While not as celebrated as someone like Ahmet Ertegun, the urbane force behind Atlantic Records, K-tel founder Philip Kives still had a profound effect on the record business – an industry that he, by his own admission, entered by accident.
The marketing and sales techniques pioneered in the 1960s by Kives, who died on Thursday at the age of 87, might seem crude and simplistic viewed from a half-century’s distance. But they remain part of the DNA of record label marketing departments today.
He is hailed as having invented the infomercial, producing a live, five-minute TV ad for a Teflon non-stick frying pan. The product might not have been great – “Unfortunately, tephlon was a new product, and the tephlon peeled off the fry pan leaving a lot of tephlon-coated eggs,” he explained on his company’s website – but the format stood him in good stead when he diversified from homeware and into music in 1966.
Like every self-made millionaire, his background is essential as a lens through which to understand his business philosophies. Born in early 1929 in Oungre, a hamlet with a population of about 200 in west-central Canada, Kives was shaped by the Great Depression that hit soon after his birth and defined the next decade. At the age of eight, he started trapping weasels and selling their fur. It was, he says, “my first entrepreneurial venture”. It could also be, if we are being ungenerous, the single greatest metaphor for the record business he was to upend three decades later.
Towards the end of 1966, he put out K-tel’s first record – 25 Country Hits. At the time, the idea of a multi-artist compilation was a rarity, because record companies were not keen to have their artists on the same LP as artists signed to competitors. “I didn’t look upon it as a long-term deal,” said Kives. “I looked upon it as a one-time product.” This was the logic of the huckster – try something, if it doesn’t work, try something else. But it did work and the follow up, 25 Polka Greats, sold half a million copies in North America and a new type of product had made its mark on the record business. “Record companies in those days didn’t know what compilation albums were,” he said. “They had vast catalogues of music they didn’t know what to do with.” They soon learned.
Few were the households in the 1970s that didn’t have some sort of K-tel release propped up beside the stereo in a manner that makes the supposed ubiquity of an act like Adele today pale in comparison. By 1981, K-tel had moved beyond compiling other labels’ music and created the Hooked on Classics album, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra doing souped-up versions of well-known classical pieces. It had Kives’s fingerprints all over it. Some would argue it was a crass dumbing down of high art; Kives would argue it was about making previously inaccessible music available to the masses.
His approach to sales was unapologetically mainstream. The marketing language was simple and unswerving at a time when, as illustrated by Mad Men, the advertising industry was attempting to elevate itself to a level of erudition and sophistication that perhaps it didn’t quite deserve. For Kives, the sales message should have no space for indulgence or purple prose.
The voiceover for the TV ad for his Best of Hooked on Classics albumdemonstrates this perfectly. “Over 100 classical favourites, the smash hit single, the best from the original album, the best from Can’t Stop the Classics, the best from Journey Through the Classics,” it breathlessly booms. “But hurry! Snap up one of the first 30,000 LPs and get the Hooked on Christmas single free.” Populist, direct and promising a reward for the quickest to open their wallets.
And it worked. The original Hooked on Classics sold 10m copies and Kives claimed that K-tel had sold half a billion records by the mid 1980s. This, however, was when the wheels started to come off his business. Certainly not helped by selling the massively misjudged Minipops albums featuring young children, the company had overreached itself and by 1984 had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after running up losses of $60m (£41m). It was eventually rescued by the appointment of a new CEO, Mickey Elfenbein, but the label’s glory days were now gone.
Ironically this was an era that was seeing the first stirrings of the CD and Now That’s What I Call Music, a series that had clearly listened attentively to K-tel. These were to dramatically swell the record industry’s coffers over the next 15 years but K-tel was effectively out of the game when the real gold rush happened.
For Kives, music was just another product like the Patty Stacker, the Bottle Cutter, the Veg-o-Matic food cutter and the Miracle Brush (the latter his biggest success, with sales of 28m). While artists might bristle at the idea of being sold in the same way as a tool for chopping vegetables or cleaning suede, for Kives it was still the boardwalk and he was gripped by the thrill of sell, sell, sell.
Today, marketing executives like to regard themselves as super-sophisticated, guiding what they do with endless data, market research and analysis; but they are still working on many of the same principles that Kives perfected half a century ago. Except he was arguably much closer to the audience, understood them better and respected them more.
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