For a few years, it seemed that popular country music was totally unstoppable. By 2014, it was the most popular genre in the land, scooping up thousands of new fans by the day as it appealed to an entirely new, much younger audience than ever before. However you feel about the kind of music that brought country this success, it’s always felt like this bro-driven wave’s expiration date was looming.
And maybe last year was it. As Billboard explained in-depth last week, the genre experienced a very real decline in album sales, both physical and digital copies. “The dip in sales volume was significant for country,” wrote Billboard’s Tom Roland. “The genre moved 24.9 million albums during the 52 weeks ending December 31, 2015, which represented a 12 percent decline from 2014’s 33.3 million sales.” Individual song sales also dropped to 113.9 million downloads, down 16 percent from the year before.
At least some, maybe much, of country music’s decline can be attributed to the genre’s slow-as-ever adoption of online streaming services and digital music. In 2014, Taylor Swift led an “exodus” of country artists from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, including Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore. Some of those artists, like Aldean, have since returned to streaming services due to fan demand, but others, like the notoriously anti-corporate Garth Brooks, have vowed to stay away forever.
Logistical concerns aside, though, perhaps the consequences we predicted at the end of 2014 have begun to reveal themselves, and the slicked up, party boy country aesthetic has started to peter out. If you don’t count Spotify, it’s pretty clear that country’s slowdown is a direct result of the genre’s current status as the butt of the musical world’s jokes. More than that, it’s stopped attracting pop fans who have grown tired of the schtick that was once (apparently) charming.
It is true that Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt still reign — their albums sold more than any other country records last year. But Bryan’s 850,000 or so copies of Kill the Lights pale in comparison to the 1.76 million sold by Taylor Swift, last year’s top selling artist if you don’t count the anomalous success of Adele’s 25. In 2014, Bryan’s Crash My Party was the second-best selling album of the year overall, with 2.3 million copies sold by the end of the year. That’s a pretty steep decline, even for a guy who’s planning to play to tens of thousands of fans at stadiums across the country later this year, including AT&T Stadium in October.
The success of Chris Stapleton, who sold more than 650,000 copies of his solo debut Traveller, is even further proof. Stapleton was the top selling new country artist of the year, to pretty much everyone’s surprise. No one suspected that Stapleton would sweep the awards, top the chart for multiple weeks in a row and become country’s new critical darling, and that’s probably because he was playing to 40 people at City Tavern less than a year ago. It’s easy to come out of nowhere when no one is really looking for you, when they’re distracted by the sparkle of Florida-Georgia Line’s glistening abs.
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The same could be said for Aaron Watson, who flew to the top of the Billboard charts with The Underdog, his independently released 2015 album. Watson’s success wasn’t quite as meteoric as Stapleton’s but it made an important statement: There is a real subset of the country audience that is keenly interested in hearing something better than what they’ve been served for the past five or six years. It’s just that now, finally, praise the Lord, someone with the power to make a real difference is actually paying attention.
In reality, country becoming smaller and less popular is actually a good thing. It means less playing to the middle and more quality. When country music is a niche genre as opposed to this watered-down, mediocre ooze that’s slimed it’s way all over EDM and hip-hop and pop before making its way back to country, it’s just better.
For comparison, consider the folk trend that swept pop music a few years ago. When you couldn’t hear anything but Mumford & Sons and other bearded men with guitars on the radio, everyone wanted to add a little twang into their sound, what TIME called the “banjo-ification” of pop music. Once that trend passed, it was country that rose into folk’s place in pop, thanks in large part to Swift and crossover successes like Kacey Musgraves.
Now that folk is out of vogue, Americana has settled into a nice, quiet little genre that produces incredible music that could’ve once been at home in pop or indie or, hell, even country once upon a time. The best artists get the recognition at the Americana Music Awards, not the most popular. That kind of treatment would be excellent for country. There would still be mainstream pop acts, but it could be much like the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s again, the time when artists like Dwight Yoakam and Keith Whitley and Alison Krauss ruled the charts. But maybe that’s being overly optimistic.
Country music still has plenty of lessons to learn, but hitting Nashville in the pocketbook has traditionally been the only way to get execs to pay any attention. More than anything, it means that country fans put their money where it should have been in 2015: in the pockets of Aaron Watson and Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. You know, artists who actually deserve it.