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How Nasvhille goes pop

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Down on Nashville’s Music Row, the Capitol Records building is festooned with a four-foot-high banner bearing the name of Garth Brooks. The display boasts of the sales racked up by Brooks’ eponymous debut disc and his follow-up, No Fences, on the country and pop album charts.

”Just because an artist wears a cowboy hat doesn’t mean he’s only going to be bought by hayseed people wearing bib overalls,” says Joe Mansfield, Capitol Records’ Nashville marketing and sales VP, explaining how Brooks swaggered up Billboard‘s pop album chart alongside the likes of New Kids on the Block and fellow country newcomer Clint Black (right). Although Top 40 radio won’t touch country acts, the Billboard chart is based on sales, not radio play. And the Nashville branches of major record labels have shown that with national media coverage and savvy marketing they can generate enough sales to launch country stars into the pop mainstream.

Clint Black, the wiry Houston cowboy with the black hat and wide smile, actually broke through on the pop chart about a year earlier, with an album called Killin’ Time. His earlier country success had made him a down-home media darling, and his record label, RCA, landed him a feature story in USA Today, segments on Entertainment Tonight and CNN’s Showbiz Today, appearances on the networks’ morning shows, a ride in the 1989 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and more. By October, as he was scooping up accolades on the televised country award shows, his record had scaled the pop album chart, topping 2 million in sales. ”That national media was key,” says Ron Howie, senior director of product development with RCA in Nashville.

Garth Brooks’ label, Capitol, chose to go after album sales mainly with an aggressive retail push built on marketing moves — little known to the average record buyer — that influence what customers see and hear in their local record shop. Capitol paid record chains to promote Brooks’ No Fences in their stores, for example, by prominently placing the album in display bins ”up front next to Madonna,” as Joe Mansfield says. This is a common practice in the record industry. ”We buy our way in,” Mansfield readily admits.

Such retail promotions may be commonplace for pop albums but not for country acts. Capitol’s push paid off: After No Fences was released last September, it, too, sold more than 2 million copies. Shortly afterward, Clint Black was able to score pop-chart success once again with his second album, Put Yourself in My Shoes. In the wake of the Country Music Association awards show, still more country acts have edged onto the pop chart, among them Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, the Kentucky Headhunters, George Strait, and Alan Jackson. All this sales success has come without Top 40 airplay. If pop radio ever gets over its fear of country, says one Nashville exec, ”the music industry here could explode.”

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