A frequent source of KMF inspiration, our own national treasure Terry O’Reilly of the CBC’s Under The Influence is never lacking for a good hook. Can anyone blame me?
Well this time we’re on a meta journey into influence, well past mere inspiration and headfirst into the very essence of marketing – creative plagiarism. Nowhere has this constant been better and more entertainingly applied than in the business of marketing rock and roll music. Indeed the worlds of art and artifice are never closer than here, and O’Reilly’s first in a series segment “The Marketing of Rock ‘N Roll is – Part 1” is thick with classic gimmicks, trickery and some woefully missed opportunities.
Timely too, as we nurse our Grammy night hangovers, celebrate our favourite winners and console the nominees that didn’t win. In this case there were a couple very close to home, including my own brother Tim Walsh for his fine bass playing on Louisiana roots artist Zachary Richard’s nominated record le fou. Next time.
O’Reilly starts his tale on an otherwise ordinary day in February 1964, when the Beatles woke up, ate a few scones and changed rock and roll history. Amid the bacchanalian screams that nearly drown out their charming if imperfect performance of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on Ed Sullivan, the Beatles were instant rock and roll royalty, taking a powerful swinging crack at Elvis’ thrown.
And yet, as Terry O’Reilly posits, whatever the Beatles got right in channelling the zeitgeist of the early 60s, they got completely wrong when it came to monetizing it. But that didn’t stop at least one long-forgotten band of the era to capitalize on their rapid rise.
O’Reilly gives a delightful recount of how complete unknowns – “the Beau Brummels” – applied the 2nd P of marketing to brilliant effect. Choosing a name that sounded British and “just happened” to fall alphabetically right after The Beatles, this American Beatles-look-and-sound-alike “B-band” ensured their records were right there after the empty bin of sold out fab four records for desperate buyers. Great marketing placement.
But back before the Beatles were just a misspelling of an eeksome pest, Elvis’ hegemonic commercialization was in full swing. Under the watchful eye of Col. Tom Parker, who, not having great faith in Elvis’ longevity at first, took supreme advantage of the rising star’s early popularity. Producing every piece of throwaway (now highly collectable) souvenir garbage he could, he took every opportunity available to cash in. All in support of his big film debut Love Me Tender in 1956 – a huge success – the teen-oriented marketing machine that was Elvis stopped at nothing.
According to O’Reilly. “In just a few months over 50 Elvis-themed products were produced from charm bracelets and necklaces to scarves, teddy bear perfume, tops bubble gum cards and sneakers to record players, hats and lipsticks in hot pink and houndog orange ….”
Not a bad day at the hound dog races. The campaign generated over 20 million dollars – a huge pile of loot for 1957. From himself selling “I hate Elvis” pins to making his short tour in the Korean War yet another opportunity to propel the Elvis brand, Col. Parker was the first rock and roll marketer and arguably himself “The King” of another art in his own right.
That’s not quite the title one would give to the infamous Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager. Though miraculously well-loved by the band to this day, and trusted to a fault, Brian Epstein’s notorious mismanagement of the Beatles and non-management of the enormously lucrative merchandise licensing opportunity of their rapid rise left the Beatles’ bank account up to 1965, (according to George Harrison) considerably well below a million dollars. Others have suggested that their individual payouts were in the low 6 figures during those halcyon days.
So while Col. Parker had cut the template for how to make a bundle on rock and roll stars, (while retaining a 50% stake for himself), Epstein handed over 90% of the Beatles’ merchandising to a faceless third party management company simply because he didn’t want to deal with it. Many have suggested the reason and timing of Brian Epstein’s ultimate suicide in 1967 (the year his contract with the Beatles came up for renewal), was traceable directly to his tragically bad decision.
Epstein’s notorious error of judgement and management has provided a fantastic lesson to future stars. Anyone who’s been even a casual observer of the music industry would see who the winners of the merchandizing machine of rock music are. From the Monkeys to KISS to ZZ Top and ACDC the standard set by Elvis in the 50s has been firmly ingrained in the business to this day.
As Terry O’Reilly’s series continues, we’ll be back next week to look at more of the fascinating world of Rock & Roll Marketing.