"This is for my MySpace people and everybody who voted." With those words at last year's CMT Music Awards, then 17-year-old Taylor Swift, who won breakthrough artist of the year that April night, signaled a new era in country music.

While MySpace and other social networking sites are the norm, even for artists whose fans don't include too many teens, Swift's comments represented perhaps the first-and certainly the highest profile-public acknowledgment of the growing importance of digital in the country realm. Country artists are always quick to thank radio, their fans, their teams and God, but MySpace and Facebook haven't drawn as much appreciation.

After the show, CMT VP of digital media/GM of CMT.com/VP of operations and administration Martin Clayton said artists with youth appeal such as Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler and Swift benefit from having fans that have grown up with computers. "That's what they do, that's where they go, that's where they are."

Swift, who has more than 650,000 friends on her MySpace page, is on the site daily, posting pictures, updating her blog and chatting with fans. "If you see pictures up there and a blog that says I put up new pictures, I put up the new pictures," she says. "And they're usually from my little digital camera that I take out on the road." This from a young woman who is also finishing up her senior year of high school (she's home schooled), touring and recording a new album to follow up her 2.5 million-selling self-titled debut.

When it comes to digital sales, country fans haven't been as quick as some to embrace the digital age. Digital album sales are on the rise, but at 4.5%, country lags behind overall sales of digital albums, which represented 10% of all albums sold in 2007. Even artists whose fans skew a little younger-and a lot more tech-savvy-lag the overall market. Roughly 4% of Swift's overall album sales come from digital downloads.

The reason why country is behind the curve is a source of debate among those in the know at labels. Some say it's because country's older demographic target-25- to 44-year-old women-aren't as quick as other groups to adapt to technology. Others say country's largest retailers-Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy-make it easy for consumers to pick up an album while they're shopping for staples. Studies-and Nielsen SoundScan's own data-show some interesting, potentially correlated trends...

Click here to read the full article, including details on major digital companies targeting country as a growth segment, what metrics reveal about country users, one of the key digital strategies that works best in this genre and more.