Country, the decade’s big music-biz success story, has fallen on hard times. The genre’s explosive early-’90s growth hasn’t merely leveled off — its audience is shrinking. Eight months into 1996, album sales are down almost 10 percent from last year. If not for 14-year-old LeAnn Rimes — whose debut, Blue, sold 354,000 copies in July — things would be even worse. They are worse in radio. According to Radio & Records’ Lon Helton, who’s monitored country radio for a decade, listenership is down 20 percent from its 1993 high.
What’s behind the slide? Radio — with those restrictive playlists — say the labels. The labels aren’t delivering hits, counters radio. Opinions abound. It’s the inevitable cooling off of a growth industry; the glut of new country labels (from seven in ‘89 to two dozen today); the desertion of the fickle, free-spending kids who briefly swelled country’s ranks. It’s a quick-buck mentality, cloning a chartful of soundalikes — the same greed that ruined country’s late-’70s bid for mass popularity by cloning Waylon Jennings into a dozen Eddie Rabbitts.
Whatever the causes, country is caught in a vicious circle. Bad business breeds safe music, which drives listeners further away. ”Suppose you have a unique singer-songwriter,” says Luke Lewis, president of Mercury Records’ Nashville branch, ”and also a young, good-looking singer-songwriter who writes positive love songs. You’ve only got one spot on your roster. In a climate like this, you’ll probably gravitate toward the good-looking guy who sounds like everyone else on the radio right now. If we’re not excited by the music, how can we expect listeners to stay excited?” Another exec is even blunter in his opinion of current wares: ”I can’t stand the s—.”
How is Nashville to dig out? Instead of investigating new ways to do business, the town is praying for hits. ”There’s been no original material from Garth Brooks, Clint Black, or Alan Jackson for years,” Helton says. ”When your stars aren’t hitting home runs, the excitement of the public isn’t there.”
Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Billy Ray Cyrus have new albums out this month; it remains to be seen whether they’ll shore up the market. Meanwhile, there are creative stirrings in Nashville: the potent music on the independent label Dead Reckoning, renegade producer Pete Anderson’s new deal with Mercury, and a wave of harder-rocking youngsters — Gillian Welch, Thrasher Shiver, and BR5-49. A backward glance reminds one that while the slumping late-’70s pop world was waiting for overdue blockbusters from such behemoths as the Eagles and Led Zeppelin, punk blew in through the back door, revitalizing rock. Can it be that Garth, Clint, and the like are dinosaurs ready to be replaced by a faster-moving breed?