The Austin Chronicle

This Is Not for You

The Politics of Promos

October 4, 1996, Music

by Michael Bertin

You're driving around listening to KVRX and you hear "Destroy All Enemies of the Wannabes," a previously unreleased song on the Wannabes new EP, I Am God. You're a Wannabes fan, so you promptly pull into your favorite record store, buy the EP and leave a happy person. On your drive home, you're listening to KGSR and you hear an acoustic version of Alejandro Escovedo's "Crooked Frame." You're an Escovedo fan too, so you turn around and go back to the store. Only now, you find it isn't on any album or single. You leave miffed.

There are actually two items associated with Escovedo's With These Hands that are unavailable to the record-buying public: an interview disc and the "Crooked Frame" EP. The former is a lengthy interview done with KGSR's Jody Denberg. Interspersed between the Q&A is a 12-song overview of Escovedo's career -- material from all three solo records, the True Believers, and Rank & File. The latter "promotional only" item is essentially a maxi single with the album version of "Crooked Frame" and a handful of on-air acoustic performances tacked on. Neither is available to the average Escovedo fan. And it's not just Escovedo; scan the back pages of Goldmine and you'll find a black market of similar items for everyone from Sinatra to the Afghan Whigs.

Why can't you buy them in a record store? Well, the easy answer is that they're not for you. Radio is still the way to break a band (now even more so as MTV's prime directive has become squeezing Jenny McCarthy into tight plastic outfits), and most of these items are developed as promotional tools for radio.

With Escovedo, it's part of the way the label, Rykodisc, decided to present him to radio. "When we began marketing With These Hands, we decided that Alejandro had a story and a history worth telling, so it would make sense to include the interview disc with the packages we were sending out to radio," says Darcy Mayers, publicist for the label. As for the EP, it's more in line with generic promotional strategy. "[The EPs] are a vehicle for our radio promotions department. It's something special that they can take to radio and say, `Look, play this.'"

Radio stations are inundated with more music than they can possibly listen to or play, yet labels must somehow get their artists and their records onto playlists anyway. For those labels that can afford it, it's well worth their spending a few extra dollars to put one or two more items on a program director's desk. And what they are putting on the desks of program directors like Denberg isn't necessarily more of the same ol' product. Often the artwork and packaging on promo items is better than what graces commercial releases. Because of what it may ultimately mean to a band in terms of exposure it's more important to catch a programmer's eye than it is to catch yours.

Moreover, these promos usually contain songs or different versions of popular songs (unplugged, remixes, etc.) not available elsewhere. From a radio perspective, if stations have music that can't be bought, then they might be motivated to play it because of its exclusivity. KGSR's Denberg noted, "Ultimately the labels' job is to create excitement and exposure for their artists. And any avenue that they can do that, and any means they can get a programmer excited, they're gonna take that. What's a few thousands dollars or whatever in terms of if they can crack a record open, then the money flows in like lava."

Most of these promotional EPs, such as Soulhat's Too Gone to Be Good, a live acoustic spin-off from Good to Be Gone that Denberg says was probably produced to get the now-defunct Austin band onto Triple A (adult album alternative) stations such as his, never make it out of the collector's cases. Others do, however, and looking at examples of when it happens explains why it generally doesn't happen. The Fading Fast EP, recently released by Kelly Willis, was originally scheduled to be one of these media-only items.

"What happened originally," explains Teresa Ensenat, Vice President of A&R for A&M Records, "is that ["Fading Fast"] was a song that Kelly was doing for the soundtrack to Wynona Rider's next film Boys, and she was going to have to record with Son Volt. So we thought, `Why don't we just go up and record a bunch of things?' and then, `Well, let's just make this an EP, and we'll give it to college radio and to AAA radio.' It's more of a promotional vehicle to keep the artist's name out there without putting any undue sales pressure on the artist."

But Willis' Fading Fast EP was eventually made available to the public. Why the change of intentions? Oddly enough, despite a lack of expectations, Fading Fast made it into the Top 10 on the Gavin Americana charts, and as Willis explained, "Since [stations] were all playing it and since people were asking for it, it encouraged [Ensenat] to try to get them sold. SPIN said they'd do a review, but only if it was for sale. Things like that helped." As of yet SPIN hasn't done the review; again the EP is available, but here's the catch -- you can only get it in Texas.

Why can't Willis fans in, say, Idaho buy it too? Explaining that one involves a variety of other factors. First, putting records into stores is not as easy as you might think. Ensenat had slight problems just getting someone to distribute the EP in Texas alone. "I called a couple distributors on the East Coast and they were like, `Is she touring?' because they didn't want to get involved if there was nothing behind it."

According to the June 15, 1996 issue of Billboard magazine, last year 29,429 albums were released. Yet, 40 percent of total sales in 1995 were generated by only two percent of all the titles tracked by Soundscan -- the service the industry uses to keep tabs on sales. The Garths, Pearl Jams, and Pumpkins are what's selling and keeping the industry -- labels, distributors, retailers -- afloat. Without any sort of push by the label, distributors and record stores are going to figure that a record, especially an EP, ain't gonna be in that two percent and therefore are going to be reluctant to stock something that isn't going to sell.

Steve Wilkison at DejaDisc, the Wannabes's label, made the problem and resolution clear: "Most independent stores, like Waterloo, and some national chains like Tower -- and we're lucky to have both here in Austin -- do care about the music; but when faced with 29,000 records a year, they have to have a reason to stock that record. Once there's a demand for it, then the stores will stock it because they want to sell CDs."

Now, suppose an EP does generate interest in an artist like Willis and gets into stores. Then the label will want to get behind the record and work it. That generates a human resources problem. At any given time, a label like A&M has a fairly large number of projects on the table, but they only have so many people working publicity. If A&M assigns someone to make a big media push behind Willis, it probably means taking that person off another artist.

As part of the push, A&M will also want to put Willis on the road (which they did). Now she's touring behind an EP, which itself would be fairly unusual, but she also has to rearrange her schedule -- a schedule that includes plans to start recording in the very near future. A tour now means no album in February, the tentative finish date for the yet-unrecorded album. The label would much rather spend a few dollars on an EP and generate some interest, re-familiarizing radio with an artist, than put serious time and money behind a full album. Finally, labels don't want to sell EPs, they want to sell full-length CDs at $15 a pop. They fear cheaper CD singles and five and six-song EPs on the market will only hurt album sales. Then again, if they are pieces of forbidden fruit, they generate hype.

Small-label economics are different from the majors. Still, the I Am God EP, like the Escovedo and the Willis, is primarily a tool for radio. The Wannabes recently won the National Association of Independent Record Dealers and Distributors (NAIRD) award for "Alternative Album of the Year." According to Wilkison, DejaDisc wanted to "re-push the record -- especially to college radio because we thought that it got overlooked." But as an indie label they almost have to sell their EPs. "To do one that was just a promo and to go ahead and print up all of those copies and spend all that money, we decided to go ahead and sell them. We want to make back some of the money that we put in."

It's an odd situation in that the smaller, independent labels are faced with having to do something that the structure of the industry hinders them from doing in the first place. As things stand, labels like DejaDisc already have a harder time getting records into stores; yet, without the deep pockets that having a couple of Alanises on your roster gives, indies have to try and push anything that might potentially sell records and generate some revenue for them. Majors have a little more latitude. They can afford to sink more money into items that are strictly promotional tools and not have to worry as much about the costs. In fact, when it comes to promos, major labels literally have the luxury of not having to sell records. n

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