Baby-boomers buying

Record sales see jump among older demos

The music industry is being whipsawed by a whole new baby-boom boom.

Traditionally, record-buying has been dominated by the 14-24 demographic, while the boomers’ favorite artists were rarely able to translate their concert success into significant record sales.

But in the past two months, the diskeries have seen the over-35 set — once thought to be reluctant to rush out and purchase new music from vet artists — hit the record stores in surprisingly large numbers. And much of the credit is going to cabler VH1.

The recent out-of-the-box success of new albums by the BeeGees, James Taylor and Paul McCartney suggests that the vidchannel is helping to change consumers’ habits, since all three albums — Polydor’s “Still Waters,” Columbia’s “Hourglass” and Capitol’s “Flaming Pie,” respectively — got heavy promotional pushes on the basic-cable music channel.

VH1, a unit of Viacom and older-skewing sibling of MTV, bowed in 1988 as Video Hits One and targeted its audience by focusing on established artists and hit tunes. It rarely featured up-and-comers, leaving that to MTV, which pursued a younger crowd.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America estimates that approximately 41% of record-buyers are in the 14-24 demographic and that record sales annually represent a $36 billion worldwide industry.

As a result, labels typically release albums geared for the under-24 set, which in turn causes those over 45 to have trouble finding music that speaks to their grown-up lifestyle.

The unfamiliarity of the cutting-edge cacophony frequently has caused older consumers to avoid their local record store or retreat to mail order clubs to purchase catalog albums from their musical heroes. The 45-and-over crowd in 1996 repped a respectable 15.1% share of record buyers. But diskery hype-meisters have begun noticing that when it comes to promoting new albums aimed at the boomer set, the traditional methods no longer seem to work.

Before an album is released, a label’s promotional staff traditionally services a single to radio stations, cajoling programmers into playing it. If all goes well, the song gets added to the playlist, which creates an awareness among consumers about the album before its release. Buyers are then motivated to buy the album based primarily on their feeling for the first single and how many times they hear it on the radio.

With their new albums, the BeeGees and Taylor had very respectable first-week sales of 66,000 and 73,000 copies, respectively — without the benefit of heavy radio play and with the artists doing only a handful of interviews, most of them after the albums were released.

However, the artists were featured on VH1’s “Storytellers” series.

Contrast that with the bow of John Fogerty’s disc, “Blue Moon Swamp,” his first in 10 years, but one that only logged 28,000 in its first week. This lackluster tally comes despite the singer doing numerous interviews and playing preview shows at such high-profile venues as the House of Blues.

The channel’s clout

But the proof of the vidchannel’s clout came when McCartney’s first-week sales gave the former Beatle his highest chart debut in 27 years. The album, released shortly after VH1 aired a highly touted Town Hall meeting with the singer-songwriter, topped 123,000 copies — more than double the first-week sales of his 1993 disc “Off the Ground,” which bowed with just 53,000 copies.

“It’s no longer unhip to be associated with VH1,” said Steve Backer, head of marketing at the Enclave, the newest record label in the EMI Music family. “They identify an artist early and work closely with the record label to strategize a way to break the album. You feel like you’re partnered up with them and that strategy is certainly having an impact on sales.”

Boomers have usually followed the traditional age-demographics in their music-buying: leading the pack while in their teens and 20s, and then tapering off sharply once they hit their 30s.

Getting this coveted 35-plus demographic into stores has been an increasingly difficult task. But now, those who had feared going into record stores are becoming active music buyers who, like their teenage counterparts, have to be the first on their block to own the newest release from one of their favorite artists.

Distribs and retail execs are hopeful that once inside the store for the newest McCartney or Taylor disc, these expatriates will also pick up new discs from John Fogerty or Supertramp. Or at the very least pick up a Taylor “Greatest Hits” album.

VH1 reaches more than 50 million homes, but average viewership hovers just north of 1.2 million. Special-event programs often attract much higher audience levels. Many music insiders always knew that the videos showcased on the channel helped to sell records over the long haul, but thought VH1 had little impact in an album’s early release stages.

“VH1 is beginning to demonstrate its power to quickly sell albums,” said Abbey Konowitch, exec veep/G.M. of MCA Records. “When it gets involved in an album’s release like it did with McCartney, it makes a compelling argument that VH1 should be taken very seriously by record companies whose artists are appropriate.”

“We’re thrilled that these albums have done so well out of the box,” VH1 prexy John Sykes said. “It (proves) that when it’s about creating an entire package that can help expose the artists, the audience reacts. We need to do more than just play a video several times a day.”

The vidchannel’s clout was also exemplified when it recently aired the movie “Grease,” starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, which was seen by 8 million viewers. In the wake of the airing, sales of the soundtrack album spiked upward to the tune of more than 10,000 copies. A special featuring Janis Joplin resulted in a several-thousand-copy sales goose for her catalogue, according to execs at Sony Music’s Legacy division.

Sykes noted that the recent successes should also be credited to the labels with “whom we worked closely to help promote” the new albums.

But it also follows a change in direction for the channel, which has moved away from gameshows and comedy to an increase in music programming. As a result, its tagline, “Music First,” has become more credible in recent months.

Some reservations

While the industry and consumers are exhibiting a newfound respect for VH1, Sykes doesn’t entirely credit the new image for the cabler, which he began in 1994 shortly after he joined it. He admits the channel is benefiting from an increase in a graying population that sports gold cards, an affluent audience not ready to give up its music.

“We have a very powerful audience,” Sykes said. “You just have to talk to them in the right way — one that makes them react.”

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