How Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’ Increased Sales for Country Veterans – Rolling Stone
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The Ken Burns Effect: How ‘Country Music’ Doc Surged Sales for Country Legends

Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and more all saw substantial jumps in sales and streaming

Waylon Jennings

Country singers from Waylon Jennings to Kathy Mattea experienced a surge in sales and streams following Ken Burns' 'Country Music.'

Alan Messer/Shutterstock

Kathy Mattea could hardly contain her amusement. The West Virginia-born country singer hasn’t had a song on the country charts in nearly 30 years, but after the airing of Ken Burns’ eight-part Country Music documentary, she woke up last week to find that both her greatest hits collection and her 1989 song “Where’ve You Been” were included among the 40 top-selling country songs and albums on online retailers like Amazon and iTunes. 

“I’ve been laughing about it all day,” says Mattea, who served as a consultant and talking head in the documentary. “I’d been thinking to myself that this documentary was going to be great for country music, but I never thought about it in a personal way. Now I’m just a giggly little school girl. I’m 60 years old. To wake up with a couple things in the Top 40 is pretty funny.”

Mattea is just one of a number of country artists, living and deceased, whose music has seen a dramatic spikes in sales and streaming in the wake of Burns’ documentary. The day after Country Music‘s finale, 14 out of the 20 top-selling country albums on iTunes were from artists who’d been prominently featured in the series, like Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson. Emmylou Harris alone had six albums featured in the genre’s Top 100 best-selling chart. At one point, 63 of the Top 100 spots on Amazon’s Country chart were occupied by artists profiled in the film.

“Every single artist featured on the soundtrack has seen catalog streams increase. Every single one,” says Chris Poppe, who ran the marketing campaign for the documentary’s accompanying five-disc soundtrack for Sony Legacy.

Unsurprisingly, the largest sales increase for individual artists usually came on the day that their respective episode aired on PBS. According to music analytics company Alpha Data, Jimmie Rodgers’ album sales jumped 994% on the same day as the airing of the documentary’s first episode, which featured Rodgers as a primary protagonist. The following week, when an episode with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Kris Kristofferson debuted, each of the artists saw more than 1,000% jumps in their album sales from one day to the next.

“Ken Burns, that’s a big voice in our culture,” says the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna. “For him to shine a light on something definitely has impact.”

The biggest percentage streaming jumps have come for long-deceased artists like Uncle Dave Macon and Sam McGee, whose joint rendition of “Comin’ Round the Mountain” was included on the documentary’s soundtrack. According to Brittany Schaffer, head of artist and label services at Spotify Nashville, that soundtrack recording resulted in a 13,000% increase in streaming for McGee and a 2,000% increase for Macon. “The biggest takeaway we have from the streaming perspective is that this documentary really highlighted these unsung heroes,” she says.

The real-world effect of Burns’ films is nothing new. Attendance at Gettysburg National Battlefield reportedly increased 300% after the airing of Burns’ 1990 Civil War documentary, and attendance at national parks jumped by roughly ten million after the filmmaker’s The National Parks in 2009.

“This is why we do this,” says Dayton Duncan, Burns’ longtime collaborator who wrote and co-produced Country Music. “We never consider the films we make as the final word on anything. We look at them as a chance to introduce millions of people to stories, ideas and, in this case, music.”

Determining the precise influence of Burns’ film, however, on the sales of country music’s most iconic stars can be nearly impossible. Johnny Cash had two separate Top Ten albums on iTunes’ Country chart in the days following the film, but Josh Matas, who manages the singer’s trust, warns against attributing that to any one factor. “It would be hard for us to attribute this solely to the Ken Burns special,” he says, citing Cash’s ongoing relevance in American culture, documentary or not. “Cash was on that chart a few weeks back as well.”

The Ken Burns-related spike in country music sales and streams won’t last forever, however. A week after the finale, the number of iTunes’ best-selling country albums by artists highlighted in the documentary had already dropped from 14 out of 20 to 7 out of 20, a 50% decrease.

“Maybe it’ll last five minutes or five months,” says Mattea of the unexpected boost to her catalog. “[I’m] just not part of the commercial mainstream, so to suddenly have a part of that world noticing your work is a lovely feeling.”

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