PBS playing a new tune

Hoping to create a brand name that has instant cachet among baby boomers and the intellectual set, PBS is getting into the music business by launching a record label.

Several of the major music congloms, aware of the pubcaster’s impressive track record for jump-starting album sales after the discs have been touted on its shows, are aggressively competing for the rights to distribute and market the new label.

Pubcaster execs are hoping that rather than use performances from artists who are already signed to record labels merely as pledge-drive catalysts, which in turn earn money for PBS from subscribers, sources said execs believe they can bow their own imprint and generate income for the mostly publicly funded operation.

Over the past two years, PBS has become a key marketing vehicle for labels, as such artists as the Three Tenors, John Tesh and Yanni, have had sales of their respective discs skyrocket in the wake of appearances on the public television web.

And observers note that PBS viewers are a loyal bunch, more so than a typical radio listener. The pubcaster, which can use the phone banks set up for pledge drives as a telemarketing operation to hawk the wares from the PBS label, also has the distinction of airing artists who under normal circumstances would not have a mass outlet for their wares.

The music industry has taken note of these aspects unique to PBS and as a result an increasing number of acts are appearing on the pubcaster.

Notable success stories include John Tesh’s “Live at Red Rocks” disc, which jumped 30% in sales after the first airing of his concert on PBS. The pubcaster said the concert’s initial airings boosted one of its most successful pledge-drive periods.

The frequent repeats on PBS of perfs by the Three Tenors and Yanni continue to drive sales of their repertoires. Sales of the three-year-old Yanni homevid “Live at the Acropolis” concert also continue to rise (it now tops 600,000 units) following its rerun. The Private Music disc has crossed 4 million units, an achievement widely credited to PBS.

Upcoming perfs on the PBS web by Fleetwood Mac and John Fogerty will likely stoke sales of those artists’ discs and will further test the pop music waters for the web.

The successful track record of PBS in helping boost sales of albums across a diverse range of genres has the Universal Music Group and Warner Bros. Records interested in distributing the PBS label. Warner, sources said, is the front-runner of the two congloms to land the deal, despite Universal offering a conglom-wide synergy involving its various labels.

But insiders note that PBS has a pre-existing relationship with the Warner family as PBS’ homevideo products are distributed by Warner Home Video.

The lion’s share of product released under the new record deal — which sources estimate could be worth at least $15 million to $20 million annually — is expected to be from music-based, original programming created by the pubcaster.

PBS Records is expected to also tap the vaults and release programming from artists who may have appeared on its shows several years ago, but who are no longer signed to a label yet can still find favor among fans.

The new label also is expected to offer discs stemming from live concerts produced by the pubcaster. Tribute discs and fundraisers, where artists will get their respective labels to permit a track or two to appear, also are expected to become a component of the PBS game plan.

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