NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Music: Out Of The Closet?

Country music industry's new slogan not country enough.

Nashville Skyline is a column by country editor Chet Flippo.

Country music is now a slogan.

The Country Music Association, the industry's lobbying and marketing arm, took note of the fact that country sales are down, studied ways to address the problem and commissioned a newspeak consulting firm/ad agency to fix things.

Lots of money and many focus groups later, here is the core of a new CMA slogan and marketing campaign: "Country music. Admit it. You love it."

A lot of people don't love that slogan and I'm one of them. The slogan begins from a prostrate position, as though listening to country music were some kind of shameful addiction. I have never liked the fact that the country music structure has for years bowed and scraped and humiliatingly tugged its forelock to the rest of the music industry and to the world at large. This music, when free to operate at its best, owes no apologies to anybody and, in fact, deserves thanks from the other wings of music it has invigorated over the years. This music — when allowed to be country — needs bow to no one.

The slogan is already inviting ridicule for the genre, both in print and on the Internet. My own co-workers pester me with alternate slogans: "Country: no scary black people." Or "Country: Faith Hill's a real babe." Or "Country: George Jones don't need no stinkin' slogans." They also point out that other music genres feel no need for slogans (although "Not guilty" might be an effective hip-hop come-on).

This $2 million-plus reeducation and marketing campaign coincides with the ongoing disemboweling of the major Nashville record labels by their international parent companies in the name of cost cutting. Those parent companies' insistence on immediate profits are resulting in Nashville record labels focusing on pop-music crossovers, thus diluting some of the music down to the Backstreet Boys' or Britney Spears' level of pop superficiality. Thus country's commercial success is tied to an industry-wide convergence, which means fewer new country voices will be heard.

The major issue is both complex and simple. Country music's commercial success is tied to exposure by airplay on major "reporting" country radio stations, leading to album and singles sales. As stations flip formats, about 2,200 country radio stations broadcast in the United States on any given day. Fewer than 200 of them "report" their major airplay to the trade publications every week, and those major stations focus on a core of 30 or so hit singles. Many of those stations are owned by radio conglomerates and programmed by radio consultants. Many consultants, program directors, air personalities and disc jockeys are plied with vacation junkets and other perquisites. The hits they play determine what's successful in country.

The country radio and country music industries, however, are not in the same business. Country music exists to sell country music. Country radio exists to sell commercials — by whatever means necessary. The overwhelming mandate of country radio is not to draw new listeners in but rather to discourage punching out, i.e., leaving the station. It's all about selling commercials by keeping listeners tuned in.

That's radio reality. But here's another reality: A lot of people want country music, real country music, and will track it down wherever they can — on Internet radio, Napster or any format available.

Perhaps what country music really needs is a 12-step program for closet country music addicts. "Hello. My name is Chet and I love country music. Can you help me?"

Another recent country music slogan comes from pioneer country station WSM-AM in Nashville, which now proclaims itself as "Too country — and proud of it." WSM plays an aggressive mix of traditional, progressive and new country. It's a proud and defiant message to all the industry naysayers who have dismissed traditional country, alt-country and bluegrass as being "too country." WSM is a conservative institution that suddenly seems radical. What are we seeing here, power to the people?

Country music: let it be country.