Bluegrass Sales Up?

Good news has been in short supply for the recorded music industry since the turn of the century. With retailers closing up shop and digital distribution (legal and illegal) eating into label revenues for more than a decade, crying the blues has been the standard industry refrain. But there has been much rejoicing this past week with media reports that gross sales for 2011 industry-wide were up slightly from 2010, ending a multi-year slide in year-over-year numbers.

Unsurprisingly, neither Associated Press, USA Today nor Billboard chose to reach out to bluegrass labels for comment. I guess that task falls to us.

We were curious to discover what some of the bluegrass and bluegrass-related record companies might say about their 2011 sales, and pleased to find representatives from a number of prominent labels who were willing to discuss this frankly with us. Not everyone wanted to share actual sales figures, but all were open and interested in contributing to the discussion about the future of recorded music in the bluegrass world.

Our music has, from its earliest days, been served by both larger record labels who market bluegrass among their many offerings, and smaller genre-specific companies that are one part profit-seeking, and another part mission-centered. Each has had different tools and strengths, with artists often starting out with a “bluegrass label,” and moving to a larger, more comprehensive company as their own visibility grows.

In fact, we’ve seen something similar happen with labels. Rounder and Sugar Hill were once small, independent companies that exclusively served a bluegrass, folk and roots music audience. Both have been quite successful in expanding into other markets, and have since been acquired by larger independent labels themselves. Others, like Rebel Records, have retained their independence, sticking to the old time and bluegrass with which they began. Also in this category are Rural Rhythm and Pinecastle which, like Rebel, are now in the hands of ownership that took over from the companies’ founders, while retaining their founding artistic vision.

Compass Records is deeply involved in bluegrass – owned and operated by a banjo player and her bass playing husband – but they are equally invested in other forms of roots music as well. The same is true of Crossroads/Mountain Home, who are aggressive in both bluegrass and Southern Gospel.

Then we have newer, smaller outfits like Mountain Fever, Mountain Roads, and Upper Management who release fewer projects or are just getting started.

In a series of interviews this week, we spoke with owners/managers of most of these labels to get their feedback about the 2011 industry-wide sales numbers, how that reported trend correlates to their own businesses, and how optimistic they are heading into 2012.

Their responses overall were encouraging; not one label showed a decline. Most saw 2011 about the same as 2010, and at least one reported tremendous growth. There were some interesting parallels and divergences in the responses, with the larger, more mature companies tending towards conservative or stand-pat predictions, and the newer, more aggressive ones lining up with the bulls.

These discussions also touched on the usefulness of Nielsen’s SoundScan in a niche market, and attempts to corral illegal downloads.

We will go over this information in detail this next few days in a series of related articles, which will include some of the insights shared by bluegrass record company executives about what is happening, and is likely to happen in years to come, as it relates to our music.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.