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Record Labels Look to Niche Channels

3/02/2007 7:00 PM Eastern

For fans of bluegrass and other music genres that get little airplay, networks such as BlueHighways TV and Gospel Music Channel are a rare opportunity to follow their favorite artists and learn about new ones. That appeal isn't lost on record labels and talent management companies, which see the recent proliferation of niche music networks as a powerful, almost grassroots way to serve existing fans and attract new ones.

“The Gospel Music Channel has played a key role in providing visibility for all of our artists,” said Chris Erlanson, director of marketing for Christian music label INO Records. “I can't think of any other channel where we can reach our core demographic 100% of the time. They've always been a key piece of our marketing plan.”

That's true even for artists who have crossed over into the mainstream but don't get the same exposure on radio or cable music networks.

“Even though gospel music is a significant percentage of overall record sales, prior to GMC, we had no real national place to showcase our artists,” said Chaz Corzine, managing partner of talent management company Blanton, Harrell, Cooke & Corzine. “It wasn't unusual for an artist like Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant to perform on Letterman or Leno, but that might happen once a year. GMC gives us the opportunity to put our artists in front of their fans with much greater consistency.”

Although genres such as Christian music might appear to be niche plays, many of them are booming. But that growth can be a double-edge sword.

“Christian music has gone through an explosion over the last 10 years,” Erlanson said. “With the increasing number of artists coming out in the Christian marketplace, it continues to be a challenge to build exposure for any artist. Radio stations continue to be bombarded every week with new singles, while they're becoming much more focused in their programming.”

Networks like GMC provide another outlet, especially for artists that can't get radio airplay because they're new or aren't perceived as having wide appeal.

“GMC actually walked into our marketplace at the right time and has been a valuable asset in providing a captive audience content that may not be able to grab a slot on radio,” Erlanson said.

ENTERING THE MAINSTREAM

In the final week of 2006, R&B singer Akon's song “Smack That” set an industry record for digital sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Meanwhile, James Blunt's Back to Bedlam was No. 6 for the year in album sales.

What do Akon and Blunt have in common, aside from big hits in the same year? Both artists got their break on Music Choice's Fresh Crops on-demand show, said network president and CEO David Del Beccaro. Music Choice is the country's most-watched free music VOD service, according to Rentrak, and Del Beccaro believes that's one reason why his network has become the most effective way for artists to break into the mainstream.

“If you're on MTV, you've made it already,” Del Beccaro said. “They don't have that many slots in the first place. So if you want to break an act, you have a better shot at accomplishing that here than anywhere in the country right now.”

Regardless of whether video really did kill the radio star, there's no denying that terrestrial radio stations have tighter playlists than in the past, leaving little room for unknowns. Satellite radio services have much more diverse offerings, but Del Beccaro argues that multichannel networks still offer the biggest reach and thus the best opportunity for independent labels and new artists.

“Our service is really the only way for any artist on a small label or a new artist to get national play,” Del Beccaro said. “For all their success, XM Radio has only 7 million or 8 million customers. When you get down to that niche [music] channel, you're talking hundreds of thousands of people. We're in 32 million cable homes with our audio service and 19 million homes with our VOD. When we put an act in, it's going to have a hell of a lot more exposure.”

Some record labels agree with Music Choice's claims and say that the network and broadband are rapidly emerging as powerful distribution channels. “The bottom line is [that] if you have a huge hit, there's a chance it will get played [on radio and MTV],” said John Franck, senior vice president of marketing at Koch Records. “If you don't, there are more avenues than ever to get it played online and that's exciting. Music Choice comes to the table for us time and time again.”

Between its November 2004 launch and February 2007, Music Choice On Demand notched 700 million views, according to Rentrak. That's a lot of eyeballs — enough, some record executives say, to jump-start careers.

“They are always one of the first playing our new artists and helping the exposure of our baby bands,” said Elias Chios, vice president of promotion at Roadrunner Records. “They have always stepped out to help break bands and not wait until these bands have already reached a certain plateau, which is rare these days.”

Record label executives also cite the fact that unlike networks such as MTV, Music Choice hasn't expanded into other types of programming, such as reality shows. “Music Choice's core is still music,” Chios said.

Some networks are equally focused on music and say they get good feedback from artists and record labels as a result. “We have a lot of time to give them because music is all we do,” said Andy Schuon, president of International Music Feed. “We can add an artist to our playlist, and they are instantly on the linear channel, on our 100-plus hour VOD [service], on five mobile networks in four countries and featured prominently on IMF.com. It's not American Idol, but in the fragmented media world that exists today, IMF is doing our little part to spark interest across many platforms.”

Networks that offer more than music videos counter that other programming types are just as important for spotlighting up-and-coming artists.

“We pride ourselves on breaking new bands,” Fuse executive vice president and general manager Jen Caserta said. “When you're doing that, it's not just about the music videos that you play. That's just one aspect of it.”

THE 'FUSE EXPERIENCE'

Caserta points to what she describes as the “Fuse experience,” where artists appear not only in videos, but also in live performances, interviews and profiles. The network sees the Fuse experience as particularly important for unknown artists and bands.

“In order to bring in new talent, you have to immerse the band in the whole Fuse experience so they're seen as multi faceted artists,” Caserta said. “So if you see a music video on the linear network, and you go to on demand for more exclusive content, such as their back story, you get a taste of who they are beyond their music video, as personalities. It becomes a bit more multidimensional.”

That's the case for less-mainstream artists, too.

“[Gospel Music Channel] gives us the opportunity to go deeper into the artists' lives,” said talent manager Corzine, who sees interviews and biographies as a way to flesh out an artist's public persona. “With most TV opportunities, you might get one song and, if you were lucky, a brief interview, usually around the release of a new record. The 'lifestyle' pieces that GMC is doing are what many of the fans respond to.”

It's difficult for networks to play an artist's music videos if they don't have any. But until recently, artists and their labels were in a chicken-and-egg situation: It's difficult to justify shooting a music video or taping a concert when there are few or no multichannel outlets for distributing that content.

But programmers were in the same situation: Although their research might show that a particular genre's audience would watch videos, concerts and interviews, they can't show what's not available. Gospel Music Channel encountered that dearth of content when it launched in October 2004.

“They weren't just hard to find. They weren't even being shot,” network senior director of Internet and new media Justin Williams said.

That's slowly changing, as demand influences supply. For example, GMC said labels are making their artists available for profile shows such as Faith & Fame. “The labels really love them because it complements what they're trying to make a business out of,” Williams said.

One example is EMI Gospel, whose Clark Sisters are the subject of an April 7 Faith & Fame episode. “The taping alone is creating groundswell buzz that I'm confident, along with the TV airing, will equate into sales by street date on April 10,” EMI Gospel vide president and general manager Larry Blackwell said.

Other networks are mining archives to help find new fans for old artists. One example is VOD service BlueHighways TV. Much of BlueHighways' content comes from the personal libraries and contacts of chairman and CEO Stan Hitchcock and vice president of entertainment industry relations Ronnie Reno.

“We started with my dad's old footage, and Stan had some old footage with Buck Owens,” said Reno, who just finished producing Merle Haggard's latest album. “We don't just play the footage as it was done in the '60s or '70s. We tell the history of it. We do wrap-arounds and tell stories about it. Then it becomes more than just an archival piece. It becomes a history piece, an educational lesson.”

That's one reason why BlueHighways has built a cult following among artists and roots music fans. “Artists are coming to us [with old footage] because they see that we want to present it in a way that they want to leave it with us,” Reno said.

BlueHighways is leveraging its audience to build awareness of its VOD and broadband offerings. “Fan groups, [such as] the International Bluegrass Music Association, have been very important,” said Denise Hitchcock, senior vice president of marketing and affiliate relations. “The roots music fans have been great in carrying our banner and working for us because there is no other place where they can get this kind of programming.”

That devotion to a musical genre isn't lost on multichannel operators, who see niche networks as another way to differentiate themselves. One example is Verizon Communications, whose FiOS TV service carries 15 music channels, including International Music Feed, Gospel Music Channel and Soundtrack Channel.

“We've had customer requests from indie music fans to carry Havoc [Television],” said Tricia Lynch, director of FiOS TV programming. “IMF is a world class library of music programming that our customers are just beginning to explore.”

September