Universal Bets Big On Vince Gill[size=3]
Louis Hau, 10.11.06, 11:40 AM
Country music star Vince Gill has a new album coming out Oct. 17, and it's a whopper: 43 songs making up about two hours and 45 minutes of music spread out across four--yes, four--compact discs.
At a time when CD sales are in seemingly inexorable decline, Gill's These Days might appear to be a foolhardy move for his label MCA Nashville. It's hard enough nowadays to get consumers to buy one CD. What could possibly persuade them to buy four--even at a suggested retail price of $29.98?
Despite what would appear to be long odds, Universal Music Group Nashville, the parent of MCA Nashville and a subsidiary of Vivendi, likes its chances. Universal Nashville Co-Chairman Luke Lewis says he's got the right material, the right audience and the right recording artist to have a shot at making These Days a success.
"Vince is part of the foundation of MCA,'' Lewis says. "He's been here forever, sold millions of records and all that. Partially out of respect and partially because it was so good, I felt obliged a bit to try to find a way to make it work and put it in the marketplace.''
Still, Lewis acknowledges, "It's risky. But so is everything we do.''
What makes These Days stand out is that it isn't a retrospective box set or a rarities collection. Instead, it is composed entirely of newly recorded material, all of it written or co-written by Gill himself. The set could have fit on three CDs and, with minimal pruning, would have made a lengthy double album. Nonetheless, it remains one of the largest-ever releases of new material by a major recording artist.
Lewis is no stranger to unconventional music projects. He was executive producer of The Complete Hank Williams, an ambitious, Grammy Award-winning, 10-CD box set released by Mercury Nashville in 1998. He also greenlighted Unearthed, a 2003 Johnny Cash collection that included four CDs of previously unreleased material and a fifth disc of highlights from Cash's recordings for Lost Highway, another Universal label.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, Universal sold 18,000 units of the Williams box and 95,000 of the Cash set--enough to make both profitable, Lewis says. They currently retail for about $170 and $80, respectively.
The two releases "gave me a lot of confidence in the fact that the marketplace was willing to accept variable pricing and bigger collections,'' he says. "It made me less fearful. No matter what business you're in, you get into conventional-wisdom ruts. Consumers are pretty flexible people.''
The path to These Days began last year when Gill embarked on a particularly fruitful period of songwriting and recording. The sessions yielded 31 finished songs featuring A-list collaborators including Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, Del McCoury, Diana Krall and Emmylou Harris. Rather than pare the songs down to a single album, Gill asked Lewis whether Universal might consider releasing the material as three albums over the course of a year.
It was a concept that Lewis was already familiar with at Lost Highway, which has released multiple albums in a single year by alt-country recording artist Ryan Adams and country legend Willie Nelson.
Lewis loved what Gill had recorded and asked if he was finished. Gill replied that he wanted to record some bluegrass and acoustic numbers. Lewis then decided to release everything as a four-CD set, organized by musical styles: traditional country, middle-of-the-road pop country, acoustic and a harder-edged "rockin' " sound.
"Vince sort of had these songs in his mind grouped together,'' Lewis says. "Kind of mushing them together in any other sort of configuration would have destroyed his concept.Ē
The next challenge was figuring out how to market the collection. Thanks to a string of memorable hits such as "When I Call Your Name" and "I Still Believe In You," and the appealing, high-lonesome sound of his keening voice, Gill has a fervent fan base that makes up the primary target audience for These Days. Moreover, Lewis notes, Gill enjoys an unusually large following among relatively affluent fans in major metropolitan markets, which he says should help the new album find its way into suburban big-box retailers.
"There's a certain base with a guy like Vince that kind of hedges the bet,'' he says. "We're pretty sure there are 300,000 people who regularly buy Vince Gill records, whether they have hit singles on them or not. We figure if we get a third of them right away, we're in pretty good shape.''
Lewis says he'd be happy with sales of about 150,000 units. "That doesn't sound ambitious but listen, it's hard to sell 150,000 of anything these days,'' he says.
He adds that he doesn't think sales will be undermined by fans cherry-picking a handful of tracks from Apple Computer's (nasdaq: AAPL - news - people ) iTunes Store, where the set will be available.
"The typical country music radio listener is 40 years old on average,'' Lewis says. "That's not to say they don't have computers and that they don't download music. But I don't think anybody that hears about this project is going to be inclined to try to pull three or four songs out of this. That's not what this is about."
In addition to promoting These Days through cable TV channels such as Viacom's (nyse: VIA.B - news - people ) Country Music Television and E.W. Scripps' (nyse: SSP - news - people ) Great American Country, Universal is also planning to cast a wider net to reel in music fans who donít usually buy country releases, according to Ben Kline, Universal Nashville's executive vice president of sales, marketing and new media.
Thanks to the various musical styles exhibited on the album, "music heads are going to be all over it," Kline says. As a result of a broad-based marketing and media campaign, "I think it'll be pretty tough to turn on your TV and not know that Vince Gill has a new record out, no matter what channel you're watching," he says.
Then there is the issue of pricing. Recent double albums, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium and Christina Aguilera's Back To Basics, have been available at about the same price as a single CD, after discounts. But that wasn't feasible with a collection as large as These Days.
"That's a lot of mechanical royalties to pay, you had to factor all of it into the price and the packaging is more expensive,'' Lewis says. "All of those things make it a little bit harder to make a buck."
So Universal opted to limit the price to roughly twice that of a single-disc album, assembling the set's four CDs in paperboard "Digipaks" packaged in a cloth-covered cardboard box that should fit in retail display racks.
"I was pretty adamant and Luke was pretty adamant about wanting this under $30,'' Kline says.
Lewis says retailers have been receptive to the pending release of These Days, noting that, "Vince has got a lot of friends in the music business at retail and everywhere else who are willing to stock something that's a little bit off, so there's a payoff there too."
Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ), a major seller of country music, doesn't anticipate any problems in stocking These Days, despite its unusual bulk, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Linda Blakley says. She notes that the company has had success with unusual music releases in the past, including its exclusive sale of Garth Brooks' 2005 The Limited Series box set, which has sold about 1.9 million units, according to Soundscan.
Universal has no immediate plans to try to goose sales by breaking up These Days and making the CDs available individually, although Lewis says he might consider doing so with the disc that has "The Reason Why," the set's first single.
"I guess we could break the rest of them out, but at some point you get a hold of these precious collections, and it forces you to be precious in your own heart and not get turned into a whore,'' he says. "Listen, I get paid to make money for a big company. I don't treat that lightly either. But there are these occasions that come along where, you know what? As long as we're not losing any money, this isn't all about money.''