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Country music on a comeback with holiday sale surge

By John Gerome

Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A spate of album releases during the busy holiday shopping season has helped buoy country music sales, but probably not enough to avoid a decline from last year.

Through the week ending Dec. 11, country music sold 64.07 million units this year compared with 66.29 through the same period last year -- a three percent dip, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The figures are considerably better than a couple of months ago, when country sales were off by 10 percent.

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The latest numbers also show country to be doing slightly better than the overall music industry, which is down four percent in total sales from 2004.

"I still think the year is going to end up down for us, as it will for the overall industry. There are no late releases that are going to save us for the year. We'll just do better than the rest of the world," said Joe Galante, chairman of RCA Label Group/Nashville.

Record labels often load the final quarter with their biggest releases. This year, for example, records by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Big &; Rich, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire all came out around the holidays.

Chesney sold two million copies of his latest, "The Road and the Radio" after only six weeks, while Underwood, McBride, Brooks and Cash reached the one million mark.

The success of "The Legend of Johnny Cash," a greatest hits package, is tied to Cash's film biography, "Walk the Line." The movie has done well at the box office and generated Oscar buzz for actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The movie soundtrack also reached Billboard's Top 10.

"The movie is helping the genre in numbers quite a bit," said Ben Kline, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Universal Music Group Nashville.

But like Galante, Kline doesn't expect the late surge to be enough to reverse a slide from last year. He said 2005 didn't have the blockbuster releases of 2004, when Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban all put out albums, and debuts by newcomers Gretchen Wilson and Big &; Rich were surprise smashes.

And, according to Kline, some of the major albums that did come out this year didn't do as well as expected.

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Several reasons are cited for the slump. The hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast -- a significant market for country music -- hurt sales, as did the subsequent spike in gas prices. There's also been strong competition this year from other entertainment products, such as the Xbox and iPod.

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