Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blake Shelton's six-pack CD part of trend
Published: April 6, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Blake Shelton's knocked out a lot of six packs in his life, but
nothing quite like this.
The country heartthrob's latest album, "Hillbilly Bone," is being marketed by Warner
Music Nashville as a "six pak." It contains just six tracks and will be followed in the next few months by a second short album with a third possible by the end of the year.
Call it a test balloon for the digital age, the latest stab at preserving physical album sales at a time when listeners are turning their backs on the oh so old-fashioned CD.
"Just to be honest with you, I was to the point where I just realized, 'What have we got
to lose?'" Shelton said recently.
Nothing it turns out, and there's been plenty of gain. "Hillbilly Bone" opened with more
than 71,000 physical copies sold and vaulted Shelton to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 — his highest posting on the all-genre chart. A month later it has sold more than 138,000
copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and remains No. 4 on the country charts. There are plans at Warner for not only another Shelton six pak in the late summer, but
possibly entries from other artists as well.
Short albums, usually called EPs — a term rejected by Warner as out of date and
misleading — are nothing new, though they're not particularly widespread. They're
often put out as stopgap offerings between albums or to promote emerging acts who
might not have a full album yet.
Shelton and Warner, though, see larger possibilities and the experiment is being
watched closely in Nashville.
"It's way more instant," said Hillary Scott of the chart-topping group Lady Antebellum.
"You don't have to wait as long anymore for new music. ... He's definitely pushing the
envelope, and I think a lot of artists, including us, are kind of watching to see how it does because it could end up really changing the model."
Carrie Underwood added: "I think it's impossible not to think about it. Everybody's
trying to find new ways to stay afloat, pretty much. I think it's kind of sad. When you
put together an album it's like you're writing a book. You can't sell individual chapters,
you won't go buy Chapter 13. It might not make sense by itself. You need to read the
whole book from front to back to kind of get it."
The six-pak idea is a way to forestall the death of the album in the digital age. Warner
executives came up with the plan about eight months before "Hillbilly Bone" came out.
Peter Strickland, senior vice president for sales and marketing, said the label was
looking at several options. Adding content and jacking up the price didn't seem like the
way to go.
After talking with retailers looking for more affordable prices at a time when not only
the shelf space but the interest in physical albums is shrinking, the Warner team
decided to go small.
A handful of artists have recently put out nontraditional albums. Lady Gaga's "The
Fame Monster" had just eight songs, for instance. And Justin Bieber, Drake and Miley
Cyrus released seven-song sets last year, with Cyrus' selling 1.3 million copies, according
to Nielsen SoundScan, and spawning the hit "Party in the USA."
Warner took it a step farther, though, employing a targeted marketing plan to define the album. The "Hillbilly Bone" spine is marked with the words "six pak" and a sticker is also on the front cover. The company wanted to make it clear to buyers that there
would only be six songs, but sold at a much lower price than the traditional album, which usually holds 10 or more tracks.
Strickland said he's seen the album sold for as little as $4.99 at major retailers.
"If I can sell more Blake Shelton albums than I have in the past on a much more regular
basis, it's a win-win," Strickland said. "I want to put music in people's hands more often and in more quantity. I think people have gotten in the habit of not buying music, so I think any changes you can make to excite them to buy music again can only help the industry overall."
Shelton was an ideal fit for the new idea. His most rabid fans tell him they want new
music all the time and Shelton has often felt constrained by the usual release schedule of an album every 18 months or two years.
Warner also was looking for a way to bump Shelton's sales. His self-titled debut sold
791,000 copies after its 2001 release. But by the time he released his fifth, 2008's
"Startin' Fires," sales had dropped to 207,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"Hillbilly Bone" is eight weeks ahead of the sales pace for "Startin' Fires," and Strickland said the album has exceeded the label's expectations. Shelton called the debut "unbelievable." He's fired up about the possibility of releasing up to 18 songs a year.
"The way entertainment is today, people are being pulled at from every direction, from
video games to movies to sports, everything," Shelton said. "I don't think as artists
we're in a position to sit back and say, 'By God, my name is Blake Shelton, and I'll do this when I want and people will be ready.' Hell no, that ain't how it is."
Shelton said he and Warner executives must now figure out why "Hillbilly Bone"
performed so strongly.
"I think the mystery is: Is it the power of a song or is it the power of the marketing
idea?" Shelton said. "I think it's a combination of the two honestly. There's no doubt, I
can look back at my career, I've had impact songs at No. 1 when an album came out and I've never debuted No. 3 on the pop charts, you know? I think that means it worked
and it worked maybe in a bigger way than we anticipated."
Billboard says the last six-song album to make the Top 10 was Taylor Swift's Walmart
exclusive, "Beautiful Eyes," which reached No. 9 in 2008.
John Rich, another Warner Bros. country artist, says he is considering his own six pak
and is excited about the possibilities. He plans to call the collection of "all slammin', all
rockin'" uptempo tunes "Rich Rocks."
He says the concept — and the price — is good for the flagging record business.
"You start talking about $12, $13 or $14, it's a different level of commitment there,"
Rich said. "And it's a lot of decent music. Most records I've ever bought, it's hard to put
11 or 12 smashes right in a row. Six, I think you can have a better piece of product, it's
cheaper and the fans dig it."
AP writer Caitlin R. King contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Blake Shelton: http://www.blakeshelton.com
Warner Music Nashville: http://www.wbrnashville.com

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