[Five Deadly Everythings]

Look who’s back — and then look who’s backing them

Posted in lifestyle marketing, music by Jef on October 10, 2007

Some of your favourite (or your parents’ favourite) musical acts are back after a lengthy retirement, hiatus, slump of obscure releases, or even band breakup.

But let’s try and notice a pattern:

Album of hits to commemorate
reunion tour.

You didn’t even know
she was still recording music, did you?

Joni Mitchell’s first album
in almost 10 years.

Paul McCartney’s first
noteworthy release in decades.

Back with the E Street Band.

If you chug down a decaf-grande-nonfat-latte twice a day, you’ve probably already caught on. All releases have distribution deals with Hear Music, the music catalogue company that was purchased by Starbucks in 1999 and turned into a smallish-scale (in terms of size, not big-name clout) record label.

Spending its initial years making coffeehouse mixtapes, Hear Music’s first major success story was the 2004 Ray Charles duet disc, “Genius Loves Company. ” It was one of those rare moments of historical synergy: around the time of record release, Charles passed away, reigniting interest in his back catalogue, and Jamie Foxx was receiving advance praise for his portrayal of the singer in the biopic “Ray.” The album went on to sell over 2 million copies and swept the Grammy’s later that year. Foxx won the Best Actor award at the Oscars and suddenly became a Hollywood A-lister, even parlaying his impression of Charles into a singing career of his own.

With magic like that, is it any wonder the artists shown above are back in the studio and banking on your local corporate coffee shop to generate past glory sales numbers?

The year following “Genius Loves Company,” Hear Music signed an exclusive deal with Alanis Morrisette to distribute the acoustic version of “Jagged Little Pill” in Starbucks outlets six weeks before it would be available anywhere else. Which, in a humourous turn of events, threw HMV into an inconsolable temper tantrum.

Since then, Hear Music has released a Sergio Mendes album that teenagers would actually give a damn about (thanks to producer will.I.am of the Black Eyed Peas and his connections to popular rappers and Justin Timberlake, who make guest appearances on the album). They’ve also signed Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell.

In Starbucks stores, they distributed rapper Common’s new album, which hit number one on the Billboard charts. As a longtime fan of the artist, let me tell you, after over a decade of critical acclaim but only underground success, Common was never expected to have a number one album. Can you name a hit single off this album? He’s released three videos so far, can you describe at least two of them?

With little radio support even from urban stations and barely any MTV video rotation, I’m left with the conclusion that Common was pushed to the top by impulse buys from Starbucks customers.

It’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

The term “lifestyle marketing” gets kicked around a lot when referring to brands who are bigger than their own products, but what we’re witnessing here is one of the only sales success stories involving CDs — a product format long believed to be dead and on its way to the morgue.

If lifestyle marketing can push a rapper’s disc (parental advisory sticker and all) into the SUVs of soccer moms and create a buzz around artists most kids thought were already dead, then perhaps the record industry isn’t stuck in as deep of a hole as we thought it was.

Forget the seeming death-bed convulsions of HMV and the solemn closure of historic Sam the Record Man. Why can’t I yet buy underground rap albums at Athlete’s World?