Trend-watchers' declaration that rock is being surpassed ignores tabulation evidence


November 10, 1991|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Country music, according to the trend-spotters, is about to explode.

There's evidence everywhere, they say, from the sales figures for Garth Brooks' chart-topping "Ropin' the Wind," to the recent poll in Entertainment Weekly that listed country as the nation's favorite radio format. Even the First Family seems to be getting into the act, as the Bushes' appearance last month at the Country Music Awards broadcast attests.

And what it all points to, say the trend experts, is a major shift in America's musical taste, as millions of baby boomers trade the ++ youthful frivolity of rap, rock and dance pop for the more adult pleasures of country music.

It's a great story. Too bad it's wrong.

As with last year's spate of stories proclaiming the Death of Rock, reports of country music's ascendance have been greatly exaggerated.

Although country sales are up from where they were two years ago (then a mere 6.8 percent of the music market dollar, according to the Recording Industry Association of America), current estimates put country sales only a couple points ahead of mid-'80s sales -- 10 percent in 1985, according to the RIAA.

(For purposes of comparison, rock held a 37.4 market share in 1990, with urban contemporary accounting for 18.3 percent and pop 13.6.)

And despite the fact that country music recently squeaked past Top 40 to become the No. 3 radio format (behind News/Talk and Adult Contemporary) in the latest national Arbitron ratings, that had as much to do with Top 40 listener loss (mainly to AC) than with any gains country made.

Consequently, the notion that country is becoming the baby boomers' music of choice overstates the evidence more than a little. In fact, the perception that country is edging out pop and rock has more to do with the mechanics of the Billboard charts and the shifting definition of "country" than with any real change in America's listening habits.

Let's start with the industry bible: the Billboard 200. It used to be that country artists rarely made it over to the top album -- or overall -- charts, but recent months have seen a spate of country albums crop up -- not only by Brooks, but also Reba McEntire, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood and Ricky Van Shelton, to name a few. Yet that doesn't reflect an increase in sales so much as an increase in the chart's overall accuracy.

How so? For years, Billboard relied on an old-fashioned form of retail reporting, one that involved calling selected record outlets, asking employees to rank the sales of current releases and compiling the results. In addition to the top albums chart, there were also specialty charts, covering country, R&B, classical and other genres, which had a separate reporting process. Unfortunately, says Timothy White, the magazine's editor-in-chief, that often led to country titles being underrepresented on the top albums chart.

"It wasn't a situation of corruption or skulduggery," he says. "It was just that you'd get some young store manager who's got a certain kind of ghettoization of what constitutes popular music in his mind. He'd be thinking, 'They don't want to hear about Willie Nelson -- they want to hear about the Stevie Nicks,' or whoever it might be. They'd edit their report, based on their sense of what they thought people wanted to hear."

A few months ago, however, the magazine moved into the computer age with SoundScan, a computerized point-of-purchase system that records album sales as they are rung up. Suddenly, sales for country artists were being reported accurately, and the albums seemed to shoot up the charts. But, as White puts it, the only real change was in the charts themselves, which became "a much more democratic landscape."

SoundScan isn't perfect, however, and despite the fact that it won't favor one style of music over another the way record store clerks might, it can indirectly work to the advantage of country artists.

Take, as an example, the fact that Brooks' "Ropin' the Wind" has held the album chart's top spot over No. 2 Guns N' Roses' "Use Your Illusion II" for almost a month now. Does that mean Brooks is outselling the Gunners? Maybe, and maybe not.

Because Guns N' Roses' new albums contain profanity, they are not stocked by "rack job" outlets like Wal-Mart and K mart. As Robert Smith, the head of marketing at Geffen Records (Guns N' Roses' label) points out, that doesn't necessarily cost the band sales; "If you go into a K mart or a Wal-Mart and can't find the Guns 'N Roses record," he says, "you're likely to get up and go somewhere else to look for those same records."

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