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Sunday, 5 August, 2007 1:53 AM

CMA: New Trails in Music Distribution


Josh Turner at Cracker Barrel display at the Ryman Auditorium.

By Tom Roland
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

Cracker Barrel claims no special insights into reviving retail CD sales. "The music industry is more expert at that than we are," said Simon Turner, Chief Marketing Officer at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. "Our expertise is in making chicken and dumplings."

But music has become a tasty side dish for the restaurant chain, which locates the vast majority of its 554 stores at interstate exits in 41 states. Since 2003, the company has rolled out a series of exclusive Country albums featuring artists Merle Haggard, Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Charlie Daniels Band and Sara Evans. Cracker Barrel has offered several multiartist collections as well, including Grand Ole Opry-themed Live Classics CDs and its Songs of the Year album featuring concert performances of award-winning tunes by Trace Adkins, Lonestar, Jo Dee Messina, Willie Nelson, Blake Shelton, Trisha Yearwood and other artists. The company also created the American Legends series that features Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Haggard, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and more.

Josh Turner's new live album, recorded at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium on April 19 and released July 3 exclusively at Cracker Barrel and online at marks the company's most extensive commitment yet. In addition to the CD, Cracker Barrel is sponsoring the MCA Nashville artist's current concert tour and extending a relationship in which Turner already serves as the voice for the Tennessee based company in its radio advertising.

"Not everybody keeps up with the music business and with what new music is out there," Simon Turner said. "But people do eat. [For them] to walk in there and maybe pass by Josh Turner's live album on the shelf before they go and grab a table just kind of appealed to me."

Cracker Barrel exemplifies a growing trend toward releasing exclusive Country titles in non-traditional retail outlets. Starbucks' Hear Music program ( has issued a number of "Artist's Choice" CDs in which performers including Cash, Emmylou Harris and Nelson developed playlists of their favorite artists. Plus, Hear Music Coffeehouses have allowed visitors to listen to a variety of music (including Rascal Flatts' Me and My Gang CD) from an interactive listening station and burn their own personal CDs for purchase.

In March, Starbucks and Concord Music Group, whose past collaborations include Ray Charles' 5.5 million-selling Genius Loves Company, launched a new record label, Hear Music, with Paul McCartney as its inaugural release on June 5. The album is McCartney's first album available digitally. Likewise, Hallmark releases special albums in a limited window of time to key on the Christmas and Valentine's Day holidays. These have included Martina McBride's 2005 compilation My Heart, which repackaged six of her signature love songs with new remakes of Buck Owens' "Together Again" and Etta James' "At Last," and George Strait's all-new 2006 set Fresh Cut Christmas, which achieved Platinum sales just seven days after its appearance in Hallmark stores.

"It's exciting to partner with a company that not only is known for being of the highest quality, but has actually set the standard for others to follow," McBride said. "I have grown up with Hallmark, and the thought of my CD in a Hallmark store is thrilling for me."

"Retailers that aren't traditionally music retailers understand the value and importance that music plays in their customers' lives," observed Ben Kline, Executive VP of Sales, Marketing and New Media at UMG Nashville.

"So I think what you're seeing is an abundance of non-traditional music retailers embracing music as a way for them to promote whatever else they sell at their retail location."

The timing for these ventures couldn't be better for the industry's bottom line. Digital downloads have eroded album sales for the music industry at large, and the loss of Tower Records to bankruptcy contributed to a shrinkage of shelf space in music's traditional retail outlets.

Country has weathered those setbacks more successfully than other genres, and the interest from these other retailers simply underscores the idiom's flexibility and appeal to Middle-American consumers.

"This business is changing," noted Turner's manager, Ted Green, of Modern Management.

"Are we going to stick our heads in the sand or are we going to adapt? One way of adapting, in my view, is if you have a major retailer like Cracker Barrel that has 554 stores across the country and 230-something million people coming through the doors every year, it's a no-brainer as far as we're concerned to try to do something with them."

The fit, of course, has to work for both sides. For a performer, Cracker Barrel's reach, and its location along the nation's major arteries, are ideal. Some 36,000 people eat at a Cracker Barrel daily, and 40 percent of those customers are just passing through.

"When you're traveling down the interstate and you're stopping off for a meal along the drive and you want some new entertainment, it's great to be able to pick up a CD there and pop it on in the car," Simon Turner said.

In addition, 36 percent of the chain's consumer base listens to Country radio heavily, and more than half listens to the genre regularly. Clearly, Cracker Barrel guests are interested in Country artists.

Making it even sweeter in Josh Turner's case, the company typically buys spots on 10 radio stations in the markets where it advertises. In most cases, eight of the 10 stations are non-Country formats (talk, urban or some form of pop music), meaning Turner raised his profile significantly by lending his voice to their advertising campaign.

"That's been kind of cool for me to just reach out and go beyond the world of Country Music," the singer said. From the retailer's perspective, the albums generate additional revenue, but they also enhance awareness of the brand. When Cracker Barrel sponsored the Alison Krauss & Union Station tour in 2003, a significant number of her younger fans made a point in visiting the restaurant to pick up the CD because it couldn't be bought through any other store.

"Cracker Barrel obviously wants to bring people in and get them to eat at Cracker Barrel and become loyalists over time," Simon Turner offered.

But the company is also careful about working with artists that represent its core identity as a multi-generational family-style destination.

"It's about getting the right emotional connection and the right image connection," Simon Turner asserted. "We're also very concerned about authenticity. Take Josh and Amy Grant and Alison Krauss: These are all people that love Cracker Barrel, they eat at our stores, and it's been very important for us and with our relationships with them that when we've come to negotiate the deals that they've all been very positive about our brand. A major part of the interaction that we have with them is their ability to be ambassadors for us during the period that we have their CD on sale."

As key as non-traditional merchants might be to an artist's growth, the performer and Music Row still have their eye on the relationships with the bread-and-butter music retailers who've supported the industry over the long haul. It's important, Kline said, to fashion exclusive deals in a way in which "we're not competing against ourselves." In the case of the Turner album, it's a live album, something the label would not have released through usual channels at this stage in his career. Plus, it was timed as a bridge between Turner's previous double Platinum album, Your Man, and his third studio CD, which will likely be released later this year.

That doesn't mean that exclusive albums can't overlap with a regular project. Strait, whose albums are also distributed by Universal, put out his Hallmark CD on Nov. 1, exactly four weeks after the release of It Just Comes Natural.

"We give heightened awareness to something," said Ann Herrick, VP of Strategic Music Alliances at Hallmark. "So when you see George Strait [advertised] on TV, now you want some George Strait music. Some of that's [available at] Hallmark and some of that's regular studio albums, but I think a consumer just goes and buys George."

In the Cracker Barrel case, the restaurant is banking that consumers will continue to buy Josh Turner - along with their chicken and dumplings.

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