Warner Bros. mines gold from older musical acts

Van Halen, Clapton, Madonna spin new discs

LOS ANGELES – Seasoned rock stars never die, they just keep making pots of money. This is a good thing for Warner Bros. Records as the struggling label attempts a comeback with this month’s release of new albums from veteran superstars.

The flagship label of Time Warner Inc.’s venerable Warner Music Group has barely registered on the music industry radar in recent years as management turmoil and a lack of strong acts, the lifeblood of the music industry, have hurt results.

But the label is bouncing back — at least for now — with albums from Madonna, Eric Clapton and Van Halen, acts all too familiar with multi-platinum success.

Madonna’s “Ray of Light” is No. 2 and Clapton’s “Pilgrim” No. 4 on the latest pop album charts. Van Halen’s “Van Halen III” was released last Tuesday and is expected to open in the top five when sales data are issued Wednesday.

“We’ve had a phenomenal March with Madonna, Clapton and Van Halen coming out in rapid succession,” said Bob Merlis, a spokesman for Warner Bros. Records.

“A lot of the problem with our perceived coldness in recent months was just due to the album delivery system. These things run in cycles,” Merlis said.

But critics say the problems at both Warner Bros. Records, and its Warner Music parent — which also owns Elektra and Atlantic — run deeper than that.

“They seem to be having a shaky comeback,” said one music industry consultant. “The executive bloodbath a few years ago has had Warner Bros. in a complete state of instability for the past couple of years. The chain of command has been totally destroyed, and no wonder they’ve not been able to break acts.”

Indeed, one of Warner Bros.’ best-selling releases last year was “The Dance,” a greatest-hits set from the re-grouped ’70s icons Fleetwood Mac. Meanwhile, releases from more cutting-edge acts such as Green Day, R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction sold disappointingly.

In response, Merlis said, “All I have to say is two words: Paula Cole. It’s only one artist, but a significant artist with tremendous recognition.”

Cole has overcome lukewarm critical response to sell 1.1 million copies of her label debut, “This Fire,” and last month won the Grammy for best new artist. Merlis also cites Loreena McKennitt and Barenaked Ladies as acts to watch.

“We’re criticized because we haven’t broken flash-in-the-pan type acts,” Merlis said. “I’d rather have an act that has some longevity and there’s some potential after you break them. Building a base is grunt work. It takes a lot, but the dividends are manifest.”

Warner Bros.’ problems are exacerbated by the fact that its smaller sister labels are doing quite well. Elektra’s current hits include hard rock veterans Metallica, soul crooners LSG and alternative band Third Eye Blind, while Atlantic is rolling with such newcomers as Jewel, matchbox 20 and Sugar Ray.

Warner Music was once one of the most profitable parts of Time Warner, but it stumbled several years ago when a management shuffle proved disastrous.

The group, whose profits fell by more than 30 percent last year, is now run by Bob Daly and Terry Semel, the veteran heads of the Warner Bros. movie studio. The duo know little about music and have had to win back the trust of artists and remaining staff alienated by predecessors Robert Morgado and Michael Fuchs.

Morgado and Fuchs had forced out nearly a dozen top executives, including Mo Ostin, Doug Morris, Bob Kras-now and Danny Goldberg, in 1994 before they themselves were fired. Many of these other executives are now working for competitors.

Several critics believe Daly and Semel, who still oversee Time Warner’s movie, television, retail and theme park sectors, may be stretched too thin. But they have overseen some shake-ups at Warner Bros. Records.

Late last year, they hired Virgin Records president Phil Quartararo, an expert on radio promotion, as Warner Bros. president.

On Friday, Warner Music cut about 35 jobs as part of a consolidation at Warner Bros. and its Reprise offshoot label and at the group’s black music operations. It also hired several radio and MTV executives.

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