Sales Up? Bluegrass labels say yes, but…

As we mentioned in our introductory piece on this topic last Wednesday, music sales figures for 2011 gave the record industry its first reason to smile in several years – even if only Mona Lisa-style. After many years of steady declines, total sales of recorded music were up last year, a trend that holds for bluegrass as well as total industry-wide performance.

But a couple of record companies that deal in bluegrass as one of many genres voiced a bit of caution in singing Happy Days Are Here Again. Ken Irwin with Rounder Records employed the now-familiar 1% versus 99% analogy in describing 2011 music sales, noting that it was primarily a few very successful projects (Adele, Katy Perry) which lifted overall numbers for the year. He saw a similar scenario at work in bluegrass, with notable releases last year from Alison Krauss & Union Station, Yo-Yo Ma & Friends, and Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers accounting for the lion’s share of sales, which overall were up strongly from 2010. Other prominent projects that did well came from Sarah Jarosz, Chris Thile & Michael Daves, Rhonda Vincent, Abigail Washburn and The Grascal’s country-flavored project for Cracker barrel.

And Ken noted that many fans might quibble with some of those artists being listed under bluegrass, but that is how they were reported to SoundScan, the Nielsen company’s measure of recorded music sales. The first “truly bluegrass” album on the top-selling records for last week from SoundScan was Sierra Hull’s Daybreak, at #13.

Irwin was delighted to have had the AKUS and Martin projects on Rounder, but mentioned that while the Krauss album had a strong open, sales were down for the first year as compared to her duet project with Robert Plant, and the previous AKUS album.

“Even high visibility artists were not immune to the changes in the marketplace. While the new AKUS project had their best opening week to date, the overall sales have not matched the numbers of previous albums, as has been the case with most artists across all genres. AKUS has a history of selling over a long period of time but in the time between releases, one of our best accounts, Borders went out of business and nobody has stepped up to take their place.

We’re hoping that with continued touring and media coverage that their sales will continue to grow and reach the levels of the band’s previous releases over time.”

Also hedging optimism was Cliff O’Sullivan, General Manager and Senior Vice President with Sugar Hill Records. He was quite pleased with the success of the Jarosz record, Follow Me Down, but was quick to point out the dark clouds on the horizon.

“There are a lot of retailers going out business, though some are doing quite well. The big issue is illegal downloads, and I don’t see a way to stop troubling trends in our industry until we get a handle on theft.

I am very bullish on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which would allow the US government to stop offshore pirate sites that facilitate file-sharing and downloading of copyrighted material.”

Irwin shared the concern over retail sales.

“The thousands of stores that have gone out of business over the past 10 years are not reappearing, and not likely to reappear. While digital sales are increasing, to date, they are not coming close to making up for the sales lost at traditional retail.

I just don’t think the bluegrass audience is a digital audience yet, and retail is primarily interested in established acts. Wal-Mart won’t take something unless they can sell 800-1000 units.”

One company that is doing well with digital sales is Crossroads Entertainment, which has a very strong presence in Gospel, and has a number of bluegrass artists on their Mountain Home label. Senior VP Scott Wagner said that they reached a milestone this year with downloads, countering the trends reported by Rounder and Sugar Hill..

“Digital sales are up 40% and physical sales are down 19%. We are up a net 4% over 2010, and digital sales were higher than physical for the first time.

Bluegrass is leading the digital charge for our company. Our Gospel side is doing fine, but just hasn’t made the digital transition as fast.”


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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.