Oldies are goldies to music marketers

  • Business
  • Sunday, 23 Feb 2003


LOOK who's hanging out with the teen-pop stars and gangsta rappers on the Billboard album chart these days. Nestled just a few spots below Christina Aguilera and a few higher than Snoop Dogg, there’s a composer who rarely mingles with the world of bared midriffs and pimp talk: George Gershwin. 

The man who wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 gets a songwriting credit on the latest Rod Stewart album, a collection of pre-rock classics called It Had to Be You – the Great American Songbook. The album is among the more remarkable music industry success stories of the past several years, in large part because its target audience is about three times the age of the typical Britney Spears fan. 

“We’ve sold nearly three million copies now. It’s been a very pleasant surprise,’’ Rod Stewart, a rocker since the 1960s, said by phone from Los Angeles. 

But hardly a shock. After years of focusing almost exclusively on the 25-and-under crowd, record labels are now marketing to the AARP set as never before, repackaging artists from the 1960s and 1970s, like Cat Stevens and Chicago, and pushing new projects by performers who supposedly peaked decades ago. 

And it's working. In the past 12 months, artistes who haven't had hit albums in a long time, among them James Taylor and Elton John, have been sharing the top of the charts with performers young enough to be their children. Count on many of the older generation to snare some top Grammy honours today. 

Young performers who appeal to greying buyers had a good year, too. Buzz about Norah Jones, 23, a jazz-influenced singer whose album stood at No.1 a couple of weeks ago, started with consumers well into their 40s and 50s, and took off from there, according to her label. It was NPR, not MTV, that introduced her to listeners. 

“Record companies have a renewed respect for older consumers,'' said Scott Pascucci of Warner, a major label that recently sold 400,000 copies of Chicago's Greatest Hits.  

“We’re willing to take risks in our marketing and put up a significant amount of money.'' 

Why is adult-friendly pop selling so well now? Start with an important cultural and demographic shift. Today's 50-year-olds were in college in the early 1970s, which means they experienced Beatlemania, were steeped in rock and probably owned a decent-size collection of vinyl. 

Twenty years ago, most label executives were not even thinking about 50-year-olds; now, for the first time, millions of long-time rock fans are on the verge of their golden years. 

In the past decade, the percentage of CDs bought by people 45 and older has doubled, to 24%, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, making it the fastest-growing segment of the album-buying public. The 15-to-24 category now accounts for 25% of all sales, down from 34% in 1992. 

For years, “legacy artistes,” as performers in this category are known, had been selling out live shows. At some point, it dawned on record labels that anyone who would buy a US$45 concert ticket might also buy an album. 

In the age of the Internet, older and brand-loyal consumers are among the most valuable out there for record executives. Eminem’s fans are ever more likely to consider music something that can be downloaded for free. 

Adults download music too, but grown-ups are accustomed to thinking of albums as physical objects you buy, rather than bits and bytes you steal. 

Selling legacy artists, however, is still tricky. Radio stations, even oldies stations, all but ignore their new material and MTV won’t touch them. Ingenuity and guerilla tactics are required – and lots of TV airtime, as Stewart and his label, J Records, discovered in releasing It Had to Be You. – LAT-WP 

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