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Looking into the crystal ball for 2007

Country Standard Time Editorial, January 2007

The crystal ball is a bit cloudy right now when looking at how country music will fare in 2007.

2006 was not the greatest year, although country did better sales-wise than many other genres. Country music sales declined .5 percent. Now that may not sound so good when looking at the bottom line. But consider this - rap music sales dropped 20 percent and R&B 18 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures. Overall sales were down five percent. Rest assured the record company suits are not thrilled.

There was a lot of solid country music out in 2006, though much of it was on smaller independent labels.

The environment remains difficult with no particular signs of it getting any better except probably for the web and musical downloads.

One presumes that some type of realignment of the record labels is in order, considering that so many new ones have started in the last few years. Newcomer Montage Music Group could possibly emerge as a player since it's headed by Allen Butler, who once ran Sony. So far, Andy Griggs, Little Texas and newcomer Minnie Murphy are on the label.

Artists seem to continue going on their own by forming labels (Tracy Byrd, Darryl Worley, Neal McCoy) with Tracy Lawrence first out of the chute in '07 with a new release in January.

A key area where country music has done quite well and should continue doing so is in the concert setting. Kenny Chesney looks to have another banner summer with his tour featuring heavyweights Brooks & Dunn among others. And the likable superstar is expanding his stadium tour by a few cities.

Brad Paisley has earned his spurs to headline the sheds this year. He is an artist of integrity, staying true to his country roots. Every album has been a winner, so it's particularly gratifying to see an artist of such merit move up the ladder.

What of newcomers? That's an awfully hard question at this point because there is so little new music on the schedule right now. The only release etched in stone is Jason Michael Carroll's February release, and he has been buoyed by the success of his first single, "Alyssa Lies."

Maybe Sarah Buxton, who's slated for a release later this year and enjoyed songwriting success (Keith Urban's current hit "Stupid Boy"), will emerge.

An intriguing possibility is Sunny Sweeney whose self-released debut is being picked up by Big Machine for a March release. Great album from the Texan, so the pressure will be on Big Machine to see if a female honky tonker can gain a foothold.

What of the sophomore slump? Miranda Lambert looks to release her second album in May. She has the voice, looks and package to go to the next level, but that's far from certain.

2007 looks to be a year of uncertainty for the industry, but like 2006, if listeners look hard enough - whether it be independent artists and labels or the majors - they can hear quality country music.