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O Brother! may be numero uno, but don't tell that to country radio

By Brian Baker, March 2001

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Two recent major annual country radio gatherings, the Gavin conference and Country Radio Seminar, both went by without a single official discussion on the success of "O Brother."

Jon Grimson, president of Counterpoint, an independent record promotion service and a board member of the Americana Music Association, was also instrumental in marketing "O Brother" beyond the traditional Americana audience."This was a special project by any definition," says Grimson of the "O Brother" phenomenon.

"The soundtrack actually came out in December, before the movie opened. Plus with the holidays coming up, they wanted to get it in the stores. I was in the position of promoting a project that the movie hadn't opened on and really try to prepare radio for what was going to happen. We were all pretty confident that this was going to be big. I don't think anyone thought it would be a gold record as fast as it did, and given another couple of months, I think it will go platinum, which is very unusual. Mainstream country radio was not really considered part of the promotion plan anyway. Mainstream country radio wants to be a pop music format, and this is ironically too country for country. Americana and bluegrass and non-reporting country radio have been hammering on this since November. Believe it or not, they can help sell albums. Very few people want to give any credit at all to them. There is airplay. It's just not 200 major market country stations."

One factor that is easily neglected in this whole issue is the music itself, as the artists involved in the movie's music have a definable appeal that attracts CD buyers.

Certainly one of the points of interest on the soundtrack are the presences of Harris, Welch and Krauss, who portray the country version of the Sirens. Each is highly sought after by their fan bases, and the fact that they have contributed something to "O Brother" that is unavailable anywhere else has likely driven a certain percentage of sales.

The music of plays an integral role in advancing the plot, and the Coens and soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett worked together to weave the two concepts into a single tapestry. Burnett's considerable musical skills and intuition were brought to bear on the soundtrack which was always intended to be much more than a score which merely sets the tone and mood of particular scenes and the movie as a whole.

The soundtrack works seamlessly in tandem with the film's visual imagery to tell a familiar story in a completely unique fashion. Still in all, it's hard to imagine that a movie that has only filled approximately 3 million seats could inspire 15 percent of those ticket buyers to purchase the soundtrack.

Perhaps the most telling fact in this whole scenario is that Mercury Nashville and Rounder began the "O Brother" promotion last fall, well ahead of the soundtrack's release, and, as Counterpoint's Grimson noted, almost two months before the film opened in broad, but sporadic release. The most intelligent and visionary aspect of the marketing of the "O Brother" soundtrack may ultimately be that it was treated like an album rather than the companion piece to a film.

Whatever is spurring the sales of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," it continues to generate impressive units, even fending off the Grammy rejuvenated Faith Hill, whose "Breathe" made it to number five. Billboard's Fred Bronson recently reported that "O Brother" is now one of only six soundtracks to hit the top of the country chart.

With its success almost untrackable, its appeal amazingly widespread and its exposure relatively limited, the success is a plot twist worthy of the darkly twisted Coen brothers. They couldn't have written it any better themselves.

As for the attitude of country radio in turning a deaf ear to "O Brother's" message and potential, Brad Paul from Rounder sends up a flag that all of radio should heed.

"There are some big signposts out there and it's remarkable to me that people aren't paying attention to them," says Paul. "The first was the Buena Vista Social Club. The second was Ken Burns' Jazz special, and the new one is 'O Brother.' Every one of those projects screams out that there is an audience for real music, if the audience just has an opportunity to hear it."

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