Analysis: Ray Charles' big finish

PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Three months after his death, Ray Charles debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart with his final CD, "Genius Loves Company," a release that Concord Records and Starbucks envision as something of a test for a new approach to marketing recorded music.

"Genius Loves Company" features Charles duets with 12 of the leading contemporary singers of soul, pop and jazz -- including B.B. King, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole and Willie Nelson.


In its first week in stores, the CD sold 202,000 copies, becoming the first Ray Charles album in 40 years to crack the Top 10. It was Charles' first appearance on the Top 200 chart since "My World" in 1993.

The album is a co-production of Concord Records and Starbucks' music arm, Hear Music, which has distributed records in the past but had never produced an album before teaming with Charles for "Genius Loves Company." Ken Lombard, Starbucks president of entertainment, told United Press International that as far as he knows, the marketing collaboration is a unique model for retailing CDs.


"Our commitment is to transform the way that music is discovered and delivered," he said, "by utilizing the Starbucks platform and the uniqueness of it and the tremendous customer loyalty that we enjoy, to offer customers the option."

Concord Records general manager Gene Rumsey told UPI the company shipped more than 1 million copies of the CD worldwide -- with 730,000 copies shipped to U.S. retailers including Starbucks locations. A few days before the Aug. 31 release date, said Rumsey, "Genius Loves Company" was the third most popular CD among's preorders.

Rumsey said Starbucks would spend money on an aggressive and sustained ad campaign to support the release, taking out local and national ads. He said that putting the CD in Starbucks outlets was a response to relatively new challenges involved in attracting consumers to retail outlets that traditionally sell recorded music.

"Here is a marketing principal that several mature industries forget about," said Rumsey. "It is much more effective and cost efficient to identify the consumer you want to reach and figure out how to put your product in front of that consumer where they are, instead of the standard approach of trying to get that consumer over to where you've placed the product."


Rumsey said music consumers have come to feel "disenfranchised and unexcited" about going into conventional music stores, while an estimated 36 million consumers come through Starbucks outlets each week.

"If we can put product in front of that many people," he said, "it makes sense to do so."

Lombard said the time is right for Starbucks' approach.

"We feel that the industry is right now void of a quality retail option with which to distribute music," he said, "and we feel that Starbucks, with more than 4,500 stores in the United States and more than 8,000 stores worldwide, will provide music with that quality retail option that they've been looking for."

Rumsey said traditional retailers have expressed reservations about the new approach, reasoning that they are there for the record label year-round and should not be put at risk of losing sales to coffee shops. Rumsey said, however, that the exposure in Starbucks could end up helping drive sales in traditional music retail locations.

"There's a segment (of consumers) who goes into Starbucks and sees that CD, that will go into Barnes & Noble, Borders, Target or Wal-Mart to buy that CD," he said. "We're creating marketing impression awareness."

The marketing plan calls for heavy use of direct retail television and national network TV ad buys as part of a campaign that Rumsey said was similar to the campaign he oversaw at EMI for "The Beatles 1" -- a Beatles greatest-hits package. He said plans called for buying time on ABC, NBC, VH1, Oxygen, CNN, Bravo, TV Land and TV One.


"Everything we can clear," he said.

There will also be ads in coming weeks on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Sunday Morning" on CBS, ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today" show -- followed by an expanded campaign on news radio and talk radio in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Seattle.

Rumsey called it a challenge to market the CD without benefit of having Charles available to promote the project himself.

After Charles died in June, Rumsey said Concord got calls from retailers urging the company to rush the CD to market.

"We had decided early on to do nothing, and to avoid appearing commercially exploitive," he said. "We held on to that despite pressure from pretty large retailers who said, 'You need to get this out.'"

Considering the caliber of the all-star lineup on "Genius Loves Company" -- and the unlikely coincidental timing of Charles's death and his final CD -- Lombard said it would be difficult to replicate the "event" nature of the release, but he said Starbucks would continue producing CDs on other artists as it ventures further into the music business.

"There's no way to repeat all of the 'event dimensions' that the Ray Charles CD brought to the table," he said, "but we will attempt to find the same quality of music and artists that we collaborate with as we did with Ray Charles."



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