The country-music scene has long been on the rise, but media outlets dedicated to the genre have seen tough times. David Ward looks at the alternatives for promoting country music and its artists.
Having long shaken the perception that it's only a regional phenomenon, country music is a cultural force across the country, second only to R&B and hip-hop in terms of current overall popularity.
But while the music itself remains strong, the dedicated media covering country artists hasn't fared nearly as well. The recent demise of the American Media-owned Country Music magazine has left fans with only two viable print options: Country Weekly, also owned by American Media, now a biweekly, and the bimonthly Country Music Today. Even newspapers in cities such as Nashville, TN and Dallas no longer have dedicated reporters or reviewers covering the category, though to be fair, country acts do get their share of coverage from the traditional music critics in those markets.
But the bottom line, says Allen Brown, senor director of media for the RCA label group in Nashville, is the volume of stories dedicated to the country scene. "There is less country editorial now, and the mainstream is not picking up for what was in publications like Country Music," he says.
Ronna Rubin, founder of Nashville-based Rubin Media, adds, "I feel bad for the avid country-music fan because they're really now having to take it upon themselves to find the information. Fortunately, most of today's artists have very well-run websites, but that's like a survival tactic at this point."
Tough to attract mainstream outlets
Rubin says it is possible to attract the mainstream consumer media to country music, although she notes that interest often begins and ends with platinum-selling crossover acts. "The mainstream music writers will write about the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw, but that doesn't really whet their appetite to go and look for what else is out there," she says.
Of course, the Dixie Chicks found themselves the subject of a national debate - as well as a few boycotts by consumers and radio stations - earlier this year when their lead singer publicly criticized President Bush during a concert in London.
That kind of negative publicity notwithstanding, Jennifer Bohler, former publicist for Reba McEntire and current president of publicity firm Alliance, adds that occasionally even top-selling country acts can have trouble getting mainstream coverage in lifestyle outlets such as Us Weekly and People unless there's more to talk about than an upcoming album or tour. "Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood are open to discussion but usually you have to have a fabulous hook," she says.
Bohler did have success raising McEntire's profile in women's lifestyle publications such as Ladies' Home Journal and Redbook, but says it required a lot of persistence. "It's a lot of relationship building," Bohler says. "With Reba, it was a gradual buildup, and a lot of that was helping the editors and music writers understand her appeal, her album sales, and the number of people who attended her concerts. You have to deliver a lot of information."
Strength on radio and TV
It can be argued this decline in print coverage shouldn't really impact country-music album sales much since its strength has always been in radio and television. But even those platforms have undergone some changes. The rise of radio conglomerates such as Clear Channel have made it a lot harder to do station-by-station pitches on behalf of an up-and-coming singer, since decisions on who to play and who to interview are often not made by an individual station's programming director.
And with the exception of the Country Music Awards show and the occasional appearance on The Tonight Show or The Late Show, television coverage of country music has primarily been a niche cable phenomenon. Even though the industry lost the The Nashville Network (now Spike TV), country music still has a presence with both CMT and Great American Country networks.
"Great American Country just premiered Country Music Across America, which is kind of has an Access Hollywood/Entertainment Tonight-style formula with features on favorite artists, new artists, and album releases," says Bohler. "CMT also has daily News Drops, which are short information segments."