Reinventing Elvis, Can The King Rise Again?

By Fred Goodman, The RollingStone MagazineSep 10, 2002
Reinventing Elvis, Can The King Rise Again?
There are not yet tumbleweeds blowing down Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis. But with Presley's original fans headed for retirement homes instead of record stores, the King's domain is shrinking. Fast. The graying of his core followers has raised alarms at his label, RCA, and with his estate's managers, Elvis Presley Enterprises: Last year, total sales of Presley's catalog were just below 1.5 million units; attendance at Graceland dropped fifteen percent from the year before. Enter the marketers. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Presley's death on August 16th, now is the moment to recrown the King for a new generation of subjects. Steps one and two came courtesy of Nike and Disney, both of which were recently granted licenses to Presley songs with the hopes of getting his music in front of a younger demographic. Step three is the September release of Elvis: 30 #1 Hits, a single-CD package that RCA hopes will do for Presley what the 1 package did for the Beatles. RCA is putting $10 million behind those hopes. The marketing campaign includes contests, Internet tie-ins, radio, TV and print ads, a Las Vegas launch party, and Presley's face plastered on billboards, phone booths and bus shelters from coast to coast. There is little doubt as to who all this advertising is aimed at. If you go to the Web site for 30 #1 Hits (Elvisnumberones.com), a voice solemnly intones, "Do you know why television has censors? Do you know why women throw their panties up onstage? Do you know why Britney played Las Vegas? Elvis is why. . . . Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything!" With eighty gold and forty-three platinum albums to his credit, Presley remains the undisputed monarch of sales for RCA and its parent, BMG. But last year, amid 8.2 million sales of the Beatles' 1, the compilation of chart-toppers, Presley was bottoming out: All his albums combined sold a paltry 1.4 million copies during the same period. Presley had eight titles on the Billboard catalog chart in 2001, but five of those were Christmas CDs. Even his combined total makes the King look like a peasant alongside more contemporary catalog-chart acts such as the Eagles. The problems were obvious: The titles were stale, and younger buyers just don't have much interest or emotional connection to Presley. "We had to stretch the demographics" to reach fans of all ages, says Joe DiMuro, senior vice president of strategic marketing for BMG. DiMuro isn't ignoring Presley's old-school fans -- as with 1, 30 #1 Hits will be available for direct order through TV ads six weeks before the album's street date, a strategy generally aimed at older buyers who don't frequent record stores. But the marketing campaign is designed mainly to reel in younger fans by convincing them of Presley's enduring hipness. Some of the efforts seem, in keeping with his Seventies image, somewhat bizarre: Elvis Presley Enterprises will stage a Memphis concert that will pair Presley's video image with live backing from some of his musicians from back in the olden days. But the Nike and Disney tie-ins have already offered a tremendous boost to RCA's efforts to revitalize the Presley catalog. In the case of Nike, the traditionally conservative EPE agreed to a remix of an obscure Presley movie soundtrack song, "A Little Less Conversation," which Nike used as part of a worldwide ad campaign that aired during the World Cup in June. (EPE did insist that Tom Holkenborg, the Dutch DJ who did the remix and goes by the name of Junkie XL, identify himself only as JXL.) "Nike selected this relatively unknown song, and the remix was something everyone loved -- including us, with all of our history of reservations," says Jack Soden, president and chief executive of EPE. The fact that Nike was putting $100 million behind the campaign, which also featured sophisticated spots directed by Terry Gilliam, likely didn't hurt. The real bonus came when Holkenborg's remix proved so catchy that it was subsequently released as a single. To date it has gone to Number One in nine countries, including England. "A Little Less Conversation" even earned cheap bragging rights in the U.S., going to Number One on Billboard's singles chart by selling just 26,500 copies; still, it has remained there for three weeks and continues to sell and garner radio play. The track has been added to 30 #1 Hits, and the cautious Soden -- a new convert to the power of updating Presley -- predicts there will be more remixes in the future. But if the goal is to introduce Elvis to a new generation of fans, the real bonanza may be Disney's new animated film Lilo and Stitch. The plot centers around a five-year-old girl, Lilo, who happens to be a huge Elvis fan. Six Presley songs are used on the soundtrack, which has already sold 242,000 copies and is Number One on the Billboard soundtrack chart. That's a steady stream of royalties for RCA, and nearly a quarter of a million six- to twelve-year-olds who could be getting 30 # 1 Hits for Christmas. And then, of course, there are the Disney tie-in Happy Meals and coloring books that RCA's DiMuro is excited about. His reasoning is simple: RCA hopes Disney is creating future Presley customers. And in that regard, Happy Meals are just small potatoes. In coming decades, Lilo and Stitch, and its video and CD, may prove to be Elvis 101 for succeeding generations, keeping Presley alive through the unlikely media of kiddie video. "Sometimes you just get lucky as anything," says Soden. "Back in '88-'89, we licensed some of the [Presley] '68 performance and 'Aloha From Hawaii' to the Disney Channel at, frankly, a fraction of what we would normally expect for it," he adds. "And it was done with this same clear thought in mind. We're thoroughly enjoying the joint efforts with BMG, but, honestly, the notion of introducing Elvis to a new audience is more of a new focus for BMG -- it's been part of our philosophy for a long, long time. In a way, I guess, it's working. When we talk to the twentysomethings, they remember sitting in front of the TV and encountering this great-looking guy with this great music. And now they're visitors at Graceland. But I don't think we really need to recast Elvis. I think our mission is, don't screw it up."
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