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Nashville Scene What Comes Around

Since its boom 10 years ago, country music has taken quite a ride

By Beverly Keel

JUNE 28, 1999:  Ten years ago, the country music industry unknowingly entered what could now be called the good old days. Only four years after The New York Times trumpeted the "Death of the Country Sound" in a front-page story, Music Row launched its most successful assault ever with "The Class of '89," an impressive array of new acts that included Garth Brooks, Clint Black, the Kentucky HeadHunters, and Lorrie Morgan.

At the time, 1989 seemed like an ordinary year. Sales were up only 3 percent over 1988, with new traditionalist acts like Randy Travis leading the way. Managers Pam Lewis and Bob Doyle were frantically trying to separate their new artist, Garth Brooks, from newcomer and fellow hat-wearer Clint Black. The country charts of June 1989 were topped by Steve Wariner, Earl Thomas Conley, The Desert Rose Band, and Dwight Yoakam.

Soon enough, it became clear that Lewis and Doyle had succeeded very nicely, and thanks to the unprecedented popular success of Garth Brooks, Music Row quickly became a force to be reckoned with. In its first sales boom since Urban Cowboy created a commotion a decade before, sales jumped 50 percent in 1990 (from $480 million to $723 million) and 38 percent in 1991--when the country music business crossed the $1 billion mark for the first time ever. As country entered the '90s, Garth Brooks became the highest-ranking country act on Billboard's Top 100 chart in a decade, and nine other country acts joined him on the pop charts that year. New performers began breaking at a breathtaking speed: All five CMA Horizon nominees for 1990 had at least one gold album or better.

As skyrocketing sales were documented for the first time by SoundScan, the nation's media attention turned to Nashville, and publications such as Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and even The New York Times heralded country's success. Giddy with profits, labels hastily expanded their rosters, staffs, and budgets. To cite an industry adage, virtually everything they threw against the wall stuck.

With a roster that boasted Reba McEntire, George Strait, Vince Gill, and Trisha Yearwood, MCA Nashville dominated country music in the '90s. Charismatic and controversial producer Jimmy Bowen was behind the helm at Capitol, guiding Brooks' career. And even though no one else was selling like Brooks, virtually every label was making big money. Arista Nashville opened its doors in 1989 and had no trouble playing catch-up; it immediately emerged as a star factory with new acts Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis, and Diamond Rio. In 1993, when total sales reached $1.8 billion, a record-setting 45 country acts achieved gold status, selling at least 500,000 units each.

Major music companies in New York and L.A. quickly became intrigued with Nashville's success and plotted how they too could get a piece of the action. National talk shows began routinely booking country acts, while book publishers discovered the untapped marketing potential of country music biographies. Finally, Music Row felt satisfied: Nashville was hip, and it was cool to be country.

At the time, however, it wasn't so cool to be a woman. In the late '80s, there were no female label heads, and male record executives were reluctant to add women to their rosters (which were typically 70-percent male). In 1985, only two women went gold, and in 1991, of the 22 debut acts that broke country's Top 20, only two were women: Trisha Yearwood and Pam Tillis.

Fortunately, the long-held conventional wisdom of Music Row began changing in the early '90s, as Tillis and Yearwood were joined by Reba McEntire, Wynonna, Tanya Tucker, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, and K.T. Oslin in the gold and platinum winners' circle. (And in the last couple years, of course, Shania Twain, Deana Carter, and the Dixie Chicks have been some of Music Row's biggest success stories.)

Country reached an all-time-high market share of nearly 19 percent in 1993, and it broke the $2 billion barrier in 1995. Polydor, Almo Sounds, Rising Tide, Decca, and Magnatone opened their doors, bringing the total number of Nashville labels to about 30. It was a new day in Nashville; videos and records grew more expensive, and the release of a record became an event thanks to newfangled marketing concepts.

As early as 1994, however, some observers were wondering when the boom would end. At the time, those naysayers who predicted an imminent reality check were drowned out by the people crowing about country's unlimited future. But in the end, they were right: Country sales peaked at $2.05 billion in 1995 and then began dropping--10 percent in 1996 and another 4 percent in 1997. Dubbing the decrease a "correction," industry leaders took the decline in stride, assuming that the drop was merely a temporary setback.

Execs started changing their tune by late last year, when profits on Music Row became as rare as new female signings who were old enough to drive. The sky might not have been falling, but it was certainly no longer the limit. Decca Records closed its doors, and Arista laid off eight workers. Sony/Tree slashed its writer roster by half, and the total number of live country engagements has decreased by 20 percent.

Last year's 14-percent increase in sales might have appeared encouraging, but it was actually quite misleading. The top five selling acts--Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, and Tim McGraw--were selling a disproportionately large part of the $2.01 billion in overall sales. Compared to their previous releases, many of the format's top stars were selling 20 to 40 percent fewer copies of their new records.

Perhaps most alarming was the Row's inability to break new acts in 1998. The Wilkinsons were the only new performer to have a Top 20 record last year, and they only sold about 130,000 copies by year's end, which wasn't even enough to make the project profitable. Compare that figure to 1995-96, when 11 new acts broke with sales that averaged 250,000 each. Last year, new acts reported total sales of 2.8 million, with 2.3 million of that total coming from the Dixie Chicks alone (who technically made their debut in '97 but could still be considered a new act). That means the remaining 10 acts sold an average of 30,000 units each.

But just when Music Row began wondering earlier this year if the good times were really over for good, something happened: the Class of '99. For the first time in several years, a buzz has been rushing through the industry about a group of debut acts. Andy Griggs just celebrated his first No. 1, and Brad Paisley should break the Top 20 in the next few weeks with his hit "Who Needs Pictures." Chad Brock also has a hit under his belt. Excitement surrounds country-rock duo Montgomery Gentry and the female trio SHeDAISY, which has sold 40,000 records since it hit the Top 20 with "Little Good-Byes." Great things are also being predicted for the Warren Brothers and 15-year-old Jessica Andrews.

In just a matter of months, desperation and panic have been tempered with a bit of hope and optimism. As the industry continues to shrink a little more with layoffs and closings, expect it also to begin taking a few musical risks. "It's not just signing new acts," says Mercury Nashville Records president Luke Lewis. "It's allowing the artists to bring their vision into this pile, because they are the ones most likely to break us out of the doldrums."

As country music celebrates the 10th anniversary of its boom, it's too soon to tell if 1999 will mark the beginning of another era or merely mimic last year's performance. Either way, it'll be quite a ride.

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