When RCA Records releases its Elvis Presley retrospective, ELV1S 30 #1 Hits, Sept. 24 amid a worldwide blitzkrieg of publicity typically reserved for a Hollywood blockbuster, more will be at stake than just another multi-platinum sales opportunity for one of the record industry's most bankable sellers. To hear company executives tell it, the project represents a bid for the very soul of BMG Entertainment's cornerstone music asset.
"This is not just another compilation album," RCA Music Group chairman Bob Jamieson says. Rather, the goal of the collection - which is referred to in shorthand fashion as E1 - is to "create a catalyst that will take Elvis to a whole new level ... We're [setting up] not just to sell this record [but future sets]."
Twenty-five years after his Aug. 16 death, the King, it seems, is showing signs of commercial atrophy among younger music consumers - especially those raised on Eminem, Nelly, Britney Spears, and Papa Roach.
BMG executives acknowledge that younger fans may have never even heard his music; what's more, their only association with him may be the excesses that marked the later stages of his life. In response, RCA is giving Elvis an image makeover that tones down his older and more kitsch-heavy associations and repositions him as aperformer/musician built for the TRL demographic: a young, charismatic icon/sex symbol.
Not only is the label teaming with Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) to carefully tweak his visual presentation in the media, but the two have also collaborated on restoring tracks from the Elvis catalog to give the music a more "youthful" and relevant sound. RCA A&R exec David Bendeth and engineer Ray Bardani have remixed original recordings from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s - many of which had not been touched since the tracks were cut - with the aim of presenting the King in a fuller, richer dimension. Besides a much-improved sound through remastering, strings and other instrumentation included on some tracks that never made it onto final mixes have been restored.
"The sound is far more contemporary than many might expect," Jamieson says. This is perhaps most evident in the remix work of Dutch DJ/artist JXL on "A Little Less Conversation," which is a bonus track on the album and serving as its first single. The track has reached No. 1 in markets around the globe - topping the U.S. and U.K. singles sales charts, among others - thanks largely to its inclusion in a $100 million Nike marketing campaign for the World Cup soccer tournament.
'It's About The Attitude'
Creating such contemporary cultural currency will be key in marketing the album. Additional DJ remix tracks for release at radio are in the works - "Suspicious Minds" is said to be under consideration - along with accompanying videos for play at MTV. In the meantime, RCA says "Conversation" - which is No. 63 on The Billboard Hot 100 - has generated about 20 million impressions at pop radio. RCA is also in talks to create a two- to three-hour block of Elvis programming for national radio syndication.
Visually, BMG and EPE will, via golden-hued billboards, print ads, and TV commercials, zero in on the core elements of the artist's prime appeal: the lower half of his matinee-idol facial profile, the furl of his pompadoured hair, his hips mid-roll. Other images will surround the glamorous accessories that marked his life, like his pink cadillac and black leather jacket.
"His influence is not just music - and that's what we have to further expound upon. It's about his imagery; it's about his sexuality; it's about the attitude," says Joe DiMuro, BMG VP of strategic marketing and point man on the E1 rebranding effort. "Elvis is a brand that needs to be resurfaced, resuscitated, and re-energized in the public's mind-set, especially among the [12- to 34-year-old] demographic. If you asked people about Elvis a year ago, what probably would have come to mind is Elvis circa 1976-77: the bloated, drug [addicted] performer. That was probably the image more prevalent with younger audiences. But if you ask a 17-year-old three months from now, you are going to get a different answer."
There is plenty in the works to help propel a change in thinking about the King: a far flung marketing campaign with a reported $10 million price tag that includes everything from traditional TV and radio advertising and tie-ins with Nike and the Disney movie Lilo & Stitch to a traveling Elvis museum known as Mobile Graceland and packaging in McDonald's Happy Meals, an AOL promotion, toys through Hasbro and Vermont Teddy Bear, and a series of books from Bertelsmann's Random House division. All of this activity will be anchored by a network TV special airing this fall.
It's enough to make Col. Tom Parker smile. As EPE representative Todd Morgan points out: "This will be the most-promoted Elvis record in the history of Elvis records."
But with great hype and a major investment also comes high expectations. Not only will E1 bear the responsibility of living up to comparisons to the similarly fashioned Beatles' 1 retrospective - the hit of the 2000 holiday season that has now sold more than 23 million copies worldwide - but also of marking the first step in rejuvenating Elvis sales.
Feeding The Cash Cow
BMG executives say that the E1 collection and associated rebranding initiative is an effort that has been more than three years in the making, and with all the time and money invested in the project, commercial expectations for the album are high. Some reported internal projections estimate sales of at least 10 million units worldwide.
For his part, Jamieson says that RCA expects to do "extremely well" with the release. "This is a top priority around the world."
Beyond the normal marketing spend, BMG is pumping additional money into the Elvis image rebranding effort. The reason? His catalog represents the crown jewel of Bertelsmann's music assets. The Recording Industry Assn. of America recently bestowed Elvis with a special certification marking more than 100 million units sold.
"In a lot of ways, Elvis remains the premier artist on our label," Jamieson says. "His records are very profitable and timeless."
That's why for a company light on back-catalog firepower, there is a real need to sustain Elvis as a cash cow. In the past decade, Elvis has sold more than 18 million units, making him the 32nd best-selling artist of the SoundScan era, but that pales against the likes of the Beatles, Backstreet Boys, or Garth Brooks. In that period, the King has placed eight titles on The Billboard 200, the majority of them boxed sets and Christmas collections.
Plans are already in the works for future reissues and other Elvis collections. Over the past few months, BMG has pulled 80 albums from circulation, reducing the active catalog from 130 titles to 50. Those 50 titles still in circulation will be the focus of a multi-year remastering/rerelease effort similar to E1.
That's welcome news to many in the industry. Retailers, label executives, and representatives of Elvis' estate alike agree that much needs to be done to pare down, clean up, remaster, and refocus a catalog that has suffered from bloating in the number of titles available and a lack of attention to quality.
Morgan notes that it "must be confusing" for the casual consumer to wade through an Elvis bin in the record store to try to determine what the best album are. He says that, contrary to what some believe the estate is all in favor of retailoring the catalog to more effectively connect with the average fan.
Virgin Entertainment Group (VEG) senior VP of product and marketing Dave Alder says E1 marks a good start in that effort. "There's been a lot of Elvis compilations put out in the past, but they seem to be handling this one with more care."
Much of that improved care lies in the highly integrated marketing setup the company