July 21, 2004
Last summer, country music’s hottest act, the Dixie Chicks, was in a meltdown. Country CD sales were sliding and record executives were praying for a spate of holiday releases to perk up the industry.
This year the mood is sunnier on Nashville’s Music Row, with country sales up 11.2 percent and a strong lineup of late-year releases on deck.
‘‘There’s a sense of optimism,’’ says Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. ‘‘The pickup in sales is not attributable to a couple of big superstars. The sales are spre ad out among a lot of different artists. The really good news is that new artists are contributing in a big way.’’
Six new artists were in the top 25 of Billboard magazine’s July 10 album chart: Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, Josh Gracin, Julie Roberts, Dierks Bentley and Josh Turner.
Wilson has become a phenomenon, topping the country charts for several weeks and hanging near the top of Billboard’s overall album sales chart. Her debut album ‘‘Here For the Party’’ is approaching double platinum.
‘‘That was a big surprise, and it represents a couple of million units that nobody thought was going to be there,’’ says John Grady, president of Sony Music Nashville, Wilson’s record label.
Country sales reached 31.3 million units through the first six months of this year, compared with 28.1 million units for the same period in 2003.
It’s a sharp turnaround from last summer, when the Dixie Chicks were seeing a backlash from fans after singer Natalie Maines made a disparaging remark about President Bush at a London concert shortly before the Iraq war.
Also blamed for the poor country music sales were an ailing economy, a dearth of releases by blockbuster artists, growing competition from DVDs and video games and illegal downloading from the Internet.
When the final numbers were tallied for 2003, country sales were off nearly 10 percent.
One reason for country’s improvement, says Joe Galante, chairman of RCA Label Group/Nashville, is the state of pop music.
‘‘There really isn’t any popular music out there for adults,’’ Galante says. ‘‘If you look at the top 10 records, nine of them in terms of singles are hip-hop. No disrespect to the format, but what do you do if you are a 40-year-old woman or a 35-year-old woman?’’