An appearance on MTV's acoustic "Unplugged" series used to be a rare honor within the music industry. But now that everyone's getting into the act -- clamoring to prove they actually can sing and play -- some elite performers are going one better by releasing full-length audio recordings of these novel TV visits.
Paul McCartney was the first to make an "Unplugged" album. He was so convinced that his 1991 "Unplugged" performance would be trafficked by bootleggers anyway, he figured he would beat them to the punch.
So after leaving the studio with a video cassette of the show in hand, McCartney turned to his manager and said, "Let's put out a record."
It was that easy.
McCartney's limited-edition "Unplugged: The Official Bootleg" wasn't just a chart success. It reaped big profits for MTV, the artist and his record label -- a fairly painless money-making venture considering it was taped in one shot, required almost no technological doctoring and contained no new material.
Now Mariah Carey has an "Unplugged" album, as will Eric Clapton in late July. Their recent visits to "Unplugged" accounted for two of the series' best installments.
The Clapton date in particular played to enormous popular and critical acclaim, and was the highest rated "Unplugged" ever. It even spawned a second edition of out-takes, which aired last week.
Carey, who has several radio hits but is unproven onstage, used her TV turn to bolster her credibility as an artist, while overcoming the pop starlet tag that dogs her.
Both albums were unplanned, says Joel Gallen, "Unplugged's" executive producer and MTV's vice president of production. The records were just the logical outgrowth of two enthusiastically received studio events.
MTV exercises strict control over the name "Unplugged." Not everyone can use it to sell records.
"We would hope that record companies, managers and agents would not even come to us unless we are all really excited about a show," Mr. Gallen said. "There are just certain ones that you walk out of there knowing, this would be a really great album. We are very selective about what we agree to do."
MTV partnered with McCartney and Clapton for their albums, arranging to share profits from the sale of any product derived from the "Unplugged" performances. Clapton also will have an accompanying home video and laser disc with his record.
In Carey's case, Sony Music was so thrilled with the manner in which "Unplugged" showcased its pet chanteuse, it bought the show outright for her.
Sony is using the material in what is shaping up to be an impromptu between-albums marketing plan, which is being buoyed by Carey's cover of the old Jackson 5 hit "I'll Be There."
In addition to the album titled "Mariah Carey: MTV Unplugged EP," Sony also has manufactured a home video, and can release video singles or audio singles from the episode.
Like the McCartney and Carey sets, the Clapton release is expected to be fairly raw -- all part of the humanizing charm "Unplugged" embodies. Clapton's 14-track set contains the previously unreleased "Lonely Stranger," written while he was grieving after the death of his son.