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CMA Close Up/CMA/ Nashville, TN -- By Brad Schmitt
Blake Shelton is so drunk. How drunk is he?

"I'm so drunk right now I just threw my T.V. at the remote," he declared not long ago to his Twitter followers.

Shelton has also used his Twitter account to flirt shamelessly, to make often crass jokes and to put his own self-proclaimed "real redneck" spin on the news of the day.

Such a straight-ahead, unfiltered communication thrills many of his fans, turns some off and generates tons of buzz. But can an artist's use of Twitter help — or hurt — album sales?

"It's not a one-for-one exchange," said Heather McBee, VP Digital, Sony Music Nashville. "A tweet does not equal an album sale."

"As with any form of media, it's all in how the fan base interprets the response from the artist," said Kelly Rich, VP, Sales, Marketing & Interactive, Big Machine Label Group. "When you have an artist with millions of fans on one social media site and that artist posts that he/she has a new album out, there is no way to specifically correlate sales derived from the social site. One could assume there would be fans out there that weren't aware of the release until the call to action. I have personally never seen a post from an artist hurt their album sales but I can't say that it wouldn't happen."

According to Edison Research, approximately 8 percent of computer users age 12 and above used Twitter in 2011, one percentage point above the total for 2010 — that adds up to an increase from roughly 17 million to 20 million in one year. While that's considered impressive penetration, it doesn't reach enough people to sway sales one way or another — yet.

Shelton himself agrees. "I think it's such a small percentage of people who buy records that it doesn't matter," the reigning CMA Male Vocalist of the Year said. "What if I offend 1,000 people out there by taking a stand that I hunt — and those 1,000 people never buy another one of my albums again? If that is crucial, I was already screwed to begin with. That's kind of how I feel about Twitter."

Still Twitter, like Facebook and other online networks, is growing fast enough that most record labels have full-time social media staffers. Music Row magazine actually has a Twitter chart that lists artists and how many followers they have. Recently, Taylor Swift held the top position on that chart with more than 6 million followers. With just over 1 million, Dolly Parton was second. Shelton, with his nearly 750,000 followers, barely cracked the Top 10.

It's often not hard to convince artists to participate because it can be just as much fun for them as it is for their followers. "I get the most feedback on Twitter and Facebook when the fans and I are excited about the same thing at the same time," said Martina McBride. "Those networks lit up the night I performed on the Grammys. It's like I got to take the fans behind the scenes with me."

"Artists started realizing, 'Wow, this is such a great connection with my fans,'" noted Michael Deputato, VP, Digital, Universal Music Group Nashville. "And it's immediate. There's instant gratification. I'm sure that's helped spark interest in its use."

Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, the group's main "tweeter," likes to keep up with what fans think of the group's new music and performances through Twitter. "It's a great way to get feedback from them, so it's a nice tool to use. Plus, I had a 16-year-old girl ask me to her prom," he said, smiling. "And I just might go. You never know."

McBride approaches Twitter similarly to how she would approach a conversation with a friend, relying more on spontaneity than premeditation. "I use Twitter as a way to show another side of my personality to my fans that they may not get to see in a two-to-three-minute interview," she said. "It's more of a personal, day-to-day side.

"I tweet things that I'm excited about in my career, like going on a TV show or writing a new song, and also just random thoughts. Sometimes I tweet pictures from behind the scenes or something I think is funny. I don't put a lot of thought into what I tweet. I really just tweet when a thought strikes me."

Record labels will often offer feedback to new artists on the do's and don'ts of tweeting, but executives say it's also important to keep their hands off because fans want sincere content coming straight from the artists.

"Sometimes things can be polarizing," Deputato said. "But that's not necessarily bad, because there's a positive side to that. You might be reaching people who fall in love with the artists because they're so open. Laura Bell Bundy, for example, speaks her mind. She doesn't hold anything back."

Equally important to Deputato is the fact that Twitter is a two-way street. "There's more transparency now," he pointed out. "We learn things through these channels. Someone might comment about an issue we didn't see. It can be tough because you want to fix it before everyone else on Twitter knows there's a problem. But it does help in many ways."

With Twitter estimating that 300,000 new users sign up each day and fans coming to expect direct, unfiltered talk from their favorites, the common wisdom grows that you can't succeed without social media. "That direct relationship with the fans is the most important relationship in this day and age," McBee noted.

Of course, many artists have achieved success with hardly a tweet to their name, as David Ross, Publisher, Music Row Publications, says, citing Carrie Underwood as an example. "She is kind of an anomaly on this front," he noted. "She launched on 'American Idol.' Another little detail: She happens to be incredibly talented. Could her career be larger if she was doing social networking? I think so. That being said, she seems to be doing pretty well without it."

Even so, Ross concluded, "If an artist today in 2011 doesn't have a hand in as many of these things as possible, they have no hope of success. It's absolutely critical. This is how you reach the fans now."

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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