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COUNTRY: THE MUSIC OF CHOICE? Trend-watchers' declaration that rock is being surpassed ignores tabulation evidence

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.

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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.

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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."

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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."

But if the store you go to isn't on the SoundScan system -- and most mom and pop record stores in Wal-Mart country aren't -- that GNR sale won't be reflected in the charts. "It is skewing it," Smith says. And though he won't go so far as to say that being locked out of Wal-Mart and K mart has kept the Gunners from topping the charts, he does point out that Musicland and its affiliates -- the largest chain in the country -- report "Use Your Illusion II" outselling "Ropin' the Wind."

Even if you grant Brooks his chart-topping status, though, it's worth wondering just how much his sales mean to the country music market as a whole. As White puts it, Brooks' being a country artist may not even be a factor for album buyers.

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"I don't think people even have it in their heads that Garth Brooks is country," he says. "I think they buy 'em the way they buy a Sting album -- they like him for all sorts of reasons."

Walt Wilson, senior vice president for marketing and sales at MCA Nashville, agrees. "There's a very fine line between the new Garth Brooks and the new Bob Seger," he says. But then, he adds, the difference between the sound of pop country artists and traditional rock acts has been diminishing for years.

"In the '70s, Trisha Yearwood probably would have been very much a peer of Linda Ronstadt," Wilson says. "I also think that if Grateful Dead was a new band today, they'd probably be signed out of Nashville. And Jimmy Buffett would have probably been a Nashville artist, too."

In fact, much of what is currently being sold as "country" -- from Brooks to McEntire to Dwight Yoakam to Mary Chapin Carpenter -- would probably have been called "country rock" 20 years ago. Consequently, much of the apparent audience crossover from rock to country has less to do with changing tastes than with changing labels.

"Country is not just one sound," says Wilson. "It's a combination of a lot of different things. People use that one word to describe it, but there's probably 15 to 20 variations of it.

"So I like to use the term 'Nashville music' more than 'country music.' Nashville music may be a little bit more appropriate, because we've got a lot of great things happening here: Steve Winwood lives here, John Hiatt lives here, Janis Ian lives here. Bob Seger recorded his album here. The new Bonnie Raitt song, which is probably one of the better songs she's ever cut, is a Nashville song.

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"You've got a lot of influences here in Nashville that are changing," he says.

And though that kind of change may not be the stuff of magazine trend stories, it comes a whole lot closer to the truth.


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