Country Music vs. Rock and Roll

From Americana to emo, chamber pop to punkgrass, there seem to be as many subgenres of music in our culturally fragmented 21st century as there are bands. But take a step back, put your ear to the ground, and you can still hear those time-honored beats: a big chunk of America’s love affair with music remains fixated on Donny and Marie’s famous dichotomy of “a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll.”

Which “little bit” is bigger? It depends how you measure it. American road-trippers don’t need the Arbitron ratings agency to tell them that country music is all over the airwaves in most parts of the US. The country format ranks No. 1 in both popularity and number of stations. The same is also true song-by-song; a typical week in 2009 saw 21 country songs in the Billboard Hot 100, compared to just 14 rock tracks.

In concert halls and stadiums, though, rock has a distinct edge. The odds an adult will attend a rock music performance in a year are 1 in 10.4, while for country music concerts the odds are only 1 in 19.65. In contrast, the odds an adult will attend a classical music or opera performance in a year are 1 in 23.77.

Rock music also racks up more album sales than country does, by an even bigger margin. According to one recent Nielsen SoundScan report, country music accounted for just 12% of album sales, while rock notched a whopping 34%.

As the digital age matures, sales of recorded music continues to shrink, with overall album sales down 14% in 2008, despite growing sales of music downloads, and down nearly 50% since 2000. Even the relatively new ringtone market declined 24% from 2007 to 2008, and teens aged 13-17 acquired 19% less music over the same period. Yet with entertainment markets undergoing so much reconfiguration, and so many new technologies in play, it can be hard to pin down whether the music industry as a whole is in decline. Some UK economists say that when all sectors are taken into account, Britain’s music business is actually growing.

Whatever the fate of recorded music, live concerts remain popular, in spite of all the competition from television, video games, the Internet, and other forms of traditional and digital entertainment. Box-office receipts in North America increased 7.8% from 2007 to 2008 (though the rise came more from 8% higher ticket prices than from higher attendance). Whether it’s country music, rock, classical, opera, pop, jazz, hip-hop, or R&B, technology hasn’t yet come up with a substitute for the lure of the stage and the roar of the crowd.

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