Country Music’s Digital Divide

Assessing the CMA Consumer Research Study

Last week, the Country Music Association released the findings of their Consumer Research Study, estimated by CMT president Brian Phillips as “perhaps the most far-reaching and comprehensive study of country music consumer attitudes and behavior ever undertaken,” and sampling more than 7,000 consumers. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that among those fans devoted to the genre and labeled “Countryphiles,” only about half have home Internet access. This is compared to the 70 percent of country music consumers considered more general music fans that do have home Internet access.

The digital divide between Countryphiles and the trending of the rest of the industry makes sense, as this group is largely rural and older. Radio is still the dominant medium for discovery of new country music among these consumers, and they still purchase CDs over Mp3s. According to the survey, the group’s disinterest in the Internet was propelled by “three key reasons…: the cost, they had no interest/or need, and their inexperience or content concern.”

These findings, no doubt, provide some hope to major labels still trying the hold onto a CD-dominate model of revenues that is quickly become outdated. As the study notes: “Among Country consumers ages 18-54, 65 percent are ‘CD-dominant’ and 35 percent are ‘Digital-dominant’ based on total Country Music acquired. And once they become ‘Digital-dominant’ Country Music acquirers, they contribute very little CD revenue.” There is a recognition that the country haven of traditional sales will not last, as younger generations of fans more comfortable with online access and Mp3s become the dominant demographic. Yet country music generally follows cultural trends with a predictable lag, so for now, at least, the genre and its consumers may allow the music industry to try to better adjust to the digital era.

The major labels’ current woes are largely due to their own obliviousness and reluctance to recognize new technologies and take advantage of either their capabilities or the vacuum to create a new revenue model. Hesitant to recognize the digital future when it began emerging in the industry in the 1990s, especially with Napster, the majors fought back to protect their outrageous CD revenues rather than seek to find a way forward in the new medium.

Now the majors have largely been forced into the digital game, scrambling to find a reasonable revenue stream that will connect with consumers. So far, their success has been minimal (and largely propelled more by iTunes and Apple than anything that the labels themselves have done). With country music, however, the industry now has a chance to get it right, take advantage of a devoted consumer base that is still only now transitioning to online outlets, and provide the content and reasonable sales model that those fans will eventually expect.

The key may very well be radio, not in the traditional sense, but rather in its linchpin as the dominant medium of exposure to new artists. It seems that Countryphiles are not dynamic seekers of the latest new music from unknown artists that defines many indie-oriented fans online, but rather still give deference to radio programs. These fans do, however, express a frustration at the general redundancy of the playlists, suggesting that if other accessible and easy streaming opportunities were available, they might have a ready and welcoming audience.

Most online streaming sites, like Pandora, currently cater more to the indie crowd, those who are actively seeking new artists they might like. Their customizable playlists and suggestions based on user preferences might be exactly the kind of format the emerging digital Countryphile could embrace, though. Another major source to reach Countryphiles digitally may be through their televisions – while many households may not yet have Internet access, digital TV is a commonality through which consumers may be more willing and comfortable downloading or streaming music, provided it was presented in familiar way. While streaming music on television has proven particularly fruitful for the industry in any way, attaching a device that could essential create customizable and recommended playlists might bridge the gap.

Either way, the genre of popular country music will be an interesting test case for the major music industry in the coming years. Right now, the study seems more interested in retaining the traditional profit sources of CD sales and not losing those core consumers that provide the majority of the revenues. That consumer base will most certainly trend towards more digital portals over the next decade for listening to country music and finding new, popular artists, so the question becomes whether the major labels and big business end of the industry will learn from their past mistakes in dealing with digital, or once again drop the ball. The Countryphiles seem ready and willing to support their artists and the industry, but it’s up to the executives now to usher them into the digital age or risk losing them to other outlets.

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