to Music Row. Indeed, even closer to one of the major labels. You’re not going to be very popular at the lunch counter.

    But you are right.

    I hate telling people I like “country” music. Because I like so little of the small slice that’s on commercial country radio. I don’t know how to give my music a name, in part because I think it’s not supposed to have a name, according to the peeps on the Row.

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  • Rex,

    I was amazed to see your use of the Twang pickle salt in this blog, but you have a very outdated version of our product in our picture. As the publicist for them, I am going to mail you some new stuff, especially the chili lime salt. Realizing that you are from Tennessee, I hope the next time you have some form of potatoes that you try it on them.

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