Country music’s marketing and sales universe is rapidly evolving. Fast-moving digital influences are sending shock waves across tried and true exposure methods—sometimes causing surprises, and sometimes confirming ultimate truths. Floating into focus this week is Little Big Town’s latest track, “Pontoon” which completes a stunning seven week climb to the No. 1 position on the country tracks chart adding almost 86k downloads this week and looking like it will pass Gold status (500k) next week.
One dependable marketing pillar that remains trustworthy is musical quality. When “Pontoon” was released last May, Robert K. Oermann wrote in MusicRow, “The crunchy groove and relaxed party atmosphere are right on the money for summertime. It goes without saying that the singing and harmonies are pluperfect bliss.” (Producer Jay Joyce and writers Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean were no doubt equally thrilled when they heard this track emerge from the studio.) Capitol Records wisely realized the record’s value and leveraged it into a high visibility moment on the June 6 CMT Awards TV show.
LBT’s core fans discovered the song in large enough numbers for it to debut on the May 27 country tracks list at No. 11 (32k downloads). June 3 the song ebbed slightly to No. 13 (26k). Then came the well-conceived CMT Awards performance and “Pontoon” sailed to No. 2 (June 10) with dramatic sales in excess of 81k. Four weeks later and the song has crested at No. 1.
But where is country radio? Isn’t it absolutely imperative to have a Top 5 song in order to open the sales faucet? Perhaps not, because “Pontoon” is still sitting at No. 20 on the Billboard country radio airplay chart (7/9/12). And while 20 is better than No. 40, it’s no secret that songs outside the Top 10 are largely invisible on the country airwaves. Astute observers just saw the same track sales-then-radio effect happen with Brantley Gilbert. Gilbert’s single “You Don’t Know Her…” is No. 1 this week at radio, but has fallen to No. 25 on the tracks sales list after successfully downloading almost 650k tracks RTD over 43 weeks.
The take away is that track sales are becoming a leading indicator and revenue generator out in front of radio airplay. To be fair, radio’s role remains significant. Don’t forget that 500k in track sales is only the TEA equivalent of about 50k album sales. And track sales are not total sales, they are merely sales from a particular consumer group that engages online.
A larger country consumer group is still more comfortable buying plastic discs. In fact, as of this week about 74% of all country music album sales are sold in physical format. This would explain why Capitol has yet to announce a release date for the LBT album. Presumably, they are waiting for the single to gain altitude on the radio charts. As the digital shift continues and streaming/access outlets become more popular, the rebalancing we are starting to see of marketing leverage will become more pronounced. For example, Pandora announced (7-10-12) that it now claims a nearly 6% share of total U.S. radio listening with 54.5 million active listeners at the end of June 2012, a massive increase from last year.
The writing is on the wall. The balance of power between the mighty MP3 (served streaming or downloaded) and terrestrial analog radio, is shifting…. rapidly.
Kenny Chesney stays atop the country album list adding an additional 43k units to his three-week total which is now almost 300k. Our grid snapshots tell the current tale as we anxiously await and watch to find out many Zac Brown Band fans scrambled to get the group’s just released debut.
PS: Be sure to follow @MusicRow and me @davidmross on Twitter for breaking news and more…
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