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Country, Christian music poised to cash in online

Despite the focus on alternative, rock and pop, the country and Christian music genres represent the fastest-growing online music segment, according to many in the industry.

When RCA Records dropped Baillie and the Boys after five years and 10 chart-topping songs, the Nashville, Tenn., country music band assumed its big break was over.

The band knew it still had loyal fans, but its new independent record label had little or no access to the major distributors, radio stations and concert venues that are key to getting exposure.

Now, seven years after its split with RCA, Baillie and the Boys is getting its second chance. Like other artists, it has turned to the Internet to connect with fans and sell its albums online.

"RCA made us feel like our career was over, but there are people who have been looking for us for years and didn't know where we were," said Kathie Baillie, who formed the band with her husband, Michael Bonagura, and launched a site on Songs.com four months ago.

Most of the attention in the Net music industry is on alternative, rock and pop bands because they appeal to what has been the dominant group online until recently: tech-savvy, white males under the age of 30.

The face of the online music enthusiast is changing, however, inspiring deals like yesterday's announcement that Songs.com was acquired by Gaylord Entertainment Company, which owns the Grand Ole Opry and Christian music site Musicforce.com.

Both established and unknown country and gospel singers are quietly coming online to find an audience for their CDs or digital downloads. And the fact that many bible-toting or cowboy-boot-clad music lovers are wired hasn't gone unnoticed by major record labels and online music sellers alike; combined, the genres represent the fastest-growing online music segment, according to many in the industry.

Listen.com, which reviews and categorizes MP3 tracks for numerous music sites, says country is the third-most-popular online music genre after rock and hip-hop. Trailing behind are other strong sub-genres, such as gospel, Christian and spiritual. EMusic.com, which sells digital downloads by independent record labels, agrees that such genres--and others, including jazz--are poised to garner more interest because of the Net.

"The demand for downloadable music in the country and inspirational genres is growing," said Steve Curry, an EMusic spokesman. "Since the digital distribution of music cuts out many of the 'middleman' costs involved, artists and labels don't need to sell tens of thousands of albums anymore just to break even financially. This will encourage them to release more exploratory and niche types of music."

On the other hand, EMusic's site Tunes.com, which provides reviews by Rolling Stone and music downloads, has seen a huge interest in religious music.

"Gospel and Christian have been surprisingly representative and somewhat bigger than country on Tunes.com," said Howard Tullman, CEO of Tunes.com. "There are a fair number of country artists that are crossing over to Christian, too. These are lifestyle genres, and the Web has permitted individual artists to do a lot more work with their fans."

Most of the "Big Five" record labels--Sony Music, Universal Music, BMG, Warner Music and EMI--also view the Net as a way to leverage sales of their huge catalogs of country and gospel music beyond the most popular artists.

Country music already has a huge following offline, with stars like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks steadily positioned high on the charts, but the labels believe the Christian and gospel segments are under-exploited.

"We've started to download sheet music to churches and the choir leaders; this is a huge market that will be impacted by the Net," said Jay Samit, senior vice president of EMI.

Even Viacom's MTV Internet unit is taking advantage of the Net to reach beyond its traditional hipster audience. The company's Radio SonicNet has three Christian online radio stations and will add two country stations, "yallternative" and classic country, in January. Amy Grant, a pop/Christian singer, has just programmed her own station for Radio SonicNet, joining artists such as Britney Spears and Enrique Iglesias.

For companies like Gaylord Entertainment, which is rooted in breaking artists through TV and the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, its entire future growth is staked on the Net through its GETdigitalmedia division, formed this summer.

"The whole purpose of GETdigitalmedia is that we are helping to build the new Gaylord Entertainment by leveraging what Gaylord has done well offline to the online world," said Randy McCabe, senior vice president and general manager of the division. "We don't have plans now to break in artists hand-in-hand with the Grand Ole Opry and Songs.com, but that is obviously a synergy that we're excited about."