Can oldies save slipped discs?

Music biz banks on catalogs to boost sales...

The music industry is praying for a break-even year and, with sales off 2% so far, it’s banking on a Beatles-like bonanza from its catalogs.

Last year, a Capitol Records collection of decades-old Fab Four tracks proved that catalog items can deliver gigantic numbers — nearly 4 million sold over the holiday period, another 4 million since.

This season is seeing a deluge of greatest-hits packages and a handful of boxed sets — and they’re being marketing more cleverly than ever before.

“One thing we’ve learned here is you market catalog the same way as current releases,” says Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music Enterprises, who had 92 titles on the September-December release schedule.

A key reason why music companies are dependent on artists of an earlier generation, of course, stems from the failure of present-day superstars to register a seismic presence. So far, music’s superstar acts are like summer movies that open with a giant explosion, but drop quickly.

While no act can compete with the Beatles, there is an abundance of tunes from the 1950s through the 1990s capable of capturing the attention of the current record-buying public.

Getting the word out that new packages exist, however, requires bypassing the traditional outlets of radio and MTV.

For decades, the music biz shunned TV blurbs, believing consumers associated TV-advertised music with schlocky products. But this season, Warner Music and Capitol are using TV to sell greatest-hits packages from Rod Stewart, Prince and Frank Sinatra & the Rat Pack.

Music marketers are also turning to DVD for help.

For the first time, the technology is a factor in diskeries’ game plans, with compilations of musicvideos and in-concert performances. Music marketers are predicting big things in the next few holiday seasons for the format.

Not that anyone is expecting any of these latest catalog compilations to match the success of the Beatles “1.”

But the industry has experienced a sea-change in attitude toward the hits of yesteryear. Catalog is no longer the dusty stuff in the back of the store: Now each major has established a full-scale department to handle reissues and repackages.

WEA, the distribution unit of Warner Music Group, has assimilated the former oldies-label Rhino into the corporate fold and bolstered its Archives projects; BMG last month created an umbrella org for catalog that will handle, among others, RCA and Arista releases.

It’s an important step: BMG, which has always focused on current releases, discovered this summer that RCA had shipped 19 million more John Denver albums than it had previously counted.

“You have to make the (catalog) product appear hot — fresh and new,” says Joe McFadden, senior VP of sales and field marketing for Capitol Records. “With Pink Floyd, it’s a continuous listening experience assembled by the band of some of the biggest songs in rock history.”

Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” a two-CD compilation, is the diskery’s heavily marketed catalog prize winner this year, having sold 215,000 copies in its first week. It is now up to 463,000 units moved.

Other packages on the year-end slate include the first-ever Rat Pack CDs with Frank Sinatra and gang (Capitol); Smashing Pumpkins hits (Virgin); Universal’s first assemblage of all the BeeGees’ smashes, a fleshed-out version of Bob Marley’s masterpiece “Exodus” and four-CD sets dedicated to reggae, Four Tops and Cat Stevens.

Warners released, on the same date, single-disc hits collections from Madonna, Barenaked Ladies and Green Day, while Elektra debuted a greatest-hits package from the Cure. Rhino and Columbia have hit the expensive end with, respectively, a 12-disc Grateful Dead set and a 10-CD Billie Holiday package.

Previously, diskeries risked consumer-overload by rolling out the full catalog of one artist all at once. Now, nearly every extensive single-artist reissue series — be it Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead or the Beach Boys — is gradually platformed so that releases are done in smaller blocks of albums.

“The key,” says Resnikoff, who has overseen Universal’s merging of the Polygram properties (A&M, Island, Polydor, Mercury) with those of Universal (MCA, Uni, Decca, Chess), “is to take a 12-month to 18-month approach and find those artists who have not found a home with the (current young) generation.”

TV blurbs

As for TV marketing, the Beatles again led the way. While “1” was hardly the first A-level album built on direct TV marketing, it was certainly the most prominent.

“This is a good time to be doing TV,” notes Scott Pascucci, president of Warner Music’s strategic marketing department. “Rates are down and we’re making fairly aggressive buys” to sell Warner/Rhino hits compilations by Rod Stewart, Prince and a handful of other artists. Spending on TV is still modest when compared with movies, and often focused on specialty cable channels and music-related programs.

Capitol, too, is using TV advertising to sell its two Rat Packages, much as Universal did when it launched its Cat Stevens reissue project with a new greatest hits set.

Listening for trends

More than ever, marketing execs have had to keep their eyes peeled for trends, attempting to attract buyers to record stores when artists’ music is building a new fan base in non-traditional arenas such as the stage, in commercials or on the Internet.

“Record companies have failed often because of tunnel vision and they just stack up one lost opportunity after another,” Resnikoff says.

The theater audience that goes to see the Abba musical “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway or the BeeGees-heavy musical “Saturday Night Fever,” for example, is not necessarily an audience that buys CDs regularly, Resnikoff notes.

Since “Mamma Mia” took off, Universal has released all eight of the Swedish group’s original albums plus a two-CD compilation.

Putting the music out there, though, isn’t enough.

“Our strategic marketing group then has to target an audience that is 50 and 60 and also 8, 9 and 10 years old and make a marketing plan that is almost unclear whether it’s marketing the musical or the artist. The two work hand in hand,” Resnikoff says.

And if the show doesn’t come to a theater near you, one suspects there will soon be a concert DVD available.

“We’re seeing quite a lot of growth in terms of the audience embracing it and retailers willing to carry it,” Bob Carlton, senior VP of WEA Sales, says of DVD.

This holiday season, Warners/Rhino is offering a Dead Can Dance boxed set that contains three audio CDs and a DVD of a Dead Can Dance concert.

Acts that sell more concert tickets than albums are also the ones moving DVD units.

Music, Resnikoff says, “has failed in the VHS market. It’s in its embryonic stages but DVD is effective because it is comfortable for people who buy CDs.”

With the renewed emphasis on catalog product, diskeries are becoming increasingly reluctant to part with any titles, no matter how obscure.

It was only half a decade ago that Sony Legacy and Rhino Records were head-and-shoulders above all others in volume and quality in the reissuing and repackaging field. But as Rhino becomes a greater part of WEA, there are a number of indies that are forging ahead with lesser-known acts of yore such as Sundazed and Fuel 2000.

“There are plenty of master recordings in the hands of artists and managers that have not had a proper release in the States,” says Len Fico, prez of Hollywood-based Fuel 2000. The label has released 175 titles, ranging from Eric Clapton’s work with the Yardbirds to funk maestro Maceo Parker to the avant garde jazz of Sun Ra and reggae dj King Tubby.

Fico finds the same constraints as the majors — limited pace at retail and high costs for packaging — but his modus operandi is significantly different.

“I go shopping,” he says, “and when I notice that there’s not a good collection for an artist or everything in the bin sucks, I start a new project.”

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