‘OPRAH’ CALLING THE TUNE

Top talker becomes big booster for music sales

For musical acts trying to break a hit record these days, it’s goodbye “live from New York” and hello “taped in Chicago.” The queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, has supplanted NBC’s venerable “Saturday Night Live” as the best spot on TV to generate music sales.

Getting a recording artist booked on “SNL” once was considered a coup by publicists and record label execs.

Viewers of the latenight show, the execs reasoned, were more likely to go into record stores. And for many years that was true, as an appearance on “SNL” routinely netted an upsurge in sales of the featured artist’s albums come Monday.

But with the advent of mass merchants stocking music alongside microwave ovens, a new record-buyer has emerged: the homemaker.

As a result of this shifting demographic, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has become the first stop for mainstream artists touting their latest releases.

Clint Black, Michael Bolton, Rod Stewart and Whitney Houston are just a few performers whose albums experienced significant sales gains following an appearance on “Oprah.”

“SNL” execs say their show still attracts top-flight acts whose music appeals to a majority of record-buyers, but record label captains suggest that in 1996 not one major artist got a significant sales spike from an “SNL” appearance.

Meanwhile, an “Oprah” appearance a month ago by Stewart, whose fan base dovetails perfectly with the talker’s demographics of middle-aged females, was followed by a tremendous jump in record sales.

Stewart’s Warner Bros. Records disc “If We Fall in Love Tonight” jumped 25 spots on the nation’s album sales chart, selling 40,000 copies in the days following the appearance – nearly double the sales tally from the previous week.

“The entrance of Rosie (O’Donnell) and the increase in Oprah (booking) musical guests has considerably changed the daytime TV environment,” says Fletcher Foster, VP of artist development and media marketing for Arista Nashville, country music’s leading label.

“(David) Letterman and (Jay) Leno remain important appearances for our artists, but they typically don’t deliver the sales increases that ‘Oprah’ does.”

‘Evita’ evidence

Following an Oprah appearance by Madonna, sales of her “Evita” soundtrack disc rose to nearly 112,000 copies, up from just more than 70,000 copies the previous week. The jump is particularly noteworthy as she didn’t even sing on the show, and the album of tunes written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice is a departure for the singer. “Oprah” did play snippets of the songs as bumpers for commercials.

“Oprah” also is credited with reaching an audience that is less radio-driven than other record buyers.

According to research by the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the second-largest record-buying constituency was the 45-and-over group. And 47% of albums sold during the year to that age group were purchased by women. (The top buyers were the 15-19 age group – which represented 17.1% of the record-buying public in 1995.)

Oprah excites auds

“Oprah has the ability to get her audience as excited about an artist as she gets,” says Arnold Stiefel, Stewart’s manager. “If you are fortunate enough to get on her show and she’s enthusiastic, it’s almost like having an infomercial for the (artist’s new album).”

Winfrey’s on-air enthusiasm suggests that even the most casual record-buyers can be lured back into stores.

And unlike the fractionalized radio playlists that bounce from urban to dance to rap, a TV perf often allows more than just a three-minute window into an artist’s new disc.

Arista Records saxman Kenny G performed a handful of holiday-themed tracks from his “Miracles” disc on “Oprah” and saw sales of the album double in the wake of the appearance. More than 148,000 copies were sold after he appeared on “Oprah,” compared with 64,000 copies before the TV gig.

“Oprah” packs a serious punch because King World’s syndicated show is watched by an average of nearly 9 million viewers, compared with almost half as many who tune in for O’Donnell, Leno or Letterman; NBC’s “SNL” reaches just north of 2 million viewers.

Longer exposure

“Oprah” also often devotes an entire show to one musical guest, unlike “Live With Regis & Kathie Lee,” which sometimes has musical guests, but only gives an artist two minutes to perform, often with merely a piano or guitar accompaniment.

“We have consistently been using TV to target an album to a specific audience,” says Abbey Konowitch, exec VP of MCA Records. “We’ve also discovered the power of ‘Oprah’ in reaching the more passive music consumer, such as older females. This year the record industry also discovered ‘Oprah.’ ”

A reunited New Edition appeared on “Oprah” the day its new MCA Records album “Home Again” went on sale. In the five days following the perf, almost 227,000 albums were sold, up from 450 copies sold preceding the appearance.

It’s difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the sales could be attributed to “Oprah” because the label laid a foundation to tout the release and extensively used print and electronic media. But the show played a significant role in helping the album land atop the nation’s sales chart that week, ahead of R.E.M.

Established practice

Labels have long used TV appearances, especially the awards show circuit, to complement print interviews heralding an artist’s new album. Artists performing on the Grammys, the American Music Awards and the Country Music Awards routinely reap sales increases in the wake of such appearances.

Appearances by Toni Braxton and Celine Dion on the recent Billboard Awards telecast helped their discs post modest sales gains.

“Oprah” show producers are responding to the increased competition by more often forgoing its policy of tying an artist’s appearance to a themed show.

They frequently would decree that a new album wasn’t reason enough for an act to be booked; the artist also had to have a “story,” usually some uplifting tale of how she overcame adversity to reach the top of the charts.

The popularity of O’Donnell and her rise into the musical talkshow mix has prompted a loosening of this standard. The “Oprah” crew appears to be more eager than ever to book acts and the show is inking crooners with nothing more to sell than their latest releases.

Winfrey has also been using her celebrity cachet to land hard-to-get artists. She recently got involved in the process when the show was trying to convince Prince to appear.

Her efforts paid off: The elusive entertainer made an unusual appearance recently to tout his “Emancipation” disc on her show.

Gripes remain

But many music industry execs still gripe that “Oprah” producers, who meet every Friday to pitch musical guests to the star, less frequently consider a breaking artist in favor of a more established one, such as Stewart or Bolton.

But with “Rosie” on the playing field, and “SNL’s” focus on landing up-and-coming buzz bands, the “Oprah” folks also have been looking at bands on the cusp as well.

“Our viewers have said they enjoy the music (oriented) shows,” Winfrey told Daily Variety, minutes before taping a segment with Madonna. “So we’ll keep doing them as long as there is a response.”

Unlike “SNL” guests, who perform for four minutes and then leave, Oprah affords the crooners a chat session during which they can tout the new album, hype an upcoming appearance or plug their favorite charities.

And Oprah seems to work hard to make the artists feel welcome and talkative.

She’s particularly effusive when the appearance combines music with a life-affirming experience, such as Luther Vandross discussing his life-long battle with weight fluctuations or Bolton’s interest in helping local charities through his fundraising softball games that precede his roadshows.

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