The recent announcement that County Sales, a mail-order music distribution house with a retail outlet located in Floyd, Virginia, will close its doors for good in January, sent a shiver through the bluegrass world, suggesting an important institution in bluegrass history and an era were ending. County Sales, almost since its founding, has been a go-to source for new bluegrass releases as well as the compilation albums they produce and the older material still on its shelves. Its monthly newsletter, an eagerly awaited tool for collectors, started out as a mimeographed list of titles on sale and was later upgraded to email.
The Crooked Road, which runs along U.S. Route 58 with numerous detours to notable nearby sites, curls across southwest Virginia for almost 300 miles from Rocky Mount to The Breaks Interstate Park, celebrating Virginia’s musical heritage through 19 counties, four cities, and 54 towns. Highlighting locations, musicians, music stores, and musical events, this regional tourist attraction draws visitors who might otherwise travel the interstate highways to other, better-known venues as well as fans of traditional folk, old-time, and bluegrass music to explore one of the richest musical heritages in the country. Floyd, Virginia, is a major stop on it.
County Sales was one of the outgrowths of what began as an enthusiasm and developed into an inter-related series of recording, producing, and distribution enterprises built by former New Yorker and member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame Dave Freeman, whose passion took him to Floyd, as well as surrounding areas, to build County Records, Record Depot (a wholesale distributor), Sugar Hill Records (now a subsidiary of Rounder Records), and Rebel Records. While County Sales existed mostly as a mail-order distribution center, music enthusiasts visiting Floyd for other attractions also sought out the hard-to-find location to comb its shelves for unlikely finds as well as solid additions to their collections.
Freeman was the only vendor selling records at the first multi-day bluegrass festival in nearby Fincastle, VA, in 1965. His newsletter, with descriptions of new acquisitions and new releases, became a staple among collectors of mountain, early country, and bluegrass music, particularly re-recordings of rare or out-of-print releases and new records, and later CDs, from Freeman’s own labels.
My wife and I visited County Sales in 2010 as part of a trip to Floyd during one of our journeys along the Crooked Road, to which we have returned year after year. Located on a side street with a small sign on the door, it was hard to find. Yet, when we entered, shelves filled with bluegrass CDs beckoned us to spend much more than we had expected.
According to a Newsweek article last April, “We spend two-thirds less per person today on recorded music than in 1999, and yet have access to an almost infinite library of recorded music through streaming services like Spotify for about $10 per month (with access to more than 30 million songs).”
The Newsweek article describes a significant uptick in streaming digital sales during 2016, as digital subscribers worldwide, including in the US, increased as consumers have become accustomed to the format change and, perhaps, also have realized that music isn’t free. Nevertheless, there’s still much to do to increase the amount of digital streaming royalties being paid to the performers and composers of the music. Songwriters believe themselves to be at a particular disadvantage in the new market, where, after the release of Spotify’s financials, one singer/songwriter reckons “if a songwriter retains all publishing rights to their song, then a songwriter would need 288,104,634.15 spins to earn the reported average salary of a Spotify employee.” This compares most unfavorably to the income songwriters once enjoyed from royalties coming from AM radio spins.
While vinyl recording seems to be making a comeback in a niche, audiophile, and collector’s market, there’s a revolution taking place in how music is distributed and heard, as well as how much of it is available and where. Spotify lists its top five 2016 artists, in terms of number of streams, as Drake, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Twenty One Pilots, and Kanye West. Drake accounted for 4.7 billion streams, which grossed him roughly $33 million dollars. Meanwhile, all artists performing today count their income from a variety of revenue streams, including concert income, merchandise, recording, teaching (live and online), sponsors, recording for advertising, personal appearances, film and video, and more. Drake’s estimated 2017 income amounted to at least $94 million, according to Forbes. He’s reckoned to have accumulated a net worth of $60 million.
It seems that with this technological revolution, as with others since the beginning of recorded music, more music is available to more people at a lower cost than ever before. While means of delivery and the way people who work within this broad and varied industry develop their own streams of income will continue to change, the opportunities for making a living by attracting listeners to music will continue to broaden. The problems of performers within niche industries, like bluegrass in particular, and that larger category of Americana more generally, will continue to be obvious. It’s clear that ways of obtaining more equitable payments to all stakeholders are worth considering, but we’re not facing disaster. More likely, we’re headed into another golden age, if we can only discover how it works. While we see the end of an era in recording and music distribution, a new sunrise is on the horizon.