A Challenge for Nashville: Survey Finds Country Fans Lagging in Internet Use

By Melinda Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 15, 2009

NASHVILLE -- As tens of thousands of country music fans made the annual pilgrimage here over the weekend for the summer rite known as the CMA Music Festival, recent news from the four-day event's organizer, the Country Music Association, has left some executives on Music Row quaking in their cowboy boots.

With the Internet becoming an increasingly dominant way for fans to discover and purchase music, a survey of 7,500 people by the country music industry's trade organization revealed a sobering fact: Only 50 percent of core country fans have Internet access at home. That statistic, released in March, is far below the national average. A 2008 survey by Nielsen Media Research found that 80 percent of all U.S. homes have a computer, and almost 92 percent of those homes have Internet access.

The 50 percent figure "was a bit of an eye-opener," admits Tammy Genovese, CMA's chief executive. "We know that most of our fans have access to a computer. We just didn't realize they didn't have it in their homes."

"It's dial-up, and it's just too expensive," says Chuck Taulbee, 39, from Stockton, Mo., who was in town for the festival, which concluded Sunday and featured performances by such superstar acts as Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift. Like many of the people polled in the CMA survey, Taulbee lives in an area without broadband, making accessing the Internet so tedious that he'd rather do without.

In addition to lack of broadband, those surveyed cited cost and concerns over content as reasons they stayed offline. Perhaps more disturbing to the country music industry is the news that 42 percent of those ardent fans who do not have home Internet access have no desire to remedy the situation.

Country music lovers with Internet connections may enjoy joining Trace Adkins's MySpace karaoke contest or reading about Swift's insomnia on her online journal, but for a beleaguered industry, the Web is more than fun and games. As album sales continue to free-fall, it's imperative that labels connect with every potential music buyer.

The lack of interest in the Internet "tells you that it's not as easy" to reach the hard-core fans as it might seem, says Sony BMG Nashville Chairman Joe Galante. "You'll have to work harder for it."

Galante, who helped devise the CMA's study, said focus groups conducted by Sony Nashville parent Sony Music had already shown him that country's digital penetration was less than that for rock or hip-hop, but "people didn't want to believe it."

It's the CMA's hope that in this bleak economy, the survey results will spur labels to work smarter. They will help the record companies to better identify fans and develop "a dual marketing plan that includes both a traditional approach as well as ideas geared at consumers who are more digitally dominant," says Dan Bowen, CMA's vice president of marketing and communications.

The CMA poll revealed that core country fans, dubbed "countryphiles," were slightly more likely to be female than male, between the ages of 25 and 39, married, white and from small towns. This group, according to the research, drives "nearly half of all country music revenue."

As traditional retailers continue to disappear and even Wal-Mart, by far the largest seller of country music, devotes less floor space to CDs, Capitol Records Nashville President and CEO Mike Dungan says that what worries him is, "if a sizable [portion] of our audience has no access online, then we're out of business."

Dungan thinks he has mitigated that risk somewhat by signing such artists as Lady Antebellum, Dierks Bentley and Eric Church, who appeal to a younger fan base raised on the Internet. Nielsen research shows that the older people are, the less likely they are to be online.

That fact is borne out in online sales as well. For example, 27.3 percent of the revenue from Lady Antebellum's self-titled debut album comes from digital sales, says Dungan, whereas only 10 percent of the revenue from Adkins's "X" comes from online sales. The three members of Lady Antebellum are in their mid-20s; Adkins is 47.

Although almost all country artists have their own Web sites plus MySpace and Facebook pages, label chiefs say that the amount of Internet activity beyond that is often determined by the artist's comfort level. For the 19-year-old Swift, whose audience has expanded far beyond country, and Lady Antebellum, blogging and tweeting aren't part of a job description, they're part of their lifestyle.

"With Trace, we have to ask him to do it, we have to ask Darius [Rucker] to do it and they kind of grumble," Dungan says. "But for Lady Antebellum or Eric Church or Luke Bryan, this is what their generation does."

Indeed, Lady Antebellum owes its very existence to the Internet. Singer Hillary Scott discovered future band mate Charles Kelley on MySpace: She learned of him while visiting the MySpace page for his brother, singer-songwriter Josh Kelley. Scott recognized Charles Kelley one night in Nashville, introduced herself and Lady Antebellum was born (Kelley's friend Dave Haywood rounds out the trio).

Lady Antebellum's main means of communicating with its fans is online, and no detail is too minute. For example, Scott recently stopped in Chattanooga to take a tour of the MoonPie bakery. As soon as she was done, she uploaded a picture of herself in a hairnet in the plant. "There's no second thought about it," she says. "We're trying to build a fan base. . . . The more ways you can find to relate to [your fans] and they to you, the more loyalty you can build."

Even if a sizable portion of their core followers isn't online, some veteran artists are embracing the Internet as a way to broaden their fan base. The Oak Ridge Boys, some of whose members have been with the country and gospel outfit since 1965, recently launched MySpace and Facebook pages to promote their cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" to a younger audience. They are also on Twitter.

Country superstar Reba McEntire, 54, regularly blogs on her Web site. "I have to go with the wave of the future, or I feel I will be left behind," McEntire said in an interview conducted via e-mail. She is also on Twitter, although McEntire admits she's amazed that "anyone is interested that I'm going to lunch or that I have family in for a visit."

Just as McEntire adapted, her non-Internet fans may risk being left behind if they don't move into cyberspace. She has migrated her bimonthly newsletter, which was previously mailed out to more than 50,000 fans, onto her Web site.

Neal McCoy has likewise found the Internet to be an invaluable tool for spreading the word about his career. While with Atlantic Records in the 1990s, McCoy scored eight Top 10 hits, but he's now without a label to push his music on the radio or promote his other efforts.

He tries to remember to plug his Web site from the stage, but admits he sometimes fails to do it. Unlike McEntire, McCoy still sends his quarterly fan club updates by snail mail. "It's too soon to try solely on the Internet," he says, "maybe because we're a little older act."

For the country music industry, the CMA survey results have only led to more questions. A second, more detailed poll is planned for this summer. Galante hopes the new survey will look beyond how to reach fans and concentrate on how to reach their wallets. "That's the overall goal as we go through and learn more and more about our consumer. How do we motivate them" to buy?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company