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Executives anticipate a leaner, meaner music machine

By Michael McCall

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  The recent belt-tightening in the music business will ultimately affect everyone on Music Row, but among musicians, mid-level recording artists will feel it the most. Indeed, sources in the industry say downsizing will lead to fewer major-label performers overall. In country music, those especially likely to feel the pinch are veteran artists whose sales aren't what they once were and newer artists who have yet to achieve massive sales after an album or two.

"Every time this format contracts, the mid-level artists are the first to feel the pressure," says Allen Butler, president of Sony Music Nashville. "Part of that is natural evolution. But when things get tough, the whole process gets pushed along a little faster. It's natural that when cuts are made, those who aren't performing as well will be the first affected."

In interviews and conversations, nearly every Music Row executive foresaw a similar scenario unfolding in the near future. Most agreed on the following points:

Smaller artist rosters
Even though several label imprints have folded in the last few years, the remaining companies will probably carry fewer artists than in recent times. "That had to happen," says one radio executive who asked not to be named. "We are getting far too much music, and it's resulted in too many forgettable songs being pushed our way. The funnel needs to be smaller, and it needs to concentrate on better material and more interesting performances."

Heavier promotion of big sellers
If anyone benefits from the recent consolidations, it will be the biggest stars: Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, and others of their stature will gain an even larger percentage of money, attention, and promotional push as labels concentrate their efforts behind the big guns. Execs will want to make sure that those few selling in huge numbers don't slip and bruise the bottom lines.

Fewer, and different, new artist signings
Everyone agrees that in the last few years, far too few new acts have gained a commercial foothold. Many blame these failures on labels playing it safe, and executives repeatedly suggest there's a need to start taking chances on artists who might shake new life into the country format. Some observers think labels will start taking cues from the left-field success stories of Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. That's fine, so long as A&R departments look for individuals with substance: It's not enough to throw money at acts just because they're young and energetic. Whichever way the new signings go, expect the next class of freshman country artists to be youthful, flashy, and brash.

Less room for failure
A contradiction of sorts arises between the need for freshness and the knowledge that a failed gamble can kill a career. It doesn't matter if the artist has a long track record or is just starting out: A couple of badly received singles pretty much amounts to a death sentence these days. Forget artist development: If acts don't make an immediate splash, they can expect to sink rapidly.

Growth of independent labels
Since the major companies are going to concentrate on platinum-sellers, or those who have a chance of climbing quickly up the slippery slope of stardom, the time should be ripe for smaller, upstart labels to establish a stronger presence. Not only will more artists be looking for a home, fans under-nourished by commercial country releases will be looking for new music. This shouldn't be such a surprise, since independent labels already have a solid foothold in the country music business: Stars like Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs, and Emmylou Harris are selling respectably on small imprints, while labels like Sugar Hill and Rounder have grown steadily over the years with their folk, bluegrass, and non-commercial country offerings. True, the largely independent-driven Americana movement failed to revolutionize country music, but it has helped to deepen the niche for those artists who don't fit the Music Row mold.

In the end, everyone on Music Row knew change was imminent--and necessary. Even though the consolidations, mergers, and label closings have more to do with international business forces than with anything happening in country music, Nashville needed to be shaken from its complacency. More than ever, it's impossible to say what will work and what won't. That may end up being good for the music: When the formulas no longer work, both veterans and newcomers have to focus on producing better, more distinctive work.

As one executive puts it, it's time for Nashville to start sticking its neck out again. Sometimes that results in getting your head cut off and having it returned on a platter. But sometimes it results in Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, or the Dixie Chicks. The only way to see the future is to stretch out and rise above business as usual. Those who gamble and win are the ones who'll stay in the game.

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