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According to Doyle Davis, general manager of Grimey's New & Preloved Music in Nashville, it's long been a dirty secret in his town that the only people buying new country music releases are either tourists or suckers.
"We're an industry town," Davis says, "for the country music industry." And there are enough promotional copies of a new album by a would-be star floating around, he continues, that stores like his can sell used copies the week the album comes out.
As Craig Havighurst reported for NPR last year, the last decade was a tough one for Nashville. Sales slipped from the highs of the '90s — an era dominated by stars like Garth Brooks. And country's establishment scanned the horizon for new crossover artists with only sporadic success — Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood took turns carrying the torch.
But now things are looking up. Over a five-week stint since Zac Brown Band's You Get What You Give was released Sept. 21, four country records have topped the Billboard 200 album chart: You Get What You Give, Chesney's Hemingway's Whiskey, Toby Keith's Bullets In The Gun and Sugarland's The Incredible Machine. Lil Wayne's I Am Not A Human Being, the only non-country album to top the chart since the end of September, just barely beat out former Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker's country record Charleston, SC 1966.
So we know that somewhere out there, people are paying for country records. Turns out they're even doing so in Nashville. Davis says that at Grimey's, a decade-old indie-focused store just around the corner from Music Row near downtown Nashville, he's seen an uptick in customer interest for mainstream country releases.
"I sold a grand total of one of that last Taylor Swift CD," Davis says, speaking of Fearless, the best-selling album of 2009. He says that in its first day on sale last week, Grimey's customers picked up four copies of Speak Now.
The move to mainstream is a relatively new development for Grimey's customers, who have slanted toward rock and traditional country rather than Nashville's commercial products.
"When Merle Haggard comes out with a new record, I'm going to do way better with that than with one of those mainstream records," Davis says. Americana and bluegrass sell well, too: "Gillian Welch is as big as Arcade Fire to me," he adds.
Not that he hasn't tried selling mainstream country records. Davis says he's stocked most of mainstream country's newest stars at one point or another, but demand hasn't matched even his token supply. Of the country hit-makers to score big this fall, only Zac Brown Band has done brisk business among Grimey's customers — which Davis attributes to the band's crossover with the rock and jam-band markets. Of the others, Davis says he generally doesn't stock commercial country releases "until someone comes in and asks for something like that . . . We don't stock Kenny Chesney. But that's just due to sales history."
Davis says that, for the most part, mainstream country fans can still find current albums by Nashville stars at the local outlets of big-box stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy.
But Havighurst's report last December pointed out that these stores — the outlets Nashville has long relied upon for CD sales — have reduced shelf space overall as fans started buying online. If they paid at all.
Still, those stores are crucial to the health of the industry, according to sources at major Nashville labels.
"While many physical retailers have been making modifications to their music space," says Ken Robold, Executive Vice President/General Manager of Universal Music Group Nashville, "accounts such as Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart remain vitally important not only to the country music genre, but the entire music business."
Bill Kennedy is Vice President of Marketing and Sales for Show Dog, the Universal Music-affiliated label that released Toby Keith's Bullets In The Gun. Kennedy wrote in an e-mail that country's high proportion of physical sales over digital sales helps the Nashville labels maintain shelf space and visibility at the big-box stores.
But brick and mortar is becoming more selective about what albums it chooses to carry, Kennedy says: "Labels can't keep pushing the retailers for more shelf space like in years past hoping something takes off and starts selling." Stores like these, he explains, want to see immediate sales, "otherwise they won't keep the product on hand too long."
Reached for comment, Wal-Mart representatives declined to talk about why they stock specific records or how those records are classified, but Jeffrey Maas, the chain's "senior category director for the home entertainment department," offered a statement via email.
"To determine the music that we carry in our stores, we work closely with all of our partners, labels and distributors," Maas writes. "We rely on the labels and distribution companies who work closely with the artists to decide what music qualifies as country."
One reason Taylor Swift is so valuable to the industry: she's a magnet for a younger audience whose buying habits aren't reliant on physical distribution, and she's popular enough that the industry can hope to convert at least a few of those youngsters to CD buyers. Swift's new album can be had as a digital download at Amazon for $3.99, and Target stores are selling an exclusive CD with bonus tracks.
The singer also displays a talent for songwriting — as well as business — that appeals to the crowd at Grimey's. Swift reportedly demanded that Speak Now be issued on vinyl as well as CD, a move that caught Davis's attention for the simple reason that endorsing vinyl is a move that could drive Swift's younger fans into stores like his, while possibly boosting her credibility with more skeptical listeners.
Anything that gets people into the store is a good thing, since Grimey's has to do what it can to compete with the convenience, not to mention the low prices, of buying online. Davis says his store manages that trick, for the most part, by dispensing with the stereotypical record-store clerk superiority pose in favor of Southern charm. "We're really nice people," he insists. "You'll never get that High Fidelity Jack Black attitude."
Grimey's also appeals to collectors — customers who bought the deluxe version of the latest Kings of Leon album received a free seven-inch record. The store also features live music. On Record Store Day last year, the Grimey's parking lot became a concert venue, featuring sets by The Avett Brothers, Charlie Louvin and Del McCoury, among about a dozen others.
"You can buy this stuff anywhere. I gotta give people a reason to come to the store," Davis says. "We're selling physical formats in a brick and mortar store, and I want to show people that it can be done and it's fun."