Observers and advertisers have generally viewed country consumers as behind the curve in their consumption of digital media.
But after a landmark 2011, it may be time to retire that perception. As of early November, sales of digital country albums were up 29.7% from a year earlier-a key reason that total country sales were up 4.2%, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sales of the 10 top-selling country digital songs of the year were a whopping 32% ahead of the 2010 pace.
Just as important, a handful of individual events became seminal moments in country's digital advance. Jason Aldean topped Billboard's Ringtones chart with his single "Dirt Road Anthem," Dierks Bentley attracted more than 30,000 fans online to watch him work on a new studio album (even though the sound was turned off), and, most impressively, Miranda Lambert's new trio, Pistol Annies, debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums with Hell on Heels, which was only available as either a digital download or CD from the band's website.
"It was this little couch-dream slumber party," Pistol Annies' Angaleena Presley says, contrasting the informal late-night conversation that led to the group's formation with the tech-savvy marketing campaign that ensued. "We put this record out-we had no idea how much it was going to blow up."
The album's digital success drove the band's story, and in short order, fans who insisted on hard copies spurred Columbia Nashville to ship CDs to retail outlets. Downloads, however, make up 61% of the album's sales.
The increase in country's digital sales during 2011 reflects several factors, including an apparent rise in young buyers and the increasing acceptance of downloads as a viable format. Behind such acts as Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum, many of the genre's leaders are leaning more heavily on pop influences and attracting young audiences. As a result, younger music buyers, who have less attachment to traditional distribution formats, are having a greater impact on the way country is sold. "A lot of people that were buying digitally in other formats are now in country, and that's the way they purchase their stuff," Bentley says.
The Eli Young Band is a good example. The group began as a regional Texas act, building its audience through club and college concerts. One-third of the band's album sales since 2005 have been downloads, according to SoundScan. "We started in the digital world," bassist Jon Jones says. "We started in the college market, and we were just a touring band before radio and before any kind of distribution. So we're a little bit ahead of the curve on that."
The makeup of the band's album sales equals the 2011 performance of the music industry overall, where, through Nov. 13, 33% of albums sold were downloads, according to SoundScan. Of country's 33.7 million album sales, 21% were digital.
The percentage of country's online sales is likely to continue rising. The bulk of the music's audience resides in the heartland and is fairly pragmatic, says Pistol Annies' manager Marion Kraft of Shopkeeper Management. As a result, she thinks some fans may have delayed a shift to digital mediums until the technologies were more established.
Or, as Eli Young Band vocalist/guitarist Mike Eli suggests, country audiences may have started downloading music more because the marketplace forced them to explore online. "Digital is where you can actually get all the music," he says. "Walmart, Target, Best Buy-they're all shrinking as far as how much music they actually keep in store. The country audience is figuring out that they can get whatever album they want online."
Furthermore, the genre's core consumer is just as likely as any other music buyer to use social media or to have high-speed Internet access at home, according to a study by the Country Music Assn. But still, there's an element of fan loyalty that'll make it more difficult for the country audience to completely abandon the CD. During the Country Radio Seminar, a consumer told a panel moderator that she downloaded most of her music-except for Rascal Flatts. She explained that Flatts was her favorite band, and thus she needed a physical copy of anything the group did.
"In country, they're buying into an artist," Bentley says. "It's not like other genres where you might be a fan for a year and then that band's gone. Country fans are totally invested. They want that physical copy for you to sign."
Presley agrees. Despite the dominance of online buying within the Pistol Annies fan base, a portion of the audience still wants a tangible way to hold on to the music. "We're really country," she says, "and a lot of really country people still listen to CDs." But oddly enough, even many of those consumers are communicating their preferences to the band through-where else?-Twitter and Facebook.