Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Forced Retirement

Jones gets dumped by label

By Beverly Keel

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  Last month, MCA Nashville dropped George Jones from its roster, once again reviving the question of Nashville's responsibility to the very artists who helped make this town famous. Jones, of course, has been making hit records since the 1950s. Even though his biggest releases are behind him, during the last seven years MCA had sold more than 2 million George Jones records. His last record, though, only sold about 100,000 units--not enough for the label to break even on its investment.

"It was, needless to say, a more expensive deal than a new artist would have been," says MCA Nashville president Tony Brown. "We had a lot of money invested. As far as I'm concerned, it was money well spent, because we got a good body of work from George Jones and we saw his record sales increase. We were good for him, and he was good for us. But we got down to crunch time with all of the labels in town, and I just had to make a decision based on a business plan."

MCA signed Jones in 1991, during a boom period for country music. At the time, MCA was the top label in town; its roster boasted George Strait, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, and many more top-selling acts, allowing Brown to indulge his creativity. But times have changed in the music industry, and Nashville executives now have to justify their decisions. The labels' parent companies want increases in annual sales, which is becoming more difficult as more labels crowd the playing field. Complicating matters is the fact that record sales are down across the board.

"When there wasn't as much competition, I could indulge myself a little more with a Joe Ely or George Jones," Brown says. "But as more labels came to town and the slots at radio and retail got smaller, [I had] to think creatively...but [in a way] that makes money for the company. You've just got to think more bottom-line when there's a crunch like this."

After MCA dropped Jones, the label was roundly drubbed by the media, which seized on the fact that one of country music's legends was being put out to pasture. In truth, though, the criticism was unfair: Labels can't be expected to subsidize the careers of country icons, no matter how much those singers might be beloved.

That's not to say, however, that the industry should stop offering Jones or any of his classic-country cohorts the chance to record new material. Rather, Nashville needs to learn how better to sell those who've paved the way for today's hot singers. But until major labels come up with a profitable formula, they'll continue to shy away from older singers, denying them a chance to get their music heard.

One reason why country's elders no longer have the same commercial viability lies in the fact that country radio is now a strictly Top 40 format. Rock 'n' roll radio has been fragmented into a number of different formats--classic, oldies, alternative, etc.--meaning that even older rock artists have several potential outlets for their new material. In the narrow confines of country radio, however, legends have no way to promote their new work. And if few people hear it, even fewer will buy it.

What's more, these older artists' new records aren't likely to sell as well as their most popular works. I'll bet that very few of the people griping about MCA--especially those in the media--actually purchased Jones' last album. After all, people looking to add a Jones CD to their collection are more likely to grab a greatest-hits package. "People say, 'Rockers keep having record deals. Ringo Starr and Joe Cocker put out new records, and they don't play them on the radio,' " Brown says. "The difference is, once you become a rock star, you are a star around the world. Cher sells millions of records overseas."

For instance, an older rock act might sell 100,000 units in the U.S., 200,000 in the U.K., another 200,000 in Australia, and so on, with total sales equaling 2 million. "Country has one marketplace--the U.S. and Canada, and Canada is only 10 percent of the U.S.," Brown says. "If you spend $150,000 cutting a record, give them a $100,000 advance, do a couple of videos for $80,000 apiece, it just doesn't add up."

That doesn't mean it can't be done. Mercury Nashville has made money on its last two Tom T. Hall albums, which sold between 5,000 to 10,000 copies each, while independent label Ark 21 is about to break even on its Waylon Jennings release after only six weeks. Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris have both released albums on independent labels as well, and Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and Connie Smith all have new records due out any day now--Nelson and Smith on major labels, no less.

By reducing the budget from $500,000 to $50,000, labels need to sell only 5,000 records to break even--"which they could do all day long," says Mercury Nashville president Luke Lewis. "I don't think it would make good financial sense, and it probably doesn't make good artistic sense if I had a typical artist contract with Tom T. Hall. So if I have a contractual arrangement and a spiritual arrangement where we've both agreed that financially it wouldn't work for me to do that, and he doesn't have that burning desire to make a record that gets on radio, then I'm able to say to him, 'Go make any kind of record you want inexpensively,' and I can make it work for me financially."

While these legendary acts may go without radio airplay, their new releases garner much more critical attention than those of many newer acts. For instance, it's been hard to miss the news of Dolly Parton's new album on Decca; major features have been in The Tennessean, USA Today and many other publications, helping first-week sales reach nearly 8,000 units. Meanwhile, her first single received little airplay because most reporting stations felt the four-minute song didn't work for them. But Parton, thanks to her business savvy, is still a bigger star today than any other female in country music.

Convinced that Parton is still relevant and contemporary, Decca is taking a second single to country radio in November, says Shelia Shipley Biddy, the label's senior vice president/general manager. "In my conversations with radio, I've found that radio doesn't have a problem playing Dolly Parton if she gives them the right song. Most people are saying she's the exception to the rule."

When country radio balked at playing Jennings' latest single, Ark 21 took it to AAA radio, says Anastasia Pruitt, who signed Jennings and executive-produced his project. "You just figure out other routes, other vehicles to let the word out that they have a new record. Obviously, the press is an important part of this."

Pruitt, who also released a record by Leon Russell, has been approached by several other legends. "I'm not going to sign an artist just because of their name," she says. "They have to continue to produce music that matters. Waylon is still breaking new ground."

While Pruitt and Lewis subscribe to the idea that smaller budgets can make for viable recording projects, Brown disagrees: "Someone can say, 'Don't spend all that money on that act.' What does that mean? Cut a record that sounds inferior? Don't hire good musicians or engineers?"

Slicing a recording budget by two-thirds, he says, will only mean less time in the studio, since that's where most of the money goes; in the end, the project will be rushed. "We could go to the musicians and say, 'We want you to work for half-price just because he's a legend and he doesn't sell as many records.' It ain't going to work. You treat the legend like he's a legend. He deserves to be treated first-class.

"The solution is, there isn't a solution," Brown says. "The only thing that can happen is I will continue to sign artists like George Jones. But I'll have to pick and choose my moments."

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