So whatever happened to country music?
And what is happening to the Nashville-based industry that produces it? Things aren’t so good, to put it mildly. Up and down Music Row, the international entertainment conglomerates that now control the city’s record labels are spitting out songs (or “product”) that critics pan as meaningless blather. And it ain’t just the critics. Industry insiders themselves bash the stuff they’re producing as lacking in individuality and driven by a desire to appeal to all people rather than to the art form’s root audience.
Therein, many say, lies the problem: By trying to expand “market share,” the art form has lost its core identity and sound. None of this is new, exactly. Country music has faced big turning points before. But honestly, things are really pretty bad. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, country music now faces a challenge for which it’s hard to find a solution.
There’s a reason why the music was called country. From its earliest days, it was a popular art form rooted in rural life, its joys, frustrations, and hardships. It was authored by “country” people, many of them poor and struggling. The music was fashioned from folk instruments and melodies, and the lyrics were as raw and unvarnished as the sound.
The fact is, however, that there is very little “country” left. And there are many fewer “country people” around to celebrate it. Today’s country listener has found affluence on his doorstep in the form of a high-paying factory job, or through increased education, or because his farmland is suddenly worth much more money because the suburbs have encroached upon it.
These tidal sociological developments have been building for some time, but they have finally swamped the country music art form. Yesterday’s country fan is today either living in a city or has all the benefits of urban life conferred upon him. Economics have met culture, and that has spelled calamity for country music.
Even in its earliest days, when people listened to Carter Family 78s on the Victrola, the music grappled with questions of authenticity. It has been reasonably argued that once a song is marketed by a record company, it has already lost any whiff of folk purity. But there’s little question that in recent times, country music’s identity crisis has become more and more acute, whether in response to Chet Atkins’ and Owen Bradley’s lush crossover productions of the 1960s or in response to the Urban Cowboy phase of the ’80s.
The most instrumental lesson of recent times may have been the television show Hee Haw, which once offered a corn field as a stage for life’s little jokes. In the early ’90s, however, the experience of farming and rural life was growing so alien to most people that the show tried a new, suburban Hee Haw, with settings grounded in suburban culture. Immediately, the show fell on its face. Similarly, one can argue, the music itself is now falling on its face.
Add to this some ominous economic factors, and the picture looks pretty bleak. The labels that produce the music depend on commercial radio to get the music to listeners. The radio stations are now owned by massive media conglomerates, because restrictions on cross-ownership of those stations have been lifted. The labels themselves are also now owned by huge entertainment behemoths. Both enterprises aim for the largest common denominator in listenershipand when you aim for a mass demographic, you avoid, at all costs, such things as innovation, uniqueness, and experimentation.
As a result, the blather that country music listeners hear on their radios increasingly sounds like elevator music with a few measures of pedal steel thrown in (and that’s if they’re lucky). The artistry has basically been hog-tied by marketingmore hog-tied than ever before. In the end, these two large, inexorable changesour transformation from a poor, rural South into a richer, suburban one, and the consolidation of the entertainment businesshave not spelled good news for country music. As both Arista and Atlantic discovered when they shut the doors to their Nashville offices, the industry would be wise to act before it’s too late.
Next week, we’ll offer some suggestions for the industry.
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