2010 a year of change for country music, radio, and NMG

In 2010, Nashville saw a great many changes and one constant.

The constant was Taylor Swift, the Big Machine superstar who was the top-selling artist in any genre in 2009 and the only one to sell a million copies of her album in one week this year. The new album, “Speak Now,” is Swift’s most autobiographical to date. Taylor, now 20, wrote all the songs herself.

One of the many changes on Music Row this year was the sale of the Nashville Music Guide last winter from original co-founder Dan Wunsch to Randy Matthews, a highly successful Oklahoma entrepreneur with a passion for country music and for Nashville.

Brad Fischer, Dan’s original co-founder of NMG in 1995, passed in February at age 73.

Randy, his wife Kymberly and nephew Joe and office manager Glenda Montgomery, aggressively expanded and relaunched the NMG both in print and on the Web, and also grew its market and coverage areas to include the Texas dance halls for the first time in NMG history.

In the first two days of May, Nashville and Middle Tennessee were devastated by rain and floods whose effects were still being felt months later. The Opryland Hotel reopened around Thanksgiving after a Herculean effort, but the adjacent Opry Mills Mall remained closed except for one or two stores.

Meanwhile, 2010 was a strong year financially for country radio, as an advertising rebound improved the bottom line for many broadcasters.

But it was likewise a very successful time for Sirius XM, the satellite radio company whose 100-plus music stations feature no commercials at a time when many morning drive country stations often include 20 minutes per hour of ads and more and more listeners are turning to portable tech devices for their music. Sirius XM, which broadcasters have long claimed was doomed to failure since it charges its users about $15/month, instead surpassed 20 Million subscribers for the first time and saw its share price climb.

Country radio’s brutally slow playlists were demonstrated when a Lee Brice single lingered for over 52 weeks on the charts. Many in the press and in radio celebrated the achievement, but it was instead a harsh demonstration of how broken the current play and promotion models have become.

On the other hand, country radio had an excellent year at helping create new stars including Zac Brown, Easton Corbin, and Josh Thompson. Their music returned country radio to its blue-collar, working-class roots, and showed that listeners longed for male stars who went thru the same real-life struggles they were feeling in the Great Recession, and who weren’t just pretty boys off reality shows.

At the 2010 CMA Awards in November, the big winners were Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, and Blake Shelton, signaling a changing of the guard from the longtime winners including George Strait, Kenny Chesney, and even the 2009 CMA champion Taylor Swift.

From a financial standpoint, not only did the sale of physical country CDs continue to slip more than 10%, but the touring industry got pounded as well. Fans began staying away from concerts in droves over the summer, feeling that promoters had priced themselves out of the market in the Recession with ticket costs that kept skyrocketing despite the tough economic times.

This will also be remembered as the year that the most powerful Row label executive of them all, Sony Music’s Joe Galante, resigned after over 35 years with the company. This happened about two years after Tokyo-based Sony bought BMG, the German-based conglomerate whose Nashville operations had been run very successfully by Galante for years.

The new man in charge at Sony Music was a Nashville veteran from outside the company, EMI Music Publishing’s Gary Overton. The fact that Overton came from one of Sony’s biggest competitors showed that the company’s owners wanted new management strategies and ideas, and several longtime executives, notably Sony’s former head of radio promotion Tom Baldrica, departed the company.

This was also the year that the Walt Disney Company’s country label, Lyric Street Records, closed its doors after more than 12 years in business. LSR was the label home of one of the most successful country bands in history, Rascal Flatts, whose eye-popping CD sales and tour numbers the last decade were often the talk of the industry.

But try as they might, Lyric Street struggled to break any other artists. Eventually, the massive cost that brings so many record companies down – radio promotion – became too much for Disney to bear. Rascal moved on to Big Machine, the label home of Taylor Swift.

Another trend in 2010 was the Zac Brown Band’s success with another comparatively new label, Bigger Picture. The ZBB is an active business and financial partner with its label in touring, marketing, and promotion, heralding a biz model that many other artists and labels seek to emulate as 2011 dawns.

By Phil Sweetland