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Americana stands on the threshold

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2000

Page 2...

John Grady, Mercury Records senior vice president of sales, marketing and promotion, says Americana has "a place in the industry. I think it's proving that now. To be driving as it without a trade affiliation, without a chart per se, they're pressing forward."

Mercury apparently sees some future for Americana. Several artists - Kim Richey and Neal Coty - fall into the Americana category.

And perhaps in early January, Mercury could be the home of an Americana type subsidiary. It has been reported that a new label will start up with Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen aboard.

"I think there's room for Americana in the business models to be a piece of the overall plan, an important starter piece to be carved out of the budget...It's a piece of the pie," says Grady.

That comment speaks to one of the concerns of major labels - whether there is money to be made in the format. One complaint often heard about the Americana chart was that just because an album made the charts, or even was high on the chart, did not immediately result in big numbers sold.

Rounder's Paul says, "We really need for the format to get a broader acceptance for the airplay to impact record sales to the level that a lot of record labels need to see to support these acts with marketing and the developmental money that goes into building an act."

One problem has been the failure of the public to know about the format, according to those interviewed. Few major cities - Dallas is an exception - have an Americana station, for example.

Many stations are housed at colleges, which have Americana in the mix of music they play.

"You don't have coverage in mass markets, which is an essential thing," says Scott. "I would hazard a guess if people knew this format existed, it would have already sold more records and had more audiences, but...we wind up with a situation where no one will take a chance on it with the big (radio) companies. Most people are unaware that Jack Ingram exists."

Robison says in a reference to country radio, "I think everyone is a sophisticated listener, but I think they don't have any opportunity for their palettes to be challenged these days as much as they should."

So, what will break Americana? Some say a single event or artist could, while others say it's a music built for the long haul.

One possibility could be the Coen Brothers' movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" with its spare, bluegrass, country, acoustic soundtrack featuring the likes of Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.

While the music may give attention to the genre, just how much attention it receives also could depend upon the movie's success.

Another possibility is the break out of an artist via Americana. One artist mentioned is Robison whose second major label album is due in March or April 2001.

His debut, "Life of the Party," managed to sell more than 100,000 units - not big numbers for a major label, but quite strong for someone who had no hit singles at all.

Several pointed to the need for an increase in the number of Americana radio stations. That may not be an easy task given the consolidation of the radio station business where more and more stations are being owned by fewer companies.

Grimson says, "The growth potential is untapped...We just need to get that word out. It's going to be difficult to overcome their desire to find easy, safe formats. I think what they're going to find out is sometimes you have to take a few chances...just to hold people's interests any more. Radio used to be dominant. You didn't have 200 channels, Internet....They're in a struggle to justify their very existence at large."

In fact, the increasing competition could work towards Americana's favor, according to Grimson.

"We're not going to tell people stop being a number one country station, but there are plenty of cases where there are three or four country stations, and only one of them is in first place," he says.

Research studies coming out in early 2001 by the AMA could help convince radio companies to take a shot with Americana, according to Grimson.

A problem heretofore was convincing corporate shirts to switch gears.

"You've got fewer people making decisions because of the consolidation, and you've got radio stations costing millions of dollars," says Paul.

He says it's awfully hard for a radio station programmer to be told "Well, it's not really that tested, but trust me, I know it will work."

Television has helped spread the Americana gospel. Acts have appeared on such shows as Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, Austin City Limits and the Western Beat show airing on CMT. The Grand Ole Opry has hosted many more edgier acts like The Derailers and Jim Lauderdale.

Grimson throws cold water on the idea of Americana, in effect, being the next big thing where fans are flocking to see the music.

"It's never been easy, and it's never going to get easy for anybody involved," he says. "That goes all the way to the artist. If their goal is to become a big star on the big stage in arena shows, they're the wrong format. I think everybody behind the scenes on the business side has to understand we are in a niche business."

"A lot of times, that's what the major label guys think - all it will take is one song or one big hit," says Grimson, who once upon a time worked at Warner. "The problem is none of us actually involved in it are not waiting for a hit just to land on us. We're looking at it from a long-term view. Hey, if somebody has a hit and it can be attributed to Americana as to where it started, that, of course, is going to be great."

"This format isn't really about who has an instant hit and comes out of nowhere as much as it is about recording careers who stand the test of time."

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